The Importance of Mental Health: Part 2 – Pythons’ Approach

Head Coach Julian Fuller speaking to the squad during pre-game procedures in our first match of 2014-15

Following directly from our introductory Part 1, we discuss player safety and mental health at Cambridge University Pythons American Football Club (the Pythons) – our highest priorities as a Club.

The Pythons take an active role in player safety as is common amongst American football teams across the country and our policies are implemented from the moment a player approaches us. We will take this opportunity to outline how our Club conducts itself and would welcome constructive feedback as we are continually assessing and improving our working practices.

Safety Policies and Procedures
As per official guidelines and regulations, any form of contact training is overseen by a coach qualified by the governing body, BAFA. At present we have eight certified coaching staff. The qualification courses are strongly focussed on increasing the safety of the sport by teaching good technique and training coaches to assess potential injuries and take precautionary measures in all circumstances.

New players begin with non-contact, taster sessions, to become familiar with positioning and safe techniques, before they are able to progress. Before kitted practice commences they are given a full safety briefing with sufficient time to ask questions and ensure their understanding before signing to confirm they understand the risks associated with American football as a contact sport and how these risks should be minimised.

Although they occur rarely, the Pythons have a clear protocol for assessing and treating potential head injuries and concussions. This includes the immediate removal of a player from the field following a suspected injury and an assessment by qualified medical personnel.   If concussion is suspected then players are not allowed to continue to play and it is requested they seek medical advice from their doctor or hospital.  Depending on the severity and symptoms their return to any form of training will be delayed until cleared by a medical professional, with a Graduated Return To Play (GRTP).  This is as recommended by UK sporting bodies and as part of a range of advice used. The Club has had one case of confirmed concussion, but follow a principle of ‘if in doubt, take them out’ to err on the side of caution in relation to anyone who we have concerns about.

All university American football matches are required to meet a stringent set of minimum medical requirements, including the presence of “a registered doctor, registered nurse, registered paramedic or registered physiotherapist”.  A response vehicle is also frequently provided by teams and in the case of the Pythons, an ambulance is typically present as an additional precaution.  This is in addition to our own first aid qualified and concussion prepared coaches.

Ongoing Assessment and Development
The Club is also working to develop its procedures, frequently scheduling opportunities to re-assess our policies and protocols and given the short time the Club has been operational (entering only its 5th season), this is an important practice we have continued to build upon. As a couple of specific examples, at the most recent Coaching Development Meeting (Sept 15), the 2015/16 Coaches Manual was presented using feedback from our staff and players to further improve our procedures.  It was also confirmed that in addition to the safety briefings for players, they would now be shown videos relating to heads-up tackling and concussion, to improve their technique and give players the ability to recognise signs in their teammates.

Our Attitude to Mental Health Support
Within the context of wider mental health issues, the Pythons are extremely supportive of all players, who the coaches see as students first, athletes second.  Coaches consider the impact on their personal well-being foremost and are on hand to offer pastoral support or links to support networks in the case they recognise cause for concern. Whether that be the University Counselling Service which players all have access to or otherwise, and encouragement is given to any player with mental health concerns.  We are fortunate that our coaches also have significant experience working with young people and providing direct pastoral care, whereby American football is a way of developing personal skills for those with behavioural problems and mental health issues.

Unlike a professional sports club, there are also fewer external performance pressures that could lead to a conflict of interests with regard a player’s mental health.  Clarke Carlisle specifically raised this type of case in his interview, where coming forward about something as a professional athlete “might have an effect on team selection or professional opportunities”.  Although the Pythons are not in a position to speak from experience about that, it certainly seems like it could be the case at the highest level and we would support anything that could be done to continue encouraging conversations that will allow such attitudes to be broken down and those in need to receive the support they require. This is where professional sports organisations have a greater responsibility than anyone else to drive change in this area, whether the NFL, RFU or others besides.

The Pythons Approach, According to Our Head Coach
Pythons Head Coach, Julian Fuller, has commented on this specifically:

“One of the ways the Pythons avoid this trap is by a player focused approach, stressing performance and improvement over results as a clearer target. Each player is handled as an individual and is encouraged to speak freely about the challenges they face individually this is achieved without the pressure to win being the apex of our programme.

“Coaches stress their desire for players to play to the edge of the their abilities, praising effort over results and encouraging steps forward whilst supporting players who begin to struggle.  The environment is purposefully kept calm and thoughtful.  Players are not ever dealt with in an aggressive fashion, or pressured to prioritise playing over any other need.   In fact, the Coaches Manual goes out of its way to strictly outlaw this approach to so-called ‘player motivation’.”

A Continuing Discussion
And really, this is what the Pythons stand for as an organisation – to be inclusive and open – whether that is being reflected in our approach to mental health or in other dynamics entirely.  We hope that this is a useful starting point for this topic and especially how our activities reflect our strength of feeling toward mental health and player safety.

We will be building on these first pieces, to shed light on specific developments within American football to date, share information regarding prevalence in other disciplines and highlight the research that is being conducted to inform how sport can overcome some of the hurdles it faces and become a greater driver for positive change and mental well-being.

Our Club is small, growing, but with a strength of voice belied by our size.

Should you wish to speak to us about anything discussed here or in relation, we would invite you to contact us, since it would be fantastic to ensure these issues receive the time, consideration and discussion they are overdue.