Per the Oxford Dictionary, identity is referred to as how one describes the ‘self’ and the characteristics that further defines us as people. A dancer’s identity can be best explained by the social identity theory, as the theory focuses on the ways individuals perceive and categorise themselves, based upon their social and personal identities (Jacobson, 2003). There are many worldwide perceptions on what it means to be a dancer, as well as how they should look and while dance can be an embodiment of one’s free expression, it can also be a categorization of one’s gender, size, age, sexuality etc. For example, many men in dance struggle to be accepted due to the multiple reflections on “society’s acceptance and rejection of different expressions of femininity and masculinity” (Yamanashi & Bulman, 2009).
Identity as a ballet dancer is punctured with commitment, self-sacrifice, physical and emotional pain and suffering as suggested by Pickard (2002). Certain genres of dance such as ballet, pole and jazz are subject to sexualization due to the nature of the costumes they are expected to wear. For many women in dance, wearing a beautifully decorated costume and stepping out on to a stage can be empowering, the “beauty of the female body is manifested to express eroticism, which is culminated by body exposure, body consciousness, use of illuminating or see-through material or colourful trimming” (Mi-Young, 2006). Furthermore, when considering the concept of identity within dance, Langdon and Petracca (2010) discovered how dancers can be associated with obsessive body image and warned professionals in the industry to be aware of the negative aspects of identity and to encourage positive body perception when working alongside dancers, as they can be at risk of developing an eating disorder (ED).
The Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) claims that women are often sexually objectified in some cultures which results in state self-objectification and trait self-objectification. From this, Tiggemann and Slater (2001) found that classical ballet students scored higher on self-objectification, self-surveillance and disordered eating, when compared to psychology students.
As differences in clothing can be seen within different styles of dance, the prevalence of EDs can differ too. Anshel (2004) found that ballet dancers were more at risk of developing EDs as they are concerned about how much they weigh, leading to body dissatisfaction and perfectionism. This is because there is a huge pressure for dancers to perform well as well as looking the part, can lead to further self-surveillance and to achieve this, weight control is a focus of theirs. For example, the desire of having the ideal body is seen in ballet schools where dancers are overconcerned about their performance and so focus on details such as weight, hair and teeth to reach the ‘artistic look’ (Ravaldi et al., 2016).
A young female dancer comments on how she ties her identity to dance “I view my body in a really toxic light. I think if I wasn’t a creative and I didn’t have this type of pressure to look good all the time, I would certainly still have insecurities but not to the extent I do now. I see the women getting booked for jobs, I see the briefs for castings, but I don’t see people like me, size 12, chubby etc. So I have actually gone on a fitness journey to change that and mould into the person I feel like I ‘need’ to be, which is another thing that I need to unlearn. I don’t need to change for no one – especially not for an industry or society norms, I should change for me.”
This demonstrates the awareness of how aesthetics can really influence identity and personal consequences. However, it is important to note that not every dancer will have an ED, but they are at more risk due to the type of sport it is, the industry being female-dominant and perfectionism (Trigg, 1978). Alternative research as found that some dancers actually have a positive self-esteem, great fitness benefits and encouraged healthy eating (Kalliopuska, 1989; Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015).
The role of a psychotherapist is becoming more and more relevant to the world of not only the sport of Dance, but many other sports. If you would like to learn more about how you could one day work within sport as a psychotherapist, a psychological wellbeing officer, or would simply like to learn more about how they work, Click here to be taken to the Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy – Online Course. Or Click here to be taken to the Certificate in Psychological Wellbeing in Sports.
There are many ways in which practitioners can treat individuals with EDs and to help restore a sense of self and identity. For example, a clinical psychologist may use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as a way of challenging an individual’s thought patterns and encourage cognitive restructuring, to relieve the pressure of perfectionistic traits and low self-esteem (Murphy et al., 2010). Within CBT, particularly Enhanced CBT, there is a focus on changes to behaviour to change the way in which the individual thinks, as opposed to just cognitive restructuring. Firstly, discussions and plans are put in place to prepare the individual for the treatment and whether they are motivated to engage in this.
Therefore, it is crucial to identify any factors that may discourage an individual to fully engage with the treatment. During this stage it is important that the individual feels empowered and in control of the situation as they may feel more involved and hopeful. Self-awareness is also highlighted, so behaviours and thinking patterns are identified. Next, establishing regular eating is considered through planning meals and snacks. After this, identifying significant others who can play apart in helping the individual to recover and highlighting the mechanisms of the onset of the ED. To specifically tackle the perfectionistic traits, the therapist would collaboratively work with the individual to focus on non-performance and other domains of life that are more important.
Alternatively, a psychotherapist may use interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) where there is an emphasis on interpersonal dysfunctions, whether that’s communication and/or relationships with significant others (McIntosh et al., 2010). The goal is to improve interpersonal functionality and so issues are explored deeper as things such as interpersonal problems and self-doubts may be presented which are shadowed by the preoccupation of weight and eating. Whilst there is limited research on dancers specifically, this implies that dancers may face a lot of self-doubt within the industry and so they cope through eating – though this needs to be further researched. When delivering IPT, there is constant review of the links between the symptoms of the ED and the interpersonal issue. From this the individual and therapist discuss how the cope with the issue at hand healthily. Therefore, within therapy links will be made between the interpersonal issues and the EDs which will be explored during sessions.
Within this article, issues of identity and EDs were highlighted and how different psychologists and psychotherapists may tackle this. However, there are many different ways in which practitioners can approach this, as there are many other frameworks developed from different philosophies and theories.
By Manisha Aggarwal
LinkedIn – Manisha Aggarwal
Murphy, R., Straebler, S., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders. The psychiatric clinics of North America, 33(3), 611.
McIntosh, V. V., Bulik, C. M., McKenzie, J. M., Luty, S. E., & Jordan, J. (2000). Interpersonal psychotherapy for anorexia nervosa. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 27(2), 125-139.
Anshel, M. H. (2004). Sources of disordered eating patterns between ballet dancers and non-dancers. Journal of sport behavior, 27(2), 115.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly, 21(2), 173-206.
Kalliopuska, M. (1989). Empathy, self-esteem and creativity among junior ballet dancers. Perceptual and motor skills, 69(3_suppl), 1227-1234.
Ravaldi, C., Vannacci, A., Bolognesi, E., Mancini, S., Faravelli, C., & Ricca, V. (2006). Gender role, eating disorder symptoms, and body image concern in ballet dancers. Journal of psychosomatic research, 61(4), 529-535.
Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. (2001). A test of objectification theory in former dancers and non-dancers. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25(1), 57-64.
Tiggemann, M., & Zaccardo, M. (2015). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image. Body image, 15, 61-67.
Trigg, M. G. (1978). The effects of varying amounts of creative modern dance activities on creative-thinking ability and self-concept (Doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina, Greensboro).
Yamanashi Leib A, Bulman RC. The Choreography of Gender: Masculinity, Femininity, and the Complex Dance of Identity in the Ballroom. Men and Masculinities. 2009;11(5):602-621. doi:10.1177/1097184X07306730
Jacobson, B. (2003). The Social Theory of the Creation of a Sports Fan Identity: A Theoretical Review of the Literature
Pickard, A. (2012). Schooling the dancer: the evolution of an identity as a ballet dancer. Research in Dance Education, 13:1, 25-46, DOI:10.1080/14647893.2011.65119.
Mi-Young, K (2006). A Study on Formative and Aesthetic Characteristics of the Costume of Dance Sports
Langdon, S. & Petracca, G. (2010). Tiny dancer: Body image and dancer identity in female modern dancers. Body Image, 7, 360.363
The prevalence of technology in fitness has been incredibly rapid. This is what makes studying how it impacts our psychological health so invaluable. Fitness trackers such as watches are used by athletes of all levels.
These devices utilise biological feedback such as heart rate in addition to movement to provide users with insight into their health (Wright and Keith, 2014). Those just getting into fitness love these devices as they provide quantitative feedback into how they are progressing towards their goals. Moreover, having this constant recall and reflection about daily activity (and inactivity time) has been thought to promote positive behaviour change over a prolonged period of time (Stagier et al, 2016).
However, there are growing concerns over the negative psychological impacts of using fitness trackers. Research suggests that some individuals appear to become obsessed over the data and numbers, which may not always be accurate, but lead to negative long-term psychological effects (Blackstone and Hermann, 2020).
Blackstone and Hermann (2020) asked university students to report on their experience with their fitness trackers, 70% of the students reported engaging in certain compensatory behaviours to reach a step goal while 50% reported doing compensatory behaviours to reach a caloric goal. Experiencing these maladaptive patterns as a result of fitness trackers in combination with increased internal stress also removes one of the principal purposes of doing exercise, which is to feel good internally and externally. Compensatory behaviours observed in these students involves increasing exercise the next day as well as decreasing food intake.
This finding was also observed in a study involving 200 women (Duus and Cooray, 2017). This internal pressure to reach daily targets was so prevalent, that many reported that their ‘daily routines were controlled by their watch’. Additionally, participants felt internal pressure due to worrying about what others would think about their run when they uploaded it to various platforms, and in turn, finding exercising less enjoyable. Concurrently, if they did not have their watch on, they felt like it ‘didn’t count’ or just felt less motivated in general.
Experiencing these maladaptive patterns as a result of fitness trackers in combination with increased internal stress also removes one of the principal purposes of doing exercise, which is to feel good internally and externally. Compensatory behaviours observed in these students involves increasing exercise the next day as well as decreasing food intake.
These studies highlight a critical problem with fitness trackers in the sense that there are addictive. We get attached to the numbers and to what others think, but forget about the whole purpose of why we exercise in the first place. Intentionally changing routes to accumulate more steps, or eating less because we didn’t quite manage to hit our daily goal, seems a bit ridiculous when one really reflects on it.
Throughout the Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy – Online course, you can learn how important issues around identity can be impacted due to addictive behaviours, however positive they may seem.
Access the Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy – Online course by clicking here.
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In addition to these studies, I conducted my own survey on Instagram asking my followers about their own personal relationships with their fitness trackers. Whereas a lot of people reported how they were motivating, great for tracking progress and seeing what others do, a lot of people reported that they had detrimental effect to their mental health (see images below).
One answer I would particularly like to highlight is the individual who says they feels like the tracker is great during her ‘hard block’ of training; but hates it during the ‘off season’. This again highlights this dependency to receiving positive feedback from the tracker instead of being active for our own health/goals. It also suggests that we may be using them as a comparison, and when we do more than others, we feel better about it. However, research on this is yet to be done, thus no conclusions can be drawn from this.
In conclusion, fitness trackers provide users with awareness of what is going on inside their bodies, however they may not always have positive outcomes. Findings suggest that some individuals create a dependency to their fitness trackers that result in executing compensatory behaviours. Moreover, this may lead to creating a negative relationship with exercise in the long run as well as negative impacting the individual psychologically. Although fitness trackers are not inherently bad, and lay actually be really valuable to certain athletes, this all depends how they are used and critically, on individual differences.
By Anne-Sophie Pierre – @annesophie.pierre
30th November 2021
- Blackstone, S. R., & Herrmann, L. K. (2020). Fitness wearables and exercise dependence in college women: considerations for university health education specialists. American Journal of Health Education, 51(4), 225-233.
- Duus, R., Cooray, M., & Page, N. (2017). Agentic technology: The impact of activity trackers on user behavior. In Creating marketing magic and innovative future marketing trends (pp. 315-322). Springer, Cham.
- Stragier, J., Abeele, M. V., Mechant, P., & De Marez, L. (2016). Understanding persistence in the use of online fitness communities: comparing novice and experienced users. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 34-42.
- Wright, R., & Keith, L. (2014). Wearable technology: If the tech fits, wear it. Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries, 11(4), 204-216.
Sports psychotherapy and sport psychology can work in unison to improve the outcomes for athletes.
The role of the mind in either facilitating or hindering performance in sport has been well documented since the turn of the century. Popular streaming services like Amazon and Netflix have each released documentaries like Andy Murray: Resurfacing and Untold: Breaking Point, detailing the mental battles athletes face during their careers. Further to this point, many coaching related courses in the United Kingdom have introduced sport psychology modules for the future cohorts of coaches to engage with. Mental skills training is now seen as integral to the development of a coach’s philosophy. As a hopeful Sport and Exercise Psychologist, it is a question I ask dauntingly: Will there be as much need for Sport and Exercise Psychologists in the future?
The differences between sports psychotherapy and sport psychology are covered as part of the “Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy” online course delivered by Sports Psychotherapy Academy which is now available to enrol onto. Click here if you would like to gain more information.
Could the future landscape of player care in sport could see the merging of the two cousin disciplines? Not all athletes issues come on the pitch/track, often it is their performance that is impacted due to issues away from their sport. A key tenant of the use of Psychotherapy within Sport is to develop the person first and the athlete second. (Martens, 1987; Campbell et al, 2021). With athletes occupying a plethora of roles distinct from their role as an athlete, the amount of pressure socially and professionally linked to them is astronomical.
Due to these pressures and the many more challenges athletes face. It is clear that psychological support is needed for individuals. Nesti (2004) expressed that it is common for younger athletes to have not yet developed the repertoire to express how they are feeling. Therefore, individuals must be emotionally literate for them to best utilise the benefits of talking therapy (Psychotherapy).
For those individuals who are not emotionally literate, the addition of sport psychology educational sessions within an academy environment, will help the ability for individuals to better understand more about psychological principles. Allowing them then to fully benefit from the use of a working psychotherapist within their sporting environment. There is an agelong argument first brought to light by Greenspan and Feltz (1989) that professional athletes already possess the mental skills which has enabled them to separate themselves from amateur level athletes. If this is true, then surely practitioners’ efforts should lie away from training mental skills when consulting athletes at the top of their game.
A recent report revealed that Olympic and Paralympic sports, excluding sports like football and rugby union, contributed £25 billion to the UK economy for the year 2017, the greatest ever figure (Sport Industry Research Centre, 2021). The financial pressure sports teams endure can be diffused onto their athletes as there is a lot riding on their success. Sports organisations can help ensure that athletes’ varied needs are attended to by bringing a sport psychotherapist on board (Bloom, 2021).
The acceptance of psychological principles is covered across the footballing hierarchy with the notoriety of the four-pillar model: Tactical, Technical, Psychological, Physical. However, educating individuals on psychological theory, and applying the workings of a Sport Psychologist may be the first step in what else can be achieved. In order to better equip players, coaches, parents and other key stakeholders in higher psychological awareness, more can be done.
By implementing the work of a Psychotherapist with experience of the workings within sport, understand that the impact and support that can be achieved and offered through education and available professional services can enable athletes and individuals a greater ability to manage the challenges and difficulties they may face when entering a professional sporting environment, whether that be on the pitch or off the pitch.
It is practitioners’ responsibilities to decide where to draw the line when it comes to how best their competencies can help individuals. Those in a helping profession are morally obliged to provide a duty of care to the highest possible standard. Dealing with problems which practitioners are not well versed in risks endangering the athlete. To avoid this occupational hazard, sporting organisations should look to harness the capabilities of both Sport and Exercise Psychologists and Psychotherapists to work in collaboration so that the correct referrals can be made if necessary.
By – John-Paul Kerfoot
Twitter – @jp_kerfoot
24th November 2021
- Bloom, G. (2021). Taking psychotherapy into sport—A clinical perspective. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research.
- Campbell, N., Brady, A., & Tincknell-Smith, A. (2021). Developing and Supporting Athlete Wellbeing: Person First, Athlete Second. Routledge.
- Greenspan, M. J., & Feltz, D. L. (1989). Psychological interventions with athletes in competitive situations: A review. The sport psychologist, 3(3), 219-236.
- Martens, R. (1987). Science, knowledge, and sport psychology. The sport psychologist, 1(1), 29-55.
- Nesti, M. (2004). Existential psychology and sport: Theory and application. Routledge.
- Sport Industry Research Centre. (2021). The Economic Importance of Olympic and Paralympic Sports, an update (2017). https://www.uksport.gov.uk/-/media/files/investment/uk-sport—olympic-and-paralympic-sports-satellite-account-2017.ashx
Women having the ability to take control of their images via social media is a crucial step in creating more positive role models for young girls.
In today’s world, being a professional athlete includes more than being at the top 1% of the sport. Athletes are facing demand to provide frequent and personal information on various social media platforms (Hayes et al, 2020).
In turn, by doing so, athletes are more likely to receive sponsorships, greater salaries as well as experience an easier career transition out of sport (Aria et al, 2014). However, social media can be incredibly distracting, including negative messages and sponsorship pressures, all of which may negatively impact an athlete’s performance.
Results from a study on the National Football League (NFL), showed that there was a negative relationship between posting frequency on social media and performance (Lim et al, 2020). In other words, as social media frequency increased, the footballers performance decreased. Concurrently, findings were replicated by another study on tennis players, whereby high twitter usage impacted performance during a match.
Encel et al (2017) analysed the facebook usage prior to, during and following competitions for over 290 athletes of varying levels. Results exhibited that time spent on Facebook prior to a competition significantly correlated with disruption and distraction during competition.
Social media should however not be completely dismissed. It has also opened the door for athletes to take control over their representation in the media. This is particularly important for female athletes, who can rewrite what it means to be a female athlete. Research indicates that not only are women under-represented across traditional and online media outlets, but when they are represented, the focus is on their femininity and sexuality rather than their athletic achievements (Kane, 2013).
The role and influence social media plays and how to successfully manage the media is covered within the “Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy” Online Course which is available for purchase now.
Click here to find out more and purchase for only £59.99.
Social media however may enable women to address this traditional lack of coverage as well as challenge and change the way they are portrayed, which is usually in a sexualised manner (Litchfield & Kavanagh, 2019). Reichart et al (2015) ran an Instagram analysis and found that females accounted for the majority of the active sport photographs, which suggests that when given control, female athletes contest the trend of visual representations found in the media, and present themselves as athletes first, females second.
Krane et al (2011) found that preadolescent girls preferred images of women presented as competent athletes as it evoked feelings of admiration. These findings highight those young girls look up to sportswomen as role models, therefore women having the ability to take control of their images via social media is a crucial step in creating more positive role models for young girls.
However, not all research supports this claim. Coche (2012) analysed the Twitter profiles of 38 male and 41 female athletes and found that women actually preserve traditional gender roles in sports found in traditional media. Although women presented themselves as athletes through their biographies, women highlighted their femininity in their photographs. The opposite was found for male athletes. Serena Williams is a perfect example of this. She is one of the best tennis players, but her profile picture highlights femininity rather than athletic talent. This highlights her looks, which may entice some fans, however research shows that this fails to engage women in sport.
Social media has incredibly positive aspects for athletes, allowing them to interact with fans, gain sponsorships and also it enables them to take control of their image. However, research does indicate that social media can have detrimental impacts on an athlete’s performance during competition. Athletes should consider the time and frequency of their social media usage to gain the benefits and avoid a decline in performance.
By Anne-Sophie Pierre – @annesophie.pierre
29th October, 2021
- Arai, A., Ko, Y. J., & Ross, S. (2014). Branding athletes: Exploration and conceptualization of athlete brand image. Sport Management Review, 17(2), 97-106.
- Coche, R. (2017). How athletes frame themselves on social media: An analysis of Twitter profiles. Journal of sports media, 12(1), 89-112.
- Encel, K., Mesagno, C., & Brown, H. (2017). Facebook use and its relationship with sport anxiety. Journal of sports sciences, 35(8), 756-761.
- Hayes, M., Filo, K., Geurin, A., & Riot, C. (2020). An exploration of the distractions inherent to social media use among athletes. Sport Management Review, 23(5), 852-868.
- Gruettner, A., Vitisvorakarn, M., Wambsganss, T., Rietsche, R., & Back, A. (2020, January). The New Window to Athletes’ Soul–What Social Media Tells Us About Athletes’ Performances. In Proceedings of the 53rd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
- Lim, J. H., Donovan, L. A., Kaufman, P., & Ishida, C. (2020). Professional Athletes’ Social Media Use and Player Performance: Evidence From the National Football League. International Journal of Sport Communication, 14(1), 33-59.
- Smith, L. R., & Sanderson, J. (2015). I’m going to Instagram it! An analysis of athlete self-presentation on Instagram. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(2), 342-358.
- Toffoletti, K., & Thorpe, H. (2018). Female athletes’ self-representation on social media: A feminist analysis of neoliberal marketing strategies in “economies of visibility”. Feminism & Psychology, 28(1), 11-31.
Engaging in sports is a great way to manage stress and have fun! But at what point does sport become the stressor?
Is it the influence of external factors? Perhaps early training to make it in sport? The root of this is unknown but what we do know is that the awareness of mental health is increasing within the sports sector, and so does the need for the funding for support.
In a survey funded by Dance UK, it was found that over half of 658 respondents experience external stress, general anxiety and tension with others (Laws, 2005). It was also found that 84% of contemporary dancers experienced at least one injury in 12 months. Some perceived the causes to be down to being overworked and fatigue. However, 44% have no access to psychological support. This demonstrates a need for funding to address these issues so the appropriate support is provided to dancers, to prevent severe injury and psychological distress.
Lack of funding within sport is a topic featured within the Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy course which is available for purchase on October 29th. If you’d like to find out more about how the lack of funding can impact the psychological well-being of sportsmen and women within the world of Dance and other sports, click here to find out more.
We can only assume that the lack of funding can be due to different reasons. Firstly, the stigma in disclosing injuries within the dance industry is apparent (Vassallo et al., 2019). Research has found that some dancers fear telling their employers that they are injured as it can result in losing professional work. Therefore, dancers may feel like they cannot reach out for support which suggests that this can be seen when asking for emotional support. As a result, dancers may feel that they cannot approach teachers, parents, choreographers about any issues due to the stigma that is seen within the industry.
Secondly, the appreciation of seeing dance as a sport and dancers as athletes is absent (Guarino, 2015). Whilst there is overlap between sport and the performing arts, dancers are ultimately creative athletes who have similar physical demands, but with an element of subjectivity. Let’s take football as an example. Both sports are competitive, they both have a need to be physically fit to execute skills and they both serve a purpose to entertain viewers.
Dancers are seen at concerts, films, music videos, theatres. Dance is seen everywhere even if it may not be obvious. At a more amateur level, of course anyone can dance, all you have to do is stick some music on and move! Equally, in football finding some grass and kicking a ball. Understanding the hard work both physically and mentally that dancers engage in to become professional, needs further awareness which could perhaps lead to its appreciation of it being a sport.
Not only does dance provide entertainment, but it also makes us feel good! Dance can be used as a therapeutic tool, as practitioners are beginning to use dance movement psychotherapy (DMP). Cunningham (2014) found that infertile couples benefited from DMP as they felt connected with others when moving as it created social and emotional bonds, particularly when they felt isolated.
Dance serves many different purposes and yet the government have cut arts courses by 50% which can have a huge impact (Guardian, 2021). This can increase competitiveness of dance, but also limits the resources available for DMP. Community Dance Artist, Jennifer Hale, shares her thoughts:
‘It just shows an astounding unawareness of what a basic building block they play in all our lives and the makeup of society. When we went into lockdown, many people turned to art in some form to help support them through, dispel fears, say what was on their minds or just play, proving that it is needed now more than ever – both professionally and within the community’.
Funding is needed to allow dancers to access the mental health resources available whether that’s in dance schools or private practitioners who can draw on similar experiences. Furthermore, the funding for anyone who may engage with DMP who can find great benefit in movement.
- Vassallo, A. J., Pappas, E., Stamatakis, E., & Hiller, C. E. (2019). Injury fear, stigma, and reporting in professional dancers. Safety and health at work, 10(3), 260-264.
- Guarino, L. (2015). Is dance a sport?: A twenty-first-century debate. Journal of Dance Education, 15(2), 77-80.
- Cunningham, J. (2014). Potential benefits of dance movement psychotherapy with couples experiencing infertility. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 9(4), 237-252.
- Laws, H. & Apps, J. (2005). Fit to Dance 2: Report of the second national inquiry into dancers’ health and injury in the UK. Dance UK.
22nd October, 2021
Sunderland manager Lee Johnson on the highly addictive and destructive substance affecting the mental well-being of his players.
Sunderland manager Lee Johnson has been speaking in relation to his thoughts on how addictive substances are being used and abused by not only his players but across the English Football League and in Europe.
Originally coming from Sweden, ‘Snus’ is an oral tobacco product which is similar to the packaging used when distributing teabag’s. It is made from pulverised or ground leaves and is directly consumed by placing the substance under the top lip in one’s mouth.
Snus is not currently considered an illegal substance, however the UK and European Union banned the ability to sell the substance back in 1992. Sweden remain one country whereby it is still legal to sell and distribute the commodity.
The matter of consuming the substance is harmful and impacts individuals at the professional level of sport, Johnson continued by expressing how it can affect both a players’ physical health and mental well-being.
“I have not tried it myself, but having spoken to the players, the worry for me is it is so highly addictive,” Johnson told talkSPORT.
“I have had players who are so highly addicted that they are in hospital overnight with something else, maybe an operation, and are begging the doctors and nurses to get them a tub – or otherwise they say they are going to run out of bed and get (it) themselves when they have just had a knee operation.
“It is so highly addictive that it comes to the forefront of our minds which then becomes dangerous.”
Sport is considered to be problematic when considering addictive behaviours due to the competitive mindset that it fosters amongst those competing for places within a team environment, or individuals trying to gain an advantage to better those they are competing against.
The use of ‘Snus’ is considered as well as the impact of hidden addictive behaviours such as gambling and gaming within our ‘Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy’ online course.
More on the matters Lee Johnson has spoken about with regards to ‘Snus’ and how it’s consumption can have implications on his players can be found within Module 4, available now for pre-order (Released October 29th).
Although it may seem that this immediate high combined with a lasting calming effect for a performance enhancing composed feeling in-game. The medical findings make for grim reading.
The use of snus has been associated with adverse health outcomes such as obesity (Norberg et al., 2006), the development of type 2-diabetes (Carlsson et al., 2017), experiences of heart failure after pro-longed use (Arefalk et al., 2012), and oesophageal and rectal cancer (Araghi et al., 2017).
“You are messing with the balance of the body and mind, that is the biggest thing for me in terms of development. You will find that some players have two or three ‘snus’ sachets under their lip, but then they are taking caffeine tablets, so it is giving themselves that calming effect.
(With) so many spikes in the body, sort of balance if you like, I don’t believe it is conducive to top performance, but more important it is not conducive to the player being healthy for a long period of time.
I see how many players are actually on it – you could probably go to maybe a third or half of a dressing room. I think they are uneducated on the negatives towards it.”
Education on the impact substances and addictive behaviours can have within sport is crucial to not only professional sportsmen and women across a variety of sports, but also the next generation coming through Football academies, Dance academies and individuals involved in sport through academia.
Ensuring that individuals are aware of the negative impact that substance abuse in the form of legal high’s such as ‘Snus’ can have on an individual’s physical and mental health is the best way to ensure use of highly addictive and destructive legal substances is reduced and eventually eradicated from the world of sport.
- Araghi, M., Galanti, M. R., Lundberg, M., Liu, Z., Ye, W., Lager, A., … & Magnusson, C. (2017). Smokeless tobacco (snus) use and colorectal cancer incidence and survival: Results from nine pooled cohorts. Scandinavian journal of public health, 45(8), 741-748.
- Arefalk, G., Hergens, M. P., Ingelsson, E., Ärnlöv, J., Michaelsson, K., Lind, L., … & Sundström, J. (2012). Smokeless tobacco (snus) and risk of heart failure: results from two Swedish cohorts. European journal of preventive cardiology, 19(5), 1120-1127.
- Carlsson, S., Andersson, T., Araghi, M., Galanti, R., Lager, A., Lundberg, M., … & Magnusson, C. (2017). Smokeless tobacco (snus) is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes: results from five pooled cohorts. Journal of internal medicine, 281(4), 398-406.
- Norberg, M., Stenlund, H., Lindahl, B., Boman, K., & Weinehall, L. (2006). Contribution of Swedish moist snuff to the metabolic syndrome: a wolf in sheep’s clothing?. Scandinavian journal of public health, 34(6), 576-583.
By Dan Rimmer
11th October, 2021
How a psychotherapist is aiding Oxford’s FA Cup heroes: ‘If the human being is happy, the athlete will ultimately benefit’
Karl Robinson, the Oxford United manager, has embraced the idea of psychotherapist Gary Bloom working with him and his players
Gary Bloom tells the story of a struggling footballer. “I asked him, ‘What message do you give when you go into training?’ and he said, ‘I’m p—– off, I can’t get in the team’. So I said, ‘What’s training like?’ and he said, ‘I get through it’. So I said, ‘Tell me how you greet your team-mates?’ and he replied, ‘Sod them, I don’t care’.”
Bloom told the player his behaviour had to change. “‘Go and see the manager, ask him how his kids are, have a big smile on your face’. He came back two weeks later and said, ‘The gaffer has put me on the bench’. I said, ‘Why do you think that is?’ and he said, ‘I must have been playing well in training’ and I said, ‘Why do you think that is?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I was a bit happier’. So the perception around that player changed.”
The player was not at Oxford United, who face Newcastle United in a FA Cup fourth-round replay on Tuesday night at a sold-out Kassam Stadium, where Bloom is the first sports psychotherapist to work with a professional first-team squad, but he uses the example to illustrate how he operates. He will be in the dressing room before the game.
Bloom has clients from across the sporting world and sums up the difference between what he does and what a psychologist does as thus: “To the layman, sports psychology treats the athlete and sports psychotherapy treats the human being, with the understanding that if the human being is happy in their personal life, then ultimately the athlete will benefit.
“I was working with a rower and he said he had been with a sports psychologist and the psychologist said, ‘How quickly can you get back in your boat?’ and he said, ‘I don’t want to go near a boat’. His private life was dreadful, he was going through a painful break-up and his motivation to row was nil. Football clubs need to seriously look at how they deal with their players.”
On Feb 19 at the Kassam Stadium, the first football psychotherapy conference will take place. Among the speakers will be Bloom, Karl Steptoe, who works with Leicester City, Michael Bennett, the Professional Footballers’ Association’s director of player welfare, and Karl Robinson, the Oxford manager, who has a keen interest in mental health and has embraced the idea of Bloom working with him and his players.
Bloom will be a familiar name to football fans, having spent most of his life as a football commentator, starting off at Radio City in Liverpool in the 1980s and going on to work for Sky Sports and also on Channel 4’s Football Italia, before training as a psychotherapist.
“There are managers who would feel uncomfortable about me holding information about players that they don’t have,” Bloom says. “Over 18 months, I have embedded in the club [Oxford] and have become very ‘every day’ and that has demystified the role of the therapist.”
Bloom talks about making clubs “psychologically safe” and a place where problems can be aired and discussions had – including if a manager has got his team selection or tactics wrong. “At Oxford, we are allowed to do that, which is a compliment to how Karl works,” he says.
A big issue in modern football is social media which, Bloom says, is “highly destructive”. “Some players are not psychologically robust enough and that’s tough because who is? We do care about what we care about and footballers have their wares critiqued daily.”
To those who say that footballers are well paid and should just get on with it, he has a forthright answer.
“What’s money go to do with it? I don’t understand the correlation between money and happiness. What’s the logic? That suggests that money can buy you happiness, where therapeutically money, sex and food are normally about love. People are usually masking their desire for love with one of those three. So, I would argue the desire to be recognised by social media is quite an interesting psychological concept. Maybe it drives a lot of people into sport. The desire to be needed and in the public eye is quite interesting because you want it, but the thing that you crave can also be your poison as well.”
A phenomenon in football – and modern society – is also the rise of the “Network Generation”. Young people have grown up surrounded by technology but also with “helicopter parenting”, where fathers and mothers intervene if things go wrong. It has affected how they communicate and deal with setbacks.
“There is a lot of pressure on academy coaches – ‘Why is my son not playing? If you don’t pick him I will send him to another club’. All that sort of stuff,” Bloom says. “Then they get to 16 or 18 and the harsh reality kicks in that your mum or dad can’t swing it anymore. You can’t ring up Karl Robinson and say ‘put my kid in for the weekend’ because that’s not how it works.
“So, those people are not particularly resilient. They have been rewarded all their life and suddenly they get an injury or a loss of form and they can’t cope with it.”
“THAT morning I had no idea by the end of the day I’d be sitting in the manager’s office.”
It is 14 months since Gary Bloom walked into Oxford United to start what is believed to be the first role of its kind in English football – a psychotherapist embedded inside a professional club.
How big a factor it has been in the many explanations for the side’s resurgence since is impossible to gauge.
But the results have shown a marked improvement, as 85 points from 53 games have turned the relegation contenders into play-off hopefuls.
It began almost by accident and was prompted by United’s wretched start to the season which led boss Karl Robinson in one post-match interview to consider getting in a psychologist.
Bloom, alerted by his U’s-supporting son Josh, got in touch and was told: “be here tonight at 6pm”.
That evening he watched Luton Town win 2-1 in stoppage time to pile more misery on the faltering side.
“I thought ‘I’ve no idea what I’ve let myself in for’ because the atmosphere was turgid,” Bloom, who has clinics in Oxford and London, recalls.
Robinson had worked at Milton Keynes Dons and Charlton Athletic with psychotherapists, who come at the issue from another direction to sports psychologists.
Bloom said: “I treat the human rather than the athlete. If the human is happy then in theory the athlete will be much happier and playing better.
“You can’t give someone confidence on the pitch if the rest of their life is falling apart.”
Although Robinson was enthusiastic, it took time for others in the camp to follow.
“There were four or five players who gave a particular worry or concern, who I worked with every week to help issues like confidence, personal issues, disciplinary issues,” Bloom said.
“I’m not going to give names, but that gang of four their form slowly began to settle down and by the new year things had begun to take off.
“There was a bit of scepticism, but I started with one player, then two, then four.
“This season it’s about 12 or 13 as that trust has gradually grown.”
Much of the 62-year-old’s general work as a psychotherapist revolves around issues with anxiety, depression, relationships and addictive behaviours.
But one useful side to working within an organisation is the opportunity to build bridges between individuals and groups.
He said: “There was an issue last season where certain first team players found it unpalatable that younger members of the squad were tweeting after Oxford had lost.
- Picture: Steve Daniels
“They found it quite hard because the older players had not grown up with social media, so they thought it wasn’t right.
“They wanted absolute silence if Oxford had lost. That was early on in my time there when we were going through a tough period.
“It wasn’t helping the dressing room.”
Nothing aids confidence and team spirit like positive results, which have made the last few months more straightforward.
That does not mean it has all been plain sailing and despite Robinson’s stance being pivotal to the success or failure of the project, the concept of confidentiality can lead to flare-ups.
“We were talking about a particular piece of information the other day and Karl asked where it had come from,” said Bloom, who hosts ‘On the Sporting Couch’ on talkSPORT interviewing big sporting figures and focusing on mental health.
“I replied ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you’.
“That’s why there aren’t more psychotherapists in football clubs, because most football managers in that scenario would say ‘get out of my football club’.”
Steadily, Bloom’s remit has increased to take in the academy, where the problems can often be even more challenging than the first team.
The club are also about to launch an experiment into the quality of players’ sleep and matching it with their strength and conditioning data.
It is believed to be another first for football, as the U’s look to set new standards.
In a bid to spread the word, a conference is being held at the Kassam Stadium in February, with Bloom and Robinson speaking to showcase what the club have been doing.
“I would say rugby and cricket are way ahead of football in this,” Bloom said.
“I do not want to take credit for anything that’s going on at the club.
“This is about the quality of player care at Oxford United and I’m really proud that we’re looking after the players in a way that nobody else I think comes close.”
Granit Xhaka’s angry reaction to his own fans booing him upon being substituted at home to Crystal Palace last month led to him losing his role as Arsenal captain.
Is the art of captaincy dying or evolving to keep up with a changing game? In a documentary on talkSPORT tonight, some of the biggest names in sport examine what it means to be a captain today.
“Ideally it’s a guy who is the voice of his manager in the dressing room,” says the Frenchman, who was the Arsenal manager for 22 years. “It’s a guy who can remind people what they are there for and what is the target, and he is listened to.
“What’s changed a bit now is that every player in the big clubs is basically a club within a club. They have their own advisers, their own video specialists, their own fitness coaches. So it’s more complicated today.”
The former Manchester United full back, capped 85 times by England, says: “At United, when I first broke in, there were seven captains; Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Bryan Robson and Peter Schmeichel.
“The manager is never in the changing room in the training ground so he is away from you most of the time. You need to make sure your captain and those senior players have the right work ethic, the right standards and the younger players below them are always looking up to them and thinking, ‘That’s what I need to do.’ ”
“In sports psychology there are three types of captain,” he says. “One is what we call a task captain, how well do you execute your role. The other is a motivational captain and the third is an external captain, who is a social leader of the group who might have other tasks in making sure everybody is OK. Rarely does a person do all three.
I think of players like Billy Bremner, Tony Adams and Roy Keane — he would be a great example of task and motivational. You wouldn’t want to be in the same team as Keane if you weren’t pulling your weight.
“With more modern players — Vincent Kompany is an obvious example. He would be a task and motivational captain but it is easier to pick out players of yesteryear and the past ten years than it is today.”
The former Wales and Lions rugby captain says: “I had a daughter in 2016 so from then I didn’t want the captaincy. I had a new found perspective and I can’t say I enjoyed being captain. In hindsight it was such a privilege, I’m glad I’ve done it and I’d do it all over again but it was more enjoyable not being captain. I thought I’d rather continue to be a leader, still in the leadership group, but I didn’t want the captaincy. It’s just the weight of it.”
“It is about the way I was brought up, the values from my parents and friends, I’ve had that responsibility for my whole life,” the Liverpool captain says. “Having a younger sister I looked after when I was quite young, I always had that responsibility to look after people.
“Brendan Rodgers [the former Liverpool manager] saw the leadership within me and felt I could lead Liverpool, which gave me a lot of confidence.”
Frank Lampard on John Terry
“John was a natural leader in all senses,” says the Chelsea legend about his former captain at Stamford Bridge. “He was chest-thumping, you’d watch a game and you could see he was the leader. But he also had lots of touches behind the scenes, which are the important thing when you take everything away. I was vice-captain and quite happily so because he would have everyone’s phone number in the building in his phone and I didn’t. He played with a quality, a determination, an absolute desire to be successful that rubbed off on the squad, and in terms of work he had a huge humility to him.”
“The one thing all good leaders demonstrate is a care for the people that are in and around them,” the former West Ham United and England left back says. “If you and I are working together and you know I’ve got your back and care about you then you are more likely to follow me as a leader than if you think ‘hang on, this fella is just in it for himself’.
“I always think that as a captain I had to set an example, on the training pitch and away from it as well, in how you live your life. Live like you would want the rest of your team to live.”
● The Art of Captaincy, narrated by Henry Winter will be aired talkSPORT tonight from 8-9pm
The psychotherapist in the dressing room: ‘There are very few people like myself, if anybody, dealing with personal issues’
Gary Bloom will walk into Oxford United’s dressing room about 90 minutes before their home match against Doncaster Rovers on Saturday. Usual drill; handshakes, the meet and greet and then off to do the rounds, checking in with the medical staff before offering a word here or there with individual players, little prompts around “what we’ve been talking about,” reinforcing those positive messages.
He will listen to Karl Robinson’s team talk, gauging reactions, “looking at the expressions on the faces of players,” and then speak to the captain and the other leaders of the squad, reminding them that where they go, others follow. Then, when the buzzer sounds at five to three, when adrenaline surges and the heart-rate quickens, he will be part of the huddle, arms linked, giving everybody “a sense that we’re a united group.”
Bloom is not a first-team coach, a specialist in strength-and-conditioning or analysis. He is not a physio or a kit-man or a doctor, not in the traditional sense, and he is not a sports psychologist, either, even if he strays into this area. Bloom is a psychotherapist, whose day job is
“treating things like anxiety, depression, addictive behaviours and relationship issues,”Gary Bloom
and Oxford, the League One club, are true pioneers.
“This role does not exist (anywhere else) in English football,”
he says… He does not wish to stir controversy for the sake of it, but this stuff is important and Bloom makes reference to the suicide of Gary Speed in 2011 when he was Wales manager. “Obviously, I hope I’m wrong, but unless football deals better with mental health issues, particularly for ex-players, where there has been a huge increase in referrals, my fear is that it might happen again,” Bloom says. “I stress the word might. I just think everything is there, so why wouldn’t it?”
Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day and football is playing its part. Mind is the official charity partner of the EFL and its awareness campaign “Goals Worth Talking About” features eight commissions of street art. At the headquarters of A Love Supreme, the Sunderland fanzine, adjacent to the Stadium of Light, there is a beautiful depiction of the goal Carlos Edwards scored against Burnley in 2007, securing the team’s promotion to the Premier League.
Football has power and football starts conversations; the correlation with mental health is obvious. “We’ve still got a long way to go and I think there are some generational issues, but we’ve begun to see a shift in terms of talking about it,” Kathy McKenna-Churchill, a training manager at Mind, says. “Players who have experienced mental health issues and talked about them have started to break down the stigma.
“For us, that’s one of the biggest barriers to accessing services — the stigma or embarrassment associated with something that’s about life. We’re emotional beings. But from an early age, we’re often being told we shouldn’t be talking about them or that we should ‘man up’. I’m suicide prevention coordinator for Sunderland so, for me, the earlier we can have the conversation, maybe the more lives we can save.
“One in four people will experience mental health problems, so if you think about a crowd of 40,000 at Sunderland, it means 10,000 people are going through that. And because it’s fluid, it doesn’t stay with them, it moves to the next 10,000 and the next. Football and emotion go hand in hand and the emotions we feel at the match are also the emotions we feel as part of life. Just imagine all those people in there getting the message that it’s OK to talk about it.”
It is not just about awareness and spray-painted pictures. Mind have worked “very closely with Sunderland” and are delivering mental health training for club staff. They will also have a dedicated space at the Beacon of Light, Sunderland’s brilliant Foundation, before home games, where fans “can have access to a counsellor if they’re struggling or if they know someone who is struggling and they need that emotional support,” McKenna-Churchill says.
Speed’s was one of them. What follows is not like those, but then not all conditions are the same and the same applies to the consequences.
It is the first-hand account of a player who was a stalwart in the Premier League for many years. He chose not to be named, not out of any sense of shame, but out of respect for his clubs.
“I just thought I was frustrated about being left out of the side, but I woke up one morning and felt particularly low, unnaturally low,” he says. “It didn’t feel like being frustrated or even miserable — it felt worse than that. As the days went by, I couldn’t get that feeling out of my head. It became all-encompassing like my brain had gone into overdrive with negativity. If it’s new to you and you don’t understand it, you try to fight it by yourself, but that’s not something you can do.
“It was really affecting my sleep. I was struggling, because the more you want to sleep the more impossible it becomes and it got to the point where I was taking a sleeping tablet the night before a game and even that wasn’t enough; it would be three o’clock on a Saturday morning, and the mind would be racing, knowing you’ve got a match. Telling yourself you’ve got to sleep is the worst possible thing. Everything gets mixed up in your head.
“I was never suicidal, but anguish and a lack of sleep can manifest itself in lots of different ways. It can affect your diet — eating too much, or not enough. It’s almost like being locked in your own head and if you’re not comfortable enough to open up and the support network and the help isn’t there, then I can understand why people get themselves into very difficult situations, because you literally aren’t thinking straight. You’ve had a breakdown in your rationale.
“In their own way, players can overthink and it stops them performing. Ideally, you want them going out there knowing the tactics, feeling confident in the manager’s game-plan and in themselves and their team-mates, but if things aren’t right off the pitch, with themselves or their family … I call it ‘scrambled head’. When your head is scrambled, even the simple things look difficult. Your processor goes into overdrive. It affects your motor skills, everything.
“Eventually, I just found somebody in the Yellow Pages. I had a good chat with a therapist and I was put on some medication, which actually made me worse, because I didn’t realise you were supposed to take it an hour before going to sleep. I was taking it in the morning, so it was affecting my training. When I went back a couple of weeks later and got the correct medication, that was when I opened up to my family and some very good people at the club.
“They had noticed that something wasn’t right and they were incredibly supportive and helpful. They also kept it quiet because at the time it was seen as taboo. They helped me recover. I was always conscious of it and I could see it in other players. I remember we signed someone from another city and he couldn’t settle. I’d speak to him and say, ‘Have you got the black clouds today?’
“That’s how I used to describe it; the black clouds rolling in and enveloping you, almost like you’ve got the blinkers on until you can’t see the good in anything. The fact you’d acknowledged it with somebody else always helped. It’s hard for people to open up about it. I’d have a word with the medical team at various clubs, saying ‘Just have a look at so-and-so, because I’ve seen that look in people’s eyes before.’ Sometimes the look was in mine.”
They have not previously discussed their partnership at Oxford, but this is precisely why Robinson invited Bloom to work at the Kassam Stadium. “I don’t think there’s enough done,” the 39-year-old says. “A lot of clubs bring in psychologists, but psychologists are about supporting people and making them feel better about themselves. A psychotherapist deals with the deeper issues, the darker issues and the coping mechanisms to get through life.
“I’m really, really big on stuff like that. I see so many people get lost, so many people struggling with the different challenges modern life throws at them. We live in a social-media world where everything looks perfect except for your own existence. If I become Prime Minister tomorrow, I’d ban all social media. All kids see is everyone wearing new clothes, new trainers, everyone looking immaculate — and it puts as much pressure on the parents. It’s killing society.”
This is a minor digression, but Robinson has some experience in the field. “I used to go and see somebody in Harley Street,” he says. “It was through the League Managers Association. As managers, we go through some challenging moments and sometimes the knock-on effects can be difficult.
“Andy King, who used to play for Everton and Luton, was a really close friend of mine. He was chief scout at MK Dons when I was manager there and he passed away in 2015, the year we got promoted to the Championship. Sometimes you try to deal with things on your own, but I just felt like I needed someone to speak to. It was a lightbulb moment; maybe I just needed a coping mechanism.
“It was great for me to be able to speak to somebody, to put myself in a position where my vulnerability wasn’t something I had to be fearful of. In the world we live in, vulnerability can sometimes be perceived as a massive weakness, but more and more, I’m learning that it can be a strength. Once you put things in perspective, it doesn’t half help when you’re dealing with young men. You see these little trigger points.”
In a previous incarnation, Bloom was a sports broadcaster — those worlds collide in his revealing talkSPORT radio show, On The Sporting Couch — and Robinson knew of him. “We decided it was right for everybody at the football club to understand there’s someone they can speak to about making their lives safer and better. I’m very excited about the club driving this and I’m very open-minded within my dressing room. I don’t have anything to hide.”
Bloom is involved at every level at Oxford, “working with the first-team, the under-23s, the academy, all the way down to the under-nines, speaking to players who have a whole mixture of personal problems.” He operates tightly with Robinson, discussing the messages he is putting across to his squad. “He’s very reflective,” Bloom says. “I take my hat off to him. In my opinion, he’s the most modern-thinking manager in football.”
Bloom believes his own background helps. “How do you speak to sportspeople?” he says. “In my experience, they find it hard to go to somebody in a white coat and say, ‘Deal with my mental illness.’ If you put your glasses halfway down your nose and say. ‘How are your emotions today?’, they’d tell you to fuck off. You wouldn’t talk about the Oedipal Complex or Freudian Splits, because they’d laugh you out of house and home.
“But if you say to them something like, ‘I notice you swapped positions today, you were playing left-sided centre-half and I’m just wondering how that was for you’, it’s a really good way of starting a conversation. It needs to be in the parlance of football. The fact I’ve been around dressing rooms all my life in a broadcasting position or doing post-match interviews means I know the layout of a football club, if that makes sense. I know how to talk to people.”
Football has its own strange rhythms and complications. “In your life and my life, we get dumped by girlfriends, we have job interviews that don’t go well and those things help us grow up and help us deal with how the world treats us,” Bloom says. “The world can just be a bit shit at times. Many players will never have really had those crushing disappointments, in a way that leaves them in a slightly regressed state a lot of the time.
“When they get their first injury or they get dumped for the first time or they get transferred out of a club they really wanted to play for and have to drop down a division after being told they’re going to be the next great thing, it’s incredibly difficult. What you find with a lot of young players is that they can’t hold these two things together; that the world is good and wonderful and full of love and kindness and success, and a bit shit at the same time.”
Bloom attended the PFA’s Injured 3 mental health and emotional wellbeing conference at St George’s Park last Thursday, where there were contributions from, among others, Michael Bennett, the players’ union’s director of welfare, Gareth Southgate, the England manager, and Andrew Cole and Emile Heskey.
Football is now treating the issue seriously; the PFA has a 24-7 counselling telephone hotline for all past and present members, their family and friends.
More work is needed.
“There’s not enough education for young players coming out of school or college and going into the professional game,” the anonymous former player says. “The average career lasts about eight years. Realistically, what percentage of footballers are going to make enough money in retirement to have children, a house and an income to live for another 60 years? It’s wonderful being a footballer but it doesn’t last for ever.
“Too many people live for today and don’t plan for tomorrow. The PFA is doing some really good programmes about transitioning into retirement. They can’t do enough of those, because mentally, when you finish playing, it’s a shock. All those years of being told where to be, what to do, what to eat and wear, means the decision-making process is taken away from you. When that switch is turned off, so many players end up in financial, emotional and psychological difficulty.”
For Bloom, the most pressing issue is what happens in between, at first-team level. “There are very few people like myself, if anybody, dealing with personal issues,” he says. “If they’re not dealt with, they often get blown up out of all proportion by the individual and they end up knocking on the PFA’s door, by which stage, it’s a major issue.
“Fifty clubs turned up at the PFA conference, but virtually nobody from the first-team. I thought I would come across at least one other me, but 99.9 per cent of the people were working with academies, who have to have some sort of mental-health provision under their charters, hence there’s much more player liaison, welfare and protection. They don’t seem to exist in first-team football. So although the PFA has made massive strides, it was preaching to the converted.
“As well as Oxford, the other club that’s probably at the forefront of this is Leicester City. They’re looking at communication between their players, encouraging their first-team staff to talk imaginatively about their roles. When you do that, you can go to a director and say, ‘Why don’t you look at this? Why don’t we think about changing things to improve our club?’”
None of which is meant to imply negligence on behalf of others, more that they are yet to embrace professional therapists at first-team level. As a random case study, Sunderland have two wellbeing committees made up of medical and coaching staff — one for the academy and one for the senior football department — which meet regularly to discuss players they may have concerns about.
Oxford have gone a step further, employing Bloom and running mental health first aid courses for their staff. “My captain will be on it, the under-23 goalkeeper will be on it and the captain of the under-18s will be on it,” Robinson says. “Then, it’ll be our physio, our academy director and so on. What it will do is give us a better understanding of the dressing rooms we’re working in. And the people inside the dressing-rooms might spot something before it gets too late.”
“It’s OK to say, ‘Charlie might be a bit down. We don’t know what’s happening with him’, but the question is what to do next,” Bloom says. “I actually work with this stuff. I could recognise a player having a broken leg but I wouldn’t know what to do about it. There are always reasons for someone’s behaviour, whether they’re in the most secure mental institution in the country, on a football pitch or in a factory. Whatever they’ve done makes absolute sense to them.
“If there’s a message I want to put across, it’s about prevention rather than cure. When you get to the cure stage, it’s a bit like with medical injuries… By the time you get to the oncology unit, it might be too late.”
That is one side of it — the vital, human, life-enhancing, life-saving part — but the other is about sport; surely it stands to reason that a happier, healthier football team has a better chance of winning?
Bloom says that Oxford have taken 70 points in his year of working with them — “play-off form” — and although he does not take credit for that, as Robinson puts it, “protecting young people and making sure they’re better at what they do” can only help.
“This is me helping to alter the way players and coaching staff think about doing their jobs,” Bloom says. “My belief is that if you get that right, improvements in performances are inevitable. I encourage people to talk about their feelings and to talk without fear. That’s what a therapist does.”