Why we can all play a role in improving mental health in football

As part of Mental Health Awareness week, Joe Hall speaks to a footballer-turned-psychotherapist about why efforts improve mental health in the game need all of us.

Slowly but surely, the world of professional football is making strides forward in how it looks after its players emotional well-being.

Since the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) set up a welfare department in 2012 the number of players using its service has increased and the number of counsellors working within the game has more than tripled. Sport psychologists are increasingly becoming standard practice at Premier League clubs and academies.

Yet there is still plenty of room for progress —- the most recent study from players union Fifpro found that over a third of players reported suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression.

The myriad ways in which elite players supposedly living all our boyhood dreams may struggle and the effect it has on their careers is detailed in Soccology, a new book from former West Ham and Charlton player Kevin George.

Read more: Mental health must be a priority for all City firms

After dropping out of the game and a detour into the entertainment world George trained in counselling and psychotherapy and now works as a human performance consultant with leading clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool as well as schools and prisons.

Soccerology, which features interviews with successful players such as Manchester City and Englands Fabian Delph and former Arsenal and City defender Gael Clichy, is full of anecdotes and advice for how elite sporting professionals and institutions can maximise mental well-being.

Yet even if a club provides plenty of pastoral support and cutting-edge therapies, it doesnt prevent a pundit blithely attacking a players “mentality” or fans hurling abuse after a poor performance.

“In football at the moment, everybody contributes,” George tells City A.M.

“The fans, the media, the clubs, the players. We should be asking; How can we improve? This week there was controversy surrounding a story on Joe Hart supposedly blaming David Moyes after he missed out on the England squad.

George now consults with leading Premier League clubs

“A few journalists were saying hes been terrible, hes been this, hes been that. Now Im thinking, when youre a goalkeeper youre probably in the most vulnerable position on the pitch. Everyone has their moments when their in denial. As much as I think if he blames Moyes he should back it up, lets at least listen to what he says.

“We talk about mental health week and what were trying to do is shut people up. Im not saying I agree with him, but I want to hear his story. For someone whos given so many years for England, we could at least give him some air to say what he has to say.”

That expectation of unrealistic levels of stiffness in players upper lips expresses the kind of emotional illiteracy that George works with clubs and players to fix in order to improve performances on the pitch.

“Not being in the team and being only spoken about in terms of my injury was hard,” says Delph in Soccology when discussing his struggle overcoming ligament damage.

“Being injured massively affected my mental state and self-doubt crept in…Football doesnt teach players how to handle these situations.”

Delph has turned to “mindfulness exercises like the moving meditation of tai chi” while others like Gael Clichy have found the benefit of yoga nidra meditation.

Therapies and practices will differ from player to player but for George the key is about clubs being open-minded about methods that provide unconscious processes for unconscious problems. A player may be moderating his game — upping his work rate to hide anxieties over technical abilities — without realising it.

George encourages football clubs to work with players to look for those underlying emotional forces. As fans, we can play a part too.

Kevin George is a human performance specialist and the author of new book Soccology: Inside The Hearts And Minds Of Professionals On The Pitch out on 31 May.

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