Updated: Mar 17, 2021
A professional athlete would never want to think about a time when they can’t play the sport they have devoted so much time and effort too. Some don’t even get started before the dream of representing a team is taken away.
Education is key to what James Chiffi, the founder of Beyond The White Line, is trying to achieve.
“Within sport, in particular, there's not a lot of education, it's very much like, we'll take care of that for you, whether it's through an agent or through someone connected to an agent. These external parties come in, and it’s like, leave it with us. The problem you have is, there's risk, huge risk that they may be getting ill-advised, they may not be getting the right advice for their individual situation”
James started out in the music industry and he found that within that industry there was no support for people once they had outlived their worth to record companies or promoters.
“The big turning point for me was one of the artists I was working with, who'd had quite a high degree of success, platinum records, national radio DJ, resident at several well-established clubs, was like, I've never really thought of life outside of music”
“I could really see the challenge and the fear, not only their eyes, but a lot of people getting turfed out of the industry, not really knowing what to do with themselves, having had everyone during their time, take their little piece, whether it's the labels, publishers, artists, management, like myself, everyone's taking their little bit, no one's really looking out for the individual. I could see the parallels between that and professional sport. I'm very passionate about it and take a lot of pleasure out of it as a fan. I could see that the problems weren't only magnified within sport, the numbers were incredible”
Athlete welfare, the main priority for BTWL, James admitted that social media played some part in the way they wanted people to see them outside of sport.
“I think it'd be naive to say doesn't play a part. But I don't think it's the biggest issue. The kind of like, public posturing, peacocking, whatever you want to call it, it's an issue, of course, but I don't think it's the issue”
You’d think that this would be something mainly for professional sports like Rugby, Football, Cricket, but James has found more niche sports, for example, triathletes and cyclists have been getting in contact, with very different reasons.
“I know in cycling, for example, challenges around the equality of pay in a competition. You can be riding the same course, the same distances, the same parts of the same teams. But on the men's side, I think they're getting something like 95% of the purse, whereas the women are only getting 5%. huge disparity and challenges in that area there.”
James continued with the equality of pay, as International Woman’s Day had just passed, and makes references to the first female National Football League coach, Dr Jen Welter.
“She's an incredible person to speak to. She said, People often say, girls don't throw as well, girls don't kick as well, that girl that you're referencing, is picking up the ball for the first time, at 12 or 13, that boy that you're comparing her to has had a ball in his hands since he could walk. He's had a dozen more year’s opportunity, more experience, more practice. It’s not an equal playing field is not it's not comparable yet.”
BTWL will be operationally live as from March and they have designed an app for athletes to get in contact with them directly
“We're looking to launch the first wellness app in the UK, NHS approved for early detection, prevention around mental wellbeing. It’s got a text-based chat service. All these athletes, stakeholders have, at their fingertips, access to support within 30/60 seconds, which is amazing”
“They can just drop a message, ‘Hey, I'm struggling’. A therapist, backed by clinical support can come to them and go, ‘Hey, we're here, let's engage’ so immediately removes the opportunity for the issue to embed further and if intervention is required, it can be obviously done or administered.”
“That time between the thought, the challenge presenting itself to that individual, and getting support is diminished greatly. I absolutely believe that it's a game changer.”
The text-based app is something that’s come from talking to athletes about how they would normally contact someone, with text being a very easy way of communication
“In terms of the feedback from athletes is, the first thing is ‘we don't want to tell our employer’. ‘If we're struggling, I don't always want to go and tell the coach, the gaffer, that I'm struggling, because I fear that might impact my position, my selection within that organisation, my contract renewal’. There's no anonymity, a lot of athletes want that. Brings it back to that mental health professional, we wouldn't have to necessarily make anyone aware, that could be something that we could do privately, have that relationship with that individual so that we have that peace of mind that it’s a very private conversation, we're getting the support we need”
The concept to educate at the start, from academies, is a point that James makes very clear.
“A big red flag for me is within the academies, that eight to 18. Sadly, four in four months, young men lost their lives, who've been within the academy system and come out of that. Now, whether those individual situations were directly linked to their time in the academies and all that coming to an end, is still to be understood. We're hearing a lot of people suggest that they're crying out for help”
It isn’t just the younger athletes that will gain the full potential from BTWL.
“Currently, we're going in with some academies. U17s, U16s, that kind of age group, right the way up to senior squads across several schools. we're working with Katrina Johnson Thompson and Liverpool football club Foundation's new Academy. There'll be a range of ages represented. Age isn't really a thing for us”
James is confident that this will develop greatly over the next 12 months and beyond
“We'd have data and metrics from the case studies that we're rolling out with the FAW and other organisations like the KJT Academy. You’d see a lot more data coming out and impact statements from BTWL. The big one for me is having a massive impact within the academy sets up and the mental wellbeing of young athletes, I think BTWL, a year from now, we'll have had impacts in many different areas that we've touched on at the top. Issues of racism, homophobia, gender equality, the mental physical wellbeing financial wellbeing education, all of the things you'll see incremental growth in all these areas. But for me, the big ones to address today, safeguarding, education and mental wellbeing of young athletes, I think they're a big, vulnerable category and we need to get on that today.”