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When Will Soccer Finally Embrace Psychology?

Mental health experts around the game believe much will be gained when soccer clubs look at psychology the same way they do sports science.

Raj Bains

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mental health isn't necessarily on the agenda in the hyper-masculine world of professional soccer. After all, mental health isn't really on society's agenda. However, given the fashion in which football has embraced sports science, statistical analysis and performance technology, it's odd to see football falling behind other sports in adopting psychology.

Books have been written, TED talks given and testimonies provided by athletes from various other sports who attribute large portions of their success to the way in which their minds have been coached, as well as their bodies. The truth is we can't measure precisely how emotion and mental stability impact athletic performance. But what happens off the field certainly has an impact on what happens on it.

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Wilson Palacios, a former Champions League level midfielder, hasn't managed to replicate that form since his Honduras-based brother was kidnapped for ransom and killed.

Angel Di Maria, soon after his move to Manchester, was the victim of a burglary, and has subsequently failed to completely settle.

Roberto Soldado, prolific scorer for Valencia, moved to Tottenham and the goals started to elude him. News soon followed that his loss in form had coincided with a miscarriage his wife had recently suffered, and a year later, he still hasn't improved on the field.

There are, obviously, many more stories such as those, but how much does the life of a player away from football actually affect what is being produced on the field?

"The science has been corroborated, it's indisputable that the work of a psychologist is paramount to achieving athletic excellence," says Tom Bates, a performance coach who has worked with Olympic and English Premier League athletes. "Other sports have less resources than football does, but other sports have embraced psychology more than football has, and more effectively"

Bates recounts an experience he had working with West Bromwich Albion F.C.

"Even the word 'psychology' can raise a barrier for people. They think if there's a psychologist present, then they must have something wrong with them. I joke about when I first entered the building and was met by then club captain Steven Reid, who pointed at me and said 'ahh so you're the new shrink, you're here to sit me down on the couch and you'll wave that thing in front of my face' and I said no actually I'm the stretch, I'm not here to fix anything, but increase performance, help you get than extra one, two, three or four percent".

West Bromwich Albion F.C.'s stadium, The Hawthorns. Photo via Wiki Commons.

Veteran performance psychologist Dr. Barry Cripps said that stigma and lack of education continue to hold the sport back when it comes to mental health.

"There's this fear that association with psychology will be professionally harmful. Players may think that if they admit something is wrong, they could be dropped from the team, so they often don't tell anyone, or speak up. The same can be said of clubs who don't publicly share that they work with psychologists. They don't want that information finding its way to the press. The problem with sports psychology in football is that managers, coaches and fans say 'what does a psychologist have to do with getting the ball in the net?' because they can't see the connection".

Cripps also believes that what happens off the field impacts performance. This is no different in soccer than in any other field. He cited the story of a patient who was a marketing director at a major company who lost a child—and then saw his performance dwindle, and his company's sales and investments drop. Therapy helped.

"We have to always remember that we are dealing with ordinary men and women in sport, with extraordinary talents, but first and foremost, they're just human beings, who are always going to be inextricably linked to their emotional states," said Bates. "Life becomes a treadmill for the athletes, it's a constant battle in building confidence and dealing with the setbacks, and if you add to that personal and social problems that affect the mental and emotional functioning of a human being, then the natural response is going to be detrimental to their level of performance."

"The person comes first, the footballer is secondary," Bates added. "If you can help the person, you can get double from the player."

However, Dr. Cripps was hesitant to draw a straight line between trauma and performance.

"Connecting cause with a trauma is pretty tricky," Cripps said. "For example, the Munich Air Disaster, which affected Manchester United, not all of those players involved in the incident and survived gave up the game as a result. So providing a definite correlation isn't easy."

After 23 people, including eight teammates were killed in the Munich Air Disaster, Sir Bobby Charlton, then only 20, used the experience as a motivational tool for the rest of his illustrious career. The way trauma is dealt with is entirely dependent on the individual.

Regardless, the sport of soccer has a way to go when it comes to mental health.

"I work closely with players and managers, but for some, there's still that stigmatism there, they're still scared of showing signs of weakness," said Bates. "Psychology doesn't have to be used as a cure, it can be used as a preventative, to help and to enhance what that system is producing in terms of its players."

Dr. Cripps believes the next step is institutional reform.

"I'm absolutely certain that clubs should have chartered psychologists amongst their staff, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. We need to break barriers down. In my view, every club, every serious sports club—be it international, league, or amateur—should have specialists working with them."

Football is a sport that can often hamper itself through an innate need to dispel any suggestions of dynamic change or reform, especially off the field. With the game growing so rapidly, with star players getting younger, and higher paid, it seems unavoidable that perhaps some guidance should be in place as standard, and the work being done so successfully in other sports only stands to support that.

We see footballers continually boom and bust, often within the same season, and can't offer a proper explanation as to why. We see players struggle with issues away from the game, but rarely offer them much beyond reluctant compassionate leave when it occurs, and lose our patience when they fail to return to the game in the same capacity they left it in. With that so obviously the case, isn't it about time football allowed someone to help?