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Sporting Highs and Lows - Episode Three with Michael Chopra

Last week, we recorded the latest edition of our podcast series around mental health and addiction in sports, Sporting Highs and Lows. In episode three, host and former England cricketer, Luke Sutton, talks to ex-professional footballer Michael Chopra.

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Just like our episode two guest, cricketer Chris Wood, Michael opened up about his journey recovering from gambling addiction, following a career playing for Newcastle, Sunderland and Cardiff. There is said to be something of a gambling epidemic currently coming to the fore in football, which Michael can certainly attest to being an urgent issue. He first publicly opened up about his own struggles with addiction in 2013, after finally seeking treatment a few years earlier and then enduring the very public breakdown of his marriage in 2009.

“I got hooked onto these flashing lights”

Michael says his affinity for gambling probably first started when he was a youth team player at Newcastle. Following training, he and a few of his teammates would kill time in the arcade as he waited for the metro home. Still a teenager, he would think nothing of continuously putting pound coins – from his £70 weekly wage – into the slot machines. Michael remembers the buzz of the uncertainty over whether he’d win the £50 jackpot with every spin.

Michael said there was no stereotypical story of childhood unhappiness that he’d attribute as a cause of his addiction. Having had a good relationship with his parents during his ‘brilliant’ childhood – “they treated me well” – he thinks his issues started as he attempted to recapture the buzz of scoring off the pitch. Being a striker, he said there was no better feeling than being on the bus home after playing, and he wanted to continue feeling ‘phenomenal’ from what he’d achieved in training.

“When I signed for Sunderland in 2008, I knew it was a problem.”

Michael ended up having the same agent as Alan Shearer when he signed for Newcastle United; and the older player knew that he needed help. Alan told his agent to find him the support he needed, who then encouraged him to speak to his parents. He broke down at the thought of his family finding out about his challenges and embarked on a two-week treatment programme.

The only problem was, Michael didn’t want help. Instead of following the facility’s usual format of a residential stay, he stayed at a hotel round the corner and only attended treatment during the day. As soon as he finished for the day, he would go to the betting shop round the corner. Michael was just attending the programme to keep people happy and said nobody actually realised that he ‘wasn’t doing it properly’, as he didn’t want to help himself.

“People make seven attempts before they really get to a point where they want to change.”

Priory Addictions Therapist, Pamela Roberts, says it’s a familiar story of family, friends and colleagues noticing the issue and suggesting solutions before the person with the problem is ready. She cites a recent study that found people will try seven times to change their habits until they decide they actually want to change for good.

Michael says that his parents probably only noticed that he had an issue when he had to start helping them out with their bills. They wondered why a highly-paid footballer was always short of cash. However, he said that the more he earned, the bigger sums of money he would bet.

In treatment, Michael would compare himself to others and feel out of place, thinking that as he was a successful footballer, his issues can’t have been as bad as everyone around him in the room. Inevitably, that way of thinking only contributed to more denial. He realised later on in life that those people in treatment were all the same as him, so he was no different – anyone can suffer from addiction and, like everyone else, he just needed to get out of that dark place.

“Once you finished, you did whatever you wanted over the weekend.”

Luke remembers the feeling of excess being celebrated from his days in the dressing room environment. Whether that was gambling, drinking or sex, he says it’s his biggest concern in professional sports, as players are encouraged into behaviour which has the potential to develop into addiction.

Michael agreed that this was his own experience and says once he finished on a Saturday, they’d all go away on the weekend to get up to things they’d tell each other about on Monday morning. That’s when he’d tell people he’d spent his time off in the casino – which, along with all the other stories told, would be a big talking point. It would be a source of entertainment for his teammates as they asked how much money he’d gambled and what he’d lost or won.

“I wanted to be in that circle. So I then decided to play as well.”

Michael remembers being on the team bus with big-name players at Newcastle, who were all playing cards, and he wanted to be in that circle. So he decided to play with them to fit in; which inevitably further fuelled his dependence on gambling. He acknowledges the discord between the players having to have each other’s back on the pitch and then taking a few thousand pounds of each other’s money on the bus.

Michael assigns this behaviour conflict to gambling being such a big part of the culture in English football back then. He doesn’t think it’s quite as prevalent today, certainly not on the team bus or during the time around games, as it was then.

At this time, he noticed that he wasn’t even enjoying the chase or even the winning in gambling anymore, but it was in his blood to keep going. He believed that whatever he lost, he could get back. So if he lost £200,000 over a couple of months, he would keep gambling believing that he could win that same amount in the next two months.

Once Michael attended treatment at a sports clinic, he learned to accept that he wasn’t going to get back what he had lost. This was what made him realise he had to stop and to focus on the future, particularly for the sake of his little boy and his safety.

“I'm on the ladder to recovery. I'm on the road to get it fixed.”

The real change came when Michael signed for Ipswich in 2011. Cardiff hadn’t wanted to sign him because of his gambling addiction, despite how well he was still playing. So Michael appreciated Ipswich’s attitude to looking after players and prioritising their wellbeing before their performance. The club knew that Michael had gambling debts and they loaned him the money to pay them off, as well as getting him to self-exclude from every betting site and shop in the area.

Ipswich also sent to a treatment clinic, making it clear that he had to stay in for the full two weeks to complete the course. It was then that he felt he was on his way to recovery. They then encouraged him to go back to studying, which is when Michael decided to a college course learning mechanics. He was now spending every Wednesday enjoying ‘playing with engines and cars’, while also getting one-to-one support for his health and mind-set, in areas such as nutrition and his focus on the pitch.

The level of structure that professional sportspeople have plays a significant role in their lives, dictating exactly when they play, eat, train and have time off, throughout each week, all year round. Michael says that when he stopped playing and didn’t have that structure anymore, it finally helped him to see things differently.

“I just thought I was untouchable. And I wasn't really until I went to India.”

Michael cites a trip to India as helping to change his attitude to how he was living. Commentating on Champions League games around the world, Michael was taken away from his usual lifestyle. Staying in a five-star hotel, he’d see people living on the streets and begging for money; this was a real eye-opener for him. He previously thought he was ‘better than the guy next door’ and even above the law, mentioning numerous speeding bans he’d accumulated.

Michael then realised from this experience that he had to find something else to do after football. Today, he works on a project in Indonesia helping to bring in players and boost the economy through football.

Pamela discusses how structure and routine is key to managing the chaos that comes with addiction. She also questions how the resilient mind-set built into sportspeople translates into recovery, as the ego switch can become something purposeful. Finding meaning in new areas can be essential in replacing the gap left by addiction, Pamela says.

Michael agrees about the mind-set, saying that people didn’t understand how he had his issues when he was playing so well. However, he was so focused on his playing, since having footballing ambitions from the age of five, that he says he would never have let his addiction get in the way of that. So it was easy for him to turn his resilience on and off.

“If you educate them young, then the brain won't automatically think about gambling”

Michael now believes that high-profile sportspeople like himself need to be brought in to educate young players about gambling. The next generation of first-team players should be made aware of the pressures and explicitly told they can’t gamble, Michael says, and investment should be made by football organisations into organising help and education.

Pamela concurs that there needs to be a systemic approach, as she and her team regularly work with families and employers of people undergoing addiction treatment. Luke asks what Michael would say to any players who might currently be developing a problem with gambling. “You’ve got to look at the bigger picture”, says Michael. “There’s only one winner and the winner is the betting companies.”

Michael emphasises that while addiction may be hard to stop, it can’t be done by hiding the problem and encourages anyone suffering with these challenges to reach out and speak to people. He says he’s already had players reaching out to him on social media after reading his story, asking him for help. This makes Michael happy that he can be there for somebody who needs to talk and share his experience.

“It's not like an alcohol addiction where you can see it in your eyes and you can see in your body”

One of the biggest reasons that gambling addiction is able to develop to such a damaging extent is that it isn’t a physical condition. As Michael says, “you don’t see it in your face…it doesn’t change in your body. But deep down, mentally, in your head it kills you.” Unlike with alcohol addiction, which generally has more physical symptoms of declining health, people won’t usually know about problem gambling until that person admits they have an issue. It’s this ability to hide the problem that needs to be addressed.

Luke says that if more people like them speak out about these issues, it will create a better environment in professional sport. Michael agrees and says he just wants to help give people the future that they deserve, before they hit the all-time low of rock bottom. If he can help people avoid getting to that point, he believes he will have achieved his own goals too.

Treatment for addiction

If you have issues with controlling your gambling, or you know someone who does, speaking out is so important for your mental health. Not only can gambling addiction wreak havoc on your finances, relationships and career, it can seriously impair your wellbeing and your ability to cope with daily life. You mustn’t blame yourself – addiction can happen to anyone, and gambling is designed to keep you coming back. The most important thing to know is that help is out there, and you can turn things around with professional support for addiction.

Contact Priory to speak to someone who understands – our highly-qualified experts have treated many people who have been through the same challenges you face. Before doing anything, we’ll conduct an assessment to better understand your situation and needs. We can then look at recommending your next steps. We generally treat gambling addiction within our 28-day residential Addiction Treatment Programme. This allows you to benefit from 24-hour support from experienced clinicians and therapists, living within a supportive community of people on the same journey towards a better future.

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