Young footballers must receive more gambling education, says leading sports psychotherapist Steve Pope.
Pope, who has worked with many football clubs and players, has told Sky Sports News there is a collective “duty to educate” youngsters about the risks and says their compulsive nature can potentially lead to serious addiction.
The Premier League and EFL, working closely with the FA and PFA, already have programmes in place that include gambling education for young footballers, while other professional sports run similar schemes.
However, with previous research showing footballers are more likely to have gambling problems than other young people, as well as recent claims that the number of addiction cases among professionals has increased since the first coronavirus lockdown, Pope insists there is always room to improve.
“If we take these young footballers into the football world and into football academies, then we really do have a duty to educate these children because they are obsessive compulsive by nature – you have to be to do the same routine day after day,” Pope told Sky Sports News.
“You’ve got to explain to them how that compulsive nature is a real positive in that it can drive you through your career and you can do very well, but if it goes into negative areas then it can lead to tremendous addiction problems.
“There’s a whole list of names of great footballers, genius footballers who have gone from the positive high of playing great games, scoring great goals and being members of great teams, to the very lonely high of putting money on roulette tables, so we have to educate the kids more. That’s what we have to do in football.
“They have to be really aware of the potential problems. That’s a massive part of what I see as the way forward.”
Pope ‘inundated with cases’ since lockdown
On Monday, Sporting Chance CEO Colin Bland told Sky Sports News the number of professional sportspeople seeking help for gambling addiction has increased since the first coronavirus lockdown.
Pope says he has also noticed a rise in cases in his work, claiming the number of footballers reaching out has tripled since March.
“It’s increased to a level where we were certainly inundated with cases, and gambling has links with other addictive cycles as well,” Pope said.
“This year with the pandemic, everything has peaked. The addictive patterns of how one displays their mental health issues have trebled with footballers and because of the lockdowns, a lot of the support groups are online and that doesn’t produce the best results – you need to see people face to face.
“We’re certainly getting a few more calls from clubs, wanting people like me to go in and talk to the young players.”
Footballers are ‘seekers of the high’
The life of a professional footballer is full of travel, training and the adrenaline rush of performing before crowds, but there is also a lot of free time to fill.
“Gambling for footballers is always teasing and tempting them,” Pope said.
“They have a lot of time on their hands, they spend a lot of time on coaches and a lot of time travelling.
“At the moment footballers seem to be playing a game every two or three days, so the laptop and the phone becomes a way of unwinding, but then the compulsive nature of having a little flutter can sometimes become a major addictive habit.
“It’s the high they crave because that’s what they’re trained to be – the seekers of the high, the perfectionist footballer.
“We train them to be that and if they can’t get their high on the football pitch, or they want a high away from the football pitch and it’s not in the glare of publicity, it’s not where the fans can see them and they’re not going to get an article in the papers, then gambling’s an easy option.”
‘Asking for help is the biggest step’
Feeling embarrassed and being judged are perhaps two of the biggest fears professional sportspeople face when they are thinking about reaching out.
Pope has urged those struggling to seek support, insisting gambling addiction is “nothing to be ashamed of”.
“If gambling or another addictive issue is getting to a level where it affects your work, your training, your sleep patterns, your family life, your relationships, your moral standards – then please reach out and ask for help,” Pope said.
“It’s an ever-increasing problem that affects ever-increasing numbers of our population. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“One of the cards that life has dealt us is that we have an addictive nature. That’s what makes you a good footballer, that’s what makes you a good sportsperson, but it also leads you into wanting more and more of the high, and you’ll go to any lengths in order to get it.
“It’s about being honest, not feeling judged, not feeling criticised and combining as a team to defeat the addictive cycle.
“Addiction is never beaten, it’s put in remission and you have to work a programme of some kind to make sure it stays cornered. Asking for help is the biggest step, but once that’s done your life can quickly return back to normal.”
Brigid Simmonds, chair of the Betting and Gaming Council, says the gambling industry has “safer gambling at the heart of everything they do”.
The Betting and Gaming Council works closely with the Gambling Commission – the country’s regulatory body for gambling – and aims to ensure an “enjoyable, fair and safe betting and gaming experience” for all its customers.
Earlier this year, a £10m national gambling education and support programme for young people was launched by the Betting and Gaming Council. With its members providing independent funding, the initiative is delivered by the charities YGAM and GamCare.
“All our members are absolutely committed to this. They have safer gambling at the heart of everything they do,” Simmonds said.
“In the past year we’ve introduced everything from advertising restrictions to whistle-to-whistle bans, so you now don’t see advertising on television five minutes before or five minutes after and that’s seen a 97 per cent reduction in advertisements seen by young people.
“We’ve made changes to our customer codes to make sure you can’t gamble under 25 without really specific information. We’re also making changes to game design.
“We’re about to go into a gambling review by the government which we welcome and we will be building on these changes.”
The UK government is expected to launch a public consultation over the future of gambling regulation before Christmas. It is a significant review of policy, so wants to consider all views before establishing whether to change its existing regulations.
Safer Gambling Week is an industry-led campaign taking place from November 19-25 to encourage more conversations about the importance of safe betting.
The whole of the UK and Irish gambling industry, including bookmakers, amusement arcades, bingo clubs, casinos and online, has come together to support the week, which includes the promotion of workshops and training sessions.
As part of Safer Gambling Week, Sky Sports News’ chief reporter Bryan Swanson answers some key questions as the gambling industry promotes more conversations in sport.