Wellbeing programme supports youngsters through ups & downs of football

Kilmarnock Football Club are proud to have participated in a first of its kind programme designed to support academy players through the highs and lows of chasing the dream to become a professional footballer.

Launched by children and young people’s organisation Care Visions, with the support of the University of Stirling, the ‘Young Player Wellbeing Programme’ pairs independent wellbeing coaches with under-18s players at Kilmarnock and Dundee United.

The pilot initiative, which was expanded for the full season after a positive initial 12-week trial, provides wellbeing and mental health support to the teenage players via social media platforms, podcasts and in-person workshops. It aims to arm the academy players with the resilience they need to cope with the ups and downs of professional sport.

The programme is now seeking new funding to allow it to expand and reach other academy football teams and sports organisations.

Moira Greentree, who was Director of Innovation for Care Visions when the programme began, said: “Academy football is challenging, there’s a lot of pressure on these young people and we know of some really sad incidents where young players have been released from clubs and not been able to cope and unfortunately have gone on to suffer mental health issues, or even lose their life to suicide.

“What’s unique about this programme is that the support provided is independent of the club. Our wellbeing coaches are all alumni of the University of Stirling’s Sport Psychology course and the wellbeing programme does not stop if or when a young person moves on from the club, it remains accessible to them. We recognised that was really important because those times of transition are when the real challenges can be there for young people.”

As well as sharing regular content on Instagram and TikTok covering themes including confidence, resilience, motivation, goal-setting and physical wellbeing, the wellbeing coaches are available to offer one-to-one support via the online platforms when required.

The programme has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from club coaches, parents and participants.

Bradley Fullarton, 25, is one of the four wellbeing coaches involved in the initiative. He said: “The programme is player-led so the themes, topics and workshops are driven by the players and coaches.

“I’ve really enjoyed being able to build relationships with the players. These young players carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders – from friends and peers who look up to them, to family who may make various sacrifices to support them. Every season they are finding out whether they’ve made it through to the next age group, and as they get older, statistically it’s less likely that’s going to happen. Every aspect of their performance is analysed and fed back to them, plus outside football, they’re also managing school, family life and relationships – it can be like a pressure cooker. Good coping strategies are essential.

“Sports psychology is usually focused firmly on performance and can neglect the wellbeing and mental health side of playing competitive sport. Through this programme, we are offering as much advice as we can on wellbeing and performance topics to help these teenagers meet the challenges they face, build resilience and also develop confidence to help them succeed – whether in or out of football.”

The programme’s coaches also launched a podcast with guests from the world of football sharing their own experiences, including Kilmarnock’s under-18s manager, Craig Clark, former Scottish professional player Paul di Giacomo and footballer Murray MacKintosh – a former Aberdeen and Kilmarnock player who was released from academy football and now plays in Australia.

Louis Kerr, 26, from Ayr, is another wellbeing coach working on the programme, who also currently plays semi-professional football for Irvine Meadow.

He said: “In football, there’s a whole culture of hyper-masculinity – we’re trying to break that down and let the young people know it’s OK to talk, it’s OK to open up.

“At the start, I wasn’t sure how much the players would use Instagram to talk to us – but they have reached out about issues they’re facing, they’ve opened up and I have been able to help. That’s important. It’s really satisfying to be able to help players experiencing certain situations or navigating a change. We are having an effect.

“A strength of the programme is that we are not employed by the clubs, we are independent, which has allowed players to have the confidence to tell us when they’re not feeling too good mood wise or haven’t slept well – things that they may be hesitant to tell their coach in case it impacts their game time.”

Co-creator of the programme, Allan Muirhead, said: “This is the first programme of its kind to be delivered in this way in Scotland, with external trusted, positive role models providing wellbeing support and guidance directly to academy players.

“The clubs see the value the programme has added, and parents have told us they’ve been reassured and felt it has made a difference to their child. It’s been especially useful for those players experiencing some kind of issue at home or school, and for those who have suffered an injury who perhaps felt more isolated – they’ve really benefitted by keeping in touch with their wellbeing coach.”

Kilmarnock Football Club’s Youth Ambassador, Charlie Adams, commented: “Feedback from Under-18s and Under-16s players has been overwhelmingly positive, and particularly centres around their admiration of the programme’s themes. In addition to topics resonating with the young athletes, resources are available on platforms that they’re already accustomed to using, which has been extremely beneficial in increasing their involvement. It’s clear that the programme has been thoroughly planned out by both Care Visions and the University of Stirling.

“Naturally, there are certain topics – both inside and outside of football – that players would feel more comfortable discussing independently. Especially with youngsters moving on from clubs at this time of year, it’s valuable for them to have a consistent external resource of support.”

Niall Nicolson, Head of Player Care at Dundee United Football Club, said: “The pilot wellbeing programme offered another fantastic area of support for our boys.

“The programme has been independent to the club and personal to the players, and this player-led approach is one of the main drivers of the success of the programme.

“The interactive platforms of delivery – through Instagram and the content that was provided throughout the programme – was excellent, with support towards the players’ wellbeing, mental health and building resilience, as well as regular posts educating the players on topics such as goal setting, how to deal with setbacks and injury.

“The feedback from the participants was positive with high interaction throughout.”