From resilience to depression – how racism affects the psyche of football players

Katrin Separator June 24, 2020

Both clubs and players are taking a stand against racism by publicly voicing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which originated in the US and fights against police brutality against Afro-Americans and People of Color.

Showing solidarity is extremely important – and long overdue. Unfortunately, racism in football isn’t exactly a new phenomenon either: abusive chants and insults on the pitch and in the stadium are not unusual. There certainly has been progress in recent years, such as the numerous “fan projects” that see football fans working together with professional social workers.

Nevertheless, the footballers who publicly spoke out against racism in the past were mainly players who had become victims of racial discrimination and abuse themselves, either in their daily lives or on the football pitch.

Berlin-based sports psychologist Uwe Knepel, who is actively involved in the youth academy of Hertha BSC, says that the effects on a player’s psyche who has been exposed to racist insults or abuse depend on various factors.

“One one hand, you have to consider the matter of frequency, meaning the number of incidents they experience, and on the other hand, it is about their own psychological resistance, the so-called resilience,” he explains. “A player’s individual background always plays an important part.”

So, what happens to a footballer when he is racially abused on the pitch?

“In a situation like this, in the short-term, it is first and foremost a huge distraction for the player, who carries this incident with him in his mind and perhaps can’t fully focus anymore on the game,” Knepel says.

“Some players might be annoyed or feel emotional pain and look for ways to unload. For instance, it may cause the footballer to play rough, commit more fouls than usual or throw around a crate with drinks. Sometimes it happens that they’re not in the game anymore. The worst case scenario is that nothing they try on the pitch works anymore or that they are red-carded for a foul – as we know, this actually happened recently.”

In extreme cases, it can also lead to a depression

In the long run, however, the consequences can be even more serious. According to Knepel, studies have shown that young people often show behavioural problems after experiencing prolonged and recurring discriminatory incidents.

“There are changes in their general behaviour, but depression symptoms, such as persistent fatigue, increased irritability or sleep disorders can also occur,” Knepel explains. “In extreme cases, it can also lead to a depression – for an athlete or football player, this could even mean that they have to end their career.”

When football players are exposed to racial discrimination during a match and recognize this outside stimulus, they have to evaluate it for themselves first – this is something that usually happens quickly and automatically.

“It’s not as if the player consciously decides to get angry, sad or scared in that moment, it happens automatically,” Knepel says. “Sports psychology offers a variety of measures and techniques to repeat certain processes and work out behavioural goals with the athletes, so they themselves are clear about how they want to deal with a situation like this. This is something that can be trained.”

There’s more at stake here than just fair play

The victims also have the opportunity to address the referee either directly or through their team captain. This would be the first step of UEFA’s three-step procedure that aims to help tackle racist incidents in the stadiums – the procedure includes different measures that range from interrupting the match to complete abandonment.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but we have to wait and see if this three-step procedure will have long-term benefits,” Knepel says. “To be able to make a fair assessment, we would have to collect and evaluate results and sufficient information first. In junior football, it happened before that a team collectively leaves the pitch, but in the end, they lost points because of that. Unfortunately, this is something to bear in mind as well: there’s more at stake here than just fair play.”

According to Knepel, the most important thing for a player is to have a well-functioning support network – people they trust in their team and club, sports psychologists, but also family and friends. However, this doesn’t mean that every football club offers psychological support.

“There are players who have their own sports psychologists, in private, but there are also clubs who employ sports psychologists,” Knepel explains. “There are even some clubs with no sports psychologists at all. Of course, it would actually be beneficial, but unfortunately, the ‘layman’s view’ of a sports psychologist is still biased, especially in football. There’s still a lot of educational work to be done.”

Sports won’t be enough

Furthermore, racism does not only occur in daily life or on the pitch. Since the rise of social media, it has become the norm for a football player to be active on various platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or TikTok. This new development may have a lot of advantages – but it also leaves the players vulnerable to bullying and racist attacks online.

“Racial abuse on social media can have similar effects to those experienced on the pitch, with the difference that the players can perhaps handle the situation better because they are not in the middle of a match in that moment,” Knepel says. “They could, for instance, consciously decide to not go online one or two days prior to a game to avoid reading comments.”

In order to take effective and long-term action against racism in football – and in society – there needs to be more educational work at the grassroots level, he adds.

“We all agree that it is important to tackle racism in football, and that we need a well-wrought plan in order to achieve long-term effects. This goes beyond the sports industry, because it is a social phenomenon, and we need intervention on a political level,” he explains.

“However, it is important that we address and discuss this topic and don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. As long as this injustice prevails, we have to speak out and try to go in a different direction through educational work – across the board, not only in sports, because that won’t be enough.”

Additional reading:

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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