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I have had it described to me as a form of internal bereavement. Rather than losing someone you love, you lose yourself. The environment and culture of professional football often results in an unhealthy and imbalanced identity being enforced upon a player, exposed when they are forced to exit the game.

Our identity is formed by elements such as our values and beliefs, our community and culture, and our hobbies and interest. Our work life may contribute to some of those elements, but it rarely defines them. Work doesn’t define who we are; the working life of a footballer shouldn’t define them.

Alas, this is the position that some footballers find themselves in the high intensity and pressurised environment of the professional game.

It is defined as an athletic identity. An identity that attaches more value to the success, failures and feedback experienced in the sporting environment to the needs of the human that exists underneath the professional footballer. Not only does this leave footballers incredibly vulnerable to mental health difficulties when they face challenges, but also leaves them lost and struggling to understand their purpose when football is taken away.

It is particularly prevalent among those aspiring to become professional footballers, with academy scholars driven to achieve their ambition to the extent they devote no time to understanding their values and needs outside of the football environment at a time in their life where extensive cognitive and emotional development is taking place.

This has the potential to be particularly damaging, and that damage is particularly likely. Less than 0.5% (Kelner, 2021) of young footballers who enter the academy system at the age of 9 will become a professional footballer, while 85% of scholars are released by their club (Brown and Protac, 2009). Some will find an alternative path into professional football, while others will enter a period of crisis as they attempt to reshape their identity.

When I have delivered mental health workshops to aspiring professional footballers on behalf of Sporting Way, as part of our partnership with Charlton Athletic, my objective has been to ensure they leave with a greater sense of self-awareness. To empower them to understand their identity, and the dangers involved in shaping it around football. To give them the opportunity to understand what parts of their identity may be causing or intensifying mental health difficulties, and to encourage reflection and conversation.

I want them to be self-aware from the moment the first of the two sessions that I deliver begins. They are asked, independently and anonymously, to express what the phrase ‘mental health’ means to them. The results are often interesting – some will make the direct association with mental illness, but others might contextualise it around their mental strength and their capacity to achieve goals – but I am more interested in getting them to think rather than what the outcome of that thinking is.

It may be something they are already aware of. Some may have already spent time addressing or protecting their mental well-being in the pressurised environment they find themselves working in. For others, this may offer an opportunity in a safe space to explore the deeper meaning behind a phrase they have attached stigma to and previously avoided.

There are no right or wrong answers. Everyone has a different understanding of what mental health means to them. But understanding what mental heath means to you, rather than being afraid to think about it, gives you a better chance of being alert to factors that are putting strain on your mental well-being and respond proactively.

Increasing the likelihood of a proactive response is another objective I have. I want them to reflect on the stresses and pressures that the football environment places upon them, which are unique to the ambition of wanting to become a professional footballer, and not simply accept them as emotions that should be tolerated and dealt with independently as part of becoming a professional footballer. Reflect, talk, act.

The toughest part is encouraging the action. Being able to self-reflect is one challenge, an even greater one is to do something that can often be perceived as weak in the highly competitive and masculine football environment. Seek out the support of someone within their dressing room, whether that be a teammate or a coach, if they feel that their mental health is being challenged and their mental well-being is suffering.

Outside sources exist. Charlton Athletic, for example, have a fantastic club chaplain who provides conversation that isn’t fed back to the dressing room. This can often be key: players want to talk, but are concerned about the impact it will have on their playing time and their opportunity to forge a career if they are seen as not as strong as one of their teammates.

Nonetheless, returning to the dressing room after receiving outside support doesn’t change the environment and cultures that create an athletic identity and the subsequent mental health challenges.

There is a requirement for self-reflection to take place beyond the workshops I deliver, for that self-reflection to be encouraged within dressing rooms, and for conversations in response to that self-reflection to be encouraged. Self-reflection and action without a negative consequence. A safe space to mitigate the pressures that the football environment otherwise places on players.

By having those conversations, an academy player may even discover what his values and beliefs are away from a strong desire to become a professional footballer. Ones that will exist whether they have a career in the game or not. That will remain even if their identity as a footballer is laid to rest.

References

Brown, G. & Potrac, P. (2009). ‘’You’ve not made the grade, son’: de-selection and identity disruption in elite level youth football’, Soccer & Society, 10(2): 143-159.

Kelner, M. (2021). ‘Youth football: What happens to those who don’t ‘make it’?’, Sky News [Online]. Available at: https://news.sky.com/story/youth-football-what-happens-to-those-who-dont-make-it-12226577 (Accessed 09 August 2022)

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