Psychology in football: Missed opportunity for the English game

Studies suggest psychological support is still stigmatised and misunderstood in English football. With the help of an example from abroad and expertise from performance psychologist Matt Shaw, Adam Bate explores why that's a worry and a missed opportunity

A detailed view of the Heads Up branding is seen on the Norwich City warm up shirts prior to the Premier League match between Norwich City and Liverpool FC at Carrow Road on February 15, 2020

Maria Ruiz de Ona, the former head of psychology at Athletic Club, is fond of telling a tale about club captain Iker Muniain from his academy days in Bilbao. Muniain's youth team were facing Barcelona when his opponent pushed him to the ground and he reacted.

"There was one objective," explains Ruiz de Ona. "He had to learn to manage his frustration. Our coach told him to come over and sit down. The game continued and we played on."

The Barcelona coach was quick to point out that Muniain had not been replaced but his opposite number was well aware of the situation. Indeed, that was partly the point.

"The person in charge of our recruitment was worried because Iker was not going to be happy with us," recalls Ruiz de Ona. "But the parents understood the situation. They understood that Iker needed to learn something if he was to become a professional person. We cannot separate the development of the player from the development of the person.

"We lost the match but we won the player."

Spain U17 player Iker Muniain on September 20, 2008 in Saarbruecken, Germany
Image: Iker Muniain in action for Spain U17 when he was aged just 15 years old

Ruiz de Ona has now left Athletic Club after more than 20 years with the Basque side. But David Rincon, her replacement as head of the psychology department at the famed Lezama training ground, ensures that this emphasis on mind as well as body goes on.

Are English clubs doing enough to explore this aspect of development?

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Research from Brunel University revealed that while there are a number of part-time psychologists working within academies, only around a quarter of clubs responding to the study had a full-time psychologist in place. Another study by Manchester Metropolitan University raised similar concerns over the inadequacy of the psychology provision.

As one unnamed respondent to that report said: "You are always going to have a physio, a doctor, a strength guy, but psychologists…"

For Matt Shaw, performance psychologist with InnerDrive, it highlights the fact that many organisations are still playing catch up when it comes to a key factor in player performance.

"If there was a new revelation within strength and conditioning or sports science or nutrition or physiotherapy that indicated it was possible to get more from players then I think football clubs would rush to it," Shaw tells Sky Sports.

"The reality is that all the research around sports psychology has been there for years. We know that sports psychology will help any athlete at any level. When it comes to elite athletes who are really scrutinised and whose performance really matters, then it is incredibly important. So if there isn't a psychologist there then they are missing a trick.

"There are examples in Germany where they have used psychology for years and years and it is not strange to have a psychologist it is just part of the setup. If you want to be elite that is what you do. But it seems that in English football, psychology is the last branch of sports science to catch up, even though we know how important it is."

Maria Ruiz de Ona, Athletic Bilbao's head of coach development, during day 2 of the Soccerex Global Convention at Manchester Central Convention Complex on September 5, 2017 in Manchester, England.
Image: Maria Ruiz de Ona provided psychological expertise at Athletic Club

Over 80 per cent of Shaw's clients are footballers. It is a growing trend.

"Players come to us for one of two reasons," he says. "Some come if there is a problem that they want to fix. It could be their confidence or their nerves in game situations. It could be that they just cannot see themselves improving as they would like. They have an issue and they want us to help them with it. Traditionally, they are the players we would see.

"Now though, there is quite a nice shift with the younger players coming through. They just want to develop. They understand that even if psychology helps one per cent that could be the one per cent that turns them into an elite athlete. For some of them, they are getting none of this at their club. They come to us because they understand that they need it."

Concerns of players

The success of private sport psychology companies like InnerDrive might seem dependent on the failure of clubs to provide the same quality of service in-house. But it is also a consequence of players' concerns about seeking help from the very people who are in charge of their destiny.

Brunel University's report noted that there is a "culture within football where psychological support is stigmatised and not understood" while the Manchester Met study made the point that at some clubs it is the head of education responsible for providing psychological support. That person might also form part of the academy's senior management team.

"It is by no means the fault of the head of education but if I am the player I might be thinking I am compromising my position," says Shaw. "If I do tell this person everything then what is the likelihood they will tell someone else? Even if I am just seen talking to that person at the training ground, what is the judgment that everyone is making about me?

"I still think there's this taboo around psychology whereby if you are speaking to a psychologist it is because something bad has happened. But if you look at some of the best players in the world, they see psychologists and nothing necessarily bad has happened to them. They just recognise that it is on their development path.

"When anyone talks about psychology in the media, the news is framed that a player has revealed he is seeing a psychologist or you are meeting the man or woman behind the performance who is quite mysterious. Whereas if one of the top players had a new strength and conditioning coach you would not even hear about it because it is just normal.

"At academy level and even at elite level, we find that players are wrongly worrying about what everyone else is thinking about them as opposed to worrying about what they are doing. Sometimes seeing a psychologist is built up as this big thing but all we are really talking about is how to make them better. It should be part of their norm."

Psychology of injury

The coronavirus crisis has put the subject of isolation and mental health to the fore. One unintended consequence within football might be a greater appreciation of the psychological challenges faced by players who are out of action with long-term injury.

Brunel University's report also showed that just 37 per cent of clubs claim to have staff trained specifically in the psychology of injury. The majority of clubs also never, or only occasionally, screened their long-term injured players for psychological issues.

Again, the fear is that this could be a huge oversight.

"I would also question the level of training that the person has had," says Shaw. "Is it a workshop on dealing with injured players or have they had two, three, four or five years of training themselves? I would definitely be looking for the latter when dealing with injury.

"Injury is a unique one because the player can become isolated really quickly. They see their team-mates doing what they want to be doing but there is nothing they can do about it. Sometimes they can lose a bit of identity. They are built up to be this athlete, this machine, but now that has been taken away from them. They can question themselves.

"Athletes can be grieving during an injury. It can be a really horrible time for them. They want to feel like they are supported and that there is a place there for them. You need to be challenged but you need to be supported as well. It is not until you have both things that you have a truly resilient person. You want someone to bounce back.

"Otherwise you see athletes, and this can happen quite a lot, where physically they recover but they are a shadow of their former self. They don't push themselves as hard anymore or they don't try new things anymore because they are constantly thinking about what might happen if they get injured again. Those fears aren't helping them."

Iker Muniain in action for Athletic versus Villarreal in March 2020
Image: Muniain is still going strong for Athletic as club captain in 2020

As for Muniain, he has overcome these injury setbacks. In 2015, he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury to his left knee. In 2017, he damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He has since recovered from both injuries and when the action does finally resume in La Liga, he will be making his 400th appearance for Athletic.

Now 27, the one time European Golden Boy, once one of the most in-demand players in the world, made an unusual request upon signing his most recent contract. He asked for no release fee - common in Spanish football - to be included in the deal. "I want to go hand in hand with Athletic to the end," said Muniain by way of explanation.

They lost that youth-team match. But they certainly won the player.

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