At 10:36am on January 26 2024, an announcement from one of football’s most respected managers rocked fans across the world: Jürgen Klopp had decided to leave Liverpool FC.
As a Liverpool FC fan, I did a double take when my mobile pinged with the news alert and I experienced a moment of shock and a sense of loss. Klopp has had an enormous impact on football – and it seems that his legacy will continue to be felt long after his exit from Anfield.
Klopp’s announcement was accompanied by a 25 minute interview, during which the football manager outlined his reasons for leaving. “My energy source is not endless”, he explained, implying that his general wellbeing had diminished over time.
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Wellbeing and high performance football coaches
Wellbeing is a complex concept that encompasses how a person feels as well as how they function – it speaks to how satisfied they are with their whole life.
My research focuses on how professional football coaches experience and make sense of wellbeing. I interviewed coaches to ask what they think wellbeing is and how they experience it. They discussed how their physical and mental energy is influenced by a combination of factors, including their home and work lives and relationships with colleagues and family. Their focus on energy aligns with Klopp’s own reflections. Several coaches also admitted during this research that it was their first opportunity to speak openly about their wellbeing.
That’s perhaps unsurprising. After all, high performance coaches rarely speak publicly about their wellbeing. By speaking openly and honestly, Klopp has set a precedent for other football coaches – and his interview could leave a lasting legacy for the sport.
Vulnerability and abuse in high-performance sport
High-performance sports environments aren’t always safe for athletes and managers to talk about feeling vulnerable or ask for support, because doing so can be perceived as a sign of weakness.
However, research has shown that there should be more conversations about vulnerability in high performance sports given that athletes and managers are at higher risk of being attacked, harmed or injured, either physically or emotionally.
Unfortunately, there have been many examples over the last few years, including the assault on Newcastle manager Eddie Howe by a fan in 2023. Several footballers have reported the abuse they receive both on and off the pitch. And it’s not just players and managers who’re affected: Premier League referee Mike Dean stood down in February 2021 after he and his family received death threats.
My research has shown that the verbal abuse and stressors experienced by Premier League managers doesn’t just affect their wellbeing but that of their families, too. In 2021, for ezample, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta disclosed that his family had received threats through social media.
One of the main contributing factors to the relentless abuse and lack of support is football’s masculine culture.
Win at all costs
Men’s football culture is synonymous with aggressive masculinity. There is a win-at-all-costs mentality and an expectation to conform to socially desirable gender norms and behaviours, such as partaking in banter or abusive behaviour – often at the expense of those displaying vulnerability.
For example, in my research, one of the coaches relayed an incident when they asked for wellbeing support and was told to “f*** off” by their manager. Unsurprisingly, then, many don’t always feel safe enough to display any signs of vulnerability, sometimes through fear of losing their job. Consequently, seeking support for mental health is often stigmatised in male football.
In comparison, professional football coaches have not been as forthcoming – until now.
Klopp is encouraging other coaches to prioritise their well-being
Klopp’s honesty about his circumstances could pave the way for coaches to be more open about their wellbeing and destigmatise displays of vulnerability.
The effect of Klopp’s interview seemed to be immediate. Within 24 hours, Barcelona manager Xavi voiced his own wellbeing struggles and announced that he too would be stepping down. “I’ve been a man of the club. I’ve prioritised it above even myself. I’ve given everything I have,” he said “From a mental health level, it’s tough … the battery levels keep running out.” His statement echoed the sentiments of Klopp and the coaches who participated in our research.
Hopefully, such announcements are an indication of things to come – more high performance sports coaches helping to reshape the culture of men’s football for the better.
Andrew Higham does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.