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From coach to 'mental coach': inside Norweigan football's psychology programme
Why training coaches - rather than psychologists - is helping Norway's top-flight clubs
Erling Haaland and Martin Odergaard are fixtures in most football fan’s fantasy teams. Fortunately for Norway, the pair are very much part of the national side’s real-life lineup.
Despite a poor start to Euro 2024 qualifying (which has seen Haaland, Odergaard and co claim only four points from their first four games), Norweigan football is arguably in better health than at any point since the 1990s, when players such as Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Tore Andre Flo were household names.
Whilst there is a raft of possible reasons for the resurgence, from pot luck to a collective determination by the country’s football administrators to move on from the torpor of the late 2000s, it’s interesting to note the focus on psychological support at both international and domestic levels.
I spoke recently to Leif Gunnar Smerud about the psychologist-cum-coach’s time managing Norway’s U-21s, including Haaland and Odergaard. Whilst Smerud was supporting the country’s leading young players, one of his compatriots was busy establishing a programme designed to turn top-flight coaches into ‘mental coaches’.
Geir Jordet is a well-known figure within European football, with over 20 years’ experience advising leading clubs across the continent. From 2009 to 2020, he was Director of Psychology at the Norweigan Centre of Football Excellence (NCFE), a ‘knowledge hub’ designed to support elite performance at the sharp end of the domestic game.
Over the course of a decade, he established a psychology programme that has trained over 200 coaches and is now a mandatory part of their current contemporaries’ qualification.
I spoke to Jordet about the reasons for starting the initiative, how it grew from a couple of courses into a nationally-recognised programme, and whether there needs to be a greater focus on coach education across European football.
You can listen to the conversation via the audio player or read the highlights in the summary below:
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One of the first dilemmas Jordet faced when devising the programme was its target audience: should a psychology initiative focus on corralling existing expertise, by establishing a network of psychologists across the country, or develop an understanding of the profession among a new cohort, namely, coaches?
“Pretty early on, we decided that being a small nation with limited access to high-quality sports psychology specialists, it might be better to actually target the coaches,” he explains.
“Instead of equipping the sports psychologists with extra tools and support, we just went straight to educating coaches, giving them the tools that they might not have to function as a type of ‘mental coach’ in their coaching role.
“As coaches are close to the players - they work with them every day - they're in a position to integrate psychology into everything else that happens…like I sometimes say, coaches are psychologists, whether they want to be or not.”
In 2013, Jordet took on his first group of students: 25 coaches signed up for a two-day course. Over the last decade, he has run around 20 similar residentials, with the format morphing into a structure that now consists of three modules, each spanning a couple of days, followed by a two-day exam.
“The programme became a very structured and systematic attempt to get coaches to make better decisions around their players with respect to psychology and just be a more productive, constructive, positive influence in the psychological development of the players that they were working with,” he explains.
“Essentially what we were trying to do throughout this thing was to make psychology as accessible and concrete as possible.
“We wanted to make it as football-specific as possible - talking about, of course, psychology theories, knowledge and research - but making everything football-specific.
“In terms of how you communicate it (to coaches), you need to also communicate with behaviors, which means using video a lot…the big examples that we would discuss would be videos from players in games or in training doing different things, which we would discuss with respect to the psychology involved, the types of cognitions, emotions, social processes, mental states and so forth, but always beginning with what's happening on the pitch and ending with what's happening on the pitch.
“Based on this, we also created behavioral checklists…we tried to make this as structured as possible so that coaches would get something that would help their analytical eye when they're looking at their players and assessing their players, but also a tool that they can then use in communication with their players.
“Towards the end (of the course) we spent a lot of time on exercises on the field, looking at how you set up specific physical artifacts that you put in your locker room or around the pitch and how you can do things that will help you act out some of these psychological processes and models.
“We had an approach to psychology that I think they (the coaches) appreciated because this approach was very functional: it wasn't fluffy, it wasn't vague, it wasn't like all those things that psychology can sometimes become.
“It's hard to avoid that, but if you can make it a little bit harder, a little bit more functional, I think, at least in football - maybe compared to many other sports - people are more likely to positively receive it.”
According to Jordet, the programme is now embedded in the Norwegian equivalent of England’s Elite Player Performance Programme (EPPP), with clubs requiring a certain number of successful graduates, if they’re to achieve a high Academy classification score.
Whilst Jordet is quick to emphasise that many football associations run psychology-focused training courses, he believes the extent to which the NCFE programme focused on coaches taps into an important - and potentially under-utilised - way of improving psychological support.
“I’ve been a personal psychology advisor, working directly with players, for 20-plus years and I believe a lot in having specialists in those roles, but I also believe in the coaches being the primary provider of psychology in football,” says Jordet.
“To have something that supports them and ensures that the quality of what they do is as high as possible just makes sense from a psychological point of view.”
Jordet also stresses the significance of the programme’s longevity, which allowed his team to form real relationships with Norway’s top clubs (to the point where every team from the country’s two divisions voluntarily issued an NCFE psychology questionnaire to their players).
“That says something about the role that we had achieved because they knew that yes, they had to give something, but they would get good stuff back,” he says.
“I think the reason for that is that we just did this over time, taking care of those relationships and taking our responsibility very, very seriously.”
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