Who wants to develop their brain power?
As a psychologist with a leading football club, I liken it to working in an Army field hospital. Think of it as psychology on the run: you do what you can when you can. And I guess, like a field hospital, there are three classifications of patient – those that are going to pull through regardless, those that are not and those in the middle to whom I dedicate most of my time, the ones who will pull through with some help.
You see, some guys just “fly”, they perform well, they are “sorted”. Some guys, for whatever reason, just don’t give a shit … more on this later. But the ones who really have some talent and history of performance, and wish to improve, perhaps they’re just going through a dip in form and are the ones with whom a difference can be made. What has to be realised, when playing at the highest levels, is that the difference between finishing 15th and 12th is perhaps a tackle or a block by any one player in any one game at any time in the season.
When you think practically about what psychological coaching needs to achieve, to be an important element of player services, it doesn’t have to make dramatic changes in individuals or team dynamics. It just needs to allow one player to do one per cent better in one game during the course of a whole season for the difference between Premier League and Championship status to be realised at some clubs.
So what of my club? I have a supportive manager who, when it comes to psychology, at times, is like an alcoholic who can’t get the top off the bottle quick enough! The players are good lads who, on the whole, understand there is a competitive edge to found in the way in which sports people think.
When I first got to the club, I worked straight away with the players who were most keen to develop their “footballing brain”. If you get some quick wins with these players – and, generally, they are the more talented ones – then the “tyre kickers” come on board next. By tyre kickers, I am not referring to a particular style of play but those who like others to go first and then assess the success.
Most of my sessions are one-to-one and tucked away in an office and, like managing or training players, one size does not fit all. The diversity at a senior football club is quite immense. What I try do is to keep things simple. What can we do (psychology is always collaborative) to help someone be better? It might be to do with concentration, focus, motivation, relaxation and recovery; it might just be to do with sorting out some “life” stuff. The more headspace a player has for football the better.
Some players respond well to using techniques but, with others, you have to fool them into “doing psychology”. You end up talking about beer and women and throw in the odd comment or question about the way in which they approach their sport … followed by more beer and women talk … and then a follow-up to the football bit. And, hey presto, before you know it, “that alright bloke who fucks with your head” has exerted 20 minutes of psychological influence in what seemed like an hour-and-a-half of pub banter … and no one is any the wiser.
The only objections I’ve found come in two forms: firstly, “I’ve seen a psychologist and it didn’t work” and, secondly, “I don’t want to complicate things”. Now, like all plumbers or electricians are not the same, nor are all psychologists. They are a mixed bag and, to be fair, quite often, many are shit.
Having said that, psychology also needs to be worked at. A player cannot sit there, arms folded, and think it’s your job to make them better. It is the repeated effort, replication and evaluation of mental work that makes it worthwhile. A player would never dream of having one half-hour session in the gym, going home, looking in the mirror and saying nothing’s changed and that the gym doesn’t work.
In regard to complicating a player’s thoughts, they’re right. Psychology should be simple and practical. Success does not have to be complicated. In fact, it is often about understanding what we do by gaining a simple understanding of the component parts, allowing us a greater awareness of our strengths and weaknesses.
The best players I have ever worked with have had a great level of self-awareness. They knew accurately whether they had a good game or a bad game and exactly the reasons why. However, when all is said and done, the brain is an amazing thing. It clicks into life before you are even born … and stops the minute you get to training!