“I think the future of football lies in mental health and wellbeing”.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the statement came straight from a Jurgen Klopp or Thomas Tuchel press conference. Forward-thinking is not the preserve of the Premier League’s more celebrated managers, though.
The quote is taken from an interview with Sean Dyche, whose thoughts feature as part of our guide to the psychological support England’s top-flight clubs provide to their players.
The rundown, based on publicly available information about managers and their psychology-focused backroom staff, profiles the people charged with improving players’ psychological performance and wellbeing.
The onus on clubs to provide elite-level support in this area has arguably never been greater. Mental health has proved decisive in Simone Biles’ decision to stop competing at this summer’s Olympics and Ben Stokes announcing his intention to take an ‘indefinite break’ from cricket. World-class athletes from all sports need access to leading psychologists and football is no different.
Are Premier League teams rising to the challenge? The evidence is mixed. Dr Misia Gervis, a former psychology consultant to the England Women’s team, spoke recently of a stark contrast between the wealth of resources dedicated to enhancing physical performance and the skeletal nature of most clubs’ psychology operations.
Manchester United and Tottenham, two of the world’s richest clubs, have no discernible first team-focused psychology department or publicly-listed lead psychologist in place, at the time of writing. Whilst Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all boast highly-regarded support systems, a significant number of clubs beyond the ‘Big Six’ follow the example set by United and Spurs. Leeds, Newcastle and Wolves are just three of the teams without established senior-level psychology setups .
In many cases, clubs will point to the psychological expertise possessed by managers or the mental health support offered to their Academy intakes (mandated under the Elite Player Performance Programme) as evidence of a commitment to the wellbeing of players. It’s also worth noting that individual squad members often employ psychologists on a one-to-one basis: Jack Harrison and Tyrone Mings are just two of the players to have publicly stated they consult sports psychologists not directly affiliated to their clubs.
Despite this, there seems ample opportunity to improve the status quo. Managers who possess an acute understanding of psychology rarely possess essential professional qualifications and are often mistrusted by players with serious mental health issues, who are fearful disclosure could influence a coach’s team or squad selection.
Academy psychology support structures, whilst welcome, are surely the minimum requirement for clubs that have an obligation to support all members of playing and non-playing staff. Individuals who are seeing psychologists not directly affiliated to their employers should have the option of using in-house staff.
The onus on Premier League clubs to provide elite psychological support to players will only intensify. As the 2021-22 season progresses, it will be interesting to see how the richest football league in the world responds.
Mikel Arteta publicly highlighted the role of Arsenal’s psychology team when Covid hit the UK in March 2020, pinpointing the importance of psychological support during times of uncertainty. David Priestley heads the Psychology and Personal Development department referenced by Arteta, working with both the first-team squad and academy.
Since joining from Saracens in 2014, where he occupied a similar role, Priestley has been reported to have suggested the much-maligned captaincy vote in 2019, as well as persuading Unai Emery to pick different individuals to lead pre-match huddles. Emi Martinez credited Priestley’s support as key to his development in his final season with the Gunners.
Priestley’s role covers the development of the club’s culture and values, in addition to performance. This broad remit is significant: in an interview last year, Bruno Demichelis, AC Milan’s former scientific coordinator, highlighted the cultivation of a club ‘culture’ as essential to Milan’s success in the late eighties and early nineties.
Dean Smith employed a sports psychologist
during his time at Brentford and has followed suit since his arrival at Villa Park. Last season, renowned sports psychologist Dr Mark Nesti worked with the first team on a part-time basis, providing support for both players and staff. Nesti’s involvement is a testament to Smith’s recognition that some players are reluctant to discuss mental health issues with coaching staff, fearing it could harm their chances of selection.
The Villa manager’s awareness and willingness to embrace external expertise is not always replicated by coaching counterparts. Dr Misia Gervais, former England Women’s team psychologist, spoke about ‘managers who think that they should be privy to everything ’ during an interview recorded last season.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the club’s reputation for innovation, to find a well-established approach to psychological support at the Brentford Community Stadium. Thomas Frank leads by example: the Bees’ manager studied sports psychology before starting his coaching career and is an advocate of the All Blacks’ ‘no dickheads’ squad selection policy.
Michael Caulfield, a sports psychologist who has worked with Gareth Southgate and Dean Smith during a 25-year-career in the field, provides expert support for Frank’s players. Caulfield places an emphasis on competition and playfulness (Brentford have a giant Jenga set at the club’s training ground), providing an environment designed to increase players’ oxytocin and endorphin levels.
The Bees also have a dedicated sleep coach on hand to help squad members suffering from fatigue. Nick Littlehales, better known as the ‘Sports Sleep Coach’, praised the club’s operation in an interview last season.
Brighton are often held-up as an example of how to instill an onus on psychological support throughout a club. Paul Barber and Dan Ashworth, the Seagulls’ CEO and Technical Director respectively, have earned a reputation for focusing on the development of all Brighton employees, beyond the confines of the first-team squad.
Ashworth was pivotal to establishing a Performance Psychology and Wellbeing department, bringing together two parts of the psychology profession that are often dealt with in isolation. James Bell, UK Sport’s former Head of Culture Development and Mental Health, leads the new team, which is comprised of performance and clinical psychologists, as well as mental wellbeing experts.
Barber and Ashworth’s credibility in this area is enhanced by their decision to appoint Graham Potter in 2019. The current Brighton head coach holds a Master’s in Leadership, Personal and Professional Development, which informed the team building techniques he used at Ostersunds.
Potter’s studies also focused on the use of emotional intelligence, a tool the Brighton manager employs in preparing an environment for his players to thrive in and deal with disappointment.
Speaking on ‘The Gaffer Tapes’ podcast, Sean Dyche hailed psychology as the focal point of football’s future, pointing out that clubs were starting to exhaust the performance improvements driven by physiological advances over the last decade.
Dyche and his squad members each complete a behavioural profile, aimed at improving understanding of an individual’s character and preferred communication methods. Since the club’s promotion to the Premier League in 2014, the Burnley manager has employed sports psychologist Simon Clarkson to work with the first team. Clarkson’s input was keenly felt during football’s Covid-enforced suspension last season, with Charlie Taylor praising the level of personal support provided to players.
Erich Rutemöller, the former head of training for aspiring coaches at the German Football Association, praised Thomas Tuchel’s theoretical understanding of psychology in a recent Guardian interview. The German’s ability to develop close personal relationships with his players is undoubted (and was informed by psychological evaluations of his Mainz squad) but securing boardroom backing vital to a club’s culture has proved tougher. Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia Dortmund’s chief executive, called Tuchel “a difficult person” after the manager’s departure from the Westfalenstadion in 2017.
Tim Harkness, the club’s Head of Sports Science and Psychology, provides expert support for Tuchel. Harkness, who has worked with Bruno Demichelis, AC Milan’s former scientific coordinator, led a ‘psychological coding’ project during Mauricio Sarri’s time in the Stamford Bridge hot seat. The initiative saw Harkness and his team assess players’ in-game confidence, focus and motivation, as part of a programme that gained support from Petr Cech, the club’s current Technical Director.
Patrick Vieira’s appointment as manager potentially presents an opportunity for Palace to evaluate the club’s psychological support setup, of which little is documented online. Vieira arrives at Selhurst Park with question marks over his coaching record, but some positive testimony about his man-management.
Players who have worked under Vieira praise the Frenchman’s commitment to treating squad members equally, willingness to delegate (which could pave the way for specialist performance psychology input) and honesty. Vieira succeeds Roy Hodgson, who, despite working with psychologist Steve Peters during his time in charge of England, made some notable comments about clearly communicating with players, when asked about employing a psychologist at Selhurst Park.
Rafa Benitez’s career has been largely defined by his encyclopedic tactical knowledge, widely praised by ex-colleagues. The new Everton manager’s attention to his squad’s state of mind is less clear cut, with former players pointing to the Spaniard’s detached approach to man-management. However, his meticulous preparation does give him one advantage in this area: the former Newcastle coach carries notes on psychological support techniques garnered from professionals he has worked with throughout his career, stretching back to Valencia and Extremadura.
Benitez will be supported by Danny Donachie, the club’s Head of Medical Services. Donachie, who has worked with athletes including Ana Ivanovic and Tony Bellew, is in his second spell with the club, after occupying a similar role at Aston Villa. Bellew credits Donarchie with helping him recover from injury and increase his confidence.
Marcelo Bielsa has yet to employ a dedicated sports psychologist since taking over at Elland Road, relying instead on repeated tactical and technical drills to instill confidence. The Argentinian trusts that this will ensure Leeds players exhibit a ‘challenger’ response – characterised by higher cardiac output (the volume of blood pumped by the heart) and lower vascular resistance (the ease of blood flow) – to stressful on-pitch situations.
As Professor Marc Jones explained in an interview last year, this response shows the positive physiological impact confidence can have on a player. It’s exactly what coaches are looking for and Bielsa’s belief is that he is the person best-placed to induce this ‘challenger’ mindset. The Leeds coach claims to read a new psychology book every week to ensure he is preparing his squad for the mental challenges ahead.
Bielsa doesn’t prevent his players from seeking external counsel, though. Jack Harrison publicly praised the sports psychologist he saw earlier this year, saying the consultation played a role in inspiring a standout performance against Sheffield United.
Forget the anecdotes about writing poems for John Terry and drawing crown-adorned matchstick men of his players: there’s little doubt surrounding Brendan Rodgers’ commitment to the mental side of football. A keen reader of psychology theory, who embedded two performance psychologists with his Swansea team in the build-up to the club’s 2011 Championship playoff final win, Rodgers spent five years studying neuro-linguistic programming and makes a point of addressing each player individually prior to games.
Rodgers’ backroom team includes Mladen Sormaz, who was appointed as Leicester’s first Head of Football Analytics in 2019. Sormaz’s remit, whilst initially focused on the club’s first team and performance data, covers sports science and medicine. This broad arc of responsibilities, together with Sormaz’s psychology expertise – the former Huddersfield Town analyst holds a PhD in Modelling Neural Brain Responses and Pattern Recognition – potentially opens the door to integrating performance psychology with Leicester’s analytics operations.
Described by the club’s performance psychology consultant as Liverpool’s ‘head psychologist’, Jurgen Klopp has shown a keen interest in the theory behind mental preparation and its practical implementation throughout his career. Psychology formed part of the diploma he obtained whilst playing for Mainz and the former Borussia Dortmund manager put the studying into practice on numerous occasions in Germany. Klopp’s empathy for his squad is well-trailed: he was staggered to learn that a member of staff was unaware of Andy Robertson’s impending fatherhood, before the arrival of the Scottish left-back’s child in 2020.
Lee Richardson, appointed as Liverpool’s Performance Psychology Consultant in 2019, provides Klopp’s players with expert support. A former player, who enjoyed spells with Aberdeen, Blackburn, Halifax, Oldham and Watford, Richardson started studying psychology after seeing how anxious his former teammates became before games. The ex-Chesterfield coach previously worked as a psychology consultant for West Ham and spends three days a week at Melwood, largely focusing on one-on-one sessions with players.
Pep Guardiola’s tactical mastery is rightly celebrated, but he also possesses an acute understanding of how to manage the psychological pressures facing his players. Statements such as the claim he’d like a ‘thousand Dante’s’ in his Bayern Munich team are designed specifically to foster social cohesion within a squad.
Manel Estiarte, City’s Head of Player Support and Protocol, is a trusted Guardiola confidant. The Spaniard was the first water polo player to represent his country at six Olympics and provides the first-team squad with valuable insight in handling the pressure of an elite sporting environment. Estiarte has been praised by Guardiola for his intuition.
Away from Guardiola’s bench, Simon Timson, the club’s Performance Director, holds a PhD in Sports Psychology. Timson has worked with the ECB, LTA and UK Sport and has been credited with the strategic thinking which saw Great Britain’s Skeleton crew become one of the country’s most successful Winter Olympics teams.
Below Timson, David Young, a consultant psychologist, has been working with City’s first team since July 2019. Timson was employed by both the ECB (in the build-up to the national team’s 2019 World Cup win) and Wolves in similar roles.
This support is replicated across the network of clubs within ‘City Football Group’ (CFG). Lorraine O’Malley, who is embedded within City’s loans department, provides psychological support for all CFG members.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho in late 2018, with a clear remit to restore squad harmony in the wake of the Portuguese’s public criticism of players, a technique questioned by Dr Marc Jones during an appearance on the The Football Psy.
Solskjaer has largely fulfilled this brief, but despite speculation that he was looking to employ a sports psychologist at the start of 2020, public examples of psychological support have remained limited to regular conversations with players during the first Covid-enforced lockdown.
Indeed, despite an enviable roster of performance and sports science staff, including Richard Hawkins, Head of Human Performance, and Dr Steve McNally, Head of Sports Science and Medicine, United’s dedicated psychological support seems thin on the ground, when set against the resources on offer at their title rivals.
Information about the St James Park psychology setup is scarce, with Paul Catterson, Newcastle’s Head of Medical, the only prominent member of Steve Bruce’s backroom team referenced in connection with a player welfare story. In that instance, former midfielder Jamie Sterry sought out Catterson, following the 25-year-old’s battle with mental health issues. Sterry was referred to Talkworks, an NHS anxiety and depression service.
There is evidence of current players, such as Jonjo Shelvey, seeking individual support from psychologists, but nothing to suggest the existence of an established psychology setup. Bruce was criticised for the absence of such a structure during his stint at Sunderland, but did work alongside psychologist Tom Bates during his spell in charge of Aston Villa.
Norwich have gained a reputation for sustainably running their backroom operations, thanks largely to Stuart Webber, the club’s Sporting Director. Since joining from Huddersfield Town, Webber has overseen an approach centred around supporting players’ welfare. This focus on long-term values played a role in Max Aaron’s decision to remain at the club in 2020, whilst sports sleep coach Nick Littlehales was drafted in to provide advice on managing fatigue last season.
Interestingly, there is no indication that Daniel Farke is employing specialist psychological support, beyond the club’s Academy and U-23 setup. Whilst his decision to drop key players during towards the end of the 2019/20 season was hailed by Grant Hanley as a psychological marker for the club’s subsequent promotion campaign, it will be worth watching Farke’s backroom moves this season, to see if he supplements his expertise by bringing in a performance psychologist.
Ralph Hassenhuttl has deployed varying approaches to supporting his players’ state of mind. Whilst at Leipzig, he worked with sports psychologist Sascha Lense, who is the German club’s current ‘mental coach’. In an interview last year, the Austrian suggested that psychological support should be provided by players’ family and coaching staff.
Despite this, he allows squad members, such as Jan Bednarek, to work with externally-employed psychologists. Beyond Hassenhuttl’s first team squad, Southampton possess an excellent reputation for aiding the development of younger players, as Simon Clifford, the club’s former Head of Sports Science, spelt out in an episode of the Best The Press podcast.
At both Valencia and Wolves, Nuno Espirito Santo established a reputation for engendering both fear and respect among squad members. In an interview with The Football Psychology Show, Dr Marc Jones highlighted fear of failure as a tool frequently used by athletes to improve short-term performance. As Jose Mourinho found to his cost, the limited life cycle of that approach will place real onus on Nuno’s ability to replicate the respect he enjoyed at Molineux and the Mestella.
With Spurs either unable or unwilling to find a place among Nuno’s backroom staff for former Wolves psychologist Julio Figueroa, the club’s only publicly listed source of psychological expertise is consultant David Burston, who focuses on providing support for Academy players. The failure to find a role for Figueroa seems a missed opportunity, in light of the impact the Argentine’s methods (ranging from sleep training to hypnotherapy) had on players such as Adama Traore.
In an interview with The Athletic, Dinamo’s Head of Communications, Irakli Bukhali, said Xisco Munoz’s standout facet is his “psychological communication with every player, whether they are a substitute or in the second team.”
Munoz is no stranger to a rousing pre-match speech or song, with one former player recalling a match where Dinamo ran out to the music from Gladiator. Whether motivational tools bring a tune out of Watford’s squad on a regular basis is open to question, though.
Assistant Roberto Cuesta worked directly alongside sports psychologists during a coaching stint at the Marcet Football Academy.
At both Preston and Everton, David Moyes worked with Michael Finnigan, who runs the performance psychology consultancy which helped Jimmy White move from 40th to 5th in the world snooker rankings at the age of 37.
Whilst Moyes does not appear to have used Finningan’s services at West Ham, he has embraced the concept of a specialist ‘player care’ department, supporting squad members in all aspects of their life away from the training ground. The Hammers’ former Head of Player Care, Hugo Scheckter, has described Moyes as the ‘best manager’ he has worked with.
In keeping with their Premier League rivals, West Ham ensure all Academy players have access to a qualified psychologist, with Lori Hedman-Nice providing psychological support across U-18 and U-23 teams.
Bruno Lage’s appointment signals a change in Wolves’ psychological support setup, with ex-Nuno staffer Julio Figueroa no longer at the club. Whilst Lage seems to have stopped short of making public pronouncements on the subject of mentality, he is a protege of Carlos Carvalhal, who was taught by Vitor Farde, the architect of ‘tactical periodisation’. Although viewed primarily as a tactics-focused philosophy, the approach combines physical and psychological training, with an emphasis on always working with the ball.
Lage will be backed by Scott Sellars, appointed Technical Director in January 2021. Sellars has been tasked with managing the ‘technical aspects’ of all football departments, as well as retaining overall responsibility for the Wolves Academy, giving licence to influence the club’s psychology setup. In an interview with Training Ground Guru, he highlighted psychology as the most important football facet influencing performance.