How the ‘biggest psychology programme in Europe’ helped Wycombe make history

Anthony Stewart’s header hits the back of the net. He peels away to celebrate, his teammates in close attendance. They all know the importance of the goal, which will set the club on course for promotion to the Championship. For the first time in its 133-year history, Wycombe will be playing in the second tier of English football.  

On the touchline, Richard Dobson feels an almost paternal sense of pride. Gareth Ainsworth’s right-hand man, the ‘yang’ to the manager’s ‘ying’, has known Stewart since he joined the club as a 15-year-old apprentice in 2008.

Stewart’s start at Wycombe was tough. Just 12 months after leaving his South London home, moving into digs and away from his family, Stewart’s dad died.

Dobson, who at the time was working as part of Wycombe’s youth programme, remembers Stewart sending money to his mum to help support the family. It was an experience that forged a strong bond between the two.

“I actually texted him a couple of days after the play-off final, just out of the blue, and said to him ‘I’m so proud of you, watching you grow up into this person and produce big performances on the big occasions. I can’t tell you how proud I am of you at the moment.’”, says Dobson.

“It’s funny because he’s almost like a son to me, I’ve known him for so long. I’ve actually known him longer than my own son. I know him so intimately now, so it’s just wonderful to see him having a little bit of success and going on to be a Championship player for the first time in his career.”

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Stewart is part of an esteemed list of graduates from Wycombe’s academy, which closed in 2012. Fellow alumni include former Liverpool winger Jordan Ibe, West Brom’s Matt Phillips and current Aston Villa defender Kortney Hause.

Dobson, who led the club’s youth programme between 2008 and 2012, played a pivotal role in creating an environment for players to flourish, with a psychological focus that was unique in English football at that time.

“The FA’s Head of Psychology came to me and said, ‘You do realize that’s the biggest psychology programme of any club in Europe’”, says Dobson.

“And I said to him, ‘No, I didn’t have any idea. I didn’t ever think of it in that respect’. And he said, ‘Look, it’s innovative. It’s ground-breaking. There’s only Valencia that are doing anything on a similar scale’.”

The scheme, which involved five psychologists, and provided every age group in the academy with access to psychological support, stemmed from Dobson’s frustration with the attention players’ physical conditioning received, ahead of their mental wellbeing.

“One of the things that I’d always been quite insistent on was that football had this support mechanism for the physical side of the game. Sports scientists had become very popular and every player in an Academy had access to a sport scientist.

“Obviously the technical and tactical side were covered by the coaches, but I had a real bug bear about the fact that no one was ever working on the mind,” says Dobson.

Working with Dr Misia Gervis, a leading sports psychologist and academic, Dobson set up a programme designed to help young players develop social skills, as well as preparing them for the first team.

“Ultimately the aim of an Academy is to put players in your first team, but I’d be lying if I said that that was the sole reason for it (the programme). I’ve seen football chew up and spit out far too many kids.

“It’s soul destroying for some of these kids when they’re released from academies or the way that they’re treated within them. I wanted a method of support for those kids, so that they had a really safe environment to thrive and flourish in, and if they didn’t quite make it as a professional footballer, they received a solid grounding.

“So, you look at someone like Jordan Ibe, who came into our first team at 15, and he was getting one-on-one psychological support to prepare him for that transition as a 15-year-old going into men’s football. We protected him. We kept him away from the press. He actually left through a different exit after games, so that he didn’t get hounded by people.

“We had his mum working with Misia one-to-one, to prepare her for what he was going on to. We knew it was only a matter of time before we lost him to a big club and we wanted to help with that transition, with that magnifying glass that he was going to be caught under.”

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The programme also provided psychological support for players suffering from physical injuries or underlying health conditions.  

“We had a young lad who suffered from involuntary twitching when he started to feel stressed or under pressure. The other boys started to notice, because when he came into Academy football he was a little bit nervous before games. He’d have these twitches, the boys saw it and there was a little bit of mickey taking.

“His mum and dad came and said, ‘He’s got a bit of a problem, we want to take him out because it’s exacerbated when he’s within this environment’. So, we said to his mum and dad, ‘Don’t do anything hasty. He’s enjoying being here. We really like him as a lad and as a player. Let’s work with the psychologist and see what we can do’.

“Misia spoke to friends within her industry and we started to work on his mindset, to understand why this was happening. We spoke to the boys within the group and explained to them why his arms were moving as they did, so that they understood it. It helped the family so much that in the end, their first-choice method to deal with this problem wasn’t their doctor, but was actually Misia.

Whilst the programme’s impact is now evident, Dobson’s brainchild faced some initial scepticism. He cites a ‘triangle of influence’ approach, focused on improving the understanding that the coaching staff, players and parents had of the scheme’s benefits, as crucial in countering any concerns.

“So, for example, we would have a resilience workshop with all the coaching staff. The psychologists would put the workshop on and they would show them what resilience looks like in a sporting environment and how we can integrate that into our training programme.

“The coaches were educated, to show them that this is something that you can actually improve in your coaching and this is how we’re going to help you do it.

“Then the psychologist would work alongside the coaches within the training program. So, for example, if they’re working on finishing, you’d have a coach there that was helping the player with his technique.

“But if the player missed, the psychologist would be stood there, talking to him about his mindset, how he refocuses once he’s missed, how he feels after that, just trying to stop the disappointment of missing a shot or whatever it might be.”

The impact of the programme on the pitch was evident in another mini-project, during which psychologists spent a month analysing coaches’ communication with players.

The results were startling. On average, 75% of the communication between coaches and players considered to be among the most talented in their age group was categorised as ‘positive’.

In contrast, 75% of the communication between coaches and players considered to be less talented was, on average, categorised as ‘negative’.

“We fed that back to the coaches and some of them were shocked. Some of them said, ‘Look, I want a psychologist with me the whole time, telling me if I’m doing this, because I don’t want to be that person that’s draining a kid’s confidence or giving someone a better opportunity than the others because of my communication’.

“Of course, there were one or two coaches that kind of knew that they were doing it and it was uncomfortable for them. But it was definitely eye opening and it changed the way that our coaches thought about the way that they coached along the way”.

Dobson’s commitment to the scheme was steadfast: at one juncture, he told staff that he’d rather lose coaches than the psychology programme.

However, in 2012, the club closed the Academy, citing ‘financial limitations’ (Dobson estimates running costs to be in the region of £200,000 per season) and the ‘increased demands’ of the Elite Player Performance Plan.

Whilst Dobson recognises the predicament the club faced, he is conscious of the players subsequently lost to other teams and the emotional toll of the decision.  

“To my mind, the club would have been far better off running a smaller program and keeping the players within the system. We lost a lot of players that are now doing well at other clubs, such as Matty Cash at Nottingham Forest and Danny Loader, who’s at Reading and has been an England youth international.

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“These were players that were all within our system at a younger age that we had really high hopes for. We felt that they might have been better than the ones that were coming into our first team at that time.

“So we lost a lot of good players out of that system. It was devastating for the club and for the people within it.”

Wycombe’s promotion to the Championship has led to suggestions that the Academy could be re-opened on the back of the financial boost the club are set to receive, but Dobson thinks this is unlikely.

“To start it up again would be extremely difficult, purely because of the amount of money that’s being spent at the top end now within academies.

“When you look at our first team budget, that’s the level that the big clubs are spending now (on academies) and it’s peanuts for them to go and pick off the best players from other clubs and bring them into their programme. So, you actually don’t get the rewards that maybe you used to get from selling a player on.”

Dobson is enthusiastic about the club’s recently announced B Team, which should provide a pathway for younger players to reach the first team.

He also remains a staunch advocate of sports psychology, highlighting the role it played in helping Wycombe’s first team during the recent suspension of football.

“When we were in lockdown, Misia was putting together five-minute videos to support our players on the psychology of going through the lockdown period, the stresses caused by coronavirus and the uncertainty of not knowing when we were going to be coming back to football.

“Every week, she’d send it through to me and I would send it through to one of our senior players, who would distribute the video to other players, just to help them.

“For young lads who were desperate to finish the season off and hopefully work towards promotion, to see that being taken away would have been quite hard for them.”

Fortunately for Dobson and Stewart, the campaign’s resumption meant their dreams weren’t dashed. As Wycombe prepare for their debut season in the Championship, you can be sure Gareth Ainsworth’s right-hand man will be working quietly and innovatively, to ensure it’s the first of many.

Listen to the full audio interview with Richard Dobson, on the Beat The Press podcast

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