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Football Association Heads Up Campaign

How we can tackle mental health in football

By Neil Graney

At the beginning of May this year, the Football Association (FA), alongside mental health charity Heads Together, launched its ‘Heads Up’ campaign. The idea is to use the influence and popularity of football to show the world that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. It aims to generate the biggest ever conversation around mental health to drive awareness and change with regards to the alarming number of men that are affected by difficult mental health.

The campaign will be officially launched at the FA Community Shield in August 2019, but it has already begun to involve footballers and celebrities in this discussion, such as England manager Gareth Southgate, England international footballer Danny Rose and the Duke of Cambridge. In fact, a feature documentary featuring these, plus numerous other famous faces, aired on the BBC which looked to spark conversations around the issue of mental health in relation to football. This is only the beginning of the campaign, and it will continue into the 2019/20 season.

This campaign is something not too dissimilar at all from not only my research area, but also my personal life. In fact, I have used my own personal narrative to shape my research areas. I was a young footballer, growing up in the late 1980s/early 1990s, in the North East of England, and experienced the highs and lows of a footballer that didn’t quite ‘make it’.

Since then, much of my research has reflected upon how the effects of isolation, rejection and failure contributed to, and escalated to, more than a decade of undiagnosed mental health illness. My latest research paper in this area, entitled My Child, the Athlete, won the ‘best paper’ award at the Annual Open University Sport and Fitness Conference.

The focus of the research is mental health and wellbeing management in professional football academies in the UK. It aims to contribute to the expansion of understanding mental health in elite athletes through a high-quality, systematic
study. It takes into account six key areas: the importance of culture, defining mental health in an elite sport context, developing specific sport metrics to monitor mental health, considering mental health as an important resource, further understanding the elite sport environment and developing organisational structures to break stigma around mental health disclosure. Then from a management perspective, the research challenges the role and influence of organisational culture and strategic leadership in the development of young ‘elite’ players. I have already completed an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) workshop with Sunderland AFC’s Foundation of Light (the charity arm of the football club) and will be working with other clubs in the future.

To find out more about Neil Graney’s research, please visit

This article was published in IMPACT Magazine 1 July 2019

Neil Graney