‘We’re waiting until people have fallen off the edge of the cliff’: is football failing to psychologically support players?

As Bukayo Saka stepped up to the spot, Jordon Ibe might have been forgiven a wistful glance towards the TV. Five years ago, Ibe was the tricky winger who seemed set to make his mark with England. It could have been him staring at Gianluigi Donnarumma, a nation’s hopes resting on his shoulders.

Unfortunately, the pressure piled on Saka’s penalty pales in comparison to the challenges Ibe has faced since 2016. In January, following a succession of injuries, a 16-month driving ban for crashing his car into a South London coffee shop and a spell in rehab, the former Bournemouth and Liverpool midfielder admitted to suffering from depression.

Ibe issued a statement in which he talked about finding himself ‘in a dark place’ where ‘things are hard truly’. The message is a hard-hitting reminder that footballers are people, often working under extreme pressure, regardless of the remuneration received by a fraction of professional players.   

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It’s point not lost on Richard Dobson. The Wycombe assistant manager established the club’s pioneering psychology programme, described as the ‘biggest in Europe’ by the FA’s former Head of Psychology. Set up in 2010, the project’s interventions, ranging from media training to mental health workshops for young players’ parents, feel increasingly essential in light of the heightened scrutiny placed on footballers.

“If you look at someone like Jordan Ibe, who came into our first team at 15, he was getting one-on-one psychological support to prepare him for the transition 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.”

The pressure on players is as intense online as it is in person. Analysis conducted by The Guardian and anti-racism organisation Hope Not Hate revealed that 2,114 abusive tweets were directed towards or named England players over the course of just three Euro 2020 group-stage games. The impact of such toxicity is profound. Hugo Scheckter, West Ham’s former Head of Player Care, recalls the despondency which took hold of a former first teamer he spoke to.

“We had one player who had quite high-profile struggles with his performances. I remember he had a particularly bad away game, and I was sat next to him on the bus. His phone was pinging with messages – ‘You’re a disgrace’, ‘Get out of our club’ – and I said to him, ‘Why don’t you just turn your social media off?’ He just said, ‘It’s part of being a footballer,’” says Scheckter.

Scheckter’s story reveals the nuances of mental health. Is begrudging acceptance of online abuse symptomatic of a deeper issue or a throwaway post-match comment from a weary footballer? Some clubs are taking steps to ensure staff can answer such challenging questions. Under the stewardship of Dr Misia Gervis, who worked as a sports psychologist for the England women’s team, QPR introduced mental literacy training for its academy workforce.

Employees were taught how to spot the difference between symptoms of conditions such as anxiety and depression. Stories from clubs with first-hand experience of supporting players dealing with eating disorders and other health issues ensured the course was applicable to a football environment.  

Preventative action still seems to be the exception rather than the rule, though. In 2017, with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Gervis led a study which gathered opinions from 75 professional clubs and around 50 players who had experienced long-term injury. The review found that the majority had received no psychological support at all, despite 99% of those questioned experiencing some ‘psychological disruption’.

“Currently the system seems to be, ‘Well, we’ll wait until people have fallen off the edge of the cliff and then we’ll go, ‘Oh, go and see a counsellor’”, says Gervis.

Clubs with a Category 1 or 2 Academy, as classified by the Elite Player Performance Programme, are mandated to run a sports psychology programme for their intakes. However, there is no requirement for this support to be offered to professional players. In the absence of regulation, the disparity between the resources devoted to psychology and other areas of backroom operations, such as physiotherapy, remains stark: Gervis describes the comparative staffing levels as ‘very different’.  

The lack of investment in psychological support may surprise observers familiar with clubs’ public proclamations of devotion to player welfare. It also seems to run counter to elite sport’s increasingly ferocious pursuit of ‘marginal gains’.

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For years, psychology has been used as a performance-enhancing tool by successful sides. Brazil’s 1958 World Cup winners employed a dedicated performance psychologist, whilst AC Milan’s era-defining team of the late eighties and early nineties was supported by the ‘Mind Room’, Italian football’s first psychology laboratory.

Founded by Dr Bruno Demichelis, the club’s scientific coordinator, the setup used state-of-the-art biomedical monitoring equipment to measure indicators such as players’ heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension.

Demichelis and his team used the results to fashion preventative and remedial interventions, ranging from cognitive training to breathing exercises, aimed at managing stress levels and other psychological conditions.

Between 1986 and 2009, the ‘Mind Room’ hosted players including Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio and Clarence Seedorf, during a spell in which Milan won 21 major trophies. As Demichelis puts it:

“I had the players on my side because we had the club on our side. We had the coach on our side because he believed in our philosophy. At the time, he told the players ‘You don’t play football with your foot, you play football with your brain.’”

Milan’s successful adoption of performance psychology begs the question: if, as Wycombe have shown, psychology programmes don’t need to break the bank, why aren’t more clubs following suit? 

Managerial buy-in is one potential barrier. In Milan, Demichelis worked under three coaches – Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti – who all understood the value of a dedicated psychology department. At Adams Park, it was a similar story: the backing of Dobson, at the time in charge of the club’s academy, was crucial to establishing a programme for Wycombe’s youngsters.

Picture of Gareth Ainsworth and Richard Dobson

Such staunch advocacy is rare, though. According to Gervis, one reason is a fear that confidential discussions between players and psychologists will lead to a loss of control.    

“One of the things that’s very hard for people to navigate through is issues around confidentiality…and whether there’s a situation where managers think that they should be privy to everything,” she says.   

Allaying these concerns requires careful management of relationships between player, coach and psychologist. Boris Balent, Dinamo Zagreb’s lead psychologist, believes that a discreet dialogue between all three parties is key to satisfying everyone’s interests.

“If the players know you’re working with a coach or you’re part of the coaching staff they start to question whether they should be telling you about the fact they’re insecure about their performance.

“The first thing I did at Dinamo was to establish some clear rules. So, I communicate with the coach a lot, but I won’t reveal details of a private conversation with players.

“My second rule is that if there is a sensitive topic which I think the coach should know about, I say to the player directly, ‘I think it’s a good idea for me to go to talk to the coach. Is that okay?’”

Whilst Balent’s approach may provide a model for appeasing sceptical coaches, challenges remain for those looking to advance psychology’s cause. In an increasingly data-saturated sport, quantifying the impact of psychological support is one of the most significant hurdles. What can practitioners do to prove that behind-the-scenes interventions are having a direct impact on on-field performances?

The ‘psychological coding’ project which Chelsea’s sports science team ran in 2019 provides one example of how the profession is trying to answer the question. As part of the programme, an analyst would record ‘actions’ – such as a shot, pass or tackle – taken by both Chelsea’s first team and the opposition during games and use simple criteria to determine to what extent the ‘action’ displayed confidence, motivation or focus.

For example, a shot from outside the area which hit the target would be classed as a ‘confidence action’ and rewarded with a point, whilst an attacking run made by a full back would be seen as a demonstration of motivation.

“When you code between 10 and 20 games, you start to see a lot of patterns emerging and get some really interesting insights into the players,” says Malcolm Harkness, a former member of Chelsea’s backroom department, who co-managed the project.

“Christian Pulisic would record a lot of motivated actions through pressing. He’s a very fit guy and he would use that to put pressure on the defence and drive the whole press of the team. He would go to the right back, then the centre back, then the goalkeeper and end up on the other side of the pitch.

“That shows motivation because he doesn’t have to do that. The reason we’re giving him the point is because he doesn’t have to do it, but he does.”

The project found senior-level support in the form of Petr Cech, Chelsea’s current Technical and Performance Advisor, and demonstrates how easy-to-understand, on-field measurements of performance can be linked to psychological indicators.

Widespread adoption of this kind of practice and acceptance of psychology’s role in football remains elusive, though. Chelsea paused the ‘psychological coding’ project in 2020, with Harkness admitting that “at a top club…where you’ve got an analysis team and a medical department to think about…it’s sometimes tricky to get your say”. Gervis, meanwhile, points to the presence of a “hegemonic masculinity, whereby you don’t say what you’re feeling because it’s a sign of weakness”.

The comments contrast starkly with press releases reaffirming clubs’ commitment to mental health. If football is to embrace the psychological input so vital to the game’s future, it’s time to get real about the rhetoric.

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