The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has released its yearly summary of player wellbeing data. Throughout the 2022/23 season, the players’ union confidentially surveyed over a thousand members from across the Premier League, English Football League (EFL) and Women’s Super League (WSL) on a range of issues related to their mental health and wellbeing.
The findings highlight the unique stresses faced by players on and off the pitch, and the importance of access to independent support networks.
The survey revealed that only around a third of male (38%) and female (26%) players said they would feel comfortable sharing concerns regarding their mental wellbeing with their clubs, with the majority indicating that they would be more likely to seek support through the PFA or another independent organisation.
One in five players said they had experienced severe anxiety, with the use of Snus and sleeping pills also emerging as issues of concern in the men’s game. The PFA recently launched a joint study with Loughborough University to address issues with the use of Snus, a smokeless tobacco product linked with addiction issues, within football. The players’ union has also highlighted the link between the growing demands of football’s relentless fixture schedule and sleeping pill usage in the game.
Performance and injury were the leading football-related issues most likely to negatively impact wellbeing for all players, with almost half (47%) of male players also revealing that fears around being dropped were impacting their wellbeing.
The new data also highlights specific issues for players within the women’s game. Almost a quarter (23%) of female professionals surveyed said that money and contractual issues were causing stress which was impacting their general wellbeing. Over 40% said they had experienced some form of online abuse, with general personal safety concerns also a prominent and growing issue among players in the WSL.
Surveys are conducted confidentially during club visits made by the PFA’s team of wellbeing staff. These are then used to produce anonymised reports which can help clubs provide effective and targeted support for their players.
The visits also offer players a discreet means by which to seek additional mental health support, with a range of wellbeing interventions made by the PFA after these assessments, including hundreds of player referrals to the union’s wider network of therapeutic support professionals. The PFA also offers players tailored residential treatment to address specific player needs.
The PFA also offers current and former members mental health assessments and treatment from Sporting Chance’s specialist network of professionals. During the 2022/23 season, over 500 current and former PFA members benefitted from this support. Of these, around a quarter (24%) of males used the service to seek support for addictive behaviours and gambling, while almost a third (27%) of female members sought general emotional support.
Maheta Molango, Chief Executive of the PFA, said:
“We work closely with many clubs and individuals who are doing excellent work to develop the support which is provided to players.
“However, like in any workplace, we know that it might be a difficult decision for someone to come forward to their employer to talk about issues they may be facing, especially if they feel it could be perceived as a weakness or vulnerability. They may worry about this having an impact on their career.
“By its nature, football is an extremely competitive environment where players often have very little long-term security around contracts and their future in the game.
“It’s vital that we create pathways for our members, if they choose, to discuss and seek help on issues they may be facing in a way where they know they will be treated, independently and in confidence, as people and not players.
“That’s why the PFA’s wellbeing support services are so important.”
“We work with footballers at every stage of their career, from academy level to full-time professional. It means we have a unique insight into the issues players face – and are likely to face – and how to tackle them in a way that is both sensitive and relevant to a footballing environment.”
Molango also highlighted the prominent position of player wellbeing in recent Government reviews into the future of football. The White Paper which followed the Fan Led Review noted the lack of mandated independent support for children in club academies, whilst the recent review into the women’s game, led by Karen Carney MBE, made a series of recommendations around improved wellbeing support for players.
Molango added: "Many of the issues that have been raised with us by players are central themes in recent work around the future of the game, which is encouraging. These reviews have played an important role in highlighting the need to improve care and support for both male and female players. Now it’s vital that those findings and recommendations are acted upon.”
Dr Michael Bennett, the PFA’s Director of Wellbeing, said:
“We’re encouraged that players continue to benefit from the support the PFA provide and that so many feel safe to open up and share their feelings in surveys like these.
“We’re always looking to identify emerging wellbeing issues in the game and how these might be a symptom of the ongoing stresses faced by players. That’s why, when we see players in the men’s game coming forward to speak about issues like the use of Snus, we take practical action to make sure we’re providing the most effective support we can.
“We are also seeing specific issues emerge within the women’s game which we need to be able to help players manage. The women’s game is undergoing a significant period of growth in terms of player profile, which means they are facing new and unfamiliar experiences. It’s clear that this is leading to concerns for some, including new demands placed on players as their profiles grow and bigger audiences than before are drawn to the game.”