In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, former Exeter manager Paul Tisdale reveals how Ollie Watkins' ‘psychological repositioning’ helped to take him to the next level as a player
Monday 3 August 2020 15:20, UK
The Premier League beckons for Ollie Watkins. The 24-year-old forward has emerged as one of the stars of the Championship having scored 26 goals for Brentford this season - the most recent of them helping the Bees past Swansea to secure a place in the play-off final at Wembley.
It is the sort of return that has observers routinely describing him as a natural in front of goal.
On the face of it, his journey has been a smooth one taking him from the lower leagues with Exeter City through to the Championship with Brentford where he has increased his goal tally in each of his three seasons. But Watkins' route has not been quite so straightforward.
In fact, there was a time when one of the more exciting prospects in English football was struggling to convince his coaches that he was worthy of a place in Exeter's reserve side. A time when his performances on loan at Weston-super-Mare were proving underwhelming.
Paul Tisdale, the manager who gave Watkins his Football League debut, is a huge admirer of the player and the man. The story of how he helped to guide this special talent highlights the work that Watkins has had to do to fulfil his potential and the importance of coaching.
"Ollie really liked playing on the left wing," Tisdale tells Sky Sports. "That is where he preferred and we played him there at first. He had a whole season at Weston-super-Mare.
"I went to watch him when he was on loan there and he was just not making any progress because he was stood on the wing waiting for people to pass the ball to him.
"I told him at that point that he could not play there any more because it was not helping him psychologically in terms of how he saw his contribution to the game.
"The only way that was going to happen was if he played in a position where he felt that at any moment the ball could be coming his way. So we moved him and he played as a striker."
That change of position was significant but it was the change in his head that was crucial.
"I call it psychological repositioning," explains Tisdale.
"In terms of a game of football, most people, most supporters, visualise the game in terms of having the ball. You either pass or you shoot. That is how most people see the game.
"But as a professional footballer that element of the overall product is minimal. It only happens a few times in a game. The match is 95 minutes long and you only engage with the ball for a couple of minutes. The reason you get selected is not down to that.
"You might get that opportunity to become a professional because of what you can do with the ball but you don't get selected because of it. You get selected because of how you apply the instructions that you were given by the manager and how you fit into the team.
"What you can do with the ball is a given. There is not that much difference. It is not why you win or lose. You win or lose because a coach has got all 11 players thinking the same thing at the same time. The teams that are switched on are the ones that win.
Ollie has got everything. He has the ability and he has the perfect attitude.
"I am a big admirer of Ollie, I like him very much. There are so many players out there with great ability who have a bad attitude but Ollie has got everything. He has the ability and he has the perfect attitude. He has the perfect personality really.
"But when he arrived on the scene as a young professional, he was no different to any other young player, he was thinking about what he was going to do when he received the ball.
"Most of the game is off the ball. It is what happens on the turnover or when the ball goes out of play. Are you standing in the right place at the right time and thinking the right thing?
"A football player might only touch the ball 20 times in a game so where is he moving for the rest of the game? What is he thinking? How does he visualise what is coming next?
"With Ollie, it was something very specific and something very technical in terms of his application of the game. He had to work out where he was going to fit into the game.
"So where does he fit in? I do not mean what happens when player A passes the ball to player B and then player B passes the ball to him. I do not mean in a passing process because 95 per cent of a football match is not about that passing process.
"Ollie was a teenager and saw himself as someone who was part of a passing process. In other words, he was relying on that passing process for someone to give him the ball. Well, that is not enough. You cannot be that person who just relies on that.
"Maybe that is possible at the very top level if you know your team is going to have the ball all the time and you can be certain that ball is coming. But most players cannot rely on that. They have to engage in all parts of the game so their contribution level goes up.
"The repositioning of Ollie psychologically was to make him understand that he was relying on this for him to make an impact. Instead, he came to see that he could contribute in so many ways just by thinking differently. By recognising these parts of the game where he could come to life and capitalise by doing this or that. He had to read what was happening.
"I said to him, 'Just think about this, Ollie. What happens if you go on the pitch and nobody passes you the ball. How can you still have a good game? How can you come off that pitch and still have people saying, wow, that Ollie Watkins played really well today?'
"There was a moment of silence. He was thinking to himself that it was not possible.
"But it is possible.
Find out what's next for Brentford after their victory over Swansea on Wednesday night...
"Think about it. You can be ready and anticipate this or intercept that. You can go and win that ball. Suddenly, just by thinking about the game differently, he is psychologically repositioned and any time that he does get the ball passed to him is a bonus.
"That was an easy one because Ollie had everything. All that we had to do was get him engaged at the right moments. Now, as a result of that, you have the player who could not get into the Exeter City first team 18 months earlier being sold by the club for £2m."
Interestingly, Watkins finally moved back to the centre-forward position this past season and responded by finishing as the second highest goalscorer in the Championship.
"That is why I smile to myself now when I see him doing so well as a striker after playing on the left for a couple of years at Brentford," adds Tisdale. "The reason he got his move was because we had moved him into that position. That was where his progress was made."
Ollie Watkins' progress might not be over yet.
Paul Tisdale was manager of Exeter City for 12 years, winning two promotions, before joining MK Dons in 2018 and winning promotion to League One in his first season there. Find out more about Paul's work as a coach, consultant and businessman here.