Welcoming fans back into stadiums this season has added a much-needed sense of normality to the game, but it's hard to ignore how deeply the pandemic has impacted PFA members. With more players than ever coming forward to access PFA wellbeing services, we caught up with Director of Player Welfare, Dr Michael Bennett, to find out how his team have been helping professional footballers navigate the challenges of the last 18 months.
How have you been working with clubs to support players during the pandemic?
Last season, we delivered more than 50 wellbeing workshops to Premier League and EFL clubs to ensure players know what wellbeing support the PFA offers, what those offers look like, and how to access it. At the end of each session, we always do a survey to get player feedback on what could be improved in the workshops, but we also ask direct questions about their emotional wellbeing and ask if they need any other services from the PFA, such as education support.
For the last few years, I’ve also been sitting on a panel group with the Premier League, EFL, The FA, LMA and PGMOL, and we meet quarterly to share good practice. During the pandemic, it’s been important for us to continue those conversations and keep up the dialogue with other football stakeholders, so we’re working together for the betterment of football and the players.
What have been the most common issues you’ve supported players with?
Low mood and anxiety were the top two issues, followed by substance abuse and gambling. Transition was another real issue because we found that as squads were made smaller, a number of players weren't having their contracts renewed, which had a big impact. Players evolve differently, and more often than not, young players usually have a chance to gain another contract. However, it seemed like they weren’t given that opportunity because of the pandemic, so a lot of young players were being released.
We also saw members coming forward with relationship issues during the pandemic, so we’ve been supporting them through that too. When the first lockdown started, there was a kind of honeymoon period, where players were at home with their wives and kids, but then when it became clear the season was going to be closed down, the change in routines put a lot of relationships under real burdens.
Is counselling still a taboo subject in football?
I think the taboo is still there but nowhere near as bad as it was a few years back. High profile individuals like Danny Rose, Gareth Southgate and Peter Crouch talking about their wellbeing issues has been really beneficial for our members. Our uptake of younger players coming forward for support has also risen in the last 18 months, now that more people, including other sports stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, have become more confident and comfortable talking about how they're feeling. The growing number of players accessing PFA wellbeing services year-on-year shows that the taboo is really subsiding. Our big focus for the Injured conference was always to make sure that emotional injuries were on par with physical injuries, and I think now people are beginning to realise they are the same and should be treated the same.
Racism is still a big issue in football. What impact is racist abuse having on players?
Racism is talked about constantly, and sometimes people overlook the emotional impact it can have. I think people need to know racist abuse is having a detrimental impact on players, their families and their teammates. As a Black former player, I was racially abused, so I know what the players are going through when they’re stuck trying to work through all these emotions. We’re doing a lot of work to make sure the emotional support is in place for players who encounter racial abuse, including a dedicated helpline (PFA Online Abuse Helpline: 0800 368 8484) that players can call if they're experiencing abuse online or from the stands in any way, shape or form.
What’s the PFA’s wellbeing focus for the year ahead?
Cryptocurrency is a wellbeing concern as we have seen a rise in players across sports investing in this type of scheme. These volatile investments can see high market swings and cause financial issues. They can be a huge risk and a form of gambling for some, which can impact negatively on players lives on and off the field if they are seeing a negative return.
Last season, our surveys showed that 14% of players felt bullying was something that could impact their wellbeing, so this season we are directly asking the questions, "have you experienced bullying in the professional game?" and "would you like direct support for this issue?", then feeding back to clubs if players confirm that is the case.
The pandemic has been a reminder that all individuals are susceptible to mental health and wellbeing issues. I know the access to emotional support we've put in place has made life a little bit easier for the members we've worked with, and I hope we can continue to do that for any other PFA members who need our support.
- If you're a PFA member worried about the pandemic or anything else, we can help you get the right support. Call our 24/7 helpline on 07500 000 777 or email our Wellbeing team to discuss your options.