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WSL academies: How are clubs providing mental health support?

Poppy Lawson, Charlotte Healy, Tony Fretwell and Carrie Jones
(From left to right) Under-21s captain Poppy Lawson, Manchester United Academy manager Charlotte Healy, FA Academy manager Tony Fretwell and Wales international Carrie Jones

Women’s football academies have grown hugely in England over the last few years but the pressures facing young players have also increased, as scrutiny on the game intensifies.

One of the people tasked with improving the support for young players in the Women’s Super League and Championship is the Football Association’s WSL Academy manager Tony Fretwell.

“We have to look after the people who make football happen,” he told BBC Sport. “Every player on the pitch is a person that has hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties. Keeping that at the forefront of our minds is the priority.”

In 2016, former Manchester City and Everton midfielder Zoe Tynan, 18, took her own life.

Her mother, Alison, now works with the If U Care Share Foundation and the FA to provide support across the WSL academy system.

This year, the Zoe Tynan award was created – given to the player of the match in the academy cup final, which went to Manchester United’s Alyssa Aherne.

“That is an annual reminder of why we do all of this and we don’t lose that message,” said Fretwell.

“I don’t think mental health is something we can eradicate as a challenge from the sport – it will always be there. But we can create a system so players are better supported when trauma comes.”

Zoe Tynan and Karen Bardsley
Zoe Tynan (left) in action for Everton in 2014. Recently retired Manchester City goalkeeper Karen Bardsley (right) wears a shirt in memory of Tynan

As the winners of the academy league and cup double this season, Manchester United have set the standard on the pitch, so what are they doing off the pitch to support their youngsters?

The team have been building a player-care programme which offers support internally and externally through workshops, wellbeing coaches, player leadership groups and one-to-one meetings with staff.

Under-21s captain Poppy Lawson told BBC Sport the programme was “massively important” in helping young players prepare for life as a professional footballer.

“The more you talk about is as a younger player, the easier it gets for you,” she said. “It’s important to start it young just to get people talking. The more you talk, the more your performances will improve.

“We’re such a close squad that we end up talking about mental health more than you presume. It’s a daily thing. Even if it’s just asking your team-mates how they are – you’re starting a conversation.

“As a squad we really take on board what mental health is and that it’s OK to talk about it.

Carrie Jones and Poppy Lawson
Carrie Jones (left) graduated from the Manchester United academy and is part of the first team squad while Poppy Lawson (right) is captain of the under-21s

Every six weeks the coaching staff have one-to-one meetings with the players. They have a wellbeing coach available on call for the first team and academy.

There is also a leadership group – comprised of six academy players, including captain Lawson – who meet to discuss concerns.

Two days a month, parents can come into the club to raise issues.

Carrie Jones, a Wales international and academy graduate who is now part of United’s first team squad, says she has benefited from the approach.

“As soon as you open up, there might be some things you didn’t realise were going on and it helps you,” she told BBC Sport.

“That helps you with your football too. The less you have on your mind on the pitch, the better you will perform. It really does help.”

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United academy manager Charlotte Healy designed the club’s mental health programme with the support of the FA after the women’s team was reformed in 2018.

The programme has become part of the WSL licence agreement but Healy said it was “important to me as a person” to become more educated.

“Being a full-time academy footballer is really difficult. You have to balance social lives, be in full-time education and some of them might have other jobs – that’s added to the pressures the sport itself brings,” Healy told BBC Sport.

“We take it really seriously and we are always looking at what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the programme. The reality is every players’ needs are different. We have to make sure we have different expertise.”

Academies can access first-team resources. Every club in the WSL provides social media training to help players manage criticism online.

Club chaplains, performance psychologists and lifestyle advisers are common at WSL and Women’s Championship clubs.

Every club is visited by FA officials during pre-season to discuss how to report abuse or discrimination and players are made aware of self-referral mental health support programmes.

“What’s really important is that players and parents know how to access the support and what routes to take,” said Healy.

“Mental health becomes part of the norm. It’s not a taboo subject, it’s discussed every day.”

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