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Understanding the beautiful game with On The Head

Here at CALM, we believe football can be used as a vehicle for positive change around issues like community, mental health, and suicide prevention. That’s why we were really pleased to meet On The Head, a team of psychology practioners and researchers based at the University of Liverpool.

They want to better understand how footballers live and feel, what support is in place for them, and what improvements need to happen to better support their mental health. They’ve recently launched a research piece aimed at male and female academy, professional and semi-professional players. Here’s Andrew Bethell to tell us more about their work…

Tell us about the research project and why you’re doing it…
We launched On The Head in 2018 in an attempt to understand more about mental health and well-being in football. Our aim is to improve the support that’s made available to players during and beyond their careers.

The study aims to further understand the scope of mental health challenges faced by individuals across football, which areas and themes in particular are you looking at?
Players face a whole host of challenges at various points throughout their careers – whether that’s juggling the demands of school life and football or coping with the difficulties associated with being released from an academy, contract insecurities, long-term injury or facing retirement in your 30s. And that’s in addition to challenges from outside of football. We’re interested in how players respond to such challenges, and how these challenges affect their mental health and well-being.

We’re also interested in something called athletic identity. We know that people make huge sacrifices to become football players. This can leave people defining themselves exclusively as a footballer. But people aren’t footballers forever. What happens when this identity is challenged? How does this affect mental health and wellbeing?

“We want to help clubs become more proactive in how they support both players and staff. We’ve been working with clubs to create environments that promote positive mental health”

What criteria do people have to meet to partake in the study?
At the moment both male and female academy, professional and semi-professional players can take part in the study. Recently retired players can also take part. The only condition is that players need to be aged 16 or above.

Have you had a positive reaction to your efforts so far?
It’s been brilliant. More than 100 players have taken part in the study so far, which is great. We had some initial difficulties when it came to promoting the study to players. We hoped that we’d get support from some of the players unions within the game but unfortunately this didn’t happen. So social media has been vital for us – it’s given us a platform to promote the study and to connect not only with players directly, but also with others that are interested in our work. A number of players that have taken part in the study have been keen to support us and have shared the study with their teammates and on their social media platforms. This has really helped us. The more players that take part the better.

What do you hope to achieve with the study?
We’re committed to improve the support that is made available for players during and beyond their careers in football. Our work is adding to the ongoing debates around mental health and well-being in football and has prompted some really good conversations with players and stakeholders within the game. We’ll be in a position to present some initial findings from the study later this year – this will enable us to make recommendations about how players can be better supported.

Compared to other communities and even other sports, it feels like football has a bit of ground to make up in terms of the way mental health is approached at an institutional level. Why do you think that is?
A brilliant mentor once told me that culture eats strategy for breakfast – you can develop excellent strategies and fantastic ideas for change, but unless you can shift organisational culture then your ideas are likely to get stuck. This has certainly been the case in football. Football has taken a while to catch up with changes in societal attitudes towards mental health. In some areas of the game mental health is still highly stigmatised – even now, players are telling us that they’re unable to talk about their feelings for fear of being seen as weak and dropped from the playing squad. Thankfully things are changing. We’re seeing lots more players sharing their stories and calling for more support, and clubs and player unions are making commitments to support the mental health and well-being of their players.

“Our work is adding to the ongoing debates around mental health and wellbeing in football and has prompted some really good conversations with players and stakeholders within the game”

What changes would you like to see brought into the game to better support player wellbeing?
Historically some of the support has been reactive – almost like a firefighting approach – bad things have needed to happen before support has been made available for players. We want to help clubs become more proactive in how they support both players and staff. Recently we’ve been working with clubs to create environments that promote positive mental health, where conversations about mental health and well-being are encouraged, not silenced, where players feel comfortable to talk about difficult emotions and know where to go to seek support. Of course it’s vital to involve players in these developments to ensure that the forms of support that are made available to players are accessible and tailored to their needs and preferences.

To find out more about On The Head, or to take part in the survey, click here.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article or in the comments below, are not those held by CALM or its Trustees unless stated, and liability cannot be accepted for such comments. We encourage friendly and constructive debate, but please don't share personal contact details when commenting and exercise caution when considering any advice offered by others. We don’t allow abusive, offensive or inappropriate comments or comments that could be interpreted as libellous, defamatory or commercial and we will remove these without warning as and when we find them.

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