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Mental Health & Grassroots Football: Sunderland, and all clubs, have a duty of care to carry out

“As an Under 8’s coach in the Russell Foster League, I see the issues in professional football spilling into grassroots football” writes RR’s resident researcher Neil Graney.

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images

At the beginning of May this year the FA, alongside mental health charity Heads Together, launched its ‘Heads Up’ campaign.

The idea is to use the influence and popularity of football to show the world that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. It aims to generate the biggest ever conversation around mental health to drive awareness and change with regards to the alarming number of men that are affected by difficult mental health.

The campaign was officially launched at the FA Community Shield in August 2019, and has already begun to involve footballers and celebrities in the discussion, such as England manager Gareth Southgate, England international footballer Danny Rose and the Duke of Cambridge.

This campaign is something not too dissimilar at all from not only my research area, but also my personal life. In fact, I have used my own personal narrative to shape my research focus. I was a young footballer, growing up in the late 1980s/early 1990s, in the North East of England, and experienced the highs and lows of a footballer that didn’t quite ‘make it’.

Since then, much of my research has reflected upon how the effects of isolation, rejection and failure contributed to, and escalated to, more than a decade of undiagnosed mental health illness.

My latest research paper in this area won the ‘best paper’ award at the Annual Open University Sport and Fitness Conference - I will be presenting again at the ‘Football Collective’ Conference at Bramall Lane, Sheffield later this year. The focus of the research is mental health and wellbeing management in professional football academies in the UK.

BRITAIN-FBL-ENG-ROYALS Photo credit should read CHARLOTTE GRAHAM/AFP/Getty Images

My research will specifically explore how club management and coaching staff create working environments for full-time professional athletes, in which young athletes are also expected to perform. It is essential that we learn more about mental health and wellbeing of children as athletes, both in and out of football.

Mental wellbeing should be treated the same as physical wellbeing, and there certainly needs to be greater emphasis on this in young elite footballers.

The FA’s ‘Heads Up’ campaign is a welcomed start to sparking the discussion around this issue, and encouraging young men to disclose their mental health concerns and access the support that is available to them.

Following what I heard on the Roker Report Podcast with Academy Director Paul Reid, back in November 2018, I believe Sunderland’s youngsters are in very good hands. Paul was really impressive and talked about the importance of developing young footballers as people as well as athletes.

Crucially, he talked about making sure academy players are successful elsewhere, if it does not work out at Sunderland, whether that be in or out of football.

Danny Roberts

This approach is not always the same elsewhere. Academic research by @Dr_Chris_Platts uncovered practices where verbal, psychological and physical abuse is considered the norm, training environments where children tolerate abuse, so not to appear weak and give themselves the best chance to ‘make it’ as a footballer.

As part of a growing number of professional footballers who are now talking about their mental health struggles, Marvin Sordell recently retired at 28. Upon the announcement he reflected:

The ugly side of the game that many of us are exposed to, has had a hugely detrimental effect on my mental health. I witnessed, and was on the receiving end of racism on several occasions and have seen an incredible amount of bullying, manipulation and verbal abuse.

He then went on to say: “we’re conditioned to believe bullying is part of the game”.

Overall, professional football is behind in regards to managing psychological health and wellbeing. Whilst clubs and governing bodies are very good at assisting in high profile cases, this is often in a reactive manner. I believe football clubs need to focus on the subject of mental health and psychological wellbeing from a proactive management stance. They need to consider to role of organisational culture and leadership in creating effective work environments for young footballers and consider governance, policy and strategies to manage academy scholars proactively.

FBL-ENG-PR-ASTON VILLA-SUNDERLAND Photo credit should read ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images

Vitally, most mental disorders begin during youth (12–24 years of age), although they are often first detected later in life. Therefore, young footballers can actually enter clubs with mental health issues, and see these issues escalate through the demands of a high performance environment.

If, like the vast majority of scholars, they don’t ‘make it’ in the game, they face significant psychological challenges to integrate back into society and a ‘normal’ way of life.

One final point – a recent research think tank on mental health in sport highlighted the need for researchers to better understand six areas.

  1. Defining mental health in a sport context;
  2. Understanding how to measure good mental health;
  3. Understanding how good mental health can be used as a resource
  4. How to consider breaking the stigma of mental health in sport;
  5. How to nourish mental health through a positive environment and finally,
  6. Understanding a positive organisational culture, in which, academy players can thrive, regardless of outcome.
Beyond Sport 2016 - Day Two - 10 Roundtables Photo by Claire Greenway/Getty Images

As an Under 8’s coach in the Russell Foster League, I see the issues in professional football spilling into grassroots football. The winning at all cost culture is no longer compatible with a modern, responsible sport system that values the human being behind the athlete, yet I see this weekly at a grassroots level in under 8’s football!

Kids as young as 7 or 8 are training three or more times a week, with coaches screaming negative feedback at players from the touchline and an overemphasis on the score line. I see players moving from club to club as they don’t get playing time with their friends, and I regularly overhear conversations from parents telling others how their child is representing a ‘professional’ academy.

I see private sector academies marketing themselves as ‘elite experiences and coaching’ – I’d urge you to see your kids as petite, rather than elite, until the time is right.

As I researcher, football coach and parent, my advice is clear. Focus on your child’s psychological wellbeing over any kind of perceived success in children’s grassroots football. The professional game is hamstrung by the need for commercial gains, therefore it cannot afford not to ‘talent ID’ children.

However, the grassroots game should, and can be protected by leagues, clubs, coaches and parents, so that kids can just play and enjoy football as part of a balanced, active lifestyle. Research tells us that over-specialisation in one sport, or indeed one position in a team sport, has negative connotations of a child’s progression in competitive sport, so make sure your child has choice and opportunities to experiment and progress whilst looking after their physical and psychological wellbeing.

I may have raised more questions than answers here, but I will be writing about my research on a more regular basis. Stay tuned!