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The problem with psychology...

Recently we were asked to write an article for Training Ground Guru, a website that reports on the behind the scenes, nuts and bolts of professional football.

Here's the link to the article on their website, and for anyone interested in how performance psychology can look in a high-performance sporting environment, we've posted our original article below.

Although it specifically deals with professional football, there's plenty here that can transfer to other sports, business and leadership.

Anyway, please feel free to get in touch and let us know your thoughts. Enjoy!

“The Problem with Psychology”

[article for Training Ground Guru]

Andy Hill

There’s a certain level of mystery that shrouds sport psychology in football. Coaches and managers know it’s important. They know that a player’s attitude makes the difference, they read the books around leadership that talk about it, it forms part of their coaching badges, but often, if you ask a coach to explain what good psychology looks like, you usually get a blank expression. Or worse.

As performance psychologists working in football, we’re often perceived as a bit of an oddity. We’re not like the other ‘proper’ sports sciences; we tend not to put numbers on things or use Excel (we’re more the PowerPoint type). What we do isn’t usually very overt or stand-out. We’re perhaps more like coaches, but – with the odd notable exception – we’re definitely not ‘football people’. Instead we’re usually “gurus”, “mystics”, “Jedis” and “professors” with our “big, fancy words”. When we receive any attention in the press it’s usually because it has been “revealed” that a player has been “seeing” us. When was the last time you read a headline about a player “seeing” a strength and conditioning coach? And this is a problem. It’s a big problem. And it’s a problem because it stops us helping players, coaches, teams and clubs be the best they can be.

A missed opportunity?

I’m fortunate to spend roughly half my time working in football either with my club or through my private practice, and the other half working in Paralympic sport, and the contrast between how Olympic and Paralympic sports engage with psychology compared to football is stark. It’s a well-established practice, with buy-in and impact across the system. Athletes regularly and pro-actively seek support. They know that without it, their quest for gold medals becomes much, much harder. Coaches regularly look to psychologists to help them get the most out of their athletes and their teams, while performance directors use them to help set and drive the organisational culture.

Yet this is rarely the case in first team football. Often – if they’re involved at all – psychologists are marginalised, working with the odd fringe player, players going through injury rehab or supporting the sports science team. Yet psychology could offer so much more than this. But when you look at the context of the environment, it’s not all that surprising. Managers and backroom staff are usually only ever a few games away from the sack, while sports scientists are constantly under pressure to make sure players are fit for the next game. When such anxiety exists within a system, people understandably start to self-protect, trust erodes, and blame gets shifted. So when a new psychologist walks into this massively anxious environment, brimming with optimism, curiosity and well-disguised fear, who’s going to listen to them? Well, unless the right people in the club have a solid understanding of the benefits of applied psychology, then nobody. Which brings me back to my initial point: the need to know what good sport psychology looks like.

Solving the problem.

Let’s start with what it isn’t. It’s not lying down on a couch, telling me about your problems and me telling you it’s your parents’ fault. Nor is it the coach knocking on your door telling you to have a word with such-a-player because his “head fell off” in training (I’ve genuinely lost count how many times this has happened to me). Another common misunderstanding is our role in treating mental health issues. Although we’re often the best-placed people in the system to help, treating clinical issues such as depression or addiction falls beyond our scope of practice; however, we can often help facilitate referrals to the appropriate specialists.

Effective sport psychology happens on many levels. To start, there’s the obvious one-to-one work with players, coaches and staff, but this should be proactive rather than reacting to a problem (although reactive work is often a good entry point). By building robust performance methods with players and improving a coach’s ability to shape players’ behaviours, players become more consistent performers and have better relationships with their coaches.

There’s the work done around team dynamics, helping teams and staff better understand themselves and each other, creating space for the necessary friction required within high-performing teams. As a result, staff teams and playing squads communicate more effectively and align better with common values and objectives, coming together to create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Then there’s the work on the training ground itself, helping coaches deliver more impactful sessions; not by being technical experts or because we’re ‘football people’, but because we’re experts on behavioural change. Enhancing existing coaching methods with psychological insight means players can improve faster, and coaches gain a wider range of tools for their toolbox.

Finally, there’s the work around culture, helping shape the environment to deliver the desired behaviours, and finally there’s the work at an organisational level, guiding the whole system towards improved performance. It also helps reduce the constant undercurrent of anxiety across the system

With a better understanding of what good sport psychology can look like at the different levels, it starts to become apparent just why it is so important and so widely used in Olympic and Paralympic sport. It also highlights the need for football to up its game.

Lessons learned.

I’ve spent many years trying to work at each of these levels within football, with varying degrees of success, but the one key lesson I’ve learned the hard way is that you have to be invited in to work in that space, by the people responsible for it. If a player or coach doesn’t want the support, it won’t work. You can’t smash the doors down. I’ve seen people try. I’ve seen people lose their jobs. So as a practitioner, you have to spend time building trust, building relationships, and establishing your credibility in the ‘real world’, because to be frank, no amount of certificates on their own will ever be enough to convince someone to let you ‘mess about with the mind’ of a £20+ million pound asset. Ironically, it’s this point where us psychologists often struggle.

We’re generally quite an anxious bunch, plagued with self-doubt as a result of knowing our own limitations, but this doesn’t make for a good sales pitch. Conversely, when we do talk ourselves up, we run the danger of coming across all too arrogant. This is often where the ‘life coach’ excels; with a well-crafted pitch that exploits the lack of knowledge around applied performance psychology. It’s not a popular viewpoint amongst some psychologists, but we could probably learn a lot from life coaches when it comes to branding, self-promotion, and getting a foot in the door.

Looking forward.

My personal experience with working with coaches and players gives me hope. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very open-minded and forward-thinking players, coaches and organisations, and between us, we’ve done some good work with tangible results. But this hasn’t happened by accident. Collaborative partnerships take small leaps of faith from both parties. It takes openness and trust from coaches and players, it takes transparency and humility from the psychologist, and it takes acceptance – and sometimes a bit of patience – from the wider system as a whole. Good psychology requires a good understanding of the context, and this sometimes takes time.

But the future’s looking brighter for psychology in football. Well publicised positive impact at the highest levels (the work of Dr. Pippa Grange with England, and Dr. Ian Mitchell with Wales comes to mind immediately, amongst others) illustrate that it can work. Academies are required as part of the Elite Player Performance Plan to provide psychological support for players and coaches coming through the system, and these players, who are generally far more comfortable proactively seeking psychology support than previous generations, are now starting to have an impact at first level, while academy coaches are used to having a psychologist around full time.

So, will we ever solve the problem with psychology? Undoubtedly. How long will it take? That’s a different question.



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