Interview with FIFpro’s Chief Medical Officer on topic of mental health in soccer

Mental health is an issue that soccer has an uneasy relationship with. Despite all the advancements in the game from physical conditioning, boot design and treatment of injuries the topic of mental health still draws uncomfortable breaths from players and coaches alike. Mental health is still an area that is considered taboo in football circles although there are ongoing efforts to lift the stigma attached it.

World Soccer Talk discussed the topic of soccer and mental health with Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge, Chief Medical Officer of the World Players’ Union FIFpro.

Here are his thoughts:

World Soccer Talk: You played professional football but then transitioned to sports science and health. What was that journey like? What convinced you to set on this path?

Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge: When I was 14-15 years old and when professional clubs wanted to have me in their youth academy, my parents told me that a proper education was also important as the chance to become a professional footballer is not big and as a professional career can ended suddenly after an injury for instance. Consequently, I was always driven to combine studying and playing professional football. During the last five years of my career, I was doing my PhD in the morning, starting at 6.15am up to 12.30pm…then going to the club for the afternoon training session!

WST: How did you find the approach to mental health in your playing days? Was it a topic that clubs, management or players knew how to approach let alone discuss?

VG: During my career, mental health was not an important issue….metal skills were important to perform optimally. Through my career, I saw that mental trainers were included to the staff in order to achieve better performances, or we had several sessions with a mental coach. Things have been changing but the only aspect important for a club is performances. From my position as Chief Medical Officer of FIFPro, I’m looking at the long term mental health of players, both during and after their career.

WST: The late Andreas Biermann, formerly of St. Pauli, once said “if any footballers out there are suffering from depression I’ll advise them to keep it for themselves”. It seems inconceivable that football hasn’t made any worthwhile strides to help players with depression or anxiety. Is that view too naïve? 

VG: We know that mental health problems are kind of taboo in professional sports such as in football. We need to change it and I’m sure that it is a question of time. Some high profile players start to speak about their mental struggle and this is a way to break the barrier.

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