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Of Soccer and Mental Health

12 months ago / by Pratika Yashaswi
Pic courtesy, Lucille Flood for The FA

What do Steven Gerrard, Marcus Rashford, and Manisha Tailor have in common? Apart from being soccer players, they’re all members of the Order of the British Empire, or MBEs.

Tailor, assistant head of coaching at QPR, is the first woman and first person of South Asian heritage to hold such a role in the English game. At just above four feet tall, she manages around 20 people in a field that is still widely male-dominated. Separately, she also runs Swaggarlicious, a limited company that carries out various initiatives she cares about, such as in the fields of mental health, diversity, and equality.

SEEMA got down to chat with Tailor about her astounding story, her career, and diversity in soccer, which in that part of the world is called football.

How did you get into football?

I got into football when I was about eight years old. I come from a sporty family. My dad and mum were into sports, and I would play football with my twin brother. As a family, we would watch games at home. At that time, we never did visit any stadiums, but we used to sit together, talk about football, watch the matches, play football at school, and play in the park with my twin brother and my dad.

There’s not a lot of representation for South Asian women in football, but you have made a place for yourself in it. What’s been your journey?

I’m still trying to make a place for me in it. I definitely recognize that I’m in a good place. I’ve come a long way, and a lot of that is thanks to courage, determination, perseverance, and resilience. You are often told that you have to have a certain type of personality, a certain type of character, because it’s a very tough, ruthless, cutthroat industry. You have to be very gritty. You need to be assertive. You need to learn about the landscape, politics and dynamics, and how that works.

But for you to navigate your way and make a space, you also need people to help you along the way and opportunities. And I’ve been fortunate to have met people along my journey when I was in education— current players, former players, coaches… I was then able to go back to them when I took a career change to ask, okay, what else can I do? What else is out there?

What also helped was mentoring, which helps you understand and appreciate how to do things, what battles to fight, what battles not to fight. I’ve got a great mentor now in Chris Ramsey, Queen’s Park Rangers’ technical director and head of Coaching; and our academy director, Alex Carroll, who’ve both been brilliant in helping someone like me as a South Asian woman.

I read an article in the Guardian about how people would often mistake you for being the physio but not peg you as a coach. Could you tell us more about that? What are some of the things you do that have helped you to navigate it?

What helped me was some prior experiences of being in a strategic role. So when I was a deputy head and then trained to be a head teacher, I was in forums where I had to assert myself.

So, the challenge for me wasn’t necessarily around can I assert myself? It was around can I assert myself in a male-dominated environment and how do I find ways of managing male staff? Because I’m in a strategic role as assistant head of Coaching and I manage over 20 male members of staff. I’m also small in stature and I’m Indian, so there are perceptions around that.

That’s where you need mentoring and guidance that I’ve been provided with Chris and Alex. I’ve been provided with tools, learnings and also been able to access courses that are helping me along the way.

Dream Like Me

You had a book come out recently, “Dream Like Me.” You also run Swaggarlicious. Could you tell us more about that?

Under Swaggarlicious, I run several programs and areas of work that I’m really passionate about. They are around mental health and well-being; education and also equality and diversity. One of the things that was always really important to me when I was a teacher was ensuring that children have access to books that reflect them. During the lockdown, I had a bit more time and I thought, “I really want to put something together that children, parents, educators can have at hand that would inspire them, that their dreams of working in football are possible.”

So I reached out to people working in different sectors, like media, refereeing, coaching, playing and so on. Each gave their own lesson for good mental health, things that they do to have a positive mindset. For instance, “X works in journalism, is a presenter and has traveled the world but also uses a gratitude journal that really helps her.” They come with questions for thinking and reflecting on these mental health lessons.

I’ve read that football has always been a way for you to connect with your brother and that it played a huge role in his recovery from mental health issues. Could you tell me a little more about that?

So when my brother and I were 18, he suffered from a mental health breakdown. He went through severe, traumatic bullying at school and didn’t speak about what was happening at the time. We didn’t notice any significant behavioral changes and we put it down to “He’s going through a teenage phase, and then he’ll just get over it.” Also at that time – around 1998 – mental health wasn’t spoken about like now when we have open conversations and dialogue.

I think also coming from an Indian background; it was taboo. People were not so open to conversations about mental illness.

My 21st [birthday] was spent in the psychiatric unit. And that was tough because he’s in a place where he still needs complete one-to-one one care at home because he doesn’t communicate verbally as he did before or as we do. So you have to just sense what he needs, what he feels, what he wants.

Since football was something we connected with as children, I just felt that it could help with his recovery, and potentially that of others with mental health disabilities.

I’d try and pass a football to him and see if he would react. I found that he did indeed respond. It’s funny and interesting how the brain works, that he verbally does not communicate as he did before but can still react and catch the ball. I have tried various heights and speeds and he’s able to catch and pass the ball back and forth.

I recently got a SenseBall, which is a ball on a string. And I’ve now got to the point in a month where he is able to use it himself without having to be prompted. It just goes to show that mental illness and disability is so wide-ranging that even someone like myself is still evolving and learning more about people who have such a differentiation within it.

And it just goes to show how sport can be used to help engage, help with concentration, help connect people.