Michael Thwaite knows the exhilarating highs of a successful football career, and also the bitter lows.
The 35-year-old Socceroos veteran of two FIFA World cups, several A-League teams and almost a decade playing overseas now approaches the transition into life after football.
It makes him nervous — the reality of finding a new work-life balance, the challenge of supporting his family and maintaining positive mental health.
He knows he is far from alone among professional sportspeople, which is why he is using his experience to advocate for greater mental health awareness within the profession.
Raised in Cairns, Thwaite started playing Saturday morning footy at a young age.
“I was a big supporter of the Brisbane Strikers and the player/coach Frank Farina who grew up in my area and ended up playing for the Socceroos — that inspired me to want to be a professional football player,” he said.
Thwaite began playing in the New South Wales Winter Super League while completing a Bachelor of Human Movement at Sydney University. Afterwards, he travelled to Europe to play for FC Bucharesti in Romania.
He visited more than 40 countries and then signed with Polish club Wisla Kraków SK in January 2008, followed by Brann Bergen in Norway later that same year.
Thwaite was a member of the Socceroos squad for the historic World Cup tie against Uruguay in November 2005 when Australia qualified for the first time in 32 years.
But while football was flourishing, the transient lifestyle took a toll on Thwaite and his partner Chantelle. Absence, constant travel and the pressure of performing sent his mental health into a spiral. Despite suffering anxiety, Thwaite never revealed his struggles to teammates.
“I was a mess after games: I was alright on the field, but after I got back in my room I would pretty much fall apart from the anxiety of it all,” he said.
Thwaite’s unwillingness to speak up is hardly unusual. A recent Headspace study on men’s mental health found 1 in 7 Australian men between age 16 to 24 suffer from depression or anxiety each year. Only 13 per cent seek help.
Thwaite found his way back to Australia in 2010, where he would spend the next two years. He signed a three-year deal with Gold Coast United and started a family. They were happy and settled for a time — and then the club infamously closed down.
The stress hit him as a player, husband and father.
“It was really hard, I was so stressed in that moment. I had a mortgage, my wife had a job, we had a three-year-old and a newborn, so I was having no sleep, looking after my girls and needed to provide for my family,” he said.
Thwaite followed football to Perth, and it was during this turbulent period in his life that he finally reached out for help during a routine concussion check-up.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore and my wife convinced me to open up to one of the medical officers about all of my mental health problems,” he said.
“My wife (Chantelle) has always been my best psychologist, but we both knew at this point I needed help.”
The Perth Wanderers responded positively, helping Thwaite access proper support. He would stay for four successful football seasons before relocating to China for a lucrative contract in the Chinese Super League.
It didn’t go to plan.
“It was hard. All my life I dreamed of being a professional but when I brought a lady and two young daughters into the mix I needed to be responsible for them as well,” he said.
The travel quickly began having a negative effect on his family. Michael would travel to China alone, while his family returned to their home on the Gold Coast.
Insecure about questions regarding his mental health, Thwaite stopped taking his anxiety medication — another “mistake” that lead, he said, to the lowest point in his life.
“It was a nightmare, and in the end I didn’t end up making any money because any chance I could I would fly home to see my family even for a day or two, it was exhausting,” he said.
“It took a huge toll on me, but even more so on Chantelle because she was basically living as a single mum.”
He saw his family just eight times that year, missing his daughter’s first day of school.
Today he is relieved to be back on the Coast surrounded by the people he loves.
“I don’t want to seem like I didn’t appreciate my career, I was really lucky to have the opportunity to travel the world, getting paid to play footy, but it wasn’t a normal job and I know I have a lot to make up to my family,” he said.
He has recently signed to play for Gold Coast United in the NPLQ and use his experience off the field through a new mentoring organisation ‘That’s Football.’
“Sometimes things just happen, they could be good or bad and you can’t help it and you need to learn how to deal with it — that’s football.”
The company aims to prepare aspiring athletes for challenges during and after their career, and lift the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
“Knowing your value outside of the game and when/how to transition out is key in minimising the lows and leveraging the highs,” he said.
Thwaite has enlisted others to share their ‘that’s football’ moments: Western Sydney Wanderers’ Oriol Riera and Newcastle Jets’ Zenon Caravella have spoken out in support of their former teammate on his site www.thatsfootball.com.au.
It joins others tackling the problem: PlayersVoice in conjunction with Headspace launched a national campaign in 2017 to spread awareness for young men suffering from mental health issues. The campaign saw cricketer Usman Khawaja, rugby union player Kurtley Beale, rugby league player James Tedesco and AFL players Tom Boyd and Dale Thomas come forward to discuss their mental health.
Chantelle says she is proud of her husband and That’s Football’s mission.
“Michael is very driven and focused to create more balanced athletes which is not happening currently, so we can all help to create change,” she said.
“It needs to be known that it’s okay to be suffering from mental health and normal to get help. People need to feel comfortable with talking about it to resolve their current situation.”