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Premier League Psychology Guide
How are England’s top flight clubs supporting players’ performance and mental health?
The onus on elite teams to provide elite-level care for their playing and non-playing staff has arguably never been greater, but are Premier League teams rising to the challenge?
This rundown on the psychological support England’s top-flight clubs provide for their players - based on publicly available information about managers and their backroom staff - profiles the people charged with improving players’ psychological performance and wellbeing.
The guide paints a mixed picture of clubs’ commitment to the cause. Dr Misia Gervis, a former psychology consultant to the England Women’s team, has spoken of a stark contrast between the wealth of resources dedicated to enhancing physical performance and the skeletal nature of most clubs’ psychology operations.
Tottenham, one of the world’s richest clubs, have yet to announce the appointment of a first team-focused psychologist. Whilst Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all boast highly-regarded support systems, a number of clubs beyond the ‘Big Six’ follow the example set by Spurs.
In many cases, clubs will point to the psychological expertise possessed by managers or the mental health support offered to their Academy intakes (mandated under the Elite Player Performance Programme) as evidence of a commitment to the wellbeing of players. It’s also worth noting that individual squad members often employ psychologists on a one-to-one basis: Jack Harrison and Tyrone Mings are just two of the players to have publicly stated they consult sports psychologists not directly affiliated to their clubs.
Despite this, there seems ample opportunity to improve the status quo. Managers who possess an acute understanding of psychology rarely carry essential professional qualifications and are often mistrusted by players with serious mental health issues, who are fearful disclosure could influence a coach’s team or squad selection.
Academy psychology support structures, whilst welcome, are surely the minimum requirement for clubs that have an obligation to support all members of playing and non-playing staff. Individuals who are seeing psychologists not directly affiliated to their employers should have the option of using in-house staff.
With the onus on Premier League clubs to provide elite psychological support to players set to intensify, it will be interesting to see how the richest football league in the world responds.
David Priestley heads the club’s Psychology and Personal Development department, working with both the first-team squad and academy.
Since joining from Saracens in 2014, where he occupied a similar role, Priestley has been reported to have suggested the much-maligned captaincy vote in 2019, as well as persuading former manager Unai Emery to pick different individuals to lead pre-match huddles. Emi Martinez credited Priestley’s support as key to his development in his final season with the Gunners.
Priestley’s role covers the development of the club’s culture and values, in addition to performance.
Steven Gerrard hired Martin Littlewood as first team psychologist in December 2021, after working with the former Bolton, Leicester and Everton staff member during his tenure as Rangers manager.
Gerrard's embrace of psychology as a coach comes on the back of his work with Steve Peters, the former England psychiatrist, at Liverpool. Gerrard, who was struggling with the mental challenge of recovering from a long-term injury before seeing Peters, attributes the mindset shift and cognitive awareness inspired by the psychiatrist with prolonging his career.
Scott Parker credited psychologist Mike Griffiths with playing a real role in Bournemouth's promotion last season. Griffiths, who has worked with Parker since the midfielder's move from West Ham to Newcastle in 2007, provides pre-match advice which the Cherries boss described as invaluable in helping the club back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the club’s reputation for innovation, to find a well-established approach to psychological support at the Brentford Community Stadium. Thomas Frank leads by example: the Bees’ manager studied sports psychology before starting his coaching career and is an advocate of the All Blacks’ ‘no dickheads’ squad selection policy.
Michael Caulfield, a sports psychologist who has worked with Gareth Southgate and Dean Smith during a 25-year-career in the field, provides expert support for Frank’s players. Caulfield places an emphasis on competition and playfulness (Brentford have a giant Jenga set at the club’s training ground), providing an environment designed to increase players’ oxytocin and endorphin levels.
Working alongside Caulfield, consultant sleep coach Anna West provides advice and guidance for the Bees' first-team squad, helping players manage fatigue. In an interview with The Football Psychology Show, West's counterpart Nick Littlehales explained how sleep coaching aids crucial cognitive functions such as attention spans.
Brighton are often held-up as an example of how to instill an onus on psychological support throughout a club. Paul Barber, the Seagulls’ CEO, and former Technical Director Dan Ashworth, earned a reputation for focusing on the development of all Brighton employees, beyond the confines of the first-team squad.
Ashworth was pivotal to establishing a Performance Psychology and Wellbeing department, bringing together two parts of the psychology profession that are often dealt with in isolation. James Bell, UK Sport’s former Head of Culture Development and Mental Health, leads the team, which is comprised of performance and clinical psychologists, as well as mental wellbeing experts.
The club's credibility in this area is enhanced by their decision to appoint Graham Potter in 2019. The current Brighton head coach holds a Master’s in Leadership, Personal and Professional Development, which informed the team building techniques he used at Ostersunds.
Potter’s studies also focused on the use of emotional intelligence, a tool the Brighton manager employs in preparing an environment for his players to thrive in and deal with disappointment.
Erich Rutemöller, the former head of training for aspiring coaches at the German Football Association, praised Thomas Tuchel’s theoretical understanding of psychology in an interview with The Guardian in 2021. The German’s ability to develop close personal relationships with his players is undoubted (and was informed by psychological evaluations of his Mainz squad) but securing boardroom backing vital to a club’s culture has proved tougher. Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia Dortmund’s chief executive, called Tuchel “a difficult person” after the manager’s departure from the Westfalenstadion in 2017.
Tim Harkness, the club’s Head of Sports Science and Psychology, provides expert support for Tuchel. Harkness, who has worked with Bruno Demichelis, AC Milan’s former scientific coordinator, led a ‘psychological coding’ project during Mauricio Sarri’s time in the Stamford Bridge hot seat. The initiative saw Harkness and his team assess players’ in-game confidence, focus and motivation, as part of a programme that gained support from Petr Cech, the club’s current Technical Director.
There is scant online evidence of the club’s psychological support setup beyond Academy level, but in Patrick Viera, the Eagles do possess a coach with man-management skills that point to a keen interest in psychology.
Players who have worked under Vieira praise the Frenchman’s commitment to treating squad members equally, willingness to delegate (which could pave the way for specialist performance psychology input) and honesty. Vieira’s predecessor Roy Hodgson worked with psychologist Steve Peters during his time in charge of England, but made some notable comments about clearly communicating with players, when asked about employing an equivalent to Peters at Selhurst Park.
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Rafa Benitez’s appointment as manager in the summer of 2021 spelt the end of Danny Donachie’s time at the club, with the club’s former Head of Medical Services very much a publicly lauded figure of psychological support for players. Donachie, who has worked with athletes including Ana Ivanovic and Tony Bellew, was in his second spell with the club, after occupying a similar role at Aston Villa. Bellew credits Donarchie with helping him recover from injury and increase his confidence.
Since taking over from Benitez, Frank Lampard has yet to publicly announce the appointment of a psychologist, although players including Jordan Pickford have stated that they are seeing consultants of their own. This approach - whereby a club doesn't employ a psychologist but allows or encourages players to see professionals contracted by the individual in question - was also favoured by Marcelo Bielsa, during his spell at Leeds.
Although Marco Silva has not employed a psychologist since taking over at Craven Cottage, the ex-Everton boss counts Bruno Mendes, the former head of the ‘Benfica Lab’, among his backroom staff. During his 17-year tenure at Benfica, Mendes - who is currently Fulham’s Head of Performance - led an initiative that was seen as pioneering in its use of data to monitor fatigue and stress levels. The Portuguese club’s laboratory was also renowned for using personalised data to predict which players might be close to ‘burnout’ and recommending proportionate remedial action. Mendes joined Fulham after a short spell at Everton, where he was also part of Silva’s setup.
Despite Jesse Marsch's reputation for focusing on psychology (the Leeds boss is widely quoted as saying 75% of elite football is defined by mentality) and his experience of working with specialists at both Leipzig and Salzburg, the American has not publicly talked about bringing a psychologist to Elland Road.
Marcelo Bielsa did not employ a dedicated sports psychologist during his time with Leeds, with players such as Jack Harrison - who publicly praised the sports psychologist he independently hired - entrusted to work with professionals not directly linked to the club.
Forget the anecdotes about writing poems for John Terry and drawing crown-adorned matchstick men of his players: there’s little doubt surrounding Brendan Rodgers’ commitment to the mental side of football. A keen reader of psychology theory, who embedded two performance psychologists with his Swansea team in the build-up to the club’s 2011 Championship playoff final win, Rodgers spent five years studying neuro-linguistic programming and makes a point of addressing each player individually prior to games.
Described by the club’s performance psychology consultant as Liverpool’s ‘head psychologist’, Jurgen Klopp has shown a keen interest in the theory behind mental preparation and its practical implementation throughout his career. Psychology formed part of the diploma he obtained whilst playing for Mainz and the former Borussia Dortmund manager put the studying into practice on numerous occasions in Germany. Klopp’s empathy for his squad is well-trailed: he was staggered to learn that a member of staff was unaware of Andy Robertson’s impending fatherhood, before the arrival of the Scottish left-back’s child in 2020.
Lee Richardson, appointed as Liverpool’s Performance Psychology Consultant in 2019, provides Klopp’s players with expert support. A former player, who enjoyed spells with Aberdeen, Blackburn, Halifax, Oldham and Watford, Richardson started studying psychology after seeing how anxious his former teammates became before games. The ex-Chesterfield coach previously worked as a psychology consultant for West Ham and spends three days a week at Melwood, largely focusing on one-on-one sessions with players.
Pep Guardiola’s tactical mastery is rightly celebrated, but he also possesses an acute understanding of how to manage the psychological pressures facing his players. Statements such as the claim he’d like a ‘thousand Dante’s’ in his Bayern Munich team are designed specifically to foster social cohesion within a squad.
Manel Estiarte, City’s Head of Player Support and Protocol, is a trusted Guardiola confidant. The Spaniard was the first water polo player to represent his country at six Olympics and provides the first-team squad with valuable insight in handling the pressure of an elite sporting environment. Estiarte has been praised by Guardiola for his intuition.
Away from Guardiola’s bench, Simon Timson, the club’s Performance Director, holds a PhD in Sports Psychology. Timson has worked with the ECB, LTA and UK Sport and has been credited with the strategic thinking which saw Great Britain’s Skeleton crew become one of the country’s most successful Winter Olympics teams.
Below Timson, David Young, a consultant psychologist, has been working with City’s first team since July 2019. Young was employed by both the ECB (in the build-up to the national team’s 2019 World Cup win) and Wolves in similar roles.
This support is replicated across the network of clubs within ‘City Football Group’ (CFG). Lorraine O’Malley, who is embedded within City’s loans department, provides psychological support for all CFG members.
Psychologist Sascha Lense, who worked with Ralf Rangnick at RB Leipzig, was appointed to support the United squad in late 2021, in one of Rangnick's more notable contributions to the setup at Old Trafford. However, little has been heard of Lense, who was the first psychologist the Red Devils had publicly linked to the first team for a number of years. Eric ten Hag's arrival could signal another change of the guard, although the Dutchman has not brought in a psychologist in his first raft of backroom appointments.
Despite publicly heralding the role which psychological support plays in players' performances, Eddie Howe has not appointed a specialist since taking over as manager at St James' Park. Newcastle have been without a psychologist for some time, with Steve Bruce, Howe's predecessor, ignoring calls for the club to make an appointment during his time in the North East.
Jennifer Lace, who leads Wales’ performance psychology setup, is Forest’s Head of Sports Psychology and Personal Development, a role she has occupied since December 2019. Lace joined the club after spending almost seven years in a similar position at Burnley.
The club’s embrace of psychology is perhaps no surprise given Steve Cooper’s experience with the England Under-17 team. Whilst leading the age group to World Cup glory in 2017, Cooper employed a psychologist, whose remit was focused on both player development and the head coach’s communication.
Ralph Hassenhuttl has deployed varying approaches to supporting his players’ state of mind. Whilst at Leipzig, he worked with sports psychologist Sascha Lense, whose services were enlisted by Manchester United in late 2021. In an interview in 2021, the Southampton manager suggested that psychological support should be provided by players’ family and coaching staff.
Despite this, he allows squad members, such as Jan Bednarek, to work with externally-employed psychologists, and counts Malcolm Frame, the club's long-serving Head of Psychology, among his backroom staff. Frame has led the development of the club's 'Learning Lab', a joint venture involving Leeds Beckett, Bournemouth and Gloucester universities, which will focus on enhancing the club's ecological environment, psychological support and use of emerging technology such as VR.
The Lab is indicative of Southampton's excellent reputation for aiding the development of younger players, as Simon Clifford, the club’s former Head of Sports Science, spelt out in an episode of The Football Psychology Show.
Spurs are the only top six team without a publicly-appointed psychologist supporting the first team. In a similar vein to Leeds, players such as Ryan Sessegnon have sought advice and guidance from psychologists not directly employed by the club, whilst support is on offer to both the women’s team (via Helen Richardson-Walsh) and Tottenham’s academy intake.
Spurs did release a job posting in early 2022, advertising the role of Head of Psychology, but there have been no reports to suggest the vacancy was filled. The listing followed the club’s decision not to employ Nuno Espirito Santo’s former psychologist, Julio Figueroa, when the ex-Wolves boss joined Tottenham in the summer of 2021.
At both Preston and Everton, David Moyes worked with Michael Finnigan, who runs the performance psychology consultancy which helped Jimmy White move from 40th to 5th in the world snooker rankings at the age of 37.
Whilst Moyes does not appear to have used Finningan’s services at West Ham, he has embraced the concept of a specialist ‘player care’ department, supporting squad members in all aspects of their life away from the training ground. The Hammers’ former Head of Player Care, Hugo Scheckter, has described Moyes as the ‘best manager’ he has worked with.
In keeping with their Premier League rivals, West Ham ensure all Academy players have access to a qualified psychologist, with Lori Hedman-Nice providing psychological support across U-18 and U-23 teams.
Bruno Lage’s appointment signalled a change in Wolves’ psychological support setup, with ex-Nuno staffer Julio Figueroa no longer at the club. Former Team GB psychologist, Dr Kate Ludlam, joined the Midlands outfit shortly after Lage’s arrival, bringing with her experience of supporting boxers at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics (where Great Britain picked up nine medals in the ring). Max Kilman has spoken publicly about the positive impact breathing techniques introduced by the Wolves psychologist have had on his performances.
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