Sonny Pike: The wonderkid who put mental health first

13 Sep 2021
  • Sonny Pike was the ‘next big thing’ but suffered with depression

  • He shares his experience to raise awareness of mental health conditions among young players

  • FIFA Guardians safeguards the mental and emotional well-being of children and vulnerable people involved in football

He was an agile, technically-gifted ‘wonderkid’ who soared to fame after top clubs had spotted his insatiable goal-scoring talent. Those following English football in the 1990s may have expected Sonny Pike to have become a renowned player in the senior ranks, yet the pressure of expectation was bearing heavily on his young shoulders.

"Goals got me noticed," Pike tells FIFA.com. “In my first season I scored 49 goals and then I'd score 80 to 100 goals a season, every season. My earliest memories were at six years old. The 1990 FIFA World Cup was on, and all I ever really wanted to do was play football.

“I got a trial with Ajax, which just took it to another level again. I was doing a lot of media work and I turned into this child celebrity, a ‘wonder kid’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another kid get the same sort of attention.”

Beneath the glare of media interest, Pike was torn between disappointing his family and coaches, and asking for the support he needed as a young player. “There were people who were worried for me, but I didn’t say anything,” he explains. “Like, I just want to play football, but I want to keep people happy at the same time.”

Through his adolescence, the happy, enthusiastic young Sonny Pike became withdrawn, introverted and developed an unhealthy relationship with the sport he once adored. “The ages of 14 to 16 were definitely the toughest years,” he said. “I struggled in so many ways. And even when I went out to play on the pitch, I just hid on the pitch. I was always an extrovert but I wasn’t acting right.

“I didn’t leave my room for six weeks. My character changed. I thought about taking my own life, and actually went somewhere, to think about doing that. But on the way back from that, I decided that it was going to be football, or my mental health. And football had to come second.”

Pike continued playing, but struggled to recover his passion for playing and instead turned to coaching. He now coaches young players, taking a holistic approach to their development, and is a mental health advocate.

“The good parts are what I’m doing now, talking to people [about mental health] and trying to be there for the players. I like being there for the whole thing, because I understand the sort of pressure that comes with it. My advice would be to talk. Reach out to people. I find, if you do talk, it sort of takes the pressure from within, whereas if you’re holding it in, it’s a ticking time-bomb. I can’t help everyone, but I just try to be someone to talk to, if I can.”

In January 2021, FIFA launched the FIFA Guardians Safeguarding in Sport Diploma together with the Open University which aims to professionalise the work of safeguarding officers in football and to raise safeguarding standards.

FIFA is working together with its 211 Member Associations and Confederations to protect the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing and safety of children and vulnerable people around the world, through providing this landmark global education programme, along with the FIFA Guardians Safeguarding Toolkit and the dedicated FIFA Safeguarding and Child Protection Department.

Befrienders Worldwide Befrienders Worldwide provides help and support to those in distress or suicidal, around the world. Visit https://www.befrienders.org/ and https://www.befrienders.org/other-helpline-organisations to find support in your country. Please note, while every effort is made to ensure information is accurate, FIFA is not responsible for the content of external websites. If you are in immediate danger, please call your local emergency services. Support for professional football players can be accessed through FIFPRO.