Understanding the lived experience of mental health within English Professional football

Bennett, Michael (2020) Understanding the lived experience of mental health within English Professional football. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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The ‘beautiful game’ of professional football has a shadow-side which is the mental health of its players. Football is arguably the most popular sport in the world, with an estimated 35 billion follower’s world-wide; its professional players are often held up as heroes (or villains) for the media and for fans of the sport. Seen as powerful role models for success, the vulnerability of footballers to mental health difficulties is an aspect of the sport which has become a focus for academic enquiry relatively recently.

This research examines how footballers’ mental health is experienced and interpreted by the players themselves. The study takes a qualitative approach to enquire into the lived experiences of a cohort of professional footballers in the UK. The twelve participants of the study were from diverse cultural, gender and personal backgrounds. A specific concern of this study was to see how any findings could serve to inform the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) to develop future strategies for improving services in support of player well-being.

Semi-structured interviews generated in-depth accounts of participants’ experiences as professional players and how their career in football impacted their mental health. An interpretative phenomenological approach (IPA) was utilised to analyse the data, generating four themes. The ‘Snowballing Self’ represents their fragile sense of self, tied up in fleeting successes and highly dependent on performance, with little sense of personal agency. ‘The Mask’ encapsulates the different ways in which players develop defence strategies to hide their more vulnerable selves. The ‘Roller-coaster’ metaphor represents the ups and downs of this often brief career, punctuated by highs and lows and rapidly changing circumstances. The ‘Medicalised Sporting-Self’ explores how the culture of football is rooted in a medical model, geared towards enhancing the performance of players, rather than their well-being.

I argue that there needs to be a cultural change in football in terms of its approach to mental health. I identify the need to listen to the players themselves and highlight the fact that professional footballers are, first and foremost people, intrinsically valuable with a need for personal development through and beyond their professional careers and their identity as 'footballers'. I argue that this assumption needs to be enshrined into coaching, education and support systems for players and form the basis of programmes and interventions that use the players' own language and frames of reference. Finally, I make practical proposals for well-being support services that adopt a ‘player-centred’ approach.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Social Sciences > School of Education and Lifelong Learning
Depositing User: Chris White
Date Deposited: 06 Oct 2021 10:09
Last Modified: 06 Oct 2021 10:09
URI: https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/81580


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