After developing The Safety Net Mental Health Platform for the PFA, brothers and former professional footballers, Lee and Nick Richardson created the PFA Performance & Wellbeing online course to help scholars adjust to full-time professional football. Following a successful pilot and rollout, Lee, Nick, Dr Andrea Firth Clark (UCFB, London) and Associate Professor Dr Ric Lugo (Ostfold University, Oslo) conducted a study about the impact of the course, which was published in January 2022. We caught up with Lee to find out more.
Lee, how did this study come about?
Both the PFA and our company AIM-FOR wanted to evaluate the opinions and perceptions about the first rollout of the course to gain more understanding of the potential benefits. We both have an ongoing interest in refining and improving the course program, so it was important to properly evaluate the perceptions of the 260+ players and dozen or so club staff who had completed the first version.
Why did you set up the PFA Performance & Wellbeing online course?
After implementing The Safety Net, the PFA were keen to develop a more proactive and preventative offering to support young players entering the professional environment for the first time. We had already begun to develop our e-learning strand of the business, and the course was commissioned to help promote the development of psychological skills and competencies, signpost PFA services and encourage help-seeking behaviours in the vulnerable transitional period from full-time education to elite professional sport.
Why are professional footballers amongst the higher-risk populations in relation to depression and anxiety?
There are several well-evidenced risk factors for elite and professional sportsmen and women. Concerns about future job security and, perhaps most critically, the loss of identity a player might feel when their career status and sense of self can abruptly change through non-selection, serious injury and commonly, at the end of their career. Footballers also tend to face an enforced career change at a relatively young age compared with other professions, and the constant cycle of performance preparation and recovery can take a toll on physical and mental health.
Why is the course also available for club staff?
Staff can benefit from taking the course to help them understand the information players are digesting and relate to the topics and issues covered in the modules. Some clubs get the players together as a group to discuss the relevant performance, wellbeing and mental health issues covered in the course module by module. The material in the course also includes downloadable resources that club staff can utilise as part of the extended learning criteria that players have to demonstrate as part of their apprenticeship educational requirement.
How will you use the study’s findings to improve the course?
Most of the negative feedback we received was related to the Learning Management System (LMS) that was being used at the time, and there were sometimes problems with the technology, which made navigating through the course more difficult. However, since we changed the LMS system in 2020, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
In the study’s conclusion, a potential second course is mentioned. What could that look like?
We’re in talks with the PFA about potentially developing other programs to complement some of the services the PFA already provide. The feedback from the pilot course was that players found the course useful, and the course material made them reflect on aspects of their game. Players also said it provided good advice and strategies to cope with the expected demands of their immediate future, so we hope any future courses we develop will be as helpful.
All Premier League or EFL scholars can access the PFA Performance & Wellbeing online introduction course to help prepare for a career in professional football. Contact your Head of Education or Player Care at your club for the specific link or get in touch with the PFA Youth Advisory team for more information. To read the study in full, click here.