Supporting young women on a professional football pathway

Your Resilience is Mental Health UK’s education programme that supports 14-18 -year-olds to develop the tools and knowledge on managing their own mental health through life’s transitions, both now and in the future.

Your Resilience and Manchester United

Currently delivered in the elite sports talent pathways, Your Resilience trains and educates professionals in the programme content and then co-delivers a series of workshops with them. This enables these professionals to support future cohorts of young people.

Historically, women’s professional football has received far less funding and support than men’s football which was particularly apparent during Covid-19. A survey into the impact of Covid-19 by Fifpro, the global players’ union, highlighted the fragility of women’s football and the threat posed by the crisis as a result. One of those concerns was a reported 84% of players did not receive mental health support (Fifpro, April 2020) during the pandemic.

Mark’s story and the beautiful game

Mark is a valued Training Associate for Mental Health UK’s Your Resilience programme. Below he shares his insight from a personal and professional perspective:

Having just completed delivery of my first Your Resilience programme I wanted to take some time to reflect on what I have learned and share some insight into what has proved to be such an incredibly rewarding experience.

I can remember falling in love with the beautiful game on my very first trip to Old Trafford with my dad when I was just seven years old and, having been scouted by club legend Nobby Stiles at the age of 10, my dream of one day joining my heroes was one small step closer to becoming a reality. Unfortunately a year later I was released and, although I was heartbroken, I also now recognise that this was the precise point when my own road to resilience began.

Despite my pathway to a professional player taking a different route to the one my younger self had imagined; I made it my business to begin learning through adversity and subsequently discovered that there were more powerful ways for me to develop myself as well as my talent. Two decades later, and having truly found my leadership voice, I finally earnt the right to walk into the Theatre of Dreams when I captained Stevenage to glory in the League Two Play-Off Final. As I lifted the trophy above my head in front of the same Stretford End I once sat at as a boy, I shed tears of joy. I’ll treasure that moment for the rest of my life.

Now, the reason that I share this with you is that for the past 30 years I’ve seen how the ‘power of sport’ can transform lives and have a positive impact way beyond what any individual or team can achieve on the pitch. It has shaped the person I am and equipped me with the skills to help others understand how they can reach their own potential in whatever they choose to do. It might well be a fact that there are zero guarantees in the world of professional sport, but I am someone who firmly believes that however long your journey lasts, there will always be invaluable lessons we all can extract. That ‘power of sport’ is exactly what I have experienced in my recent work with Manchester United. From the staff to the players and the culture which all co-exist. A clearly defined purpose on developing the person behind the player in the most wonderful and natural way to create a harmonious coexistence.

Stepping into a new position

I don’t mind admitting that I was feeling slightly nervous on my first drive to Eccles Sixth Form College to meet the academy staff at the beginning of this programme. Making a very different type of debut and eager to impress, those familiar butterflies soon sub-sided when I got into my delivery stride because I was made to feel so welcome as soon as I stepped foot in the door. The first week of this programme is geared towards introducing the fundamentals of Your Resilience to the coaching department, so it was very encouraging to see that additional staff members had also signed up for the session. This immediately gave me the impression that there was a key commitment from within the club to fully embrace the co-facilitation aspect of our support.

Week 2 was when I got to meet the two age groups. After having the pleasure of getting to know them over the past few months, I cannot speak highly enough of them in terms of their attitude and application towards their ongoing improvement. From the moment I asked them to share their words to contribute to their collective group contract, they have engaged with the content and, most importantly, encouraged each other to share ideas and explore the challenges that teenagers face in the modern day.

Since making my own transition out of professional sport I’ve worked with hundreds of athletes at every age and stage of their development. What I have witnessed at Manchester United has been nothing short of outstanding and all I can say is that it is these girls who have inspired me because every time I have driven home on a Monday evening, I’ve found myself shaking my head in disbelief at how impressive these young people are.

Let’s not forget that they are attempting to succeed in one of the most competitive industries there will ever be. So they must learn effective ways to juggle their intense training schedule whilst pursuing their academic aspirations and managing the ever-changing social dynamics within their own friendship circles. Of course, it could be said that this is the reality for any future professional athlete but what this generation must also now contend with is the added pressures of social media and the unknown lasting impact of the pandemic.

That’s why these girls have my utmost respect, and it’s why I wanted to shine a light on their progress and congratulate the people I’ve met.

I have learnt that mistakes are positive things and that they help you grow. I have also learnt that a good balance between your inner coach and inner critic is a perfect way to be resilient. It also has taught me how to be organised and when to balance schoolwork and football.

– Manchester United U14’s

Learning coping strategies to help with things such as exam stress and friendship. Learning that organisation helps and so does turning technology off and doing something relaxing and enjoyable for you.

– Manchester United U16’s

A lasting impression

When I sat down at the end of the programme to review their feedback it brought the biggest smile to my face because it simply confirmed what I already knew – self-aware individuals fully capable of articulating their opinions with confidence and clarity in their own unique style.

This is exactly how it should be – resilience in action! They are a credit to their families, their club and themselves. I wish the team the best of luck on their onward journeys. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with such a special team and thank them for allowing me to play my part.

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