Mental health within sport, particularly football, has gained considerable amounts of media attention within the last few years. With recent major tournaments such as the Euros highlighting that there are still deep routed issues within the sport that need to be addressed. This has also been backed up by a study conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2021 which revealed that 35% of elite athletes suffer from some form of mental health condition.

Are clubs doing enough at the moment?

It’s easy to forget that sporting clubs are employers, not just entertainment and as an employer, clubs have a duty of care to their employees – that includes caring for their mental health.

Many young people dream of becoming a professional football player from an early age. Growing up watching legends like Salah and Henderson and wearing the number of their favourite player, they hope to become one of the greats themselves. Getting to travel and playing with people watching around the world, the life of a footballer can appear to be very glamourous.

With that being said, the reality can often be quite different. Although a football career can be incredibly rewarding, it can also come with an immense amount of pressure, as well as the physical toll that it takes on the body.

A club has a duty of care to all the footballers it signs, to take care of both their mental and physical health. Despite this, there is a general understanding that most clubs are not currently doing enough to provide adequate support to their players. With financial pressure determining the actions of many clubs, mental health often comes second which means lots of football players struggle. There is also a general consensus that players are not made to feel as if they can open up about how they are feeling and any mental health issues they may be facing, which in turn can make it much harder to seek help.

Remember, if it wouldn’t be tolerated in an office, it shouldn’t be tolerated on a pitch – the same duty of care applies as an employer and sports employers should have HR policies to cover mental health.

Social media, racism, and homophobia

There is no denying that social media is part of the cause when it comes to the mental health crisis within football. A 2021 study by Pickwise demonstrated the impact that online trolling can have on mental wellbeing.

Being in the public eye and typically having public social media profiles, many footballers are subject to hundreds if not thousands of abusive messages daily. Many of these messages often contain racist or homophobic language, targeting certain players in particular.

As fans have a direct method of communicating with footballers, those in the profession are seeing an increase in hateful direct messages and posts. The possibility to act anonymously online is one of the main causes of this, allowing people to say things they would not if the account could be easily traced back to them.

What can be done better?

There is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to protecting footballers against online hate and helping them to better take care of their mental health.  Clubs should be offering professional advice to sports employees in this regard.

Firstly, many players are being encouraged to restrict their social media profiles, meaning only people that they follow can comment on their posts and send them direct messages.

Clubs are also beginning to be more proactive and are publicly declaring a zero-tolerance policy to abuse, both online and in stadiums. As part of this initiative, clubs are alerting fans to ways that they can report abuse in an effort to combat it.

This has allowed more players to start speaking out about their struggles which in turn encourages others to do the same.

However, first and foremost, sports clubs need to create an environment where players can speak out, receive mental health support and where any complaints are taken seriously.