NGO and charity committed to reducing injury in sport

The Road to Recovery: Why mental health is part of a new approach to injury and rehabilitation

  • By Gregor Henderson

    Picture this. A 14-year-old footballer – playing not for the academy side of a Premier League club, but for their school team – suffers a complicated leg break during a match. They are taken to hospital, and then eventually discharged to begin a recovery process that will last months.

    What happens then?

    Let’s think about what participating in team sport had been giving that young person before the injury.

    Let’s say they were a committed and enthusiastic member of the team, they had formed important social bonds with their teammates, and they looked up to their coach.

    They were proud to have improved their ability level through training and competition, and that they were part of a team that represented their school community. This had become a core component of their identity, of the person they considered themselves to be.

    On a personal level, let’s assume that regular training and matches were improving not just their physical, but also their mental health. At a complicated stage of adolescence, sport was providing a space in which they could exert themselves physically and be ‘in the moment’, far removed from whatever stress and pressure they were feeling at school or home.

    We can imagine all this because the science and the evidence show us these are all among the many benefits of sport and exercise: mental health and physical health are inextricably linked and sport improves both of them for every participant. Sport provides communities with social bonds. ‘Anchor institutions,’ such as the school team in this example, act as a protective factor for the mental health of everyone involved.   

    These are all among the reasons behind the mission of Podium Analytics: to keep people playing the sport they love for longer, benefitting physically and mentally, and with benefits to local communities – cohesion, identity and strong social bonds.

    My belief in the mental health benefits of this approach is strong and deep rooted – and without sport in my life, I would not be who I am today. This is the reason that I am part of the Podium mission, and having worked in mental health for over 30 years, including most recently as the Director of Mental Health for Public Health England, I am proud to be one part of the Podium team advocating for and delivering change.

    But, through injury, all the great benefits of a sporting life have now been taken from our young footballer in the blink of an eye. So, what are we going to do about them?

    Well, what if they were playing for a Premier League club – not just as an Academy prospect, but as a first-team star? How would that organisation ensure the best outcomes for its employee – and how much of that can we import into the experience of our 14-year-old school team footballer?

    This is one of the principles at the core of Podium, as envisioned by its founder, Sir Ron Dennis CBE. How can we use the data and science, and the best practice around, from elite sport to reach grassroots and schools and our goal of getting more people playing sport for longer?

    My role is to help the wonderful team at Podium and our amazing Mental Health Lead, Catherine Wheatley, to consider the issues from a mental health perspective.  

    Any long-term injury has a mental and psychological element to it, as well as the obvious physical one. So, in our case study, we need a coach and a parent who are aware of that, and who can support our young person throughout the recovery.

    The young person needs to maintain the connection with their team – they should continue to speak to their team-mates, to be involved and engaged, and in person, wherever possible. Long before they are ready to play again, they can be back on the sidelines, even if they are on crutches to begin with. They are still part of the team.

    And the coach needs to keep checking in, and encourage the other players to do the same, using good practice guidelines and knowing what to say and do and when. 

    For someone who has been a competitor, for whom sport is a part of their identity, there are going to be some down days during a recovery that could take months. And supporting that person emotionally can accelerate recovery.

    We have to understand the timeframe and not try to come back too soon. That’s about good training interventions from coaches – so they need the best information, shared downstream from elite sport, in ways that are accessible and impactful.

    And our young footballer will benefit greatly from hearing other young people’s stories and journeys – what helps, where to go, what to expect. We need to make all of this shared and accessible.  

    In the ideal scenario, the entire recovery will be more mentally aware than it is now. These social, psychological and emotional processes are part of that recovery.

    And we need to know the danger signs, because athletes who suffer longer-term injury develop mental health challenges that can be reduced by early intervention with additional support.  

    If that injury means they might not be able to continue with their sport, then they need psychological support to deal with that loss, help them through that and toward a different sport that they can take forward – because there is always a sport for everyone, and we know it’s going to help.

    We’ve always known. But in 2024, what was once intuitive – of course sport makes you feel better – is now backed up by data and science. 

    The benefits to society and the individual are undeniable, and so is the value of allowing more people to enjoy sport for longer. So let’s do that together. Come and see what we are doing at Podium and join us and our many partners in being part of the change we all want to see.