Dropping in on football clubs across England to speak to players, Michael Bennett poses a question he already know the answers to.
“How many of you look after the physical aspects of your game?”
The hands all go up, of course. They don’t need to be reminded of the importance of sleep, nutrition and rehydration by the Professional Footballers’ Association welfare director.
“But when I ask how many look after yourselves emotionally, they don’t answer me because they don’t think about the emotional side,” Bennett said in an interview with The Associated Press. “That’s why you have to make them aware the emotional side of the game is as important as the physical side. They both go hand in hand.”
Bennett’s work is busier than ever before, with a surge in members seeking support for mental health issues.
Data provided to the AP shows 544 PFA members — mostly men — accessed therapy from January to September — up from the 438 who used the union’s counseling services throughout 2018. It represents an increase of almost 25 percent on last year’s total with three months of the year remaining.
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“The main reason they come forward is stress, depression and anxiety but we are aware that is a symptom of something,” Bennett said. “So we try to find out what is causing it. It could be long-term injury. It could be bereavement in the family. It could be a marriage or partnership break up. It could be a gambling issue which is prevalent at the moment.”
Bennett has a better insight than most in the English game. He played across the professional leagues, including for Charlton and Wimbledon in the topflight in the 1980s and 1990s. After training as a psychotherapist and counsellor, Bennett joined the PFA and he has been welfare director for eight years.
The PFA’s mental health services this year have been used by 553 men — 250 active players — and 26 from the women’s game. Eleven people from families of PFA members also sought support.
Only 160 PFA members accessed counselling services from the union in 2016. But any stigma around seeking help for mental health problems has been eased in the national sport by leading players, including Tottenham defender Danny Rose, talking about fighting depression. The English Football Association campaign has also launched a “Heads Up” campaign fronted by Prince William.
“We want to make them aware you don’t need to suffer in silence or be alone,” Bennett said from the PFA’s annual mental health conference at the St. George’s Park training base for England national teams.
The struggles are starting even earlier for players chasing professional contracts.
“What has changed is the tension,” former Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker, who now manages the club’s academy, told the AP. “I was injured for a year when I was 16 and to come back into academy football at the same club (Hannover) was easy at that time.
“When you are injured now for a year you are almost gone because your chance was there and you didn’t probably take it. So the judgment and assessment will be much earlier than back in the day.”
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Mertesacker now has to prepare his academy players for not making it about their club.
“People write you off, but you never should never settle,” Mertesacker said. “There’s huge expectation for yourself, from your parents around you. … So we need to make sure we create an environment where they feel safe with a good football program as well using football as a vehicle to teach them a lot of other stuff which can be helpful to life.”
The PFA has tracked how being rejected by clubs so early can see players doubt their worth and identity.
“The demands from the family, the demand from the club and more so the demand they put on themselves can be so intense,” Bennett said. “It can be unbearable and they think they can’t cope.”
Social media just adds to the toll. There is the abuse — too often racist — that players can receive on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Then there are the pressures to show a perfect life and body.
“We are seeing self-image and eating disorder issues are on the rise, particularly in the younger population,” Bennett said.
A weight on the shoulders of players at third-tier clubs Bolton and Bury in recent months was the future of their clubs being under threat. While Bolton was eventually rescued by a takeover, Bury was expelled from League One in August, leaving players out of work. The PFA stepped in to help them.
“It’s a public perception that all footballers earn a hundred grand a week or even more than that and why should they have any financial issues,” Bennett said. “They do and they can still have bereavements, issues in families and injuries that can impact them.”