In today’s interview we talk to Jacob Tratt, an Australian footballer, who currently plays for Perth Glory. With a successful football career and long list of achievements, Jacob shares his sporting journey including the setbacks and mental health struggles he has experienced along the way. Jacob’s story is raw and real and demonstrates how courage, resilience and support can help overcome adversity and build mental fitness.
Jacob, tell us your sporting story
I grew up playing soccer for fun with my mates in Dubbo so I’ve always loved the game. When I turned 13, I had to choose between soccer and cricket so I chose soccer and soon after, I started playing with the Western Mariners. I then got signed with the Sutherland Sharks and did quite well with the under 20’s. After that I was lucky to sign with Sydney FC youth team where I got to travel to Italy to play with the first team – this was my first exposure to professional football. After years of going back and forth between Sydney FC and Sutherland Sharks, I eventually signed a professional contract with Sydney FC. A few successful years later I signed with Wellington Phoenix and then Perth Glory, where I am today.
How did the pressure of professional sport affect your mental health?
I started to burn out physically and mentally towards the back end of Wellington. All the joy of football was overshadowed by the pressure I put on myself and what I thought I needed to do to play good football. My enthusiasm for life and football was diminishing and things only got worse. Looking back, I didn’t really understand what was happening or why.
The breaking point was a game I played against Adelaide United in 45-degree heat. It was a tough game and it left me feeling like I wasn’t good enough anymore. As a result, I started to push myself harder. I’d train excessively, even on my days off, and I became obsessed with what I was eating, cutting out essential foods like carbs. I was training harder but not fuelling my body properly. I had all these strict rules and regimes, even with my sleep.
Now I know it was all down to stress. It gradually built up over time and I had no balance, things started to get out of control. In my head I had this dream of being a professional footballer and I believed this is what it took to make it. But all the joy of playing football and aspiring to be a professional footballer was gone. It even affected my social life and I no longer had joy in my life.
I started having negative thoughts and my mood plummeted. I’d created all this unnecessary stress in my life which left me feeling depleted.
I knew I needed to seek help, see a psychologist and make some changes, but I was in conflict with myself. The beliefs I’d set in my head made it hard for me to do anything. I wanted to be a professional footballer and I truly believed what I was doing was the only way. I thought being so disciplined and regimented was how I was going to achieve my dream of being a footballer.
The negative thoughts spiralled and I became so low. I decided to take a break and stop playing football as I felt this was the problem. But when I stopped, things got worse. My whole identity was as a footballer and not playing football anymore took the joy out of life, making me withdraw further. I felt so confused and I didn’t know who I was anymore or what I was doing with my life.
I also felt tired and drained all the time, both physically and mentally. The stress became unbearable and my negative thoughts worsened. I was so indecisive and lost, I didn’t know how to take back control of my life. I believed I was a hindrance on others, burdening them with my fears and negativity. I felt it was easier to end my life – like it was my only way out. I couldn’t picture the future being positive in any circumstance.
Did you think about suicide?
I constantly thought about it and I had moments when I was close. I broke down one day when on the phone to my mum. I started crying and that’s when the suicidal thoughts came. I told her I needed to come home so I jumped on the next flight back.
What stopped you and why?
My family, especially my mum – she’s played a massive role in getting me through the hard times. Mum continually told me to keep holding on and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The other thing that stopped me was fear. Suicide is such a scary thing to do, or even attempt to do, so the fear definitely stopped me doing it.
Did you have any support around you?
I was in a dark place for around eight months and it was a painful time. Even talking about it now is hard, those old memories make me feel sad. I found I distanced myself from my friends and other people because I wasn’t being me. I felt like I was a completely different person and I was embarrassed to show that side of me. I couldn’t fake being happy because I was so miserable and unhappy, so it was easier not to be around people.
My family are my biggest support, my dad, my mum and my three sisters. And also, my fiancé — she helped me break a lot of habits and a lot of negative routines.
How did you cope and move forward?
When I stopped playing, I gave up football altogether. I went to see psychologists and other therapists but none of them understood my situation or what it was like to be me. They tried their best to help but none of it worked. I also tried personal training but the thought of exercise was too daunting for me. I was scared to exercise because I was so physically and mentally drained and I thought it would do more damage.
I tried voluntary work and doing courses to learn new skills but nothing seemed to lift the black cloud hovering over me. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to go back to soccer as it was the only thing I loved to do.
The turnaround happened when my old coach, Bobby Hughes, got in touch with me and asked if I’d consider doing coaching clinics with kids. Even though I was dubious, I gave it a go and realised I quite enjoyed it. I then started coaching a few of the younger boys from Dubbo. The kids loved playing footie and I could see the joy it brought them. I joined in some of the sessions with the younger kids and I started to enjoy myself again. That one hour of fun and knowing I had to coach these 8 year old boys is what kept me going – I had to do it for them. It was a struggle at first but I slowly started to build myself up and get stronger without feeling stressed or pressured.
How did you get back playing football?
There was a 7-a-side competition in Dubbo and I was asked to join in. At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think I was ready to throw myself back into a game. I was still very, very lost at this point. Then there was an indigenous tournament and I went with the Dubbo team. I think we played six games in three days and I was like, oh, I’ve still got it a little bit! I was, pretty happy. I broke through my fear and I’m so glad I did as I loved it! That one game helped me to start enjoying life again. After that I started training and playing the occasional tournament. I eventually signed with the Sutherland Sharks which was amazing. I knew I had to change my way of thinking though so I held onto that fuzzy feeling of enjoying football like the little kids I used to coach did.
Learning to enjoy football again is what brought me back from the dark hole I was in. It was a long journey to get back but I couldn’t have done it without the support of family though – they were there for me every step of the way. They all knew returning to football was the right thing for me to do.
I was asked to go and sign with Wellington Phoenix again at the end of year. I went over there and tried, but my head was just in a different place and the pressure was too much. Then Terry McFlynn, from Sydney FC, gave me a call and I signed with the Sydney first team and I was back playing professional football.
What has been the biggest learning from your situation?
The different beliefs I had (about football, food, exercise) and how they were impacting on my life. Some of these beliefs were my downfall, not only holding me back, but causing me unnecessary stress and anxiety. In the last few years I’ve learned so much – physically, mentally and psychologically. Our physical health and our mental health are interconnected. Straining your body will eventually take its toll on your mental health. For me, certain triggers bring particular beliefs to the surface but being aware of what these are and avoiding them is key for my mental health. Taking the time for self-care is also very important.
What sporting achievements are you most proud of and why?
Playing Manchester United recently was definitely a career high. But on the whole, it’s been all the little things in my career, like when I scored my first goal for Wellington and when I got player of the year. Plus, all the trophies I won with the team, getting player of the year at Sutherland in the 20s and winning youth league twice as a captain. I’ve also won the NPL and A-league once which was fantastic. Lots of people go through their whole career and don’t win so I’m lucky in that respect.
Signing my first professional contract was also a special moment. My dad and I had been on this amazing journey together and I remember him saying “when you sign your first professional contract, you know you’ve made it.” Then I suddenly did! All these memories (which I know I’m very lucky to have) have been my biggest achievement and have brought me so much joy over the years.
How does discussing your career highs make you feel?
It’s made me realise I could have missed out on a lot in life if I’d have taken my own life. I’ve experienced so much and this wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t get the help I needed. Putting so much pressure on myself, living too much in my head, not eating properly and pushing myself to the limit could have been fatal.
Self-talk is a big part of sport and mental health. Do you practice self-talk?
I wouldn’t say I intentionally practice self-talk. I do have a better understanding of myself now than I ever have before. Having been through some tough times and having the knowledge I now have makes me feel that nothing can stop me. I have the foundations in place to be happy.
Do you have any rituals before a game?
Not necessarily rituals, but there are definitely lots of things I do consistently before a game. Before I would have had to do these things religiously because if I didn’t, I believed I’d play bad. Nowadays though, I just like to be prepared as it helps me feel less stressed and more energised. Just little things I do, like to have a juggle and stuff before a game. But I don’t try and make it a be all – end all kind of thing.
Do you think it’s easy for people to talk about mental health or suicidal thoughts or how they’re struggling in sport?
No, not at all. I was lucky as I had a supportive group in my family who were very open to it. My mum and sister were there for me and they’ve been through mental health issues themselves so we could relate to each other on a deeper level. Some people may not have that connection or someone they can talk to. Unless you’ve been through it, it’s hard to understand poor mental health.
Do players worry about losing out on a game or being benched because they’re struggling mentally?
Yes, I think it might worry some people. For me, I didn’t care if I cried to the coach or talked to others about my struggles. I just wanted to be normal again and I felt being honest and open was the only way I could get the help I needed.
What advice can you offer other sports professionals to help keep their head in the game?
Enjoy what you do! I had to enjoy football like I did when I was a kid. You still need to be disciplined and professional but never lose balance in your life. Make time for other things such as hanging out with your family and friends. It’s the little things that keep you balanced and on the right path. Surround yourself with positive people and a good support network, they can guide you when you feel lost.
Does your organisation or sporting team need help promoting good mental health? Read more about our Mental Health in Sport Workshop details here.