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Mental performance is football's next big thing, says Mark Bowden

After Reading captain Liam Moore revealed how mental performance consultant Mark Bowden helped him add another level to his game, Adam Bate speaks to Bowden to find out why the brain remains football's final frontier...

Reading captain Liam Moore
Image: Reading captain Liam Moore highlighted the benefits of focusing on the brain

Reading captain Liam Moore was instrumental in his team's rise to the top of the Championship, helping the Royals to keep six clean sheets in their first seven games. He attributes that recent success in part to his work with a mental performance consultant.

Moore is one of a growing number of players at the top end of the English game turning to Mark Bowden in the hope of exploiting football's last great untapped resource. The brain.

"I feel physically I have worked hard my whole career but never taken time to train my mind until now," says Moore. "Choosing to get in touch with Mark and start working together was one of the best decisions I have made in my career. It has added another level to my game."

Moore believes that he now has "an understanding of how to handle anything" while Stoke defender Danny Batth credits Bowden with helping his "motivation, focus and intensity in training" and his "confidence and preparation" of his mind when the game comes around.

They are just the ones prepared to go on record.

"Lots of players want to keep it confidential," Bowden tells Sky Sports.

"There is this alpha-male thing that says they should already be able to deal with it. Nothing could be further from the truth really. The good thing is that many players are massively starting to recognise that the most important factor in their performance is the brain.

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"Players are expected to perform like robots but a footballer's brain is the same as anyone else's brain. The only difference is that a footballer is under the microscope and the pressure that can impact their performance is far greater than most.

"If your brain is not performing to its best, which invariably it doesn't unless you are just lucky and happen to be riding the crest of a wave, everything falls down. Often, players don't realise why that is happening. They think they are just playing badly.

"Think about it. All week is spent working on other aspects of the game. They work on the technical side, the physical side, the tactical side. But when they go out to play a game, there is only one thing that is going to impact their performance and that is their brain.

"Exploiting how to make sure that brain of ours maximises performance will be the next big thing in football. It is happening already but that momentum will get bigger and bigger."

Exploiting how to make sure that brain of ours maximises performance will be the next big thing in football.
Mark Bowden, mental performance consultant

Bowden's own path into the world of mental performance is a remarkable one. After completing a degree in psychology, he worked as a covert operative for the Serious Organised Crime Agency hunting down drug dealers in the London area.

"We used to go after the big cartels in the capital," he explains.

It feels a world away from the life of a footballer but Bowden sees some similarities. "There was a real need to perform to a high level in a pressurised environment."

After studying psychotherapy, he began working with semi-professional footballers before helping a number of players at Plymouth Argyle, not far from his home in the South West.

"My expertise is how a brain operates. I just chose football because I love it."

He soon discovered that this was uncharted territory.

"My big surprise was that at League Two level, it wasn't sorted out. Even at Premier League and Championship level, where most of my work is now, the brain is not catered for.

"It is incredible really. I knew how important the brain was in performance but your assumption is that football is a multi-million-pound industry and is going to be invested up to your eyeballs in this area. I thought if I walked into any club, they would be saying they had a whole department who deal with this.

"With everything that football has added on the physical side, the sports science, the blood checks, we are still missing that one thing, probably the most important thing, the brain.

"As a business, this is so important for football. There is nothing that can have an impact like this on a business asset. A £10m signing could be worth £20m or could be worth nothing because of performance and that performance is all driven by the brain.

"I almost feel like there are so many people that should have come before me in the field but that has not happened. It is bizarre."

Mark Bowden, mental performance consultant
Image: Mark Bowden is a mental performance consultant to many footballers

Football clubs do work with psychologists. But a lot of the time they work with academies rather than the first team and are there as a mental health resource if players are struggling.

Bowden insists that he would refer any clients facing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression to those better qualified to deal with it. "I am all about performance."

And that is something most players want to improve.

That became clear when Bowden released a book - Use Your Brain Raise Your Game: The Professional Footballer's Guide to Peak Performance - and the response was immediate.

"That has gone down really well," he says. "Often my book goes from player to player. But the fact that a lot of players are getting their education from this book is surprising.

"This change is being driven by players. They know how important this is."

But how exactly does Bowden help?

Reacting better after making mistakes is just one way in which players are able to transform their performance on the pitch.

"What most players do when they don't realise what is going on in their brain is that they sabotage their own performance. When you have made a mistake, you will want to replay it in your mind over and over. It is a survival mechanism. But that is terrible for performance.

"Even the players who have got to a brilliant level, they recognise that they have been doing this all their career - and at times it has been destroying their game throughout their career.

"What should we do instead? There are loads of techniques that we can use but they will all revolve around focus. Being focused, being in the moment, is really important. When players are at their best, they are not thinking about what they did two minutes ago or what they are going to do in two minutes. They are there and they are living that moment.

"All of a sudden, they have hardened themselves to it. They have got themselves to a position where they can bounce back from mistakes and use them as fuel to drive forward."

Liam Moore celebrates scoring Reading's first goal against Middlesbrough
Image: Moore celebrates scoring Reading's first goal against Middlesbrough

Bowden believes that happens when a player is prepared to change their entire outlook - that means training the brain to deal differently with problems in all aspects of their lives.

"The brain is a muscle. If you bench press every day, then you get stronger. If you bench press every couple of months, it won't help you. So if you expect to be in the moment on a football pitch but for the majority of your life you are here, there and everywhere, you are not conditioning your brain for the football pitch. Be present on and off the pitch."

Although he is happy to have ongoing working relationships with clients, he cites the old proverb about teaching a man to fish for a lifetime rather than feeding him for a day.

"I don't work with players for years and years. I literally help them for two or three months and within that time, I can give them that understanding of how their brain works and what they need to do to give that control to the best parts of their brain to perform to their best."

Clubs are beginning to understand the significance of mental performance. "We are starting to see a shift now," he says. There is some way to go. But Bowden regards it as inevitable.

"This will change football and it will change the way that all teams operate," he adds. "It has not happened yet but that is the exact reason why it will.

"Because it should have happened years ago."

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