Player Engagement Critical To The Future Of The Non League Game

Results from a recent survey indicate that nearly a fifth of first team players in the Toolstation Western League have considered leaving the non-league game as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Other findings from the Player Welfare survey, conducted for the League’s Board by Cognisant Research, also found that as many as 77% of players are not full vaccinated and a quarter had considered seeking help for mental health issues.

The survey was initiated by the Western League at the start of this season, following concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on non-league footballers and coaches. Clubs were invited to share a confidential link to an online survey with their players and coaching staff, between July 20th and September 27th 2021, achieving 76 completed interviews, 40 of whom were first team players.

A quarter (25%) of those responding to the survey had considered leaving the non-league game as a result of the pandemic, rising to 42% of the managers / coaches participating. In terms of players, the number considering leaving was 18%, increasing to 38% of players aged 26-29. This was also the age group that felt they were most behind in their footballing development after the past year, with 63% of participants indicating that this was the case.

On the subject of vaccination, 41% of respondents were not yet fully vaccinated, rising to 67% of first team players. To put this into context, the BBC[1] reported on October 19th that 68% of Premier League footballers were fully vaccinated. Whilst the Western League research pre-dates the BBC report, it’s still important to consider how many young people are not yet fully vaccinated. The research suggests that the lowest level of protection exists amongst 22-25 year olds with only 12% fully vaccinated, although three quarters of players aged 26 to 29 indicated they were not fully vaccinated at the time of completing the survey.

As well as looking at physical health the survey also considered mental health, with around a quarter of players and coaches participating indicating that they have considered seeking support for a mental health issues at some time. Looking at the players by age, nearly two fifths (38%) of those aged 26-29 had considered seeking support for a metal health issue. Only 5% of players reported being the victim of physical, verbal or online abuse. However, this figure increased to nearly a quarter of the coaches / managers responding.

Responding to this study, Ian Nockolds, Research Director at Cognisant Research, contextualised what these results mean for Western League Clubs and the non-league game; “Obviously we hoped for greater participation, but I don’t know of any other League that has proactively sought to understand how players are feeling, both physically and mentally. I see this as the start of a process to look at players welfare and the more work we do, the more people involved in the game will see the value in participating in studies like this.”

The number of people participating in football in England has been declining since 2017[2] and this trend is likely to be made worse by the Coronavirus pandemic, as players found other things to fill their time during lockdown. If a fifth of Western League players are genuinely considering leaving the non-league game, then it’s important for Clubs to understand what they value in life and where football fits into their priorities. Seeing family and friends was seen as very important by the same proportion of players (78%) who considered playing football as very important. Therefore, the relationship between family, friends and football should be explored by Clubs wishing to retain players in the game, particularly those aged 26-29 who are most likely to feel they are behind in their footballing development and most likely to have considered leaving the game.