Jeff Whitley works in the PFA’s player welfare department, making sure players can about access wellbeing support if they need it. A former midfielder at Manchester City, Jeff turned to the PFA for support in 2007 for help with addiction, and entered the Sporting Chance clinic for treatment.
Now celebrating over a decade of sobriety, Jeff is a fully qualified counsellor and uses his experiences to support other players who are experiencing problems with addiction and mental health. We caught up with Jeff to find out more about why he loves working with players around mental health.
Jeff, do you find your story helps you to connect with players?
Yes! When I speak to players, I always tell them about my background and the emotional ups and downs I’ve had in football. We talk about how injuries, team changes and pressure can impact them - as well as other things, like being away from home.
It can be difficult because if a player hasn’t had an upbringing where expressing yourself and talking honestly about how you feel is normal, they’re going to find it hard to talk. People shouldn’t feel so scared to say they’re upset or they’re feeling afraid, and I’m hopeful the ‘not showing any emotions’ environment in football is starting to shift.
You’ve been really candid about the challenges you’ve overcome, what do you think is important for people to know about getting well?
I went to rehab because I was dying. I wanted some happiness and some peace in my soul, and I didn’t know how to get it. Some players go to rehab or counselling because their families or managers are giving them grief, and I can tell you that never works. It’s vital that if you make that choice to get help, you do it for yourself.
When you come out of treatment, you feel amazing. It’s common for people to stop doing what they’ve learned in there because they feel like they’re cured. It’s really important to remember that its only a foundation of recovery - you have to maintain the progress that you’ve made and that’s when the real work begins.
Who should be looking out for signs that a player might need help?
Other players are usually the best ones to spot signs because they’re together every day. If someone is typically lively and bubbly but becomes really quiet or starts to isolate themselves, something’s wrong. Sometimes it’s not that simple because people can put on good masks. I can relate to that - I would be energised in the dressing room, but people wouldn’t see me crying at home.
If you do notice something is up with your teammate, go and have a conversation and ask them to be honest and tell you if they’re ok. If you’re not sure what to do, you can always go with them to seek some help, so at least you’re in it together and they won’t feel alone.
What needs to change about how we approach mental health in football?
I would love to see clubs including a focus on mental health as part of their normal fitness routine. They have lots of physical training, but where does their mind come into it?
It would be great to have a mandatory session on mindfulness for players every day - and the manager, coach and backroom staff should take part too. They all need to buy into it for it to work, and it’s important they learn how to deal with their own pressures and stresses.
Emotional health is so important because if your mind isn’t right, how on earth can you perform at your best? I have no doubt that they would quickly see the benefits of being in a great headspace.
What’s the best way for a PFA member to seek help if they’re in need?
We know that current players can be reluctant to talk to someone who is connected to their club. That’s why we go in and say we’re not affiliated to your club, and we don’t care that you play football - we just care about you.
We’re here to support our members with whatever they need, and they can contact us anonymously anytime using our helpline. Former players can also call that line or email us - it’s that simple.
We know it might not be easy to go to your GP or speak to your family about how you feel. Whether a current or former player, you are a PFA member for life, and all our services are open to you. The PFA is here to support our members through whatever is going on in their lives, and it’s important they know they’re not alone.
We’re here to help
The PFA is here for all members. If you feel you need to talk to somebody about how you’re feeling, please call our 24/7 helpline.
All services are private and confidential. PFA members (or concerned friends and family) can contact the PFA:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 24hr Counselling Helpline: 07500 000 777