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New research highlights significant psychological impact of football release

16 January 2015


A significant number of adolescent footballers who are released by their clubs go on to experience clinical levels of psychological distress, new research at Teesside University has found.

Depression, anxiety and a loss of confidence are among the psychological problems experienced by teenage players who have their professional careers prematurely cut short.

Some players may also turn to alcohol or drugs as they struggle to come to terms with the fact their dreams of being a footballer may be over – the research has shown.

Now academics are calling for football clubs and organisations to offer more support to help players with psychological problems following release, as well as preventative measures to be put in place for players who are deemed to be ‘at risk’ of experiencing such problems.

Dr David Blakelock carried out the research as part of his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology to examine the proportion of players experiencing clinical levels of psychological distress and factors associated with such distress.

As part of the study, almost 100 players at professional clubs across England and Scotland completed questionnaires at three time-points –prior to club selection procedures, seven days after and 21 days after.

Of those players that were released, 55% experienced clinical levels of psychological distress. Psychological distress was more common at 21 days (55%) than it was after seven days (36%) – suggesting that young players may find it increasingly difficult to cope when they are cut adrift from professional football.

Dr Blakelock said: 'These results suggest that in the first month following release, a proportion of players can experience a range of psychological problems, namely depression, anxiety, a loss of confidence and impairment in everyday functioning.'

'At post-selection time-points, released players had significantly higher levels of psychological distress than retained players.'

'Avoidance coping was also found to be positively associated with such distress. This form of coping represents attempts to escape from the harm, threat and loss of a situation that is stressful, as well as associated emotions. Examples include denial, behavioural disengagement and the use of alcohol or other substances.'

Dr Blakelock, once a promising young player at Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest, now works as a Clinical Psychologist in the NHS. He is not surprised at the proportion of young footballers experiencing clinical levels of psychological distress.

'Several factors encompassed within the journey of an elite adolescent player and release itself could make young players particularly vulnerable to developing psychological problems following release,” explained Dr Blakelock.

'For example, as young players often spend a number of years in a club’s development programme they develop a high athletic identity. As released players lose the primary source of this identity, their sense of self and identity can become fragmented. Moreover, as the self-worth of individuals with high athletic identities is dependent on athletic performance and success, released players can experience a loss of self-worth and confidence.'

'Released players also fail to achieve sporting goals and fulfil their maximum sporting potential. This can be a source of distress particularly as these goals may have formed the focus of their lives.'

He added: 'Whilst outcomes following release can vary, considering the proportion of players experiencing clinical levels of psychological distress, it may be beneficial for clubs and organisations to consider developing two strands of service provision. Firstly, a therapeutic, problem-oriented service could be offered to players experiencing psychological problems following release. Secondly, a preventative, developmental, solution focused approach could be developed so that ‘at risk’ players can develop transition resources and a state of readiness to meet the demands of release.'

'Significantly, any changes to service provision offered by clubs and football organisations should be preceded by further research that examines players’ experience of psychological distress across an extended time-period. Should players be found to experience distress in the short and longer-term, clubs and organisations may have a moral and ethical duty to develop and maintain the recommended service provision.'

'Identifying factors associated with psychological distress also holds promise for informing and developing effective assessments and interventions that could enable young footballers to effectively manage the transition to another career within or outside of football.'

Dr Tim Prescott, Director of Clinical Psychology at Teesside University supervised Dr Blakelock’s research.

He said: 'This research indicates that release can trigger clinical levels of psychological distress. More research is needed to find out the impact of release in the longer term and to understand more about what protects the teenagers from this potential distress. This could help football clubs to develop systems and support for the young people who participate in their youth development programmes.'

Dr Mark Chen, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise at Teesside University, was also involved in Dr Blakelock’s research.

He said: 'Ideally, to reduce psychological distress following release, football clubs need to foster a sense of personal as well as performance excellence in young players so they can learn to perceive de-selection as an uncomfortable but important learning process. This will likely help maintain self-belief and wider aspirations. Psychological interventions, to widen personal identity prior to de-selection, can help as a preventative measure to protect against the negative impact of de-selection. Developing a wider personal identity can only help the players deal with stressful events both within and outside sport while not compromising their striving for football excellence.'

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