Many professional footballers (soccer players) may not feel safe showing vulnerability or admitting that they struggle with emotional or mental health problems, according to a new study by a clinical psychologist whose findings were presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology Annual Conference in Liverpool.
For the study, researcher and psychologist Dr. Susan Wood wanted to gain a better understanding of the specific types of mental health problems often experienced by professional footballers and what might prevent or encourage them to seek help.
Although a few footballers have recently opened up about their experiences with mental health difficulties, the prevalence of such problems in this group is likely to be similar to the general population — one in four. To investigate this, Wood, along with a research team from Coventry University, initiated in-depth interviews with seven male professional players.
Survival emerged as a strong theme for the players who took part in the study. They described having to struggle and fight to “survive” the challenges of the professional football world, mental health difficulties, and also the transition to the “real world.”
“The footballers’ described an environment where it did not feel safe to show vulnerability or emotional struggles, fearing that this would lead to a straight ticket out of football,” said Wood. “This left them feeling trapped, isolated and ashamed as they attempted to conceal their difficulties behind the bravado and brave face.”
“The pressures footballers experience are often overlooked behind the money and success of the premier league. With mental health only recently been explored, homophobia an ongoing debate and recent reports of sexual abuse, this is a population that warrants further research and support.”
Many players saw the football field as a battlefield, and any signs of vulnerability or weakness felt like threats to their survival. In many of their stories, injury, transition, and “falling out of love with the game” were precursors to mental health difficulties.
In addition, shame, stigma, fear, and a lack of mental health literacy were prominent barriers to accessing help and support.
Several players spoke about their use of unhealthy forms of escapism — substance abuse, gambling, alcohol, aggression, sex, and partying — to try to appease the difficult emotions they had experienced. The risk of permanent escape through suicide was also expressed as a way out from their difficulties.