Why 'zero psychology' headlines miss the point
The words leave little open to interpretation. According to Luke O’Nien, a professional footballer currently playing for Sunderland, there is ‘zero work on the psychological side of this sport (football)’ in academies.
O’Nien was talking to Sky Sports, as part of an interview that has triggered debates about the level of psychological support afforded to players, the role of regulation and the need for sensitive media coverage of mental health stories.
Before looking at the discussions which have unfolded, I just want to touch on a couple of points. Firstly, I’d recommend reading the article in full, not least because O’Nien speaks openly and touchingly about the way in which anxiety has affected his behaviour and emotions, both on and off the pitch.
Secondly, it’s vital that the issues that the story has raised are viewed independently of O’Nien’s tale. Challenging a statement about the scale of psychological support within English football academies does not cast a shadow over the Sunderland midfielder’s vivid recollections of the stress endured by an elite athlete.
It’s on this basis that we can begin to have a constructive conversation about some of the points the article raises, not least the claim that there is ‘zero work on psychology’ within English football academies (a statement initially used as the article’s headline, before being replaced with a less provocative substitute).
Undoubtedly, there is more that can be done to provide psychological support for players at every level of the game, but this shouldn’t disguise the fact that there is a greater regulatory onus on clubs to aid academy cohorts than their senior squads.
Leading ‘Category One’ academies are mandated to employ at least one psychologist who is either accredited (i.e. listed on the Health and Care Professions Council - HCPC - Register) or enrolled in one of the approved training ‘routes’ towards receiving accreditation.
Whilst there are coaches and psychologists who view this as lax criteria, allowing clubs to ‘tickbox’, it is (at the very least) familiarising players with psychological support from a young age. At a time when there are loud calls for a focus on developing ‘people’ rather than ‘players’, it’s a base from which to build.
O’Nein’s interview also raised questions about the marketing and merits of unregulated psychological support. You can read (and add your own queries) to the comments on this LinkedIn thread, but I’d summarise the talking points as follows:
To what extent is it appropriate for an ‘unaccredited’ professional (and I mean this purely in the technical sense i.e. not accredited by the Health and Care Professions Council) to help a young person deal with mental health conditions like anxiety?
Do coaches and club staff need to have a better understanding of ‘protected titles’, so they know that anyone (regardless of training and qualifications) is able to list themselves as a ‘mind coach’ or ‘performance psychologist’? For any coaches reading this who might, understandably, be unfamiliar with what ‘protected titles’ are and what they mean, guidance can be found here.
Can ex-players, who have first-hand experience of what Academy graduates go through, deliver advice in a way that psychologists can’t realistically be expected to emulate?
It’s this writer’s view that performance coaches - alongside players, teammates, managers and physios - can (and do) play a vital role in helping athletes, but when it comes to issues such as anxiety, this should be complemented by regulated psychological support
This isn’t to tag all unaccredited professionals with the same label (there are examples of people who are not HCPC-registered doing tremendous work) but we also need to be conscious of the risks posed by unaccredited provision. I’ve spoken to psychologists who have told me about players being wary of seeking mental health support, purely on the basis of an adverse experience with an unregulated professional. Accreditation isn’t and never will be a silver bullet, but we ignore it at our peril.
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What I’m Reading
Aaron Lennon on mental health stigma (The Times, £)
The evolution of women’s football in England (The Athletic, £)
'Exercise as punishment' in US sport (New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung)
Keiera Walsh on the pressure of social media (FourFourTwo)
Quote of the week
We have overloaded schedules and play nonstop. Right now, I feel like I'm suffocating and that the player is gobbling up the man.
Manchester United defender Raphael Varane explains part of the reasoning behind his international retirement
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The major question here appears to be, is it better to get some mental support even if it is classed as uncredited ( using the guidelines) which I appreciate can be more harmful than beneficial but not in every case.
I have studied both Sports Psychology and years of Mental Health Education and lived experience. I am a Qualified Mental Health First Aider ( Mental Health England) and under their guidelines have supported hundreds of employees in Insurance at many levels, acting as a listening post and signposting further support. I also qualified as a UEFAB Coach ..I am also an Advocate at TAP ( The True Athlete Project ) and a Mindfulness Coach .. with these qualifications in mind and experience would this level of Education be something to consider in Academy Level Football ?
Just a thought !