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Big Interview: Oxford City’s Rob Sinclair opens up about mental health ahead of FA Cup tie

By Matt Badcock

LOOKING BACK, Rob Sinclair realises he’s always been a worrier. A youngster at Luton Town’s academy, there were times he found himself crying on his bed not wanting to go to training.

But in the ruthless world of football there’s not much time for self-doubt, and over the years the midfielder pushed ahead.

Impressive performances for Salisbury City saw him join League Two Stevenage, where he played a part in their promotion. He then re-joined Salisbury and formed a dynamic partnership alongside brother Stuart.

That led to a move to Forest Green Rovers and promotion tilts with the Stroud club. But last season he fell out of boss Mark Cooper’s plans and started thinking about the future. Overthinking it. In the summer, his anxiety became unmanageable.

“It was very weird,” says the Oxford City man. “I was training with the Academy at Forest Green last year and was low anyway with what was going on. Trying to find a new club, do I stay full-time or do I go part-time? I had offers from other clubs in the National League in the summer, but it meant moving miles away again. Do I want to move my girlfriend again? Really, I wanted to be back home.

“So I was overthinking all that and then one day I was laying on the sofa and I literally just started having an anxiety attack. It came out of nowhere.

“I knew something wasn’t right. Before that happened I’d got shingles, which can be caused through stress. And I am a worrier anyway, I overthink a lot of things.

“But everything became a big problem, even the little things, so I thought I need to see someone, start talking about it and get help.”

He saw a counsellor in Stroud and now attends a session weekly near his Bedford home. He says having friends and family around also helps, as well as getting structure.

“Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have days where you have to pick yourself up and the anxiety is worse than other days,” he says. “But, the way I see it, if you can get into a routine – I go to the gym regularly, I meditate every day, go for a walk with the dogs – it helps. It’s doing stuff you enjoy more rather than worrying about, to be honest, football all the time.”

Football runs in the blood of the Sinclair brothers. Stuart is a cult hero at Bristol Rovers, while Scott – who Rob says is the best of them all – is at St Neots Town. But despite that, he’s always felt like he doesn’t quite fit the stereotypical footballer mould.

“If you ask team-mates I’ve played with, I’ve always been a player who is quite quiet and goes about my business,” says the 28-year-old. “But I think it’s because, really, I’ve never sort of fitted in with the changing room. I’ve never been a loud one with all the banter.

“I socialise but, even then, I would be selective with who I socialised with. I don’t want to go out with big groups. I’d make excuses up so I didn’t have to do it. But it wasn’t me being arrogant and not wanting to do it, maybe it was because I didn’t feel I fit in with it.

“So I was always very much like, ‘Get home’. Then that doesn’t always help because you get home after training and you’ve got six hours before your missus gets in from work. So you’d be overthinking then and it’s a build-up of everything.”

Sinclair says he would focus on all the negatives of his performances. The misplaced passes, the wrong decisions, something the crowd had said.

Accepting that criticism is part of playing football, he likens the way full-time footballers are treated as robots and believes people can forget they are human beings.

Now he wants to help others, which is part of the reason he is openly talking about his anxiety in this interview.  Despite having full-time interest from Wrexham and Barrow in the off-season, Sinclair wanted to start work on a business for life after playing.

Sinclair fell down the pecking order at Forest Green last season

He joined National League South Oxford City and has been busy setting up Sinclair Coaching, which will work with youngsters and in schools. He wants to offer more than just football sessions, with a focus on helping children who may be suffering with anxiety themselves.

“There are companies out there who offer football and PE, but I want to offer the whole package,” he says. “The exercise, the mental side. I do think that in schools this should be spoken about. There are children now who have anxiety and depression – six, seven, eight, nine-year-olds! It shouldn’t be that they’re going to school and just getting on with it, it should be spoken about.

“They’ll just be quiet, not want to express themselves or take part in sport. So if I can help that one child open up and talk about it – whether that’s to me, their parents, their teachers – then that’s a job well done. I think sport can help people open up.

“It’s something we shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about. I’m not a high-profile footballer or anything like that, but if I can help one footballer in the lower leagues, or a young child who might be suffering, then there’s no better satisfaction.”

Sinclair is qualified to instruct activities such as archery and is looking to be able to teach meditation too.

“That’s getting bigger out in the States and a lot of schools are looking at it here,” he says. “It only has to be three minutes after a PE session to calm down and get ready and focused for the next lesson.”

At Oxford he’s enjoying lending his experience to a squad that hit the headlines when they beat Colchester United in the FA Cup first round proper.

On Saturday they will strut their stuff in front of the live TV cameras when they travel to Notts County in the second round.

“It’s made me fall back in love with football a bit,” he says. “You see the lads buzzing with the FA Cup and the feeling around a small club.

“In the part-time world you realise how much more they appreciate it. There are lads who hadn’t played in the main rounds of the FA Cup before. To go away to Colchester and win, now to see the buzz of playing on TV at Notts County, is really good.

“It will be nice to be that underdog wanting to go there to cause an upset and get everyone talking about the football club. We’ve got some young lads here who I think can go on and play higher. It’s giving them a platform to play against a bigger opposition and show what they can do.”

Sinclair wants to see everyone unlock their potential and has some advice for anyone struggling with their mental health.

“Talk,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a counsellor, just talk to someone – a friend or family. Don’t hide it away and think it will go away magically, it won’t. It will grow and grow.

“So if you feel like you’re not right or worrying too much, then talk. It’s not always the easiest thing, but that’s what I did and it’s getting the best out of me now.”

Visit www.sinclaircoaching.co.uk for more info.

*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.

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