Football, Mental Health, and Belonging

I like to think that everything in life is a metaphor. Things can be broken down into comparisons, and when it comes to the game of football, we can spend entire lives trying to find our positions on the pitch.

There’s the big, powerful centre forward. So tall and imposing that you can sense their presence in a room. Off the pitch, they could be singers, actors, social media influencers, or something else. In short, they’re people that thrive in the spotlight and want more of it. 

Then there’s the reliable centre back, always ready to head away dangerous balls. Their no-nonsense style of play is based on realism. These are our doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Without them, you can’t win trophies.

You also have exciting but unreliable fullbacks. They’re full of energy and excitement but can forget important responsibilities like tracking back. It’s the most erratic type of player you’ll meet. Maybe it’s the high-school dropout working at Taco Bell that is secretly a math genius.

There are 11 to pick from, but nailing down one that you’re good at and enjoy is the tricky part. When you add mental illness to the mix, It makes finding your way that much harder.

Football, mental health, belonging, personal essay
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

My favorite position growing up was the goalkeeper. As a six year old, I saw Oliver Kahn star at the 2002 World Cup. Watching this confident man clad in blue drag a below-average German team to the final cemented my love for the beautiful game. Whatever I did in life, I wanted to do it like him: with the utmost confidence. However, as I grew older, I lost the magic of those childhood memories. I stopped believing that I could do whatever I wanted.. 

You see, growing up as an Asian in America, you never feel like you truly belong. You’re too yellow for white kids but too Americanised for the people in Asia. Imagine combining all this with ADHD, depression, OCD, and social anxiety. In order to escape my troubles, I moved to South Korea at the age of 19. It was somewhat of a relief because it was a place where everyone looked like me. Yet, life wasn’t perfect. As it turns out, moving thousands of miles away doesn’t mean anything if things aren’t okay in between your ears. Nevertheless, I explored this new world and its positions. I tried serving as a creative attacking midfielder and taking set pieces, but my delivery was shit. Instead of placing balls in high-danger areas, my crosses landed miles away from their targets. I also had a stint as a fullback, but it led to painful injuries (the scars from those lessons will always be there). 

If you’re sick of the metaphors, I can give a quick summary. During my eight years living abroad, I worked as an English teacher, a magazine writer, a YouTube channel intern, a voice actor, and a reporter. None of these ventures led to a sense of real fulfillment. I was never truly happy because I wasn’t playing my desired position. It took lots of soul-searching, but I’ve come to the realization that as someone living with mental illness, you can’t fight two battles. You can’t deal with the complexity of your brain while pursuing a career path that doesn’t make you happy. 

So what does playing in goal mean to me? It means pursuing a career in football writing while working on my other dream of working as an actor and screenwriter. It’s a crazy dream and one that many will scoff at. How can you possibly be expected to do multiple things? Most normal people will find one profession and stick to it. But hey, I’m a goalie, we’re supposed to be weird. There are seasons when I want to venture outside my box and sweep up loose balls. I’ll never lose this desire to wander. 

And this past year, I’ve made strides to be a better goalie. It’s not perfect and probably never will be, but I’m trying. I’m not even sure I’ve properly defined what it means to play in goal. 

We’re all different, but as mankind evolves, so too does the game, and so too does the conversation around mental health. The stigmas it was once associated with are being replaced by much-needed conversations about how complex the human brain really is. 

So whatever your position, don’t be afraid to pursue it with all your heart and soul. The game of life is hard enough not to be honest with yourself. Your parents or bosses (the metaphorical managers) may very well tell you to get a grip, but always remember that managers are constantly sacked and as you get older, you can become your own manager. 

Tactics like parking the bus (getting a 9 to 5 job and buying a house in the suburbs with the white picket fence) can go out of style, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring a high-pressing system (dropping out of college to run your own business) if it is what makes you happy. However, as with any season, you must always be flexible. If your tactics aren’t working, you should be willing to adjust. Evolution is the name of the game on and off the pitch.

The truth is, there’s always another goalkeeper to beat, another challenge or obstacle blocking our way. All we can do is put our best foot forward and strike the ball the way we see fit.

The goals we score in life come via different techniques and styles. Some prefer to go for pure power. Others try a more measured approach and aim for placement by gently stroking the ball into a corner. 

I came up with the idea for this piece as a lost 22 year old wandering the streets of Seoul. I’m now staring down the end of my 20s with a renewed sense of purpose; hoping that by the time this is published, more people will have been able to find their own positions on that pitch. 

Albert Kim

Albert Kim is a Korean American writer/ football analyst toiling in Seoul, SK. His work has appeared on FIFA Plus, Al-Jazeera, and Netflix. Besides the USMNT and South Korean national team, he is a devoted follower of the church of Oliver Kahn and FC Bayern Munchen. His love for football was cultivated during the 2002 World Cup. He apologizes to the Italian people for the golden goal in the round of 16. Follow him on Twitter @Albert_Kim2022 and Insta @albertkim711