Over 40% of the global population tunes in week after week in reverence to the stars of the English premier league (EPL). In comparison, the 2016 NFL Super Bowl attracted a meager 1.3%, signifying the global dominance of the game.

With great popularity comes great reward. In 2016 alone, various EPL teams reported revenue of over $600m, with some writing checks for over $100m to secure the talent of a single player. With the abundance of resources available to these organizations, it would be reasonable to assume that these players also have access to premier performance enhancement techniques, right?

Wrong. In fact, EPL teams are neglecting perhaps the most pivotal factor in performance. An aspect of performance that when cultivated, allows an individual to free their performance, transforming it from good to great.

Ultimately sporting performance is comprised of four fundamental skills. The first aspect, physical skill, refers to the capabilities of one’s physical motor system. In other words your ability to run, push, jump etc. EPL teams have this aspect extensively covered, employing a plethora of sport scientists (e.g. strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, physiotherapists) to ensure their performers are physically prepared for competition. Both technical and tactical skills are portrayed in an individual’s ability to execute fine motor skills and strategies. Development in these areas typically represents the focus of daily practices in football, facilitated by a host of specialist coaches. The final component of performance is much more abstract, and therefore frequently neglected. In fact, it is conceivably the most salient skill set for performance excellence. The physical, technical and tactical preparation preceding competition results in homogeneity of these attributes among the majority of performers, meaning, when performers are adequately and equally prepared, the mind represents the pivotal factor permitting effective expression of these attributes in competition.

The mental game, aka sport psychology, leads us to assume that it would be asinine to not consider sport psychology a cornerstone of player development, right?

Wrong again. No EPL organization currently employs a sport psychologist as part of their full time performance staff. Typically, it seems that a more reactive approach to sport psychology is used, with practitioners often employed short-term to address pre-determined psychological issues identified by the coaching staff. Following the resolution of these issues, practitioners are then sent back into the wilderness from which they came.

So why is this the pattern? Clearly it can’t be financial. EPL teams consistently earn more money per season than entire nations such as Syria and South Sudan earn a year. In addition, the average wage of a sport psychologist represents half of what the average EPL player earns a week. So why is psychology so undervalued in English football?

Staggeringly, this trend of negligence is also observed at the international level. Indeed it was only after the humiliating defeat to Iceland at the 2016 European championships, a nation whose population could almost comfortably fit into Wembley stadium, that the English Football Association announced that a sport psychologist would accompany the national team to all future international competitions.

This is a a good start, but any professional trusted to travel with the team still only has roughly 3 weeks of a year to develop effective relationships and induce change.

Hardly integration. Compare this to the practice adopted by English rugby (RFU), cricket (ECB) and athletics (British Olympic Committee), which have all employed full-time sport psychologists for almost a decade. This combination of primary prevention and development adopted by these national governing bodies evidences the value placed on sport psychology within the overall development of an athlete.

Again, this negligence from English football cannot be attributed to a lack of resources. The English FA generates more profit than the RFU, ECB and British Olympic Committee combined. In spite of this vast financial inferiority, the last decade has seen a enormous success for these sports, whilst football appears to be regressing. Team GB continues to improve their gold medal haul at every Olympic games, increasing their total per games by 20 in the last 8 years. English cricket have been a constant presence in the world rankings, securing their place as a top 5 nation across all forms of the game. Furthermore, after their recent six nations triumph, English rugby finds itself ranked number 2 in the world behind New Zealand, the most dominant team in the history of world sport.

Of course a multitude of factors influence the outcome of competition, and to suggest sport psychology as the single factor determining success would be naïve. However, it is interesting that the integration of sport psychology represents a factor not observed in football. So why exactly is English football taking so long to embrace the mental side of the game?

Primarily, the pathway to professional football in England is very different from all other sports. Players are able to sign multimillion dollar contract at the turn of their 17th birthday, resulting in aspiring players leaving school at 15 or 16 years old to begin practicing full-time with their respective teams. Contrast this with sports such as rugby, cricket and athletics, where athletes are encouraged, and oftentimes required, to continue with their educational endeavors. Indeed many of the athletes currently representing England or Great Britain in these sports are currently enrolled in or are graduates of higher education institutions. This discrepancy in the level education can be seen as actively shaping the culture of these sports.

With limited education, the potential benefits of sport psychology are lost on aspiring footballers. The culture is instead pervaded with the notion that sport psychology is only applicable to “mentally weak” players or players with mental health issues. Sport psychology as a tool for performance enhancement is a concept that is not even conceived. Despite these issues, it’s not fair to solely condemn the football developmental pathway.

The training programs responsible for developing applied sport and performance psychologist are incomplete. Specifically, the structure of sport psychology university programs tends to culminate in the creation of excellent academics and researchers. Whilst these individuals proceed to contribute immensely to the field in enhancing the body of knowledge, they can lack the competencies required to be an effective practitioner of sport psychology.

It seems that incorporating sport psychology more fully in the EPL would require a drastic culture change, complimented by the emergence of more applied university programs. Being systemic in nature, these changes will not happen overnight. As a neophyte sport psychology practitioner in an applied university program, one can only hope for the continued success of other English sports, alongside their persistent advocacy of our field. Maybe then the powers that be will come to realize the value of sport psychology and proceed to provide their players with the key to freeing their performance.

– Mason Blake –

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