Rule Breakers

Talking About Mental Health In Sport Is Crucial, Says England Legend Karen Carney

The former Lioness reflects on the Women’s EURO 2022 & the highs and lows of football.

Karen Carney on the England Lionesses and tackling mental health in sport.
Naomi Baker/Getty Images

It should come as no surprise to learn that Karen Carney, one of the most celebrated English players in women’s footballing history, likes to keep on top of her fitness. “It’s naturally ingrained into me. I really do enjoy keeping fit,” she tells me over zoom, fresh from her daily run. Deemed one of the most respected figures in football among supporters and peers, Carney began her journey in the sport at Birmingham City aged just 10. Her formative years with the club saw Carney win the FA’s Young Player of the Year award in 2005, the same year she made her international debut for England.

In 2006, after taking home the FA Young Player gong for the second year running, Carney signed with Arsenal. She would go on to win the UEFA Women's Cup and all three domestic trophies with the club. “No team has ever achieved the quadruple,” she explains. “I was so lucky to be part of that squad.” Other career milestones of Carney’s include representing Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics and being named captain of Chelsea Ladies FC after signing for the club in 2015. But it was her time as an England Lioness that solidified her status as a pioneer in the game. Having represented England at a Champions League final, four World Cups, and four European Championships, Carney has 144 caps to her name — making her the third-most capped player in history.

Retiring in 2019, the former England captain has since transitioned seamlessly into the sphere of broadcasting, and recently signed a deal with ITV to cover the world’s biggest football championships. “The natural next step,” says the Solihull star.

“When the opportunity arose, I just went for it. I was basically doing football punditry at home on the sofa, so being able to analyse these major games with a massive audience has been a total blessing,” she explains.

Below, Carney looks back on her career in football, reveals some of her biggest sporting inspirations, and shares her thoughts on the current Women’s England squad.

What have you made of UEFA Women’s EURO 2022?

I think the quality of this year’s competition has been exceptional. Not just the game, but the whole vibe. It’s been inclusive, diverse, and shone a light on high quality women’s football. The England squad as a unit have been so impressive, too. They absolutely have a shot at taking home the trophy. Beth Mead, Lucy Bronze, Keira Walsh — I feel bad singling out individuals [laughs], but they’re all brilliant. Millie Bright is one of the best centre backs in Europe.

You have accomplished so much in your career, but what would you say has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Getting my first England cap and playing at my first major tournament, which was the Women’s Euros 2005. It was held in the UK and it was such as incredible moment. Playing for the Women’s Arsenal team was a highlight for me, too. I don’t take any of it for granted. I’ve been blessed to have these experiences in my career.

What about the challenges you’ve faced? Which would you say has been the toughest?

For me, the greatest challenge has been dealing with my mental health. It has definitely held me back at certain points in my career. I’ve been open about this in the past because I think it’s so important to talk about mental health, especially in sport, when you have a platform like mine. I have the opportunity to spotlight these issues and hopefully, people will see a figure like me discussing my struggles and maybe relate to or learn from them.

I think it’s so important to talk about mental health, especially in sport.

Leaving a sport is also a challenge. Everyone’s journey out of their particular sport is different; it could be your decision to leave, or it could be totally out of your hands, but I’ve noticed that the pain is a common theme. Athletes are raised in regimented surroundings with training schedules and diet plans, so when this is suddenly taken away it can kind of mess with you mentally. That’s why I helped develop an athlete development programme, The Second Half, which aims to support female footballers as they transition to life off the pitch.

Who would you call some of your biggest inspirations in life?

My family is my greatest inspiration. My dad has been a firefighter for 30 years and my mum has worked at Sainsbury’s for 30 years. They’re both dedicated, hard-working people and have instilled that mentality in me. They’re my heroes.

In a sporting context, I’d have to say Rachel Yankee and Kelly Smith in the world of football. Outside of my sport, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Serena Williams.

Who do you think deserves more recognition in women’s football?

The people who deserve more recognition in football are the people behind the team. In recent years, women’s football has grown in popularity and has become more widely appreciated — and that’s because of the people working hard to secure sponsors, marketing, and broadcasting deals. They might not be on the field, but without those hard-working people behind the scenes, the players and the sport doesn’t get the visibility it deserves.

How do you prepare yourself for a big game or event?

When it comes to broadcasting, I prepare by doing as much research as possible into whatever subject I’m covering beforehand. It just makes me feel more confident and comfortable with what I’m doing. That mentality is probably something I picked up while playing football. The harder you work, the better the result. Football was all about preparation and putting in the work. So, I guess I transferred those skills into broadcasting.

What would your advice be to young women in sport?

I would advise young women to watch as much of your sport as possible. Listen to the stories and experiences of your role models in sport, and really absorb yourself in it. I’d also say remember to enjoy it and have fun. It doesn’t last forever.

What changes would you like to see in the future of women’s football?

I’d like to see women’s football become more mainstream and get more coverage, but I guess that’s down to the media and broadcasters. As with every sport, I’d love to see women’s football become more inclusive and diverse, and reach as many people as possible.

What do you like to do in your spare time away from sport and broadcasting?

I’m a total homebody, so I enjoy just staying in to chill. I also like going to my local coffee shop, going to the cinema, and hanging out with friends. I’m actually pretty simple in that way.