Updated: Aug 24
Most of the talk on this blog relates to physical health or performance, be it through an exercise- or nutrition-focused lens. What is often neglected is the mention of mental health. In this article, we correct that imbalance.
Footballers—like any other athlete—are primarily concerned about what will improve their physical performance. This makes sense: football is a very physically demanding game. But that doesn’t mean that footballers should neglect their mental health. Host of The Footballers Mindset podcast, Rob Blackburne, has been holding therapy sessions with professional players in England over the last decade or so and says that poor mental health in football is a '...big problem that nobody is talking about.'. With this context, it is important to explore the various mental health struggles that footballers go through.
That's precisely what we do in this article. Specifically, we discuss a recent study that looked at the perception of mental health problems among Swedish male elite footballers and their attitudes toward possible prevention strategies (1). We hope that the insights from these footballers helps you to reflect on your own mental health.
Twenty elite male footballers aged 15–30 years were interviewed. Some players had experienced mental health problems and others had not. The interviews were conducted by researchers (online) and lasted about 38 minutes on average. Let's chat about what themes emerged.
All players remarked on how much they enjoyed playing football, and mentioned football is a big part of their life. An older, more experienced player said that while his motivation dipped throughout his career, the joy of football has always been his deeper source of motivation for playing.
Players tended to like a coach who was a good communicator and was caring. Some said their coaches were too focused on winning and that they didn’t listen or communicate well. One player emphasised that a coach's behaviour and communication style can influence their players' mental health.
Most players were relaxed with respect to the pressure of performing. However, some players said the pressure can affect stress levels and sleep, especially if coaches are demanding. One player mentioned that '...it’s very important to get a break from soccer sometimes', because the pressure to perform can be stressful.
Players did not experience pressure to gamble, drink alcohol, or use other drugs—which is of course a good thing for mental health. However, some players said that it was difficult to share personal problems with teammates, which is not ideal.
Quote: In general, it’s a macho culture. There are twenty guys in a locker room, and no one wants to appear weak. So that’s probably the barrier you need to pass [if you want to talk
about your problems].
Several players believed that social media can bring negative pressure. Older players said that younger players are more at risk.
Most players felt mentally well. Some reported poorer mental health and stress, driven by the difficulties of balancing other aspects of life, difficulties with their identity, and injuries.
Quote: You have your ups and downs. I think it mainly has to do with putting everyday life together. You are in so many roles. In part, you are a school student, but in the profession, you are an employee, and you are also a soccer player. In addition to that, you are a person in your spare time. So, it’s hard to put it together.
Source: Thrive Global
Players pinpointed three prevention strategies to improve mental health:
Information and Dialogue: Players saw a need for having experts come in and give talks on risky behaviours (e.g., drinking) and mental health, which would help to destigmatise it.
Policies and Routines: Enforcing policies around drinking and doing drugs were mentioned as possible ways of preventing these behaviours and thus poorer mental health.
Individual Support: Players stressed the importance of being able to talk about problems, suggesting that clubs should provide access to a psychologist and that staff and leaders in the club should be able to point those who are struggling in the right direction. Players also felt that coaches should improve their behaviour and communication and speak on an individual-level to players.
This study provides an insight into how elite male footballers may struggle with their mental health and how they think things could be improved. Because of its anonymous nature, studies like these are important for getting real-and-honest answers on these kinds of questions.
My Main Takeaways
Don’t be afraid to talk about your issues. Getting the conversation started can be tough, but it is a necessary first step to feeling better.
Don’t wrap your entire identity into football. When things go wrong due to injury or other reasons, you can’t let your mental health go down the toilet. You are more than a footballer.
Be mindful of your substance (alcohol/drug) and social media use. Detaching your identity from football can help to ensure negative feedback on social media doesn't affect you as much as it might otherwise.
Do not be afraid to seek professional help from a therapist or psychologist, as talking to peers is not going to fix deeper problems.
Most of all: play for the love of the game!
What do you think? Does your club have a good infrastructure for helping players with their mental health? Is there a good culture of sharing and talking with other players and coaches at your club? If the answer is 'no', perhaps you can suggest improvements to your coaches or club officials to get the ball rolling and break the stigma.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can contact our partner and sports psychologist, James J. Claffey, over on his Instagram page. In addition, if you want supplemental coaching, get in contact with our expert coaches at [email protected] to get started.
That’s a wrap for this month’s theme of 'New Research'. If you missed any of our earlier articles from this month, you can catch up with them, here.
All the best!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Kvillemo P, Nilsson A, Strandberg AK, Björk K, Elgán TH, Gripenberg J. Mental health problems, health risk behaviors, and prevention: A qualitative interview study on perceptions and attitudes among elite male soccer players. Front Public Health. 2023;10:1044601. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9850108/