Study provides new findings on mental health in football

Mental health is a sensitive topic. It is rarely talked about openly. Unfortunately, (professional) football is no exception. Although progress has been made in recent years and openness is increasing, "Unfortunately, mental health is often wrongly equated with mental strength in football. This makes it difficult for those affected to speak openly," stressed Lina Bürger, sports psychologist at the TSG Academy.

With her master's thesis, which she completed in 2023, Bürger now wants to help break down the taboos even further. The former professional footballer took a novel approach for her study in collaboration with the TSG ResearchLab. The result is a thesis that provides important insights – for theoretical work and, above all, for practical applications.

In her main job, Lina Bürger works as a sports psychologist at the TSG Academy, supporting teams from the U12s to U14s. For her study, she expanded her field of view: the 28-year-old worked with all TSG Hoffenheim teams over the course of an entire season (2022/23). She used scientific questionnaires to ask 205 players about symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders – from the U12s right up to the first teams (men and women).

To do this, the sports psychologist had to get close to a total of 11 Hoffenheim teams – a unique project over such a long period of time in competitive sport. And one that could only work on the basis of mutual trust.

The players were interviewed a total of four times during the season. Their answers always remained anonymous. Bürger's final task was to digitise the data and draw conclusions from the results. She was supported not only by Dr. Lena Steindorf from the ResearchLab, but also by all the Hoffenheim coaches involved. In addition, the other sports psychologists from the TSG Academy – Katharina Söhnlein, Jan Deneke und Nicola Kemmerling ­– also helped.

Analysis over time as a fundamental difference from previous studies

The collected data provided answers to questions about how players felt at the start of the season – and how that changed during the season. The study thus shows a progression over the course of time. This is the main difference between the published scientific papers on mental health in football and other sports.

Specifically, the 205 players' responses confirmed, among other things:

  • even top athletes can be affected by depression and anxiety;
  • a football season can be debilitating not only for the body, but also for mental health, and symptoms of depression increase during the season;
  • at the beginning of the second half of the season round in winter, the players’ feelings of angst increase significantly.

"The study also showed that there are signs of depression and anxiety even in the TSG environment. Now we want to take action as a club to provide the best possible support to those affected and to raise awareness of the entire system," stressed Lina Bürger.

As a first step, the TSG psychologists presented the results to the coaches at the TSG Academy during workshops. Workshops for the players are planned. There will also be an exchange with both the Robert Enke Foundation and the specialist department at Heidelberg University Hospital.

"There has never been a study like this before"

"I am very pleased that TSG has given such extensive support to this study. The fact that we have been given this opportunity as part of our research project is something special and not just a matter of course," Lina Bürger emphasised in closing, thanking all those who have made her work possible.

The results of the study are now the starting point for further work. Jan Spielmann, managing director at the ResearchLab, said: "The results have shown us the need for further education for high-level football. We can see results similar to those of ordinary people, but football's power to influence people can help to bring this very important issue into the spotlight. For one thing applies to competitive sports as well as to other areas of society: health is the basis of any potential development".

TSG’s goal is and will remain to continuously expand the offerings and contact points for the players in order to provide them with an environment in which they can open up when they need to. In other words: this sensitive issue can and must be discussed.

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