Sport psychology in football is growing and gaining more recognition in the media which was helped by England bringing Dr. Steve Peters to Brazil as part of their 2014 World Cup staff after a successful season with Liverpool. Despite this, unlike the other sport sciences it is still not fully accepted by all which is highlighted by Swansea who believe they were the first team in the Premier League to hire a performance psychologist on a full time basis during their 2014 pre-season. There are numerous barriers stopping sport psychology from playing the role it should within football a few of which will be discussed in this article.
A lack of exposure to sport psychology means people don’t understand what it is or what it looks like in practice. This lack of knowledge can impact on perceptions as they don’t realise the benefits. The misconception still exists that sport psychologists are only there to cure people who have a psychological problem which is nonsense. A sport psychologist’s job is to improve performance by helping players remain focussed during games so they don’t concede late goals and to find psychological techniques that work for the centre forward, helping them to score more goals. If a player has a mental health issue they will be referred to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist as this is not the sport psychologist’s area of expertise. Coaches’ lack of knowledge regarding sport psychology has been reported throughout professional football clubs from academy to first team level. It’s amazing how coaches can go through all of their coaching badges yet still have a poor understanding of sport psychology. This shows how sport psychology is being undervalued on coach education courses which prioritises the other components of performance.
When a sport psychologist is hired they will usually be part time and come in a few days a week and have meetings with the players away from the pitch. Swansea deserve credit for breaking this trend by having their Sport Psychologist Ian Mitchell wearing the same tracksuit as the rest of the staff and being immersed with the rest of the coaching staff on the pitch each day. This transition was eased as Ian Mitchell comes from a football background and can speak their language, which may be one of the keys for sport psychologist’s to be granted this access. This has coincided with Swansea having their best ever finish in the Premier League although Mitchell will be first to admit it wasn’t solely down to him. The fact that most teams don’t have a sport psychologist on the pitch with the rest of the support staff results in the sport psychologist appearing less valued, doesn’t allow immersion with the team, and shows how coaches prioritise technical, physical, and tactical components of training. The value of having a sport psychologist on the training pitch cannot be underestimated. They can see if training practices and delivery are optimal to ensure players are taking on the manager’s tactical ideas which can be the difference between winning and losing the next match. Alongside this they can also get to know the players by observing the dynamics of the group and observing how players react to certain situations providing the manager with key information. Many believe the manager is there to deal with group dynamics and motivating players which was highlighted by Roy Keane who said: “The sports psychologist should be the manager… Brian Clough was the best sports psychologist for me and Alex Ferguson was good.” He is right to an extent as the manager should be the motivator and lead the group but the sport psychologist can help facilitate this process by being a sounding board for the manager and should be a vital member of the pitch based staff.
Both players and coaches have been shown to be more open to sport psychology after being exposed to it which highlights how increasing knowledge and finding out what it is can have a positive impact on their perceptions. Sam Allardyce was sceptical when first exposed to sport psychology when playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies but is now a big believer in it. Allardyce said: “I’ve always said a player who plays in the Premier League plays there because of his intelligence and his brain, not because of his skill ability… Most of this country generally ignores that type of training because they feel it’s for weak people… Over the last 10 years at least, using one has given a small advantage to us whatever club I’ve been at. I’ve been a great believer in it so I will continue to go down that route.” If more managers were exposed to it as players potentially more would realise the benefits and want to work with a sport psychologist, whereas ex-players who have not have been exposed to one may not believe a sport psychologist is necessary.
Another great example of this is Benik Afobe who before this season had never achieved double figures in goals yet when using a sport psychologist this season scored a remarkable 32 goals, making him the joint top scorer in England with Sergio Aguero. Afobe said: “Before I went to see him (the sport psychologist) I was thinking to myself this is pointless… I just thought it would not work… After a few sessions, I could just see myself starting to grow. It was helping me on and off the pitch. It has been extremely useful and he is someone I will probably be seeing for the rest of my career.” I am by no means saying all of his goals are a direct consequence of seeing a sport psychologist but I do believe it played some part in achieving his highest goal tally yet. Raheem Sterling had similar views to Afobe but now speaks very highly of Dr. Steve Peters: “The way he works is brilliant. At first I thought it wasn’t for me. On the outside you might think it’s complicated but all the messages are very straightforward… What he says really helps you.” This shows how players’ views can change when they are exposed to sport psychology. It is amazing that these two players who have played for two of the biggest clubs in England are only now beginning to realise what sport psychology is and how it can benefit them. Sport psychology should be imbedded in the academy system so it is a key component throughout a player’s development. If a young player doesn’t have the tools to deal with setbacks or stay confident during a bad spell this could be the difference between making the grade and falling out of football.
Knowledge and perceptions of sport psychology in football are improving. This is due to increasing levels of exposure whether that is hearing how beneficial it is through anecdotal reports in the media or through players and coaches working with a sport psychologist in their teams. Anecdotal reports from players and coaches are important as sport psychology outcomes aren’t as tangible as the other sport sciences, who can produce data to convince coaches of their effectiveness. Ultimately coaches are the gate keepers to sport psychology so we need to increase their knowledge and exposure to it so they can see what it looks like in practice, and the benefits it can bring to both themselves and their players. Sport psychology is heading in the right direction but much still needs to be done, at least Swansea are on the right track.
Links to articles
Swansea hire sport psychologist: http://www.swanseacity.net/news/article/ian-mitchell-joins-1729444.aspx
The man who works with Swansea City, Gareth Bale and Wales gives a unique insight into the role of the modern performance psychologist
Sam Allardyce interview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/19373292
Raheem Sterling interview: http://www.fourfourtwo.com/news/sterling-used-psychiatrist-rediscover-mojo#Oapx28TDMJJRWC8w.99
Originally posted: 6th June 2015