When the dream fades – how one Tottenham Hotspur and England youngster dealt with disappointment

It was World Mental Health Day in early October and one area where individuals often suffer is in the world of elite sport. 

Ben Bowditch had a sparkling career ahead of him after starring at youth level for Tottenham Hotspur and England but injuries curtailed his career before it had really begun.

He had to face the reality of his dreams being shattered when mental health issues were still considered taboo.

Now founder and Director of Bows Soccer Academy, here is Ben’s story, one many will relate to, whether they are in sport or other walks of life.

From 11-17 years old I was living ‘The Dream’ after signing for my boyhood club Tottenham Hotspur, further going on to play for England Schoolboys up to U20.

I showed a lot of early promise as a youngster, which resulted in me playing the year group above for Tottenham. This led me on to breaking into the Tottenham reserve side at just 17. I made my debut away to Southampton at the Dell, being coached by one of my favourite coaches of all time, Chris Hughton.

I had the privilege of playing in some fantastic stadiums such as White Hart Lane, St James’ Park, Vicarage Road, The Stadium of Light, The Riverside, Elland Road, Goodison Park, Old Trafford and one of the most iconic stadiums of all time, Wembley.

Whilst travelling with the England youth teams, I was lucky enough to visit many beautiful parts of the world, including Europe and Israel where the European Championships were held.

I was also fortunate enough to travel to Brazil for a tournament that featured Mexico, USA, Japan and of course Brazil.

I was unaware at the time, but the experiences that I gained from these trips were to be priceless. They have helped mould me into the person I am today, with one of my biggest achievements leading my country in the U20 World Cup.

Along this journey I have played against some outstanding players, going toe-to-toe with the likes of Carlos Teves, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres, Andrés Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo, to name but a few.

I had the privilege of playing alongside Wayne Rooney, Jermaine Jenas, David Bentley, and Dean Ashton as well as being coached by Glenn Hoddle, Colin Calderwood and Les Reed.

By 18, I had experienced so much and was being offered the world at such a young age.

Tottenham were paying me £800 a week plus bonuses, which was more money than many families were earning at that time. I had the world at my feet, but I had no real idea.

Despite having these luxuries it just felt ‘normal’. I did not have to work for any of it as such; it was all laid on a plate for me from the age of 11 and I did not know any different.

I had wonderful support from my family who travelled the world to watch me play, with my parents doing all they could, whatever was asked of them, to allow me to have these opportunities.

My agent (yes I had an agent), was also excellent. I could not have asked any more of him in terms of support and encouragement, both on and off the field. However, it was all still too ‘normal’.

I would be in the local papers, play live on Sky Sports, people would know my name and tell both myself and others how good I was.

Sadly, between the ages of 18 and 20 I experienced several injuries that would prove to be huge setbacks.

Each time I recovered and gained full fitness another problem arose leading to my playing time being reduced as I spent more time in the treatment room than on the field.

My confidence was severely affected and I found myself lower down the selection order when I was fit to play. I was having to work hard to get better, something I had not had to do before and I did not know how to deal with this.

I was still being selected to play for my country, even with this gradual decline. Being away with the team would lift my spirits but on my return I would feel myself gradually falling back into a dark state of mind, with my confidence decreasing daily.

My peers were surpassing me one by one breaking into the Reserve Team or the First Team, players I had always been ahead of previously.

I could feel it all slipping away from me and I just did not know what to do.

At 19, whilst recovering from a long term Achilles injury, I was told that I would not be offered a new contract at the end of the season. It was heartbreaking news for me. I was devastated.

When I got home I cried in my bedroom. I can never forget that day as the weight of that news was unbearable even though I think I knew it would happen.

I spent another month at the club getting fit before I left to join AB Copenhagen in Denmark.

On my final day at the club I arrived at Spurs Lodge full of nerves. I felt lost and empty, I had been there all my life and now it was suddenly coming to an end. I walked into the canteen after my final session at the club to find all my coaches that I had worked with during my time there.

I fought hard to hold back the tears whilst I shook their hands and thanked them for all their hard work with me. When I got back to my car I broke down. I just could not handle the emotion. I wanted the world to swallow me up. I felt like I had let everyone down, especially my family, who had sacrificed so much to support me.

Arriving in Denmark gave me strength again, a new country and experience, a wonderful time, allowing me to regain some focus on pursuing a career in professional football.

I returned to England at the end of the season to join Colchester United in League One with Phil Parkinson in charge. He had said he did not wish to sign any more players in my position but I was determined, so with a strong attitude and positive performances, I was offered a contract. The hard work had paid off, I was back and felt the best I had for a very long time.

This was not to last long as I was to have yet another injury, a hernia injury that was initially treated as a hip problem. I had surgery for the hip before finding it was actually a hernia, which needed extensive surgery.

I ended up not playing for an entire season and further not being offered a new contract. I went on to play for Barnet in League Two, having an indifferent season.

I then had one of my best seasons though in the conference at Cambridge City before moving to Bishop’s Stortford where unfortunately I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament.

Trying to maintain the lifestyle I had become used to, I ran up huge debts on credit cards and loans, driving in cars I could not afford, buying more clothes than I needed and going out with friends.

I felt like I was forever chasing a dream trying to find my way back to the level I had reached at such a young age.

The decline felt like I was drowning, I just could not find my way back out of the water.

All I wanted to do was let myself sink but I did not want to let my family and friends down, so was trying hard to overcome the feelings for them. If it had not been for them I may have given up long before.

I continued to play as I hoped one day my eight-month old son would be able to watch me, but whilst playing for Potters Bar I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament in the other knee. I have not played since.

I knew then I had to think about him and my family and now focus on our future.

Our future is now Bows Soccer Academy with my attention on helping young players achieve the best that they can with my guidance along with our highly motivated and passionate coaching team.

I realise I can now offer my valuable experience as an ex-professional footballer, using some of the fantastic lessons I learned with the great coaches I have worked with.

We are now fortunate enough to live in a world where mental health issues have been made more aware to us all.

Each and every one of us is making our own individual and unique journey in life. We will all encounter hurdles and stumbling blocks along the way, however with the support of those close to us and with the raising of awareness, we can help each other break through these barriers to find a solution.

I had the support from my family and close friends as a young professional player, but there was a lack of awareness around mental health.

I suffered with mental health as a young professional footballer and was too afraid to address my emotions. Had there been available support at that time, I may have been able to deal with my psychological state of mind in a better way than I did.

I now understand more about mental health and am no longer afraid.

Its OK to not be OK. Be kind to yourself and others. Talk. Do not be afraid of being judged. We are not alone and there is always someone who can help.