43 minutes into Denmark’s first game of EM 2021 against Finland and the unthinkable happened. A player called Christian Erikson, out of the blue fell to the ground. If you saw this game live, you know what I am talking about. You also know exactly where you were and what you were doing at that moment in time, this is the power of your emotions recalling this memory.
The initial shock was followed by moments of confusion and disbelief, as everyone watched a heart-breaking scene of players shielding their friend and teammate who was fighting for his life.
Facts and information about what was happening were very limited and everyone was waiting, running scenarios and stories in their heads, trying to make sense of this very emotionally triggered event, while still in distress.
As time passed, all spectators were asked to sit and wait in an eery silence of uncertainty of the fate of Eriksen. It could go two ways, but the lack of news was making everyone fear the worst. Finally, the news broke that Erikson was revived and well under the circumstances.
The relief of the news slowly spread, but it came with another uncertainty: what next? Will the game go on?
Everyone was now feeling more hopeful. However, a tough decision came in the game: to complete the game now or the day after. You have two teams and a stadium of people in shock and still emotionally vulnerable, as they have been exposed to a high dose of stress hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. Nobody at this point has had a chance to even try and digest what has just happened or allowed for these hormones to leave their system.
If you were to value and compare mental health to physical health, mental pain would be valued as high as physical pain. What was asked of the team on this day was like sending a team with 22 broken legs back on the field to finish the game. But this is mental, their legs are fine and there was a schedule to keep, so the game goes on and was resumed after the Danish team was reassured their teammate was out of danger and well under the circumstances.
In the days that followed, the news in Denmark would cover this story from nearly every angle: the stories of the compassion and leadership shown by the team, but especially two players: Kjær, the team leader, and Schmeichel, the goalkeeper, who was highlighted for the compassion and care for the team and Eriksen’s wife. It was also noticed how the team made a human shield around Erikson and the medical team to protect them from the eyes of the world. Instead, the world saw a team united in a circle, showing raw painful emotions live for the world to see.
This image of professional footballers in emotional pain has touched most corners of the internet. This is hope that there will be a turning point where talking about and showing emotions will become as normal as talking about a broken leg.
Mental health still has a lot of stigmas all over the world, but what I think we all tend to forget is that our brain is an organ, just like any other in our body. Well maybe not quite like any other because it is not as easy to understand other organs through the many advances that have been made over the years. We are dealing with an organ that runs hardware and software of the reality we live in. Our central nervous system is the highway through which signals from our senses are sent to be processed before we react. We live in a world where we constantly navigate the stimulus and response this amazing organ operates.
As the news continued to cover the Saturday events, there were a few things that interested me, but mostly the emotional recovery for the players closest to this event. They are professionals and have professionals around them to support them in these crucial days.
We are emotional creatures, and we all have emotional triggers. Sometimes it can be the smallest things that may retrigger a past trauma or event. The same happens in an event like this, many watch the event unfold on tv. There is sympathy, empathy and compassion, but it may also remind us of something closer to home, maybe one of us have been in a similar situation, where a friend or relative suffered an accident and we had to react way quicker than our brains could process. This is why we feel empathy, sympathy and compassion because even if we haven’t experienced something comparable, we know that we could be us one day in the future. This is a valuable lesson as we go through life: people and events can trigger us in ways we never even imagined.
So, to see this team of professionals showing their vulnerability and pain and allowing emotions to have visible space and role fills me with the hope that emotions are not a weakness, and they have space and a role when we suffer loss and pain.
As the players are feeling and wearing their emotions on cameras, they are behind the cameras working intelligently to manage these emotions. They know these difficult emotions are there and they have a purpose, they are not hidden away and ignored. The team coach in one interview explained how they were carefully planning their next game against Belgium. They knew it would be hard to return to the pitch, and that this could trigger the players. They were preparing for the emotional return to the stadium. Managing these emotions could even be the most important part of this game. Their mental game will be as important as their physical. They need to manage their emotions and feelings while entering the stadium, where emotions may run high in the atmosphere of the stadium. But when the start whistle sounds any emotional energy must be managed, channelled and focused on the game. This energy was rocket fuel for the team who burned this off with a goal 3.4 minutes into the game and at 10min the game stopped to applaud Erikson’s recovery.
Emotions are part of life, and it is ok to feel them. However, that doesn’t mean we can let emotions take over. It is important to be intelligent about our emotions and allow them to have their rightful place. The Danish team didn’t win the game against Belgium, but it showed the mental strength and management of emotions, which in my opinion shows their true strength and character as a team.
Denmark was at the bottom of their group as their first two games dealt them challenges beyond their imagination. Their game against Russia will determine if they will be leaving or staying in the EU Championship. 4-1 bringing the Danes from a fourth to second in their group qualifying them to the next round.
Against all the odds, this is a team that not only shows physical and mental strength but enormous support and psychological safety to each other. They are there for each other, with each other, to work together as one team, just like their fans will sing to cheer them on “vi er røde, vi er hvide, vi star sammen side om side”(We are red we are white, we stand together side by side).
In my mind, they have already won even if they do not leave with the trophy at the end of the tournament.
So, what can we take away as learning points from this event?
· Emotions are not a sign of weakness that need to be repressed or hidden away
· Emotions can be managed constructively
· Emotional Energy can be channelled into something productive
· Emotional first aid is not always readily available or seen as a priority
· Emotions can be managed intelligently
I truly wish that what this amazing Danish team has shown us that it is possible to work with difficult emotions constructively. Erikson survived his hardest fight, and this I am sure is a factor, but the emotional trauma they went through is still very real.
When we allow for mental health to be talked about without stigma, it allows healing to start, instead of adopting destructive habits and behaviours to escape and to suppress the uncomfortable emotions.
When we allow for healing, love oxytocin and psychological safety to thrive, we allow compassion and growth to happen.