News   |    July 21st, 2021

Coronavirus leads to spike in footballers seeking mental health advice.

There are some hard hitting statistics when it comes to mental health in the UK. One in four people will experience a mental health problem annually. Over 10% of the population has depression at any one time. There has been a spike reported in the number of footballers in England seeking mental health support since the start of the coronavirus lockdown. In the first quarter of this year, the Professional Footballers’ Association has said over 300 players have accessed support, compared to 653 in the whole of 2019.

As an ex-footballer, I know first-hand that there are hundreds of people in the sport right now battling mental wellbeing issues. At one time there was such a stigma it wouldn’t have even been mentioned, and whilst The FA, EFL and other sporting bodies are all trying to encourage players, coaches and those involved in football to speak out, I also think that sadly there are a high number of people that will continue to suffer in silence, including at the elite level. Meaning there is  so much more that can  be done.

Everyone involved in football and sport, has a duty of care to ensure that players are not just well looked after physically but that similar expertise, training and support is injected into their mental wellbeing too. How to cope with going from hero to zero with one wrong move in a match? How to deal with negativity on social media? How to be comfortable saying I’m not okay to a first team coach or teammate without feeling exposed? And equally how to spot the signals when a teammate isn’t okay and needs yours or a coach’s support? “Stay alert” is the current government slogan when referring to the coronavirus. If we as humans carry this same message with regards to mental health then everyone will be pulling together in these hardest times.

We want to make sportspeople feel confident and comfortable talking about mental health problems, in the same way that people can discuss physical injuries. Many wait until retirement before they have the courage to share their experiences through autobiographies.

For some athletes, not being able to participate in their sport due to the coronavirus or even injury is what can trigger their symptoms and radically affect their mental health. Suddenly feeling excluded from teammates, seeing change in physical health and the change in routine. It is not just the club’s responsibility to support athletes during this time, but also where their circle of trust comes in. Family, partner, and agent – all working together to help a player put their mental fitness training into place when things aren’t going to plan.

For several people inside and outside of sport, lockdown has proven to be particularly tough on their mental health. As for footballers, the looming decision of whether the season will continue or be cancelled brings up its own stress and anxiety for some. Whilst almost all are desperate to get back, train and play, there will  be obvious concerns about the risk Covid-19 brings to them and potentially to their families too. There will also be challenges beyond the virus, some players will be out of contract at the end of this month, others will be worrying about transfers, finding new clubs and even whether they are insured to continue playing out of their  current contractual obligations for their existing club. With so many unknowns, anxiety levels can increase as athletes experience new challenges.

For players, knowing that someone is on their side to guide them through these unknowns, be able to give factual advice and guidance, it is the difference they need, so they can fully focus and concentrate on getting themselves prepared as individuals for performance on the pitch itself , instead of being distracted. That is why when we at Integral sports management talk about helping players on and off the pitch, we don’t just mean commercial deals off the pitch, or ensuring they are kitted out in the latest football boots! We mean the even more valuable off pitch support such as wellbeing and welfare. Building that circle of trust early on. Guiding players to invest time and training into their mental fitness in the same way they do their physical. After all, often that can be the difference and edge between a happy career and an athlete losing their way.

Mark Arber - Head of Operations – Integral Sports Management

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