The Welfare of Footballers and Athletic Identity

Since 2012 the PFA has provided dedicated service to help its members wellbeing, and the numbers taking advantage of that are on the rise. According to the PFA website, the dedicated approach was taken because “we felt a lot of onus was being placed on the physical aspect of playing football and not enough emphasis on player’s emotional well-being, and I think the two go hand in hand,” said Michael Bennett, PFA Head of Welfare. The numbers of players receiving counselling are growing from previous years, and that number will continue to rise due to, the stress and pressure that comes with being a professional footballer and the overall business of football. Examining this rise in counselling with a misunderstanding of Athletic Identity and the personal developmental process of footballers from all ages could result in a higher demand for qualified helping professionals.

Mental health and Well-being have become a topic of conversation on the academy, and professional level of football. The overall field is in its infancy stage. This can explain why the terms Mental health and Well-being are used simultaneously with athletes. However, when a footballer or any professional athlete has issues or challenges associated with sports participation, traditional approaches and services concerning Mental Health and Well-being should not be considered. Since conventional Mental Health and Well-being services were never developed or designed for footballers.

According to the NHS, mental health services deal with a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, none of these legitimate issues deal with the root and essence of footballers daily problems and challenges, which is deep rooted in Athletic Identity. However, some of the services address the outcome of issues and the effects of Athletic-Identity. Traditional mental health services do not holistically address the core of footballers daily emotional and developmental state of mind.

Well-being is specific to addressing an individual’s emotional state such as anger, moods, anxiety, fear, stress, and trauma. Positive mental well-being means feeling good – about yourself and the world around you – and being able to get on with life in the way you want. Thus, only a small number of footballers or any athlete experiences a career in sport the way they want. Therefore, how are welfare officers and counselors addressing this critical component of life for the footballer?

Mental health services and well-being approaches are essential for the general public but fall short of providing a holistic approach for aspiring and professional footballers. While it seems footballers experience issues that appear identical to the general public, such as but not limited to depression, stress, anxiety, and alcohol abuse. Footballers are not part of the general public, due to their lifestyle, the process of becoming a professional footballer and the way the world around them revolves.

Why are sports specific mental health and well-being services essential to the youth footballer? Because sport is a business and at the academy level your dealing with kids, who in most cases can’t separate their emotional state from the business side of the game. According to one parent “Some academies do not care about the welfare of the boys,” said one mother, whose son was recruited by a Premier League club at the age of six and released at 13. “They just throw them on the scrapheap, ruin their confidence then turn to the next kid showing a bit of promise.” Unfortunately, finding the next Premier League professional requires casualties which is part of the business.

It’s important to note footballers at all ages experience a unique set of issues and challenges throughout a career which is deep-rooted in Athletic Identity and Post Traumatic Sports Disconnect (PTSD). According to David Conn both the Premier League and Football League, whose clubs have 12,000 boys in intensive training from the age of eight, much more in “development centres” from – preposterously – the age of five, pride themselves on providing a “holistic” experience for the children.

English football is proud to have a network of 8,500 welfare officers across the grassroots youth game, supporting safe and fun environments for everyone. However, is there a complete understanding of Athletic Identity and PTSD varying stages within the welfare officers community? A holistic, proactive approach to the personal development of footballers will continue to progress slowly, and the need for services will increase. Unless we begin to educate footballers, coaches, welfare officers, and counsellors on the unique areas of sport-specific mental health and well-being services.

The number one reason youth athletes and professional footballers progress or fail to advance to the next level of development on or off the pitch is due to the number of expectations placed on them as well as the expectations they put on themselves regarding sports participation. Education is essential for all on the subject of Athletic Identity combined with a detailed personal player development scheme, which is supported by three balanced pillars of an individuals personal, social and professional development. This scheme, if implemented, would eliminate the need to use traditional approaches when proactively attacking daily issues and challenges of footballers. Thus, moving the sport specific Mental Health and Well-being industry further in a positive direction.

Dr. Mark Robinson is the author of Athletic Identity The Personal Development of Athlete. 



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