How football is slowly starting to make the most of sports psychology

In Depth

“In life, you need to be strong. Psychologists? No.”

Claudio Ranieri’s response to being asked how he would ensure his players were mentally prepared to defend their Premier League title was somewhat surprising.

The previous three seasons had seen Leicester City achieve promotion to the top flight, avoid relegation, and then celebrate a seemingly impossible title victory. Alongside the squad throughout all that time was performance psychologist Ken Way.

In an interview with The Times, Way insisted he did not have much work on his hands as Leicester marched towards the title, but their success was certainly built on foundations of both mental and physical excellence.

In Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the Foxes could rely on the firepower of two forwards brimming with confidence. In Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, Leicester’s defence was formed around unwavering concentration.

Vardy in particular was testament to the mental improvement the squad had benefited from. While Way modestly distanced himself from the striker’s explosion of goals, he did admit that the former non-league player “suffered a little in terms of his belief” in the past.

That certainly did not seem the case as he hit 24 goals and was named Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association.

A month after Ranieri’s aforementioned comments, Way was told his services were no longer required at Leicester. Now the club are one point above the relegation zone and have failed to score a league goal in 2017, conceding 12 times.

It would be foolish to suggest Leicester’s struggles are as a direct result of Way’s absence – Way himself seems unlikely to suggest so – but Ranieri’s attitude towards sports psychology represents an archaic viewpoint in football which has only recently started to change.

Deep-rooted distrust

If you watch any coverage of football on any given weekend, you are likely to hear references to a player’s mental strength, often with the negative connotations of someone being “weak”, “fragile”, or a “bottler”. 

And yet Bradley Busch, who has worked as a sports psychologist in football for the last decade, believes the game has a deep-rooted distrust of the notion that mental attributes can be trained and developed.

He told us: “If you look back 30 or 40 years ago about the culture of football – and this applies to all areas of sports science – there was very much an attitude of ‘you either had it or you didn’t, you’re either fit or you’re not, you’re either mentally tough or you’re not’.

“So if that’s your starting point and you don’t think that these skills can be improved then you’re probably going to reject sports psychology or sports science. Football, more than other sports, is traditional in that respect of this is how it used to be done.”

Strength and conditiong and analytics, however, have gradually been embraced by football.

Players are now used to and expect to have customised diets, recovery drinks and training schedules. An increasing number choose to spend time with data analysts and will casually mention their KPIs in interviews with the press.

All of this is now taken for granted in football.

It seems strange, then, that there remains a negligence of another area which can help improve performance, especially considering the acclaim it has received in other sports such as golf, cricket and rugby.

‘All fluff and no substance’

Busch, who is currently involved with Watford and has worked individually with England internationals, says his industry is just as much to blame as football.

“For the most part of the last 20 or 30 years sports psychology has done a really bad job in football,” he says.

“It’s either been really academic, like a university lecturer, who some players find it hard to connect with, or on the flipside it’s not been scientific or based on any research at all.

“So you get these people who might be either ‘charismatic’ or they might call themselves a ‘guru’ – like Eileen Drewery – but they get found out because it’s all fluff and no substance.”

Despite lacking the resources of the cash-rich Premier League, other sports have been much quicker to realise the potential of psychology in optimising athletes’ performance.

At the London Olympics, Dr Steve Peters received plenty of plaudits for his work with British Cycling.

Victoria Pendleton described him as “the most important person in my career”.

Ahead of the games, Sir Chris Hoy said: “Without Steve, I don’t think I could have brought home triple gold from Beijing.”

Sir Bradley Wiggins, meanwhile, thanked Peters for “opening my eyes on how to approach my worries and fears and for simply being the world expert on common sense”.

Football catching on

Busch credits London 2012 with “breaking a few taboos” in football as it was highlighted that “it’s not about lying on a couch and asking you to talk about your relationship with your mother. It’s performance, and how you get better at performing.”

Peters’ work does appear to have turned a few heads in English football. The psychiatrist has since worked at Liverpool and also with the England squad at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.

Neither tournament could be considered a success, but it is important to point out that he had been a part of British Cycling since 2001. He is not a short-term fix to guarantee glory.

The most positive signs of progress are instead to be found at youth level, and it is here where both players and coaches will ultimately influence a change in attitudes.

“With other sports like golf, rugby and cricket, a lot of those you only actually sign pro-contracts after university,” Busch says. “So you’ve had a wider range of experience of contact with a wider range of people. There’s more appreciation of science as a whole.

“Whereas within the culture of football, education often isn’t placed as highly and so you get really young people – and it’s through no fault of their own – with limited experience and that often leads to a fear of the unknown.

“But I’d be keen to stress that most academies now have a sports psych as standard practice. We’re currently working at Watford and we know most other academies have one.

“Those boys growing up are now being exposed to it, so by the time they reach the first team the concept of working with a psych isn’t a big issue.”

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READ: The Big Interview: Paul Parker on the early Prem years & youth development

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While the FA are now developing their own psychology modules as part of coaching courses and Premier League clubs are advertising positions for chartered psychologists, one final hurdle which remains is the coverage of sports psychology in the media.

“I think it is starting to change much more in football,” Busch says. “I think how the media reports it is still slightly behind how football sees it. So the media will often refer to us as shrinks, but the players I work with would laugh if they referred to me as a shrink because we only talk about how you get better at football.”

“If you look at stories in the media they will often say ‘player reveals he’s seeing a sports psych’ (in May the Daily Star published a story with the headline ‘Raheem Sterling reveals he’s seeing a sports psychologist ahead of Euro 2016) and all the other sports laugh at that because why would that be something to ‘reveal’ as if it’s like a secret or a surprise – in other sports that’s called ‘Monday’.”

By Rob Conlon

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