Football's psychology evolution is gathering pace despite 'culture of conservatism'

By John NassooriBBC Sport
Davide Ancelotti cut his playing career short to focus on coaching

"In the future, every player will have their own psychologist."

Davide Ancelotti's words are delivered with care, in trademark family fashion. They hint at a personal journey that began with his father almost 20 years ago, when Carlo Ancelotti's AC Milan were pioneering the use of psychological support in European football.

They also show how demands and resources thrown at contemporary elite players are intensifying the focus on the game's mental side.

Ancelotti has been assistant coach at Real Madrid since 2021, when his father Carlo was appointed manager. The 33-year-old, who has managerial ambitions of his own, is among a new generation looking again at this field of science for ways to improve their teams.

At least one Premier League club's sports science department has 'psychologically coded' players to record confidence, focus and motivation levels, while top European sides are trialling brain imaging and virtual reality technology in a bid to improve cognitive skills such as perception.

But there is also an opposing force at play - what one expert describes as a "traditional culture of conservatism" behind the "risk-averse" attitude and "taboos" that still permeate the game of football.

AC Milan's Milanello training ground lies on the edge of the northern Italian city. As a young midfielder there between 2007 and 2009, Ancelotti would spend time in its 'Mind Room', an innovative psychology laboratory that helped underpin an unprecedented run of success during the 23 years it was operational from 1986.

It sparked an interest in the subject that has remained ever since.

Ancelotti studied sports science after cutting short his playing career to focus on coaching, picking up a commendation for his university thesis on players' motor skills. Before working at Madrid he also joined his father in coaching roles at Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton.

The pair have sporadically implemented psychology and player welfare initiatives over the course of the past decade - for example introducing sleep coaching in Carlo's first stint as Madrid boss in 2014 - but these projects were predominantly aimed at supporting the coaching team, according to Ancelotti.

"In the past, we've tried to have someone come in that the players didn't know was a psychologist, just to watch and produce reports for us," he says.

"It was more for the staff because I think coaches need to have an understanding of psychology. We have to know how to approach players and communicate with them, whether it's a good moment to talk or not to talk.

"But at Madrid now, we have players with their own psychologists. Mental health and psychology are spoken about a lot more in society now, so the young players have a better understanding of it.

"I think it's something that must be specific to each individual: I don't think you should have one psychologist for the whole squad."

Liverpool used brain imaging technology in training before last season's Champions League final

Ancelotti's view is interesting, given the rising number of teams who are employing psychologists to work with entire first-team squads, rather than individuals.

Premier League clubs increasingly use specialists trained in supporting players' confidence and focus, as well as identifying mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, but their work generally stretches across the playing staff. A psychologist could be helping a first-team member returning from a long layoff to overcome fear of re-injury, as well as working with their team-mates to set motivational goals.

But Geir Jordet, a psychology professor who has spent more than 15 years advising leading European clubs, believes things are changing too. Like Ancelotti, he sees "players becoming more in charge of their own development" when it comes to psychology and training.

Jordet says that a number of top-level players are using virtual reality technology - which recreates thousands of in-game situations taken from 'real-life' elite matches and monitors a user's response - to improve the timing and frequency of their 'scanning' (the glances around the pitch they make before receiving the ball).

After analysing more than 250 elite players, Jordet's team's studies have shown that scanning has a small, but positive, effect on performance, with more frequent scanning leading to a higher probability of completing a pass.

With players' interest in physical data, ranging from top speed to distance covered during a game, now firmly established, measurements such as scanning timing and frequency could become the subject of similar attention.

Malcolm Harkness, for one, believes that may well become the norm.

Harkness was part of Chelsea's backroom set-up for just under four years, where he worked in partnership with his father Tim, Chelsea's current head of sports science. He was involved in 'psychologically coding' the London club's games between 2018 and 2020.

Recording 'actions' - such as a shot, pass or tackle - taken by both Chelsea's first team and the opposition, Harkness would use a simple criterion to determine the extent to which each 'action' displayed confidence, motivation or focus.

For example, a shot from outside the area which hit the target would be classed as a 'confidence action' and rewarded with a point. Likewise, a successfully completed through ball would see the player making the pass given a point for focus, while an attacking run made by a full-back would be seen as a demonstration of motivation.

"For the last few decades, you've had loads of statistics, measuring possession, number of passes and number of shots, but I don't think anyone had really looked too much into the number of psychological actions," Harkness told The Football Psychology Show.Latest news and information 😦😤😀 Football's psychology evolution is gathering pace despite 'culture of conservatism' - BBC Sport

"When you code between 10 and 20 games, you start to see a lot of patterns emerging and get some really interesting insights into the players."

Harkness acknowledges that the system relies on subjective criteria which can overlap (a penetrative pass could be viewed as both a sign of confidence and focus, for example), but stresses that he and his father - who has worked as a psychologist for 25 years - would rigorously analyse actions that could fall into different categories. Not that it really mattered where some players were concerned.

"Before he left, Eden Hazard broke the charts every time," says Harkness.

"In every game he played, he made everyone else look like they'd done nothing for the whole 90 minutes."

While the Belgian's brilliance wasn't hard to define during his time with Chelsea, the programme did produce further findings.

Harkness explains: "Callum [Hudson-Odoi] would come off the bench and be very effective: he would come in with a lot of confidence, drive the intensity of the game and give confidence to the other players.

"With N'Golo Kante, we would see a lot of focus actions, such as anticipating and intercepting a pass. It looked as though he was just in the right place at the right time, but he was concentrating so hard.

"Christian Pulisic would record a lot of motivated actions through pressing. He's a very fit guy and he would use that to put pressure on the defence and drive the whole press of the team. He would go to the right-back, then the centre-back, then the goalkeeper and end up on the other side of the pitch.

"That shows motivation because he doesn't have to do that, but he does."

Highlighting the project's findings to a coaching team already immersed in data from different departments proved challenging, says Harkness. But he is philosophical about the hurdles associated with working for a Premier League team.

"Petr Cech was very involved in the project [as technical and performance adviser] and I think he found a lot of value in the data we gave," he says.

"Working at a top-level club like Chelsea, it's sometimes tricky to get your say. You don't want to act like you've got the most important information because you've still got a whole analysis team, GPS data and the medical department to think about, but that's just part of the challenge of working for a big club.

"All the players have a lot of interest in the [GPS] data… after each match, we would put a visualisation up on the TV where they put their boots on.

"It would display their max speed, distance covered, and they'd really get involved and ask questions. Of course, they get very competitive with each other: Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount were very competitive with their max speeds.

"Like the GPS data, in the future I think there might be a lot of value in a player - who's interested in it - looking through the (psychological coding) data and maybe seeing where he's not getting as many actions as another player in the same position or he's getting a lot more."

If Harkness is proved right, players' post-training routines might also involve a quick look at an image of their brain.

RC Lens' academy recently trialled brain scanning technology, designed to identify neural activity associated with conditions such as anxiety, burnout, depression and insomnia.

Players were asked to don a headset, complete with 18 sensors, which records electrical signals produced by the body. Within six minutes, the information is used to create an image of the brain that is cross-referenced against a baseline scan, enabling players to detect the emergence of 'biomarkers' associated with conditions such as sleep deprivation.

Antony Branco-Lopes is a neuropsychologist and co-founder of Spectre Biotech, the company that worked with Lens. He says football clubs are generally risk-averse in assessing the merits of cognitive technology, particularly in comparison to counterparts in other sports, such as motor racing teams.

"They know the problems with mental health and enhancing performance, and they talk a lot about it, but when it comes to really doing something, they are a bit afraid," says Branco-Lopes.

"With e-sport and motorsport, we don't have these issues… they see the value [in what we do] and measure everything, but in football I don't think this is the case."

Jordet, who co-founded the 'Be Your Best' virtual reality training platform used by Hoffenheim and the German Football Federation, has also encountered his own fair share of scepticism over psychological training within the game.

"In my career in football, I've never seen experienced coaches so into research and methodology as when they discussed this [the virtual reality training]," says Jordet.

"They would never ask the same type of questions with respect to exercises they will do every day in training, which have no empirical documentation whatsoever, because they've been used for so many years and they're just part of football.

"But if you come in with a new technology, then suddenly old-school football coaches become academics.

"Football, to me, has a traditional culture of conservatism, a sceptical attitude to new things, new methods and new innovations that's more prevalent than in other sports."

For Ancelotti, it's a case of evolution by force. In his eyes, football has no choice but to change, given the increasing demand for psychological support from the sport's most important protagonists: the players.

"When I was playing, often the perception of a therapist was not of someone that could help you to perform better or better manage people," he says.

"Even today, some parts of the football world aren't that open to this aspect. I think it's about the culture we have in this sport.

"In England, I think they are more open to talking to therapists. At Everton, we had players who suffered with anxiety and they took care of their mental health. In other countries like Spain or Italy, it's different. There are more taboos.

"But we must improve the way we manage people and improve the decision making of our players because the youngsters coming through have a different mentality.

"Society is changing and we have to adapt."

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