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Crossing The White Line

Is being a trainee professional footballer not only a poisoned chalice, but can it even be detrimental to mental health and well-being?

The common image of a professional footballer is often one of fame, fortune and even hero worship, sometimes long after the footballing career is over. It is perceived to be an exulted, almost exclusive position, that very few actually get to experience. After the playing days come to an inevitable end, many have also legitimately used football as a route to secure careers in football coaching and management. There are also countless cases of footballers who have used their football success to contribute to society as role models and ambassadors, not just for football, but also for many humanitarian and charity causes: David Beckham, Marcus Rashford, Paul Stewart, Sadio Mane, and Fabrice Muamba.

Others have focused on non-football related careers, that although may not be perceived as glamorous, or even fashionable for an ex-pro, have nonetheless, given security ; Marco Gabbiadini runs a bed and breakfast business, Simon Garner is a painter and decorator, Phillipe Albert operates a fruit and vegetable business – and there are many more examples of players successfully adapting to life after football (Planet Football, 2017) 17 ex-footballers with normal jobs: Planet Football

These cases of success post football, often go under the radar, as they are simply not newsworthy. These successes shouldn’t be ignored and are evidence of how ex-players have transitioned successfully back into everyday life and society. This ‘role model’ feedback and feedforward are also currently being implemented within the League Football Education (LFE) programme and is testament to how contemporary the thinking is within professional football these days.

Yet for all its trappings, there can be a more sinister side to life as a footballer. Not only do the vast majority fail to become footballers, but a high percentage also encounter physical, psychological, emotional and financial difficulties. More than likely, as a result of these challenges, some players such as Michael Chopra, Lee Hughes, Keith Gillespie and Adam Johnson, have encountered prison.

It may also be pertinent to allude to previous studies which have investigated the impact of heading the ball, not only for the potential of early onset of dementia (Dementia prevention, intervention, and care, 2020 Lancet Commission) but which may also have facilitated an associated trend in increased mental health disorders in depression and suicide. However, there is currently no clear evidence to suggest this does occur.

In terms of suicide, documented cases directly attributed to football are difficult to identify, with only few cases making headlines, such is the case of ex Man City trainee Jeremy Whiston and Tottenham’s Josh Lyons. That is not to say clubs could do more. In fact, in the case of Jeremy Whiston, his parents clearly stated that Manchester City couldn’t have done anymore. More recently in March 2021, Lee Collins, Yeovil Town FC Captain, took his own life aged 32. Lee was described as the upbeat joker and leader in the dressing room and on the pitch. But behind this persona was a man who had alcohol and drug addiction issues and had gone through a traumatic relationship breakdown and separation. Education informs us that men under 40, who have alcohol/drugs dependency and have an inability to be vulnerable/talk are in a very high statistical category for suicide (MHFA England).

With an increasing awareness of being proactive to assist player development, the LFE launched the Alumni Player Voice Initiative which aims to bring together past apprentices across EFL academies and provide the opportunity to share transition-related experiences, both in and out of football. This is an impressive and effective way to share learned ‘lived experiences’ in a way that can only be wholly beneficial to all those involved. I am sure as this initiative unfolds, its learning and received understanding will be modified to incorporate ever changing needs.

So, what is behind this more sinister side to being a professional footballer? It may be that it has something to do with expectations linked to a high degree of failure making the grade, that lies behind some of these behaviours.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) estimates that each summer, about 700 players are released by their clubs, causing upset and uncertainty.

“The biggest attrition rate is undoubtedly among young players,” says Oshor Williams of the PFA’s education department, which offers support and training to prepare them for a life outside professional football. Of those entering the game aged 16, two years down the line, 50% will be outside professional football. If we look at the same cohort at 21, the attrition rate is 75% or above. Most of these kids don’t have a Plan B. It can be very unnerving to find yourself having to move into a completely different world.” (BBC Sport, 2014) Premier League: What happens to footballers after being rejected? – BBC Sport)

Other potentially erroneous non validated reports suggest this figure is higher – Ninety-eight per cent of players who become full-time scholars, aged 16, will be released or have dropped out of football entirely by the age of 21.This leaves just a 2% conversion rate. This almost creates a type of urban myth scenario, that says being a pro footballer is doomed to failure from the start.

However, data from the Premier League and EFL for the current season of 20/21 show that actually 28.5% of those who were in the Apprenticeship Programme are still playing professional football, with historic trends over the last 5 years putting this at 30% (EFL Report, 2021). It seems the perceived reality does not match up to what is actually happening.

Another example of potential unvalidated ‘data evidence’ features in the same inews 2021 article Mental health of released academy players is still a taboo subject, says football agent (inews.co.uk  where Sam Cunningham talks about trainees feeling let down with their post football after care. In particular, former Fulham trainee Max Hodges talks about his experiences of bullying, racism and threatening behaviour which he had to experience before he was discarded at age 18.

Again, however, this ‘data evidence’ is uncorroborated with other studies, and is anecdotal. What is needed though, is perhaps a specific and targeted interrogation of this so-called data by conducting more valid, immediate and long-term questionnaires to establish any possible trends in this type of reported behaviour.

With the onset of the Covid Pandemic in 2020, and it’s continuing changeable impact on health, finance, career opportunities and aspirations, the plight of the trainee footballer might be under greater threat than had previously been anticipated.

Already we are seeing clubs cut their playing budgets which means less staff, and probably lower wages for existing staff. Budgets for projects associated with player development, retention and future employment pathways might also be subject to negative impacts, although there are ring-fenced amounts that will be resilient to this change.

Yet, within the middle of all this change, is the often stealthy impact of poor mental health on players’ performances, on and off the pitch. Given that players can enter the Academy System at 5 years of age, this opens up a whole new post pandemic ball game revolving around the emotional, psychological, and mental health needs of all would be professionals.

At the younger end, young children now need even more awareness, knowledge, protection and practical strategies to develop their emotional and mental health literacy. Clubs have been developing this programme for some years now, and the pandemic has heightened awareness on the need to act and implement at speed. What is always needed though, is a consistent approach to mental health and emotional well-being, that links into existing programmes within schools, and between clubs, that also heavily includes parents and carers. This linked up approach must also integrate emotional well-being, which is often beyond the remit of some mental health training programmes.

Older players, such as All Al Hamadi at Swansea City, talk about the pressures of being released and being unsure of the future. More pointedly, Ali Al Hamadi indicates that he felt let down by the club. and is unprepared for life beyond the white line. Given a lack of supporting anecdotal evidence, Ali Al Hamadi might be an exception rather than the rule, but his predicament might warrant further investigation, as per the case of Max Hodges above.

It’s easy to pick out cases of negativity in terms of disenchantment, mental illness, psychological, physical and financial challenges – but the question is still the same. Is enough being done to support young trainees?

Part of the solution is already in place via the consistent efforts of Premier League Education (Premier League), and the League Football Education (LFE), which is a successful and extremely effective partnership between the PFA and the EFL. Every trainee is taken through awareness and training in areas such as identity, belonging, managing aspirations, role modelling and overall personal development which includes bespoke mentoring.

It is clear that the LFE Programme does enrich experiences, giving young players the tools that their peers did not have access to, and it ultimately helps them to embrace the journey, rather than focus on the destination.

Is there a need for a more concerted, bespoke effort, to address the trainee needs, proactively and reactively? Moreover, has the pandemic provided us with an opportunity to do this? Can we use the pandemic to review current practices and upskill where necessary, all those involved in the education and development of our precious young charges?

Effective interventions need to be constantly reviewed, as we are living in, and experiencing, a rapidly changing contemporary society. The needs and wants of our younger football generations need to be kept ahead of this change curve, with less judgment and more acceptance of these needs and wants. At the head of this change curve is mental health and well-being.

Trainees at the start of their careers, are provided with non-football life skills, are made aware of how to manage expectations, and are provided with various aspects of personal development that includes some mental health training. Post playing days, the PFA implement an outstanding programme supporting ex-pro’s, a programme that often goes unnoticed.

But can we do more to educate young trainees, and all those associated with their development, to be more aware of their own mental health, to be able to talk about their challenges, to even develop communication relationships where they can be totally vulnerable without fear of reprisal or sabotage. Are we upskilling their emotional literacy?

In my work delivering national education training programmes, there are so many simple tools, knowledge ‘nuggets’ and key statistics which all younger people need to be aware of and which can be transmitted quickly and effectively.

For trainees at least, we need to give them bespoke toolkits to initiate, develop and maximise their own personal well-being – taking a measure of personal responsibility in their development as a potential pro footballer, but also as a potential ex pro footballer. There is clearly a need, as society changes, to upskill all those associated with young trainees in areas of mental health and player well-being. Ex-players such as Clarke Carlisle, Tyrone Mings and countless others, who experienced and continue to experience, a series of mental health challenges, might well have benefitted from this type of programme.

This mental health upskilling might well start with the concept of vulnerability which is often seen as weakness. Former four gold medal Olympian Michael Johnson talks about the fact that is now acceptable and therefore possible for athletes and other sports stars to talk about their own compromised mental health without it being seen as a weakness. Such cases in point are Simone Biles, Ben Stokes, Emma Radacanu, and Naomi Osaka.

Away from sport, successful actor David Harewood talks about his challenges with Psychosis, a condition that he experienced at a young age. He eventually received treatment and made an excellent recovery, part of which was made possible by his increased awareness of risk factors and self-care strategies. What he does say is that an early educational awareness would have made him more aware of these risk factors. This may not have prevented him experiencing the condition, but it certainly would have ameliorated its effects and longevity.

Linked to this, the whole arena of social media is fraught with immediate negativity, and long-term consequences that can impact the mental health of a trainee. The various football bodies are doing exceptional work educating and preparing the young players. This potential problem is not exclusively within the realm of football, as was seen in the recent case of historical racist and homophobic tweets by cricketer Ollie Robinson. Similarly, a recent, unfortunate comment, by Bolton Manager Ian Evatt, deriding his keeper for not being mentally strong, quickly backfired on hm and forced him into a hasty public apology.

In terms of a broader programme of development, there is a post Covid urgency to continually upskill our young charges in new areas such accredited mental toughness, emotional confidence, growth mindset, listening skills, coping skills and strategies. We must keep managing their expectations and align this with the reality that less than 2% of trainee footballers actually make the grade.

Ironically though, these training challenges might also provide an opportunity to develop another key life skill ie resilience. This is a skill that involves perseverance, adaptability and self-care. The trainee football arena can breed adversity, and with this, there may come the ability to thrive. Crucially, it is about a balance of being resilient and mentally tough, but with an equal dose of self-awareness, practical well-being toolkits and an ability to recognise when resilience and mental toughness are dominating at the dangerous expense of mental health and well-being. It is a learned skill to become aware of the link between the positives of positive performance stress, and how negative performance stress can be a result of too much frequency, intensity or duration of a stress.

This awareness for the need to change to incorporate a more holistic approach to mental health and well-being is exemplified perfectly at Tottenham Hotspur who are currently searching to fill a new role – Mental Health and Emotional Well-being Manager.

Maybe the journey to becoming a professional footballer should be a clear tandem approach, that is identified as a Mission Statement and is incorporated into football language. Rather than call it a ‘Football Scholarship’, should we not use the term ‘Dual Scholarship in Football and Life Education’, where each has equal weighting, where expectations are clearly laid out, training and learning time are equally split, especially in the formative years. This would put scholars under no false illusions about their training. The introduction of non-football work experience and non-playing football related experience might be a more realistic option for many.

It is great to have expectations to reach the top, but along this journey, can we honestly say we are doing everything we can to ensure a transition beyond a professional football career, and often a career that may not even start?

 

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