Sports therapy: scoring with off-the-pitch mind games

A football match is not just won on the field - sports psychologists are now playing an influential role in teams' performances. Tim Walker looks at a growing career for those interested in the beautiful game
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The Independent Online

Sport. It's a funny old game. Not so long ago, a psychologist would have been laughed out of the dressing room. Nowadays, Jose Mourinho spends his free time playing mind games with his fellow managers, and psychology is the most recent scientific discipline to be accepted by the sporting community as a potentially match-winning coaching ingredient.

"The physical sports sciences are a given at football clubs now for increasing player fitness, speed and skill," says Roberto Forzoni, an applied sports psychologist. "Of course, those are easy things to measure. Unfortunately, with psychology, there's no easy monitor to show an improvement in performance. It's more of an art than a science."

That much is clear from one of Forzoni's chosen methods of inspiring player confidence: he's working on a PhD about the positive effects of video. " I put together videos that players can then carry around on their iPods or other handheld gizmos - with inspiring music, shots of them and their role models playing and scoring goals, slow motion sequences and so on," he says. "It's all motivational; designed to boost confidence pre-performance."

Forzoni is from a coaching background, and has worked under manager Steve Coppell at Crystal Palace, Brentford and Brighton football clubs. When trying to persuade players of the effectiveness of his methods, his football coaching credentials are essential to his credibility.

"At a football club, a psychologist with no football experience would just be shown the door," he says. "At Brentford, when I arrived, Coppell said, 'Don't mention psychology', so I just started working with the players as a coach. After about three weeks of this, the players said, 'You're a psychologist, aren't you? When are you going to do some psychology?' So I told them - we'd been doing it the whole time. They just had the wrong stereotype of what psychology was."

Forzoni doesn't find quite the same scepticism when working in his other specialist area, tennis. "In tennis, psychology is more acceptable. The players generally come from more privileged backgrounds, different educational backgrounds, so they're more open to ideas and less critical," he says.

Sports psychologists like Forzoni are generally hired on a consultancy basis, often only to advise the manager, rather than dealing directly with the players. Forzoni works with individual football clubs, a tennis club, the FA and the English Institute of Sport (EIS), as well as lecturing in sports psychology one day a week at Brunel University.

Like all sports sciences, his is a predictably ultra-competitive field. Undergraduate degrees in sports sciences now account for around 35,000 graduates every year in the UK, and only the most committed end up with careers in sports science. But it's boom time for the health and exercise industry. The Government wants to see 70 per cent of people doing moderate physical activity on a regular basis by 2020. Currently, that number is more like 30 per cent, and sports science graduates are well placed to help shift the balance.

"Investment in sport and physical activity will lower NHS costs," says Professor Les Burwitz, the head of the department of exercise and sport science at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). "For our students, that means there are more graduate opportunities in sport development for local authorities, sports clubs, and private health organisations. And the NHS is funding physical activity leaders, focusing on the prevention of long-term illness, rather than just treatment."

The corporate sector is also getting involved with investment in sport and public health. "MMU has a contract with Barclays Bank, who sponsor the Premiership, to see if their Spaces for Sports programme [a £30m investment in sustainable community sports facilities across the UK] is having a social effect, Burwitz says. "They are employing development officers for that initiative."

Burwitz is clear that his students need to be realistic about their choice of career. Only one or two MMU sports science graduates per year (of 75) end up working with elite athletes as sports scientists. But working in the health and exercise sector can bring its own rewards. Chris Ward graduated from MMU in 1997 and is now the national personal training manager for Fitness First. "A lot of the people I studied with were interested in the science and research side of sports science," he says. "But I wanted to work with people in clubs; to take the health and fitness route."

Ward is watching the health and fitness industry grow before his eyes. " We're riding a wave of media and government promotion of health and fitness at the moment," he says. "Membership of a fitness club isn't a luxury any more; it's a necessity. Gyms are competing with pubs and social clubs to be people's 'third place', after home and work."

Ward was originally a fitness consultant and personal trainer, but his current role sees him employing the behavioural psychology skills that he culled from his degree, rather than the biological and physical sciences. He is devising ways for Fitness First gym staff to help their clients develop exercise habits, in an attempt to maintain their membership. "The issue is not getting people through the front door into the clubs, it's ensuring that they don't leave through the back door too soon afterwards," he says. "The psychology of exercise is more prominent in my day-to-day work than physiology or biomechanics. I don't have to deal with a client's knee strain or their running style like I used to."

Becoming a personal trainer or fitness consultant is, Ward believes, a good starting point for any recent sports science graduate who wants to progress into health and fitness. Burwitz, faced with such a competitive jobs market for his students, takes the advice of former MMU graduates seriously.

"Based on testimony from our graduates, it's clear that employers don't just look at your degree, but also at work-related experience outside the degree," he says. "So we encourage our students to gain professional qualifications alongside their degree - coaching awards, community work and school sports teaching qualifications, for instance. Graduates should get at least one non-academic reference, too, from a team or group outside the university.

"Our graduates also tell us that more than 70 per cent of positions filled by sports science graduates are not advertised, which means that networking skills are crucial, too; they need to be able to create a good impression."

One of Burwitz's former students, who has made just such an impression, is 24-year-old Nicholas Diaper, a Kenyan former international swimmer, who last year became the first sports science intern with the EIS. The UK Sport practitioner development programme, the year-long internship, ended last month, and Diaper is now a disability performance profiler for the EIS. His position there is joint funded by the British Paralympic Association (BPA).

"What we're trying to do is create physiological profiles of the 16 sports covered by the BPA," Diaper says. "We get a picture of what a sport looks like at a high level, which allows us to create a talent ID structure. Then we can run young athletes through a battery of tests, which help us to direct them to sports where they could potentially be successful."

Diaper's Masters at MMU involved disability in sports, so it seemed logical that he should continue in the same field at the EIS. "The problem we have is that no one really knows where to look for disabled talent in the UK, " he says. "It's easy to find able-bodied athletes, in schools and clubs, but we need a way to find potential elite disabled athletes. The goal is to increase the tally of paralympic medals in Beijing, London and beyond."

Winning from the 'war room'

When the manager Sam Allardyce joined first division Bolton Wanderers in 1999, he brought with him an openess to sports sciences that has been credited as part of the reason for his huge success with the club.

In his first five years as manager, Allardyce spent just £6m on new players, but built up a permanent backroom management team of 17, including head of sports science and medicine Mark Taylor, who leads a team of performance consultants, match analysts, dieticians, nutritionists, physiologists, psychologists and so on.

The result: first, promotion to the premiership in 2001, and later (though not too much later), elevation to European football. Last year, the club tussled with Everton and Liverpool for fourth place in the premiership and a prized Champions' League spot before being forced to settle for competing for the Uefa Cup this season. In 2001, Allardyce agreed to be in an ITV documentary on the stresses and strains of being a Premiership boss, which involved the Bolton manager wearing a heart-rate monitor during matches.

Television plays a key part in his match-winning strategy. At the club's training ground, Allardyce's "war room" is home to a system of computers and television screens closely monitoring his players' performances through video analysis and statistics. This weekend, Bolton lay third in the Premiership - ahead of Man Utd and Arsenal.

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