Playing football for a living and playing in the Women’s Super League sounds like the dream on paper. However, when stripped back it can be a life of wearing a mask and not knowing who you are.
Amber Stobbs grew up engrossed with football. She lived the dream of every young kid who fell in love with the beautiful game. However, things weren’t as they seemed off the pitch. The Crystal Palace ace found herself struggling to cope with the pressures she placed on herself from day one.
She moved to Reading in 2016 and expected herself to have the ideal season with her new club. But she already felt like she had “failed” in her career.
Not the route in life she expected
“It was just the pressures I put on myself,” Stobbs told Her Football Hub. “Even from growing up, I had just put so much pressure and energy on myself.
“I’d moved around and chased football. I moved out when I was 16 to Cobham to play for Chelsea and all this sort of stuff. I’d gone to America and that didn’t work, so in my head I had failed the whole dream I had from 12 or 13-years-old.
“I’m back in England, which I never had the idea of, to be honest. Growing up I always wanted to live in America. Then, it was the battle of thinking I’ve left all that behind to play here and just facing new challenges but at this stage, I hadn’t opened up to anyone.”
Stobbs’ struggles off the pitch were not helped by her elite athlete mentality. Her desire to make it to the top and achieve her dream is what ultimately held her back.
“I had some stuff going on and it was just really hard to go to football and enjoy it. I couldn’t put my finger on one thing. It wasn’t because of playing time or because of the environment in football, it was just because of everything outside of football. I just couldn’t separate it.
“It was no longer my release and I think people underestimate the pressures of having a hobby and something you love for your whole life and then it becoming your job. It shouldn’t take the fun out of it.”
Constantly beating herself up for small mistakes and revolving her life around the next training session or match, Stobbs struggled to find that healthy balance in life. This is something she desperately craved.
“Where do you get away from football?”
“I really piled on the pressure,” the midfielder explained. “If my training session wasn’t going right, I was going home to my Reading football house and waiting around for the next training session to improve myself.
“You’re in an environment of football and living with other players so it’s like, where do you get away from football? The only other people with the same days off as you are your teammates. It wasn’t like I could come home and see a friend because they’d be working.”
After realising the struggles of going full-time, Stobbs sought after a new lease of life when she switched to Everton. However, her love for football kept dripping away.
“I went to Everton but the distance meant I was quite isolated – I had a players’ house but I was by myself. It allowed me to put that mask on for years, but as soon as I got home, I’d take it off and not even try to get help.
“I fell into some sort of cycle of going to training, coming home and just waiting for the next day.”
Stobbs knew she couldn’t go back to her old ways whilst at Reading and had to be honest with herself to realise what she really wanted from football.
Stobbs explained how she got to the place of first opening up and realising what she wanted from life.
“I thought, ‘is this what I want [going full-time at Everton]?'” she asked herself. “Is this what I can do?
“I was a bit scared and I thought, I can’t fall back into where I was at Reading because it was a really dark place and I didn’t want that again.
“So, I reassessed it and I went to meet with Andy [Spence] about how I could possibly do it. It turned into a breakdown as I said, ‘I think I need to go home to work on my mental health’.
“I said that I didn’t think I could take top league right now.”
Time to strip everything back
The toll eventually became too much for someone who had lived and breathed football since the age of 12. Stobbs leapt into the unknown after an emotional day at Selhurst Park.
“I went to Charlton and I thought, this is a new start and it’s definitely part-time – I’ve got a full-time job in the city. At the end of the season, I was thinking, this is great. This is what it’s like to have a stable lifestyle, have an income and just play on the side,” Stobbs reflected.
“I thought that through doing that, it would show me the right balance but I still wasn’t enjoying the football.
“I spent years trying to go part-time and work and I’ve finally done it but with football, I’m still not where I need to be and still not enjoying it and the mental health stull wasn’t improving.
“This had been five or six years now and the only thing I hadn’t tried was to take a step away from football. I know now that football wasn’t causing it and football doesn’t cause it, but it definitely wasn’t helping and I needed to do whether I could to work on myself as quickly as possible because I was really not in a good place.”
Sometimes stripping everything down to the bare bones and putting life in perspective is the best way to succeed. Stobbs knew football was causing her problems.
“That break was the turning point in life”
Removing her hobby, job and lifestyle was a huge step in the right direction for Stobbs, but not one which came lightly.
“I knew I really had to strip it back to basics and find happiness in what have and not always chasing it,” the 28-year-old said. “Whether that be in football or my job. I always thought, football’s not making me happy so I have to change something to make sure it does make me happy. But I just wasn’t happy in general.
“I was thinking – and the way I was with playing I just didn’t have the space to breathe. That break was the turning point in life really but also in getting back to enjoying football.”
That ability to step away from football allowed Stobbs to find herself after feeling ‘like my hands were forced’ into stepping away from the game.
“When I was away from football, I was watching it a lot more and thinking I’m actually enjoying this as a fan,” Stobbs explained. “Then, I started to really miss it and I’d done so much work on myself that I got into a good mental space.
“I started to accept myself as just Amber, because that tag of ‘Amber the footballer’ had always followed me around and I didn’t know who I was outside of that.
“Because I felt like I had failed in football, I found it quite refreshing to feel like I had an identity outside of football and there’s more to me as a person than football. That’s quite sad to say that’s how I thought.”
Stobbs was confident she’d never play again but, after seeing her mental health improve and being offered the chance to take it as slow as she wants, the midfielder headed to Crystal Palace, the place where she thought it was all over.
“I had contacted the Palace manager at the time because I knew my mindset had changed and I said I’d be interested to come down and just kick a ball around and see how I feel about football.
“I went down to that session and it’s probably to this day one of my favourite football sessions ever.”
A new lease of life
The realisation that she’d struck up the perfect balance of work and football was something that shocks Stobbs still to this day and is ever thankful to palace.
“I was speaking to my parents about it and they looked at each other and thought, she really enjoyed that we haven’t seen her like that for years,” Stobbs reminisced.
“Dean [Davenport] got my number through an old teammate who played for Palace at the time and he just said: ‘It’s a shame you’re stepping away from the game, you’re a great player’.
“It was just a really nice message and he said at the end of it: ‘If you do want to see if you can enjoy it one day, I know you’re local [to Palace] so just let me know’.
“Eight months later when I text him, I went down there to see the environment, that’s how slow I was taking it. I used to have a lot of anxieties around it [the footballing environment]. I used to be physically sick before training so I was honestly going to take it that slow.
“So I was enjoying it. I was playing to enjoy it and I’m honestly still shocked now at how much I fell back in love with it. Palace then said after a few weeks they’d like to sign me and there was no second-guessing.”
Stobbs is now thriving both on and off the pitch, and admitted she feels like “a completely different person”.
“That’s not to say there are not moments where it doesn’t affect me because it does,” she clarified. “That’s a big part of my life and that’s the reason why I shared.
“I’m sharing it as I’m living it and I don’t want other people to think It’s not okay. I want people to think it’s okay to not feel okay.”