Applying Sport Psychology Principles in Professional Soccer
To support the highest levels of performance, squads now carry a plethora of support staff such as sport scientists, physiotherapists, analysts, and strength & conditioning coaches (fig. 1). Despite this growth in a range of areas, we rarely see a sport psychologist on these images. This is of some concern given the increasingly publicised potential benefits of such roles, as well as mental health challenges faced by players. Some examples include Everton’s Aaron Lennon and Tottenham’s Danny Rose who have spoken out about mental health, with the latter player citing the help of a sport psychologist. To date, we know very little about how they work within the context of professional soccer.
The aim of this article is to outline what a sport psychologist can do within a soccer club and what a sport psychology programme may look like. It is hoped that those considering employment or indeed employing a sport psychologist may be able to take some of the ideas presented and integrate them into practice. The following is based on my three seasons of engagement within a professional soccer club and the development of a sport psychology programme. The key areas of consideration are; (1) programme design, (2) building relationships, and (3) evaluating the programme. It must be noted that the role took influences from teaching, sport coaching, and sport psychology.
1) Sport Psychology Programme Design
The programme followed three themes as outlined below;
Performance Agenda – this was related to performance enhancement and game related actions and included work around eight skills deemed to enhance performance including; Commitment, Concentration, Communication, Control, Confidence, Self-Awareness, Presence, Resilience.
Wellbeing Agenda – this mainly focussed on lifestyle and work-life balance. It also included ensuring players were settled quickly when moving to a new area.
Career transition – this focussed on working with players to consider life after their football career and included work surrounding higher education and other career options.
Over the off-season players were sent a workbook with tasks to support reflection and planning with the expectation that they return this when reporting for pre-season. These were followed up in early season meetings with players to help define individual needs and actions. An anonymised report of common themes was then given to the head coach and we would explore how we might facilitate (or solve) some of the comments and themes provided by players. This was repeated around the middle of the season (fig. 3)
2) Building relationships (work with staff and be visible)
Having a good working relationship with the head coach is essential to effective and impactful operation. Watching training, being visible, wearing club training kit, feeding back on recent performances and asking how they feel you can contribute (e.g. ‘what did you see in the last game that I can support you with?’) are all good ways of building rapport with the head coach. This can effectively build a referral system between head coach and sport psychologist.
Working in a university sport-coaching department and having a sport science master’s allowed me to understand most department’s roles within the club and therefore share in their language, understand the football context, and build relationships. To avoid being seen as an outsider, I positioned myself as another member of the support team and had some desk space within the sport science office. I could then talk about how they might deliver their services more effectively when working with players, such as how best to communicate information. I worked closely with the physiotherapist on the rehabilitation of injured players and we set up small group meetings with myself, player, and physiotherapist to give the player the best support. It also made the sport psychology service more open and begin to remove the stigma sometimes attached to sport psychology provision. I also worked with the head coach and analyst to help support how to structure team analysis meetings more effectively using research-led guidance.
Working with players is something of a ‘slow burner’; some are very interested in the mental aspect of performance and some not so. The key is to offer something to each player that they can take away and make use of, always based on the three areas of the programme. Consultations were typically undertaken in more public places at the soccer club’s training complex, such as the gym and canteen areas. They were often short, and sharp between the hectic schedule of training, eating and treatment as seen in other sports.
3) Evaluation (was it working?)
The programme was evaluated formally and informally. Regarding the performance, self-assessment scores were taken on the 8 psychosocial characteristics within the ‘performance’ aspect of the programme. Coaches would also assess against the same measures using a performance profile[3-4]. This allowed coaches to see discrepancies between their assessment and a player’s assessment, which fed into intervention and goal setting exercises with players, and changes were also monitored over time on a bi-annual basis. On a less formal basis, the level of interaction with players and all staff was a useful barometer of effectiveness and buy-in from the programme.
In summary, the programme outlined within this article is a suggested starting point for those wishing to engage in sport psychology support provision within a profession football environment. In my view, maintaining effective relationships with both players and staff remains the most essential part of working within professional football context. Then you need to provide an effective research-informed service that demonstrates impact.
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Butterworth, A, O’Donoghue, P & Cropley, B (2013) Performance profiling in sports coaching: a review, International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, 13:3, 572-593, DOI: 10.1080/24748668.2013.11868672