Football is a demanding sport that requires not only physical strength and skill, but also mental toughness and resilience. The players face a range of challenges, from balancing the demands of a packed National and International season, to dealing with the physical and mental impact of player load. With these challenges in mind, a panel discussion was organised by Paul Musa, founder of the “What the Footie” Podcast to discuss player well-being and the challenges of the international match calendar.
The panel discussion was hosted by Matthew Ogunsanya, the youngest ever Premier League doctor, who was joined by Adrian Mariappa, a professional international footballer with over 500 career appearances, Lewis MacMillan, Fulham FC’s first-team sports scientist, and Claire Stewart, a Professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and Chief Scientific Officer at Prorizon. They explored the complex issues of player welfare, both on and off the field.
The discussion kicked off with the question of who holds responsibility for athlete well-being and welfare. Claire believes that while policy makers play a crucial role in providing guidance, it is up to the club and support staff to understand the individual needs of each athlete. She also believes that athletes should be empowered to understand the load they face internally, externally and mentally and the impact that these have on their own well-being and performance, allowing a two-way conversation, rather than relying solely on support from staff to assist their development.
The panel discussed the impact of player load and how it affects players differently. Claire emphasised the importance of having micro-breaks built into the schedule, depending on the squad size and the load experienced, to protect the players who are, after all, the clubs most precious assets. Adrian Mariappa shared his thoughts on the congested schedule and how it can lead to the “gobbling up of the man” by the player. He highlighted the importance of having occasional breaks from the sport, but acknowledged the difficulties of doing so in a congested season. Lewis MacMillan agreed, stating that the international football calendar can be a significant contributor to the struggles footballers face and added that some players may need a complete break while others may not. The ability to rotate players in the premier league vs lower level leagues was also addressed.
The relationship between injury risks and playing load was also discussed. The panel agreed that protecting players and preventing injury in football is the responsibility of the collective, including the players themselves, the clubs, the coaches, the medical staff, the supporting staff, and performance analytics. Policy makers also play a crucial role in determining what is safe and what is not and setting guidelines around match play. The winter break, for example, has been shown to have a beneficial effect for athletes in terms of reducing injury risk, non-sporting burden, and allowing time with their family.
In terms of balancing the number of games, players who play the most and have the highest intensity games tend to be the best paid. Adrian said that no professional footballer would choose not to play a game when it comes to balancing their well-being and matches. The number and intensity of games is a part of the job and players are compensated for that. However, it is important to consider the physical and mental strain that these games put on players and take steps to ensure their well-being.
Lewis pointed out that the lower leagues may have an even bigger problem, as they also have to deal with a large number of games, but with fewer resources and manpower. The English Football League (EFL) is conducting league-wide audits to examine player workload, injuries, and other training data, which has yet to be published. Claire believes that this data-driven approach is the key to improving player well-being, especially in the lower leagues where such data is currently lacking.
The panel agreed on the need for external sources for players to confide in and monitor their mental and physical well-being, as players may not feel comfortable speaking directly to their coaches or team psychologist. The panel also shared concerns about the increasing number of games in football driven by commercial interests and the reduction in games may only happen if the quality of the game starts to decline due to player injuries. Finally, Claire highlighted the challenges faced by support staff in football, including long hours, unpredictability, the lack of support networks and job insecurity.
In conclusion, the panel discussed that player well-being is a complex and multi-faceted issue that requires a collaborative effort from all stakeholders in the sport. From understanding the impact of playing load on the body to balancing the demands of international and club football, the panel discussed a range of solutions that could help improve the health and well-being of football players.
Paul Barber shared his thoughts on the importance of player welfare and how it plays a crucial role in the club’s success. He emphasised the club’s commitment to a long-term development strategy, which he believes has been central to their recent progress and sustainable growth towards achieving Brighton & Hove’s goals. Stay tuned with What the Footie to listen to this podcast.
About What the Footie Podcast
What the Footie, founded by Paul Musa, is a podcast dedicated to exploring the world of football, bringing together experts and professionals to discuss the latest topics and trends in the sport. It provides a space for in-depth discussions and insights into how the business of football works. Every fortnight (Mondays) host Paul Musa is joined by agents, directors, players, sports scientists, fans and more to debate the big topics.
Prorizon is proud to announce that we will sponsor the 2022-23 season of the What the Footie podcast. Paul Musa has joined us as an Advisor, and Claire Stewart, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, will join Paul Musa to delve deeper into the mental and physical health and performance development in football. Stay tuned for exciting and insightful discussions.