Football adopting the Olympic model

Bradley Busch is a sport and exercise psychologist who has worked with elite footballers and Olympic competitors. Ian Florance talked to Bradley about how sports psychology is changing, and some of the other areas he works in.

Bradley begins by telling me he’s a director at InnerDrive, the company. ‘We started out in sport at a time when there were few advertised roles for sport psychologists. Education is now a major area of our activity and we do some training and presentation in commercial and not-for-profit organisations.’

Bradley’s article ‘Is Sport Psychology Doomed at Premier League Clubs?’ stimulated this interview. As the title suggests, it draws on his experience in football to argue that sport psychology’s role has changed and will continue to do so. ‘Football was slower than, say, sports like rugby or cricket to adopt psychological approaches. Perhaps that’s because of their backgrounds and culture. A lot of cricket and rugby players go to university and are exposed to psychological thinking and other social sciences. Football was traditionally a working-class sport. Its culture reflected the fact that you didn’t complain; that you either “had it or you didn’t”. That’s changing. Individual managers have pioneered the use of psychology while coach training is helping. Younger players who have experienced the benefits of psychological help are now moving into management.’

Continuity and comfort

About five years ago, Bradley started working more for individual players rather than for clubs. ‘There were a number of reasons for this. Clubs are very unstable: managers change quickly and tend to bring in their own backroom experts. Since the backroom staff – including sport psychologists – may move from club to club there’s a confidentiality issue and a feeling that they’re not on the “individual player’s team”. So, Premier League footballers began to build their own personal teams, sometimes without their club’s knowledge. These might include a chef, a strength and conditioning coach and a psychologist for instance, providing players with a degree of continuity even when they move from club to club. I see this as adopting the Olympic model. The 2012 Olympics were a huge influence as players and staff from different sports cross-pollinated ideas.’

How do individual players choose a sport psychologist? ‘I’ve never been asked about my registration, my approach to psychology or whether I’m insured. I make a point of raising these sorts of issues for my own peace of mind but they don’t seem to affect decisions to use you. Often, you’re referred: elite footballers are a small circle who often live close to each other. The players have to believe you can help them improve their performance. Elite footballers lead very constrained lives – they’re constantly scrutinised and depend on a small, close-kit circle. I sympathise with them because they often live lonely, pressurised lives. So, they need to feel comfortable working with you. It’s not a question of friendship: comfort is probably the right word.’ 

Do you need to have been involved deeply in football? ‘No. I’m a fan and a season ticket holder but I got into sport psychology with experience of playing county level tennis and questioning what impacted my performance from day to day. In fact, not having directly relevant experience can help. You need to talk in a way that shows you understand the technicalities and context but not the detail, that you are invested in their livelihood. Football is much more complex than it sometimes seems to the over-opinionated fan and many footballers are deeply knowledgeable about the game. Never having played at a professional level means I don’t overstep the mark and try to compete.’

‘Confidentiality is critical to successful work in this environment. I refer to specific teams I work with and that’s OK but I don’t mention individual players. This might be a tactic for strengthening your profile but it’s certain to destroy a business in the end, apart from being  unethical.’

What sort of issues does Bradley work on? ‘In some cases there is a “problem” to solve with a set goal. Once this is achieved the contract/relationship ends. Longer term clients focus on performance improvement in the future. It’s clear that players I have worked with at certain clubs, such as Manchester United, focus on learning, on improving themselves. For players at other clubs, the issues have more been about dealing with outside issues and circumstances: getting on with a particular teammate, for instance. We do still work at a team level and here open discussion is the key.’ The company still gets involved in group projects. ‘We have worked directly with coaching teams and set out to improve on-field communication. We still work with academy players. Working with these groups was my introduction to practical work in football. When I was doing my MSc there was a grant for football-related topics and I did mine on fear of failure among academy footballers. After completing it I wrote round to all 92 FA clubs offering a free talk on my MSc. I got a reply from Sunderland and after a while that resulted in working at Watford Football Club for five years.’

Bradley has worked with individual Olympians and Paralympians, as well as in other sports. I wondered if there was a difference between team sports like football and cricket and individual sports like golf and tennis. ‘Less than you think: that distinction doesn’t really apply in certain sports. Football is highly competitive within as well as between teams. Cricketers and footballers have to perform individually as well as within a team.’

Education and cognitive science

The company’s work in education reflects the growing interest in cognitive science in the education sector. Bradley is quite clear that ‘we do training, CPD, INSET days and twilight sessions. I think of us as a Google Translate for educators – taking existing research and theory, then turning it into stimulating, relevant language. We are not trying to replace educational psychologists: my wife is a child and educational psychologist so I’m very clear on that. We could not do the assessment and special needs work educational psychologists do whereas they could easily do what we do if the funding and time were available. Many educational psychologists are trying to widen their remit and use more of the knowledge and skills they possess.’

‘A lot of our work addresses metacognition – skills like that help pupils to learn more effectively given the knowledge-rich curriculum, so we look at areas like retrieval practice and cognitive load theory. Resilience is also important as are areas like self-awareness and self-reflection. We do less work in business but again we’re basically a training organisation. You have to be engaging for these audiences. Managers hire us to give sessions and keynotes that genuinely inspire their teams.’

Bradley started out, as he describes it, as a proper tennis brat. ‘I did A-level PE and Psychology. Since the same teacher taught on both courses, I was able to attend the same lessons twice – which convinced me I could succeed at sport psychology! At the start I was rather impressed with the idea of working with sports stars but I’m less star-struck now.’ 

Given how his career and the discipline of sport science has developed how does the future shape up? ‘We do more work online because of Covid. It doesn’t work as well as face-to-face sessions. For instance it’s harder to break the ice with small talk on-screen, but it does have advantages which means it will continue. Equally I don’t see the cognitive science revolution losing pace in the near future. There are more roles for sport psychologists advertised now than when I started.’

Bradley predicts that more individual, high-profile players will seek the edge psychology gives to their performance. ‘As I’ve suggested they are a small network. I suspect our business will develop internationally since sport is increasingly trans-national. Our new initiative is running some CPD seminars online for young recently trained psychologists, looking at basic issues like how you apply for work, what do you wear to a meeting. I’m excited about this.’

Bradley is currently working on a book that looks at how do we present key psychological findings and concepts. ‘I am very interested in data visualisation – how people design infographics to make data easier to understand. At some stage, I’d quite like to write a sport psychology book with my brilliant colleagues, Edward Watson, Matthew Shaw, and Hanna Gildam-Clark, but in a style that varies a bit from your traditional sport psychology text. In the short term, though, sleep is the main objective… I have a very young child!

- Bradley Busch, @BradleyKBusch

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