Top L to R: Chris Hanson, Nigel O’Flaherty Johnson, Brett Delaney
Bottom L to R: Laura Hanson, Sophie Warden, Lotty Steel

Researchers at Edge Hill University have partnered with a new mental health initiative to support the families of professional athletes. 

The University has joined forces with Beyond the Sidelines (BTS), Rugby League Cares and Leeds Rhinos to support the development of a unique holistic family support programme in the professional sports industry. 

Founded by and for professional athlete families, BTS is a unique membership service that drives social support through its community and recognises the need for greater mental health and wellbeing support for the families of professional athletes.  

Until now, there has been no initiative that exists to support the mental health of families of athletes and research in this area across the globe is limited. To address this, BTS has partnered with researchers at Edge Hill to better understand the mental health of families of professional athletes and to inform the development of a holistic family support programme in the professional sports industry. 

Andy Smith, Professor of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill, said: We are delighted to partner with BTS, Rugby League Cares and Leeds Rhinos to support the mental health of families of professional athletes.  

“Much of the existing research focuses on the lives of athletes and the mental health challenges they experience. Relatively little is known about the mental health of the partners and families of professional athletes and how this can, and often does, impact the lives of the athletes themselves.” 

Research has indicated that professional athletes divorce at a significantly higher rate than the general population, with some studies estimating this to be as high as 70 per cent or above.  

Prof Smith added: “There are also many other impacts on the lives of professional athletes and their families that need to be better understood and supported. To that end, the creation of BTS provides an important opportunity to help support professional athlete families to lead a happier, content and longer-term family life and we look forward to working with them and Rugby League Cares to achieve this”. 

With the support of the University’s Student Opportunity Fund, Edge Hill Sports Coaching and Development student, Sophie Warden, is currently undertaking a six-week paid internship with BTS to conduct a comparative review of the mental health support programmes that exist in other industries, such as military and medical settings. 

Sophie said: “While completing my undergraduate placement with BTS, I quickly became very invested in the project and the values that underpin it. Throughout my research, what has stood out to me was the complete lack of identity some partners of professional athletes experience. Sadly, in some circumstances, they feel that almost everything about them is identified through the athlete and not their own individuality.  

“It highlighted how overlooked this issue has been for a long time, and hopefully initiatives such as BTS can provide a platform to raise awareness of the problem.” 

Sophie Warden

Sophie, 23, has been involved in athletics since the age of seven and is a 400-metre hurdler, having recently placed second at the Northern Championships. In her spare time, she volunteers as a coach for junior athletes at her local training centre, Preston Harriers. 

After her internship with BTS completes, she hopes to continue volunteering for the programme alongside studying a Masters in Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health at Edge Hill. 

Sophie added: “As an athlete myself, I must admit that previously I never really thought about what my partner was going through. The mental health implications can be enormous and BTS has sparked my desire to think about how that I can use my degree and experiences to help other people.” 

BTS was formed by two partners of professional athletes, Lotty Steel and Laura Hanson, and Nigel O’Flaherty Johnston, Director of Swan Counselling, Mentoring and Coaching (CMC) who has been the Welfare Officer for Leeds Rhinos for four years. 

Nigel O’Flaherty Johnston, Director of Swan CMC said: “Over the past few years there has been a shift in focus to the mental health of the athlete being just as important as their physical health in ensuring optimum performance. I am supporting more and more partners and families in dealing with both the impact on the mental health of the athlete in challenging times, but equally their own, providing them with coping mechanisms and tools to deal with the impact of such instances as athlete injury or retirement”.  

Laura Hanson BTS Founder and partner of professional golfer Chris Hanson said “Many people have the view that being a partner of a professional athlete is ‘glamourous’. Don’t get me wrong, being in the pro sport industry brings many highs but what people don’t see are the lows, challenges and pressures it can bring on the family. We need a more holistic support system that works both on the pitch and ‘Beyond the Side-lines’ – one that supports the athlete but also those closest to them with the emotional tools required to deal with the challenging times that a professional sporting career can bring and support a long term successful, happy family life.”  

Lotty Steel BTS Founder and partner of retired professional rugby league player Brett Delaney said: “Life as a partner of a pro-athlete can be a rollercoaster; being able to talk to others who had experienced similar situations alongside regular catch ups with Nigel at the Rhinos meant I was more emotionally equipped to deal with the challenges that retirement and a career ending injury brought for Brett and our home lives. We are passionate about transitioning this change in the sporting industry, so that more families of athletes across all sports have access to the support we’ve had and the benefits that a more holistic support system can bring to family lives”. 

Steve McCormack, Head of Welfare, Rugby League Cares said: “We are focused on providing a holistic support programme through our player welfare programme. BTS complements our efforts perfectly. Positive supportive relationships are an essential aspect in all our lives. The team at BTS understand this and can support from multiple perspectives, but more importantly come at their support from the perspective of a pro athlete partner. A happy health family life ultimately leads to the delivery of our goal of a flourishing, successful athlete.”  

Kevin Sinfield, Director of Rugby, Leeds Rhinos said: “We are delighted at Leeds Rhinos to be supporting the ‘Beyond the Sidelines’ project. We have seen in recent years how important a holistic approach to player welfare is and how that benefits the player and the club as a whole. We are proud to think of our team as a family and ‘Beyond the Sidelines’ offers a way for us to support our players at home as well as in the work place.” 

Beyond the Sidelines launched on Tuesday 6th July at an exclusive workshop for Leeds Rhinos partners and families.  It will offer free membership to families of ALL professional sport athletes enabling them to access online workshops, resources, peer mentor support and family counselling services. The next 12 months seeks to grow their trusted members community, developing new research with Edge Hill University, and running a workshop and peer mentor trial with Leeds Rhinos partners and families.  

Visit www.beyondthesidelines.co.uk for more information or if you are partner of or a family member of professional athlete and would like to become a member, you can sign up via the website or email hello@beyondthesidelines.co.uk.