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Common Goal's Create the Space programme

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With mental health still a difficult subject in football, charitable movement Common Goal is spearheading a new initiative to improve mental well-being at all levels of the sport.

Common Goal founders Juan Mata and Jürgen Griesbeck at UEFA HQ
Common Goal founders Juan Mata and Jürgen Griesbeck at UEFA HQ UEFA

Whether you are a world-class footballer with a drawer full of winners’ medals or a youngster playing with friends at the local park, everyone is susceptible to struggles with mental health. Recent studies have underlined how acute mental-health issues have become in the game, and yet the subject remains one of football’s taboos. Which is why Common Goal, a partner of the UEFA Foundation, is looking within and beyond the game to foster a healthier outlook on mental well-being.

"Everyone has their own mental-health journey that fluctuates between mild, moderate and severe challenges, whether you’re playing in the Premier League, Women’s Super League or are a young person from London," says Jürgen Griesbeck, the CEO and co-founder of Common Goal. "A lot of what Common Goal does has touched on the subject but less so addressed it head on. In the last few years, with the rise in awareness around mental-health issues, within and outside football, from both elite players and young people alike, it felt like the time for action."

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Griesbeck set up Common Goal along with former Manchester United and Spain midfielder Juan Mata in 2017, and since then the movement has promoted causes including equal representation, LGBTQ+ rights, anti-racism and environmental action, using football as a force for positive change. Now, through its Create the Space programme, Common Goal aims to equip the sport with the knowledge and resources to understand, prevent and deal with mental-health issues.

"We mean to go beyond simply raising awareness," says Griesbeck. "While in the past the issue was rarely discussed openly, both the game and our world demand action if we are to have an impact. Through Create the Space, as of 2024 we will have two residencies taking place in the UK and the US to tackle mental-health challenges in football, working with players, clubs, mental-health experts and community organisations. As we’re seeing through the players involved, in the likes of Ben Chilwell, Beth Mead, Molly Bartrip, Viv Miedema, Naomi Girma, and Sérgio Oliveira, they want to go beyond talking. They want action and this is their platform to do so.

"Addressing mental health can also mean learning to be resilient; it means ritualising discomfort, normalising sharing and developing skills for deep listening – all positive traits. While we might be aware of therapy, less so are we of a daily set of practices and habits that can deepen self-understanding, awareness and enhance acceptance and ultimately a happier and healthier industry."

In the United Kingdom, Common Goal, which is also supported by UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin, will team up with Football Beyond Borders to pilot Therapists in Tracksuits, a year-long scheme which will engage football-for-good bodies and youth academies to learn new skills and practices, and embed mental health at the heart of their organisations. The goal will be to empower what Griesbeck calls "mental-health champions" through a series of residencies, monthly reflective practice groups and year-round mentoring.

"A mental-health champion within football can be anyone, no matter the level, whether from the grassroots to the elite level of the game: a player, coach, physio, kit person, fan or CEO. As long as we’re able to provide support to our peers in overcoming mental-health challenges, we can all play an active role in creating a supporting environment for everyone. It helps to have elite players and ultimately role models being so open and willing to share their own experiences. But to help make football a psychologically safe environment, it’s important we operate across the entire football ecosystem."

The potential to harness the sport to truly improve mental well-being seems clear. "Football remains a shining light in difficult times and can be a tool to help," adds Griesbeck. "Let’s maximise its potential to do so."

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