Why is mental health football valuable, and how do we deliver it?

“Sport is not war, or death, or famine – it’s not that at all. It’s the opposite of that. It’s to persuade us of a life outside of that… that’s why sport’s important” Sir Michael Parkinson

In recent years football has been successfully used as a form of ‘treatment’ for improving mental health in a range of different situations, from helping former prison inmates to rehabilitate into society, to helping people with depression find a way out. However, playing football does not always provoke positive emotions, as anyone who’s been sent off can attest to. This can have the opposite effect, negatively affecting the participant’s mental health and pushing them further away from happiness. In coaching a mental health team for the last two years, I’ve learned how to emphasise the positives and minimise the negatives.


One such negative is pressure. Pressure to perform puts players under stress, which is the opposite of the mood we aim to create at a mental health session. Stress can cause players to tense up, making them perform worse and also become irritable. Pressure occurs when failure is considered a significant negative. This pressure can be alleviated by the language used at the session, by changing the focus from winning to other measures of success. You might praise someone for being unselfish, or for having clean boots. Genuine enthusiasm for unselfish behaviour can set the tone for the session, which is your job as coach.

If someone is beaten, they need to be able to recover from it quickly, and be given an opportunity to succeed so they aren’t dwelling on it. Negative language is banned at my mental health session, as it runs contrary to our aims. This is established with every new player, and is honestly one of the few rules we ever feel the need to apply. Unconstructive phrases such as ‘What was that?’ are included in this, as they can affect a player’s confidence.

Getting injured, or injuring someone else can be detrimental to a person’s mental health, and needs to be avoided. The easiest way to avoid this is to set the tone for the session through your language use. Another way is to impose constraints, for example using walking football to minimise collisions, or another we’ve used is that players cannot be tackled on their first time at our session. Use of a goalkeeper’s zone, a zone around the goal that only the goalkeeper can enter, can also help to avoid collisions, as can banning slide tackles or headers.


Emphasising the positives is another vital part of a mental health-focused football session. Football is a universal language, so it can ease ice breaking and make it easier to relate to others. Taking part in a team sport can help alleviate social isolation, and help form relationships with others (1). Many of our players started off by being on the receiving end of supportive behaviours, and over time have become the ones offering support to new players. This demonstrates not only their confidence and self-perception improving, but also the potential for a little positivity to have a domino effect and improve the lives of many.

The beneficial effects of physical activity on mood have been well documented (2), and the increased fitness levels can also help improve self-perception. Humans were not designed to be sedentary creatures, and the negative effects of our increasingly inactive lifestyles as a species are beginning to show. Running laps isn’t necessary, but seeing what your body is capable of can give you confidence.

Physical activity comes without the potential negative side effects of many medications, though works alongside almost any medication that is required. Some individuals may also consider attending a football session to be less daunting than undergoing a more clinical route, and in too many countries the clinical route is difficult to navigate.


The first step to participation is often the hardest. For some individuals the issue is practical, they may be physically isolated and find it difficult to attend sessions. If you can’t afford a team bus, you might need to organise a lift for some individuals. The mental health session I run would halve in participation if we didn’t have a few committed members picking up their teammates.

Some individuals may have negative perceptions about football, which need to be challenged. We have photos of our sessions on our website, so people can have their fears eased. A common misconception is that everyone participating in sport is a lean, toned athlete, and so individuals feel they’d be out of place and mocked. Photos of your session can help to challenge this perception, though make sure to get permission first. This can also be used to showcase the potential for everyone’s enjoyment of football.

When these barriers are overcome, people can be very nervous for their first session and may need easing in. As coach, the aim should be to foster engagement and inclusivity (3). To achieve this I try to reduce the amount of potential uncertainty, I let them know where the toilets are, that they’re free to come and go, and that we’ll understand if they’re late. I introduce them to our players, and let them know that negativity isn’t allowed at our sessions, and that they should feel comfortable asking me or anyone else if there is something concerns them.

The environment created at our mental health football session is unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else. I don’t believe there’s any individual who could be called ‘mentally healthy’, as everyone has some negative trait such as jealousy, nerves, etc. Our sessions have benefited everyone who has come into contact with them, and the only cost has been the hall rental. One of our players was bed bound every minute of every day, with no human interaction other than his parent’s care. Through our team he related to people, made friends, became active, and began turning his life around. Mental health football is a beacon of positivity, and the professional game could learn a lot from all of us who participate in it.


Quote from: http://www.secondcaptains.com/2017/05/26/not-war-death-famine/

(1) Lynch, E. (2010) Ann’s Perfect Pitch, Nursing Standard, Vol. 25, #7

(2) Tozzi, L., Carballedo, A., Lavelle, G., Doolin, K., Doyle, M., Amico, F., McCarthy, H., Gormley, J., Lord, A., O’Keane, V., Frodl, T. (2016) Longitudinal functional connectivity changes correlate with mood improvement after  regular exercise in a dose-dependent fashion, European Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 43, pp. 1089–1096

(3) Mason, O.J., Holt, R. (2012) A role for football in mental health: the Coping Through Football project, The Psychiatrist, Vol. 36, pp. 290-293


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