The man trying to stop PL players being ‘scared’ of psychology in football

In Depth

Before every upcoming fixture in which he plays, Wayne Rooney asks his club’s kitman what colour strip he will be wearing so he can visualise himself performing well in as much detail as possible.

Gael Clichy, meanwhile, prepares by meditating, using a method called Yoga Nidra to help him “block out the negative self-talk”, stop overthinking things and “encourage positive thoughts”.

Fabian Delph, on the other hand, rebuilt his confidence after a series of injuries by learning about his body objectively – “as if it were detached from me” – alongside mindfulness exercises like meditative breathing and visualisation.

Crucially, none of these things involve the physical act of playing football and are instead focused on preparing and improving the mind.

Equally importantly, none of the techniques were prescribed or suggested by clubs, with the players discovering for themselves what works best.

“Football doesn’t teach players how to handle these situations,” Delph says, “leaving them in a place that affects their well-being.”

With his new book ‘Soccology: Inside the Hearts and Minds of the Professionals on the Pitch’, former West Ham and Charlton player Kevin George explores the psycho-emotional side of the football, highlighting the lack of attention paid to one of the most important aspects of the game.

Delph and Clichy are among the current professionals to speak to George about their own experiences for the book, while former Crystal Palace and Norwich City striker Leon McKenzie reveals the bleak situations which led to his failed suicide attempt when playing for Charlton.

But George still found it difficult to get some players to speak about the subject.

“It was a mixed bag,” he says. “I wanted to tell the story of players across generations, but I found that people were scared.

“Some were very open to speak and were really happy because they don’t often get asked about this side of the game and they’re really passionate about it. But there was some reluctance elsewhere because they were scared.

“It was unbelievable for them to talk about it. They would share stories with me but then say, ‘But please don’t tell anyone.’

“I was like, ‘Come on guys!’ Sometimes it would be a player who had already had their career and it’s like, ‘You could really help someone here.’

“I do understand, though, because there might be a backlash or the media might spin it. I had some quite high-profile players pull out at the last minute and sometimes they just worry a bit much because they just get criticised.”

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

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Soccology is as much about psychology, human interaction and how the culture we are brought up in shapes and affects us as it is about mental health.

But George suggests there is still plenty of misinformation about the subject.

“Even now, mental health is a massive part of the conversation in the world, but nobody actually knows what they’re talking about. When we have Mental Health Awareness Week, people say, ‘Do this, do that.’

“No! We’re not talking about mental illness. We all have mental health. We all get anxious. Anxiety can be good. I needed a little bit of anxiety to play football. Too much anxiety is obviously going to create a bit of an overload.

“But the psychology of football isn’t really mental health anyway. And this is why psychology is important because I feel like we don’t acknowledge the intelligence of a footballer.

“We talk about habits and decision-making, but nobody teaches them. Habits are unconscious competence.

“Look at David Beckham, David Beckham practised free-kicks so he knew where to hit the ball. We always focus on the action, but it’s knowing how to do the action that’s the key.

“When David Beckham took that free-kick against Greece, sure he will have felt a bit of pressure, but he will have felt so at home and so comfortable that the pressure won’t disturb the physical action.”

George attributes part of the lack of awareness and understanding about psychology to the media’s coverage, which he says provides a discourse “so service level I think it is quite embarrassing”.

“The media play a massive part in it, but I also think society plays a part, too. It’s a bit of a cycle really, they’re in tandem with one and other.

‘Attitudes are changing’

“It is changing, but if you look at how men were told to be masculine and protect themselves and not be vulnerable, a lot of those guys we now listen to as pundits.

“When Karius made those mistakes against Madrid, Dietmar Hamann criticised his reaction for pleading with the fans. He criticised him for how he expressed his reaction.

“I thought, ‘How ironic, shortly after mental health awareness week, when we say people should speak, we then go and criticise them for how they speak.’

“Attitudes are changing, and you can see that with Karius and a few other players. Before, you could only cry if you were passionate. Gazza was allowed to cry, that was a perfect moment, but then in other scenarios you couldn’t do that.

“Now players feel – and I’m not saying 100% of the time – but they feel comfortable enough to just be in the moment.”

After leaving Charlton, George worked as an actor, playing the role of Durant Thomas in Dream Team before studying counselling and psychotherapy and becoming a human performance consultant, working in schools and prisons.

More recently, George has begun to work with Premier League clubs, but he still hesitates when asked whether younger players are now more receptive to the subject.

“They’re a bit like how I was. It was like when I was told a guy from the PFA was coming in and you see someone walk in wearing a suit and you don’t really know who he is or care what he’s on about, you just want to train.

“But it’s getting better. And I understand that when I’m in a room, a lot of the stuff I’m asking them to do is quite difficult. Most people are so used to being closed that when someone asks you to open up it’s not going to happen straight away.

“I’ve got to get through all these layers, especially with guys. I’ve got to get past the ego, maybe some personal stuff, maybe there’s nobody they think they can trust. I’ve got to get past any fear.

“They’re going to think, ‘When Kevin leaves, I’ve got to be around these players still, so whatever this is, how am I going to manage what comes after today?’

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READ: The techniques a sports psychologist uses to help footballers’ confidence

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“I’m very aware of that, I try and make it all about awareness and not get too deep. I know I’m going to get resistance so I explain my past and what I do and then make sure when they do put up resistance I challenge it.

“A lot of people in that environment – and I’m talking about managers as well – are scared. When you challenge the players and the managers it’s something they’re not used to. And I’ll tell you what, you see the floodgates of their emotions just open up.

“It’s something different for them. I tell them, ‘I expect you to be open and honest and transparent, and if I expect that of you, I need to be that too.’”

A phrase George can’t help but return to is ‘emotional literacy’ which also features heavily throughout the book. And he believes that is the key to many problems not just in football, but society as a whole.

“It’s about being able to acknowledge our feelings, understanding them and managing them, empathising with other people, looking at the relationship between the two and acting accordingly.

“It’s massive and we lack that. This is why I do it. When you look at that, if everyone was more emotionally intelligent, most of our problems we wouldn’t even have.”

Soccology: Inside the Hearts and Minds of the Professionals on the Pitch by Kevin George is out now.

By Rob Conlon

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