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“There would be days when we’d got away games, maybe at Chelsea or Arsenal in London, and I’d get back to the training ground at about two o’clock in the morning. There was no point in me going home, so I’d just sleep on a sofa in the training ground.

“It was six and sometimes seven days a week for £22,000 a year and I’d probably spend £7,000 in petrol. I was only just earning enough money to pay the bills, essentially.”

Nick Wadsworth’s recollection of his first full-time role at a Premier League club is phlegmatic. As he sees it, his story is nothing special. Having worked for two other top-flight teams and supervised trainee performance psychologists for over four years, he’s seen countless others tell of similar experiences.

Wadsworth is one of several psychologists who, along with coaches and representatives from English and Scottish clubs, have spoken to The Football Psychology Show about the profession’s ongoing fight for fair pay. Their comments highlight a number of issues, including:

  • Concerns about the impact that clubs’ use of unqualified ‘pseudo-psychologists’ could have on players’ mental health
  • Worries that clubs with Category 1 academies are capitalising on Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) regulations to drive down salaries and ‘box-tick’ psychology protocols
  • Questions over job advertisement terminology, with fears that opaque descriptions of ‘competitive’ wages are simply a tactic to ‘low-ball’ candidates during salary negotiations
  • Suggestions that pay bargaining training should be part of the formal ‘routes’ to becoming an accredited performance psychologist

The interjection comes at a time when recognition of the psychological strain placed on athletes has arguably never been greater. After a summer in which Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Ben Stokes publicly revealed mental health struggles, there has been widespread coverage of the social media scrutiny placed on footballers. The discourse has also highlighted the support provided by psychologists, with players including Tyrone Mings and Jordan Pickford speaking candidly about the help they have received.

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But whilst backing from England internationals is undoubtedly a boon for the performance psychology profession, it can be difficult for those entering the industry to see a clear path to working with the likes of Mings and Pickford. Wadsworth’s route to finding regular work with Premier League teams provides sound evidence, beginning as it did with an unpaid MSc placement at an elite club.

“I was a trainee sports psychologist at the time, and I wasn’t getting paid anything. I took it upon myself to be at the club six days a week, 12 hours a day, just because I wanted to learn,” he says.

“I think people in the sports industry can take advantage of that passion. So, for me at that time, my mindset was, ‘I’m fortunate to be in the building, so I’m just going to give it everything I’ve possibly got.’”

Wadsworth was subsequently appointed in a full-time role by a then-Premier League club, a job which saw him providing psychological support for players, coaches and staff attached to the Under-23 team and younger age groups.

The wide remit reflected Wadsworth’s position as a department lead but seemed incongruous when set alongside the £22,000 a year he was paid, particularly when taking into account the 18-hour days (including Saturdays) the former Liverpool John Moores University graduate worked.

“I commuted from Manchester every single day, so I’d do about 190 miles in the car, getting up at five o’clock in the morning and getting back in at around eleven o’clock at night,” says Wadsworth.

“I’m driven more by passion than money, but I still think that we should get paid what we deserve to be paid.”

Whether consciously or not, Wadsworth’s former employers capitalised on a paucity of regulation governing clubs’ employment of psychologists. Beyond a requirement for clubs with Category One Academies to employ a full-time psychologist either on the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) register or ‘on one of the approved training routes’ (which, in itself, is a bone of contention among some commentators), there is no stipulation for Premier League or Football League teams to hire an accredited performance psychologist when enlisting support for their senior players.

Even if a club decides to use an HCPC registered psychologist – which requires a minimum of six years’ training, including an undergraduate course, MSc and two-year work placement – pay rates are left to the employer’s discretion.

“It’s often less about your qualification and more about who you know,” says Kristin McGinty-Minister, who worked as a trainee psychologist for a Championship club during a 12-month placement and is now close to completing her professional doctorate.

“Of course, every industry has a bit of that going on, but it’s important that doesn’t happen in psychology. Everything that we’ve seen over the past summer demonstrates that.

“But there are some people making industry-standard (pay), who don’t have the right training. There are a lot of ‘mental coaches’, who go into clubs, receive paycheques and don’t do a great job because they’re not exactly sure what they’re doing. That then makes sports psychologists look like they don’t know what they’re doing because there’s not a lot of education about who does what.”

McGinty-Minister’s concerns are echoed by Bob McCunn, Hearts’ Head of Performance. During research undertaken in writing this article, The Football Psychology Show searched for performance psychologist openings (posted by English and Scottish clubs) which displayed a salary range within the advertisement, rather than describing the pay rate as ‘competitive’. Hearts were the only club to do state a salary range, stating that the successful applicant could expect to be paid £30,000 – £40,000 per annum (pro-rata).

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“There are many people, including those recruiting psychologists, who probably don’t know that ‘sports psychologist’ is a protected title or that there is an accreditation pathway, which is very frustrating because there are lots of people out there who aren’t qualified, but who will try and work in this space,” says McCunn.

“I think if there is a pathway to becoming chartered and someone just chooses not to do it and tries to get into the industry anyway, it’s not good enough, in my opinion.”

McCunn, who worked for the Scottish Institute of Sport and as the Brisbane Broncos’ sports scientist prior to his move to Tynecastle, believes that clubs’ failure to disclose salary ranges within job advertisements is a deliberate ploy to drive down wages.

“I think the sports science and medicine industry, in football anyway, is quite bad for not being transparent in its hiring processes and salary scales, from my experience,” says McCunn.

“I think one of the fundamental reasons for that is that people are trying to acquire talent as cheaply as possible. If you don’t commit to a salary in black and white in the advert, then it means you’ve got a lot more scope to low-ball somebody when you’re in the negotiation part of the recruitment process.

“People might say otherwise, but for me, that’s the only reason why you would do that (not state a salary in a job advertisement).”

The suggestion that vacancy notices are constructed with the aim of aiding salary negotiations is echoed by Wadsworth, who provides pay bargaining advice for students he supervises.

“I’ve never known what the salary was going to be going into a job interview,” says Wadsworth.

“They (the clubs) are never transparent with it (the salary) and I think they can just make ‘competitive’ whatever they deem appropriate at the time, so one of the first things that I do with my trainees now is a workshop on how to negotiate fees.

“It’s quite an uncomfortable position to be in when someone’s like, ‘What are your expectations?’ and you’re sat in a room with four or five people. I always answer, ‘Well, what’s your budget?’ and we kind of meet in the middle a little bit.

“Salary expectations have never been part of my training, which is why I’m a big believer in building it into the supervision I give to the students that I’m working with.”

McGinty-Minister has also picked-up negotiating tips without the aid of any formal training, learning from her discussions with clients in sports as wide-ranging as golf and MMA.

“You have to learn to kind of do that for yourself a little bit. It’s good, because it’s a learning curve, but it’s also something that not everyone is a natural at. It requires a certain skill set and you might need the confidence to do it, which not everyone has. Also, not everyone has the financial ability to do it,” she says.

The initiative displayed by Wadsworth and McGinty-Minister seems necessary given the lack of alternative sources of salary advice. The British Association of Sports and Exercise Sciences (BASES) and the British Psychological Society (BPS) manage the formal accreditation ‘routes’ which allow qualified psychologists to apply for a place on the HCPC register.

The Football Psychology Show contacted both organisations, to see if pay bargaining guidance featured as part of the qualification process or in other membership packages. A BASES representative said that the organisation “does not provide any salary negotiation advice or guidance for our members”, stating that BASES “has never received any member comments regarding levels of pay in any sector.” The BPS was unable to respond to the request for comment.

It could be argued that advice or training would be ineffective without the support of tighter pay-related regulations. Whilst the EPPP directive targeting clubs with Category 1 Academies sets a minimum qualification threshold for psychologists employed to work with younger players, the rule’s terminology means that a club could theoretically meet the requirement by employing an MSc graduate who has yet to complete an accreditation ‘route’.

“What I’m seeing now is a lot of people that are recently qualified from university going into jobs at clubs to tick boxes, because the Elite Player Performance Plan says you have to have a psychologist,” says Richard Dobson, Wycombe Wanderers’ assistant manager.

Dobson, who, in 2012, established an academy psychology programme described as the ‘biggest in Europe’ by the FA’s former Head of Psychology, also criticised the salaries offered to psychologists employed as a result of EPPP regulations.

“So, they (the clubs) go, ‘Well, we’ve we bought one in – although we are paying them peanuts – but we’ve got one, so we are doing psychology now’, but they’re not. It’s not as simple as that. You have to understand psychology at a far deeper level.”

McGinty-Minister also believes that the language used in the EPPP rulebook should be refined.

“Anywhere that EPPP reaches needs to have that box checked and there are so many trainees that need to get that head start, so people can easily take advantage of that…the EPPP language related to the provision (of psychology) needs to be better,” she says.

Whilst amending the wording of a specific EPPP rule might seem like a minor change, small steps are likely to be the order of a day in a football industry which Wadsworth describes as “archaic”. Without a shift in the balance of power between clubs and psychologists, he believes that the situation is likely to get worse, not better.

“I always put it out there to them (my students): ‘Talk to me about this balance between gaining experience versus earning money’, and every single one of them – and I was exactly the same when I was in that position – would take a job for no money because that’s the state of the industry that we’re in. The experience for them is more valuable,” he says.

“To an extent, I agree with that in the trainee phase, but there are still people that I’m seeing who are taking peanuts, who are just as qualified on paper as I am. By doing that, you’re now making it more difficult for everyone else coming through the system because you’re now saying, ‘Yes, I’m willing to not earn any money’, meaning other people going for equivalent jobs are expected it to do it for not very much money.”

“We’re creating a monster for ourselves by accepting these roles, but at the same time, I understand because I was in that position: I was sleeping on the sofas and driving up the motorways.”