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Is sport psychology doomed at Premier League clubs?

Is sport psychology doomed at Premier League clubs?

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Sport psychology is the last domain of sport science to be accepted in Premier League football. Although the landscape has shifted dramatically over the past decade, with more clubs employing a Sport Psychologist at either Academy or First Team level, it is still far from optimal.

This blog, written by our lead psychologist, Bradley Busch, explores why more players at the very top of the game are working with Sport Psychologists not employed by their clubs. It is based on the conversations that we have had with our players, whilst working within and outside of clubs, rather than just our opinions.

The context of sport psychology in English football

Over the past decade, we have worked with players from 13 out of the 20 Premier League clubs. This includes players from clubs who regularly play Champions League football. Initially, many of them were Academy players. This support was arranged primarily through the clubs themselves, with some work coming via agents or family members of the players.

More recently, we have worked with first team players, including players from the biggest clubs. None of this was organised by their clubs (though some know the player is getting outside support, some don’t). All of it has been driven by the players themselves seeking external support.

Many Premier League clubs employ a Sport Psychologist in some capacity. Often, these are professional, qualified and very credible individuals who would undoubtedly be able to offer high quality support to these players.

And yet, our clients, who are at the very elite end of the game and who have a transfer value of over a quarter of a billion pounds between them, often report being reluctant to access this in-house support.

So why is that the case?

Why don’t Premier League players want to speak to the club sport psychologist?

The main reasons why first team stars don’t want to talk to the in-house Sport Psychologist typically fall in to one of three categories…

Lack of trust on confidentiality

Many players feel the club sport psychologist will tell everything to the manager. Even when we point out that they will be bound to treat certain information as confidential, the players often dismiss this quickly, with one telling us “if they are on the club payroll, we know their loyalty is to the club”.

Not on their team

Players move clubs regularly. Coaching and backroom staff arguably even more so. Many of our players are now adopting a model similar to our Olympic athletes who build their own team around them (this often includes sport psychs, chefs, strength and conditioning coaches…). This way, when either they or those at the club move, they can maintain the consistency they need around them.

Too many backroom staff

At the very biggest clubs, there is a very large number of backroom staff. We have no doubt that many of these are brilliant individuals at the forefront of their profession.

And yet, many players report not knowing what some of them do or what services they could provide. This makes them reluctant to access the potential expertise available. Interestingly, we have had clients who are at the same club who talk to each other about the work they do with us, via group chats or outside of training, but do not tell the staff at the club.

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The pros and cons of using an external sport psychologist in football

Given these three concerns, it is perhaps unsurprising that players are looking elsewhere. On the plus side, it can give the player peace of mind that their sport psychologist is acting in their best interest, the service is fully discreet and confidential and it can aid and maintain a sense of consistency, control and certainty.

However, there is a downside too. It can be a risky route, as it is interesting to reflect that none of our world-class clients have ever asked to see my qualifications or asked what my professional philosophy is. In fact, the screening process has actually been quite minimal, with some of my clients approaching me due to random google searches, being referred to by friends or other people close to them.

The fact that players worth hundreds of millions of pounds are effectively bypassing formal interviews when selecting who to work with, on arguably one of the most important parts of their game, is a sad and worrying indictment, both of the sport psychology profession and of the professional game itself.

Luckily for them, I am qualified and insured (something that I do explain to them, so that they are aware of the differences). But if I wasn’t, they wouldn’t know. As a result, they could have just as easily ended up with someone who wasn’t. In this space, charlatans, chancers and snake-oil salesmen tend to thrive. This could cause significant harm to a player’s career, which would leave them with no course of redress or formal complain procedure to follow if they felt aggrieved. 

Where does this leave sport psychology in Premier League football?

So, does this mean that sport psychology is doomed at the very elite end of Premier League football? I think there are still many important roles that sport psychologists have been, and will continue to be, accepted into. These include:

  • Working with academy players.
  • Working directly with the coaching team.
  • Setting up processes and environments to help develop well-being and high performance.
  • Working with groups of players to help improve communication between them (especially when under pressure on the pitch).

But working individually with the star players who are at the very top of their game? I am sure some of those players with that high profile will access the club support. But in the short-to-mid-term, I don’t see those three areas raised earlier going away. If anything, I think they get magnified. In which case, I would expect to see more and more first team star players seek support externally.

So, is sport psychology doomed at Premier League clubs?

Perhaps sport psychology at Premier League Clubs isn’t doomed. But it is limited. And it will continue to be as long as it remains either a tick-box exercise, or part of a system that all first-team players do not fully trust and buy-in to. As a result, many will continue to look elsewhere for someone to be “on their team”.

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.

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