As a youth player at German side Hannover 96, Arsenal vice-captain Per Mertesacker spent plenty of time helping out at a local mental hospital.
It was voluntary, kind of. The defender chose the hospital ahead of military service, and the experience put things into perspective for him as well as surely helping him gain a sense of responsibility.
“It was challenging – much more so than I thought – but a great experience,” the World Cup winner told the Observer.
“You trained in the morning and went to the mental hospital in the afternoon. I did that every day for a year. You had your own key because everything was locked.”
At Arsenal, he has huge responsibility but nothing compared to what he experienced during that formative year.
“When I went in I thought: ‘They need me.’ You can’t turn up and think: ‘I don’t care.’ It was something to put things in perspective. That privileged life we live is good but you have to respect what happens on the other side as well. When you have a high sometimes, just look back and think about that.”
There have been plenty of disappointments at Arsenal, including the opening day of the season just a couple of weeks ago, but it must be easier to retain perspective and pick yourself up again when you have seen how much more difficult life could be.
So, Per has already worked in a mental hospital, but what will his next job be after he is finished on the pitch? At 30 years old he still has plenty of time left, but his thoughts have already started to turn to whether or not he will stay in the game.
“I don’t see myself coaching because the intensity of that is massive,” said the centre-back. “The intensity as a manager, for example Arsène Wenger, is even more.”
He wouldn’t, however, rule out the possibility of a return to the game in the dugout, just in case he misses the thrill of football too much.
“Maybe you will want to have that intensity and you can’t live without it, then I come back for sure. I’ve had some great managers and they gave me some experience, great managing skills as well, but right now I would say I do not fancy it.”
Meanwhile, a trip to the commentary box is also unlikely.
Mertesacker isn’t the quickest, to say the least, over the first five or ten yards. As someone who can read the game he is fantastic and it makes up for his acceleration, but his defensive style isn’t particularly eye-catching. As a result, Per receives a lot of criticism from pundits, even when it’s undeserved.
“In modern football there will be more and more demand for former players who want to have an opinion and still feel they are part of the football system,” the defender said, not that he allows any of the criticism affect him. “Maybe I can avoid that when I finish my career. That’s my target.”