The Importance of Mental Health: Part 1 – Sporting Context

A new Pythons player being introduced to physical contact with a returner, led by our qualified coaching staff


The interview given by Clarke Carlisle to the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme this week is a pertinent and timely reminder of the importance of mental health issues, which for all fans and supporters of professional sports might be particularly alarming.

From the outset there are different aspects that must be considered with careful thought.  Physical traumas to the head and brain that people most readily associate with contact sports, for example leading to concussion, should not be conflated with mental health problems; the two may well be linked and research is ongoing in to establish a more rigorous understanding of the causes and hence implications. Given Carlisle’s specific mention of American football, it should also be noted that American football, as related to the sport played by children up to college level in the US and under the NCAA’s framework of guidelines, is substantially different from the NFL, an entertainment organisation but which could easily be assumed is the pinnacle of the sport and its practices. We will return to these in a future article to provide further detail.

The Importance of Mental Health
In the areas raised by Carlisle, the modern era has seen greater recognition and response than ever before, but the most significant progress has only been made in recent years.  It is only right that efforts are continued to make sport safer, to ensure that athletes’ mental health is maintained.  There is a great deal still to be done.

With our own players now returning to full training and soon to be representing the Cambridge University Pythons American Football Club (the Pythons) on the field, it is with the greatest seriousness we approach our responsibility to support their mental as well as physical health needs.

In this series of articles we will discuss a variety of related issues and hopefully provide a platform for thought and further discussion, with other teams across the University as well as our league bodies and wider sporting community, especially as we ourselves introduce new players to the Club and the sport of American football during Freshers’ Week.

Context of Mental Health in Sport
Mental health issues impact upon many people, with research cited by The Mental Health Foundation suggesting that they directly affect “about a quarter of the population in any one year” and that “it is estimated that approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem”.  Mental health campaigns are now also raising awareness of the issues in professional sport and the charity Mind (for whom Clarke Carlisle is an ambassador) has produced a excellent overview of some major issues, the root causes and some proposed long term systems to help combat mental health stigmas.

The significance of repeated physical trauma such as concussions and their possible long-term neurological implications are now being studied, using athletes from both American football and rugby as case studies. Such research will be covered in a future article, but with the BBC inferring about the latter that the “study showed a statistically significant link between repeated concussion and brain damage”, the importance of such scientific study cannot be understated in informing decision-making.

In professional sport, governing bodies are now recognising the vital role they can play in instigating change. As well as conducting research, leading publicity campaigns and, crucially, influencing play they are also developing relationships with charitable organisations to provide better mental health support.  An example is State of Mind, a rugby focused organisation which is supported by the Rugby Football League, who have now mandated  compulsory mental health workshops for all of their players.

Mental Health in British American Football
Although not involved in professional competition, nor with access to the resources seen at that level, as both a student society and a sports club the Pythons take care to ensure the personal well-being of all those associated with the Club.  Ensuring their safety is the foremost measure we can take to avert mental health implications due to physical contact.

The British American Football Association (BAFA) is our National Governing Body and is “responsible for all regulatory, competition, performance and development aspects of the game” of American football in Great Britain. We spoke to them this week and it was confirmed that BAFA became a signatory of the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation created by the Sport and Recreation Alliance earlier this year. The charter, developed with the Professional Players Federation and Mindsets out how sport can use its collective power to tackle mental ill health and the stigma that surrounds it” and is an important step toward unifying efforts.  With BAFA’s ongoing work to provide support, guidance and resources for its members and former Director, Andy Fuller, speaking to the BBC about issues such as concussion awareness and links to wider health issues, our club and hence players will continue to benefit from these efforts.

Although only a brief introduction, we hope it has revealed some aspects of this often complex set of issues. You can already read Part 2, in which we pay particular attention to player safety and mental health at the Club, putting into practice some of the statements we’ve made above.