Troy Deeney on how jail changed his life and what he’s learned from 13 years of therapy
Troy Deeney experienced an unexpected side-effect after starting therapy.
“I did quite a few sessions and what I realised was, I kept sleeping really heavily afterwards. I used to sleep four hours a night through my 20s, and now I’ll get nine hours, I’ll be sleeping like a bear,” says the Birmingham City FC captain.
Deeney asked his therapist at the time why that might be happening.
“He said it was just weight coming off. Your body’s going to have all this weight it’s been carrying, and now your mind’s going, ‘Oh, we can relax’.
“I didn’t understand why I was so twitchy and ready to go all the time,” adds the footballer, who grew up in Chelmsley Wood, just outside Birmingham, and has been in and out of therapy for over a decade. “It was because I was carrying around so much trauma.”
This trauma is something Deeney explored in his 2021 memoir, Redemption: My Story – about growing up with abusive father Paul Anthony Burke, the complicated emotions that followed, and how doing 10 months in jail in 2012 for affray after a night out ended with a violent brawl that ultimately led to turning his life around.
“I lost my gran, granddad and my dad in the space of 15 months, three of the five people that raised me, which led me to start drinking and lashing out,” he recalls.
It coincided with his football career taking off, which Deeney says was a case of: “Boom – I’d gone from having £180 a week to having £5,000 a week.
“I’m from nothing, we were just scraping by, like a lot of the country is at the moment, and it led me into a really weird place of everyone telling me I was doing things right, but I was really struggling. I was genuinely struggling and I had no one to talk to, no one to reach out to.
“Going to jail made me realise that A – I’m not invincible, and B – it forced me to talk to a psychologist, and that’s what introduced me to the world of psychology.
“I was 21 and I’m 34 now, so I’m 13 years deep in, five different therapists, four different ways of doing it, but each one of them has worked for me at certain stages. That’s why I’m in a better position to be able to talk to people now, from a place of lived experience,” he says.
Talking about mental health and the importance of providing boys and men with the tools and space to deal with things in a healthy way is something Deeney has become passionate about.
He’s currently teamed up with NIVEA MEN on the second phase of their Strength In Numbers campaign.
Earlier this month, Deeney and Birmingham City FC’s Jobe Bellingham lead the brand’s first ever Head Skills Academy training day with 11 grassroots players, in partnership with men’s mental health charity, Talk Club.
Alongside a session on the pitch, they had a chance to sit down for some ‘mental fitness training’ and essentially just talk and share stories.
A survey by the brand found 44% of the male respondents had never opened up to someone else about how they are feeling – something Deeney hopes to see change. “If I’d had Talk Club around when I was 21, I probably wouldn’t have gone to jail,” he reflects.
Something he’s keen to emphasise is that talking therapy isn’t a magic pill that works overnight.
“The best thing I can say to people is it doesn’t happen straightaway,” says the athlete and father-of-four (Deeney has two kids from a previous marriage and two with his fiancee Alisha Hosannah).
“It’s a slow process, trust the process. A few people go and have one session and say that didn’t work for me, but you’ve got to give it time, you’ve got to be really open and vulnerable. That’s the hardest part.”
He acknowledges there can be a fear that showing vulnerability might be “used against you”, but for him, pushing through has been more than worth it.
“Just being vulnerable in a space, you know – this is me, these are my weaknesses, this is what I’m scared of, is what actually makes me more powerful, I believe, over time. But for someone just starting out, it is daunting. That fear takes over and then the walls come up or the mask comes on, and it’s like, ‘Right, I’m fine, I’m alright’. It’s difficult.
“And nobody wants to hear that they were selfish. But ultimately, that’s what therapy is for me, breaking down those layers of the onion. It’s being comfortable with continually being uncomfortable.”
It’s not all about what goes on in therapy, though.
For Deeney, it’s been about a “lifestyle change”, and looking after his mental wellbeing is embedded in daily life now. Something he shared in the Head Skills Academy was how if he’s “having a bad day, I purposely play Call Of Duty, the shoot ‘em up game, which I’ve learned gets all my anger out. I limit myself to an hour, but I have that hour of just me, or I read books which are completely out of my comfort zone.
“We also have a rule that 6:30pm is dinner, but that’s when all the phones go away. Football and business and work has stopped, this is our time,” Deeney adds. “We all get so consumed in phones, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of Instagram or YouTube – you start off watching basketball and now you’re watching someone give birth!”
The NIVEA MEN survey also found nearly half (47%) of the respondents believe playing football is a chance to bond with friends, while two-thirds say it improves their mental health and 45% say it’s a great way to strengthen male communication.
“I think [sport] has a huge role. In terms of kids playing at a younger age, it gives people a sense of pride, community, even the uniform [gives a sense that] we’re all the same and we’re all trying to be the best versions of ourselves. And fitness, getting out and doing something – because it’s so easy to sit at home and complain.”
And as for the role it’s had in his own life: “It’s given me a foundation to learn and taken me outside my comfort zone in regards to travel, because before football, I’d never left Chelmsley Wood, where I’m from. I’d never actually experienced life outside of that,” Deeney reflects.
“And it just does this wonderful thing that makes you understand there is access. The more successful I’ve become at football – obviously you get spoiled, you get all these nice things – and it’s done everything for me. It’s exposed me to psychologists, mental training, it’s allowed me to understand what the body needs in terms of nutrition, all of these things the average person wouldn’t get unless they spent a lot of money, and money is tight at the moment.
“So, I think it is our job as athletes, like we’re doing with this campaign, to implement tools that an everyday person can take into their own life.”
NIVEA MEN Head Skills Academy is part of the second phase of NIVEA MEN’s Strength In Numbers Campaign, which believes that the strongest teams talk. For further information, visit nivea.co.uk/strengthinnumbers
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