FIFA launches mental health research project

Goalkeeper gloves of Robert Enke

FIFA has launched a new research area, entitled "Mental Health and Sport", to help lift the taboo on issues surrounding mental health in elite athletes and to build a foundation for the development of treatment and information materials for team physicians, coaches and players. 

Despite some prominent cases, mental health problems are rarely reported in football and other sports. Any scientific data on the mental health of athletes is rare, and almost no scientific study has yet investigated the mental health among football players. To respond to this gap of knowledge, FIFA has established the new research area, so that those in the game feel more comfortable coming forwards to talk about issues and in order to ease access to treatment.

Three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Birgit Prinz, who graduated in psychology and is now working as a sport psychologist for a Bundesliga team, is the lead researcher on FIFA's new project and she is joined by FIFA World Cup winner and current USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and former Karlsruhe and Eintracht Frankfurt forward Edgar Schmitt, who are ambassadors for the project.

“Mental fitness is equally important for the wellbeing and performance of professional football players on and off the ground, as is physical fitness and a well defined technique”, said Birgit Prinz. “However, specific training for mental fitness is rare and players are often assumed to be mentally fit. From my experience and in my opinion it is important to see and to openly demonstrate that it is 'normal' for professional football players to experience mental stress and that this does not automatically result in failure of a professional career. But it can be prevented, treated and cured. We have to overcome the myth that professional football players are invulnerable.”

Mental and behavioural disorders are not exclusive to any special group: they are found in people of all regions, all countries and all societies.

“About 450 million people suffer from mental disorders according to estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO 2010). One person in four will develop one or more mental or behavioural disorders during their lifetime ”, said Prof. Dr. Astrid Junge, Head of Research at the FIFA - Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC). “There is no evidence that football player are different – on the contrary, football players, especially at the top-level, experience high levels of stress not only due to the physical load of training and matches but also in relation to the high expectation on their performance and the potential competition/conflicts within the team. Stress is an important risk factor for the development of mental and behavioural disorders, and it has been shown that psychological factors contribute to the risk of sports injury and to a prolonged recovery from injury.”

About a quarter of the 180 active male professional footballers who participated in a recent survey of FIFPro reported signs of depression and/or anxiety, and the percentage in former players were even higher. German football has been struck by tragedy in recent years, with Robert Enke and Andreas Biermann both taking their own life after battling depression.

The first research project will evaluate "Ups and downs during and after a professional football career", a second study will focus on the "Risk factors for and prevention of mental health problems", and a third project will analyse the "effects of sport on mental health of recreational athletes". The project will be conducted at the Medical School in Hamburg, Germany. An online questionnaire to collect the data will be sent to former (male and female) players of the German Bundesliga, and in a second stage, it is planned to expand the study to former elite players from other countries. Confidentiality of all data will be ensured. The first results of the studies are expected in mid-2015.

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