How to tackle mental health in football?

September 4, 2019

Neil Graney, assistant professor at Durham University Business School, has welcomed the FA’s launch of its Heads Up campaign to encourage more discussion around mental health and wellbeing in football. Here, he reveals how the campaign echoes issues that have impacted his professional and personal life

On May 15, The Football Association (FA) and mental health charity Heads Together, launched its Heads Up campaign.

The idea is to use the influence and popularity of football to show the world that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. It aims to generate the biggest ever conversation around mental health to drive awareness and change with regards to the alarming number of men that are affected by difficult mental health.

It aims to generate the biggest ever conversation around mental health to drive awareness and change with regards to the alarming number of men that are affected by difficult mental health.

The campaign was officially launched at the FA Community Shield in August 2019, and has already begun to involve high-profile people in the discussion, such as England manager Gareth Southgate, England international footballer Danny Rose and the Duke of Cambridge.

This campaign is similar, not only to my research area but also my personal life. I have used my own personal narrative to shape my research areas. I was a young footballer, growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the North East of England and

I experienced the highs and lows of a footballer that didn’t quite ‘make it’. Since then, much of
my research has reflected upon how the effects of isolation, rejection and failure contributed to, and escalated to, more than a decade of undiagnosed mental health illness.

My latest research paper in this area, entitled My Child, the Athlete, won the ‘best paper’ award at the Annual Open University Sport and Fitness Conference. The focus of the research is mental health and wellbeing management in professional football academies in the UK. I have also completed an ESRC workshop with Sunderland AFC’s Foundation of Light and will be working with other clubs in the future.

My personal experiences and my research activities have led me to also develop a study module for students at Durham University Business School focused entirely on sport business management – the Global Sport Business module. Students develop a better understanding of the foremost contemporary issues affecting sport organisations and athletes across the globe. There is a heavy focus on the duty of care of athletes within the module, which has gone on to inspire a number of students to conduct their own research into mental health and wellbeing issues in a number of different sports across the globe, including national organisations in the UK, the United States and New Zealand.

As well as continuing my research into football and mental health, I am also currently writing a chapter for an upcoming book, entitled Person First, Athlete Second. The chapter will consider how professional football clubs manage the mental health and wellbeing of their young, elite players.

It will specifically explore how club management and coaching staff create working environments for full-time professional athletes, in which young athletes are also expected to perform.

We must learn more about mental health and wellbeing of men and athletes, both in and out of football. Mental fitness should be treated the same as physical fitness, and there certainly needs to be greater emphasis on this in young elite athletes. The FA’s ‘Heads Up’ campaign is a welcome start to sparking the discussion around this issue and encouraging young men to disclose their mental health concerns and access the support that is available to them.

Durham University Business School
To find out more about Neil Graney’s research, visit:

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