Education resources › Blog › What does a football sport psychologist do?

What does a football sport psychologist do?

What does a football sport psychologist do?

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Sport psychologists can help footballers improve their performance. The following article looks at the growing role of sport psychologists in football and includes an interview given by InnerDrive Director Bradley Busch and Planet Football. Contact us at to find out how we can help you.

“In life you need to be strong. Psychologist? No”, Ahead of the current season, Claudio Ranieri’s response to being asked how he would ensure his players were mentally prepared to defend their Premier League title was somewhat surprising.

If you watch any coverage of football on any given weekend, you are likely to hear references to a player’s mental strength, often with the negative connotations of someone being “weak”, “fragile”, or a “bottler”.

And yet Bradley Busch, who has worked as a sports psychologist in football for the last decade, believes the game has a deep-rooted distrust of the notion that mental attributes can be trained and developed.

He told us: “If you look back 30 or 40 years ago about the culture of football – and this applies to all areas of sports science – there was very much an attitude of ‘you either had it or you didn’t, you’re either fit or you’re not, you’re either mentally tough or you’re not’.

“So if that’s your starting point and you don’t think that these skills can be improved then you’re probably going to reject sports psychology or sports science. Football, more than other sports, is traditional in that respect of this is how it used to be done.”

Strength and conditioning and analytics, however, have gradually been embraced by football. Players are now used to and expect to have customised diets, recovery drinks and training schedules. An increasing number choose to spend time with data analysts and will casually mention their KPIs in interviews with the press. All of this is now taken for granted in football.

It seems strange then that there remains a negligence of another area which can help improve performance, especially considering the acclaim it has received in other sports such as golf, cricket and rugby.

Busch, who is currently involved with Watford and has worked individually with England internationals, says his industry is just as much to blame as football. “For the most part of the last 20 or 30 years sports psychology has done a really bad job in football,” he says.

“It’s either been really academic, like a university lecturer, who some players find it hard to connect with, or on the flipside it’s not been scientific or based on any research at all.

“So you get these people who might be either ‘charismatic’ or they might call themselves a ‘guru’ – like Eileen Drewery – but they get found out because it’s all fluff and no substance.” Despite lacking the resources of the cash-rich Premier League, other sports have been much quicker to realise the potential of psychology in optimising athletes’ performance.

Busch credits London 2012 with “breaking a few taboos” in football as it was highlighted that “it’s not about lying on a couch and asking you to talk about your relationship with your mother. It’s performance, and how you get better at performing.”

The most positive signs of progress are instead to be found at youth level, and it is here where both players and coaches will ultimately influence a change in attitudes. “With other sports like golf, rugby and cricket, a lot of those you only actually sign pro-contracts after university,” Busch says. “So you’ve had a wider range of experience of contact with a wider range of people. There’s more appreciation of science as a whole.

“Whereas within the culture of football, education often isn’t placed as highly and so you get really young people – and it’s through no fault of their own – with limited experience and that often leads to a fear of the unknown. “But I’d be keen to stress that most academies now have a sports psych as standard practice. We’re currently working at Watford and we know most other academies have one.

“Those boys growing up are now being exposed to it, so by the time they reach the first team the concept of working with a psych isn’t a big issue.”

While the FA are now developing their own psychology modules as part of coaching courses and Premier League clubs are advertising positions for chartered psychologists, one final hurdle which remains is the coverage of sports psychology in the media.

“I think it is starting to change much more in football,” Busch says. “I think how the media reports it is still slightly behind how football sees it. So the media will often refer to us as shrinks, but the players I work with would laugh if they referred to me as a shrink because we only talk about how you get better at football.”

“If you look at stories in the media they will often say ‘player reveals he’s seeing a sports psych’ (in May the Daily Star published a story with the headline ‘Raheem Sterling reveals he’s seeing a sports psychologist ahead of Euro 2016) and all the other sports laugh at that because why would that be something to ‘reveal’ as if it’s like a secret or a surprise – in other sports that’s called ‘Monday’.”

Train your mind as well as your body. Unlock your full potential with sport psychology coaching.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Follow on XConnect on LinkedIn