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The evolution of football psychology is accelerating despite a 'culture of conservatism'

Davide Ancelotti and father Carlo
David Ancelotti cut short his playing career to focus on coaching

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

Davide Ancelotti’s words are carefully delivered in his trademark familial fashion. They allude to Carlo Ancelotti’s personal journey that began with his father some 20 years before his AC his Milan pioneered the use of psychological support in European football.

It also shows how the demands and resources placed on today’s elite players are increasing the focus on the mental side of the game.

Ancelotti has been Real Madrid’s assistant coach since 2021, when his father Carlo was appointed manager. The 33-year-old has managerial ambitions of his own and is one of a new generation of him who is revisiting the field of science in search of ways to improve his team.

At least one Premier League club’s sports science division has players “psychologically coded” to record levels of confidence, focus and motivation. Also, top European teams are experimenting with brain imaging and virtual reality techniques to improve cognitive skills such as perception.

But there are also opposing forces at work. One expert described it as the “traditional culture of conservatism” behind the “risk-averse” attitudes and “taboos” that still permeate the game of football.

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AC Milan’s Milanello training ground is located on the edge of the city in northern Italy. As a young midfielder between 2007 and his 2009, Ancelotti spent time with the team. “Mindroom”, An innovative psychology institute that has enjoyed unprecedented success for 23 years since 1986.

Since then, interest in the subject has grown.

After shortening his playing career to focus on coaching, Ancelotti studied sports science and won an award for a college thesis on athletic performance in athletes. Before he worked for Madrid, he coached with his father at Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton.

According to Ancelotti, the pair have sporadically implemented psychology and player welfare initiatives over the past decade.

“In the past, we’ve tried to bring in someone just to observe and report for us, without knowing that the player is a psychologist,” he says.

“I think coaches need to understand psychology, so it was for the staff. We have to know how to approach players and communicate with them. Whether it’s a good moment or not

“But now Madrid have players who have psychologists. Mental health and psychology are more talked about in society, so young players understand it better.”

“I think it should be unique to each individual. I don’t think you should have one psychologist for the whole team.”

Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold wears brain scanning device during training
Liverpool used brain imaging technology in training ahead of last season’s Champions League final.

Ancelotti’s view is interesting, given that more and more teams are hiring psychologists to work with entire first-team squads rather than individuals.

Premier League clubs are increasingly using trained specialists to support players’ confidence and focus and identify mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, but their work is generally Psychologists have helped first-team members returning from lengthy layoffs overcome their fear of being injured again, and worked with teammates to set motivational goals. can be set.

But psychology professor Geir Jordet, who has been advising major European clubs for more than 15 years, believes things are changing. Like Ancelotti, he sees “players taking more responsibility for their own development” when it comes to psychology and training.

According to Jordet, many top players are using virtual reality technology. The technology recreates thousands of in-game situations taken from ‘real life’ elite matches and monitors user reactions to improve the timing and frequency of ‘scans’. (Glancing around the pitch they make before receiving the ball).

Research by Jordet’s team, which analyzed over 250 elite players, shows that scanning has a small but positive effect on performance, with more frequent scanning increasing the likelihood of completing a pass.

With established player interest in physical data ranging from top speed to distance covered in-game, measurements such as scan timing and frequency are likely to receive similar attention.

Malcolm Harkness, for example, thinks it could become the norm.

Harkness was part of Chelsea’s backroom set-up for just under four years, working with his father Tim, Chelsea’s current head of sports science. was involved in the “psychological coding” of the match.

Harkness records ‘actions’ such as shots, passes and tackles made by both Chelsea’s first team and the opposing team, and uses simple criteria to determine whether each ‘action’ reflects confidence, motivation or focus. It was determined to what extent the

For example, a shot from outside the area that hits the target is classified as a “confidence action” and is awarded points. Similarly, a successful through ball can see a player make a pass that is awarded concentration points, while an aggressive run by a full-back is considered a demonstration of motivation.

“There have been a lot of statistics over the past few decades measuring possessions, passes and shots, but I don’t think anyone has looked too closely at the number of psychological behaviors,” Harkness said. Soccer psychology show.External link

“When you code 10 to 20 games, a lot of patterns start to emerge and give you very interesting insights about your players.”

Harkness acknowledges that the system relies on subjective criteria that can overlap (for example, the penetrating path can be seen as a sign of both confidence and focus). Rigorously analyze actions that can fall into different categories. It didn’t really matter where some players cared.

“Before he left, Eden Hazard was breaking the charts every single time,” says Harkness.

“In every game he played, he made everyone else look like they hadn’t done anything for 90 minutes.”

It wasn’t hard to define the Belgian’s talent during his time at Chelsea, but the program brought further discoveries.

Harness explains: [Hudson-Odoi] Off the bench, very effective. He comes out with confidence, drives the intensity of the game, and instills confidence in other players.

“We saw a lot of focused action with N’Golo Kante, anticipating and intercepting passes. I did.

‘Christian Pulisic scored a lot of motivated action through the press. He’s a very fit guy and he used that to put pressure on the defense and drive the entire team’s press. It would go to the back, then the center.

“It shows motivation because he doesn’t have to do it, but he does.”

Emphasizing project findings to a coaching team already immersed in data from various departments proved difficult, says Harkness. But he’s philosophical about the hurdles that come with working for his league team in the Premier League.

“Petr Cech was deeply involved in this project. [as technical and performance adviser] And I think he saw a lot of value in the data we provided,” he says.

“Working at a top level club like Chelsea, it can be difficult to have your say. A whole analytics team, GPS data and a medical department to think about, but that’s the challenge of working for a big club. It’s just part of it.

“All players [GPS] The data… After each game, we displayed a visualization on the TV they were wearing boots on.

“It showed their max speed, mileage, and they actually got in and asked questions.Of course, they are very competitive with each other.Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount are their max speed was very competitive.

“Like GPS data, in the future there will be a lot of interest in looking at[psychological coding]data to see where interested players aren’t getting as much action as other players. I think it’s worth it, it’s the same position or better.”

If Harkness proves right, athletes may also be able to easily view images of their own brains in their post-workout routines.

The RC Lens Academy recently piloted a brain scanning technology designed to identify neural activity associated with conditions such as anxiety, burnout, depression and insomnia.

Players were asked to wear headsets with 18 sensors that record electrical signals produced by their bodies. Within six minutes, this information was used to create an image of his brain that was cross-referenced with his baseline scan, allowing the player to detect the emergence of “biomarkers” associated with conditions such as sleep deprivation. increase.

Antony Branco-Lopes is a neuropsychologist and co-founder of Specter Biotech, a company that worked with Lens. According to him, football his club is generally risk-averse when assessing the benefits of cognitive his technology, especially compared to teams in other sports such as his motor racing his team.

“They know about mental health and performance-enhancing issues, and they talk about it a lot, but when it comes to actually doing something, they’re a little bit afraid,” says Branco-Lopes.

“With esports and motorsport, you don’t have these issues…they understand the value. [in what we do] It measures everything, but in football I don’t think so. ”

Jorde, who co-founded the ‘Be Your Best’ virtual reality training platform used by Hoffenheim and the German Football Federation, also faces considerable skepticism about in-game psychological training.

“Never in my football career have I seen an experienced coach engage in research and methodology as much as when discussing this. [the virtual reality training]’ says Jorde.

“They have been used for years in regards to the exercises you do every day in training, they are just part of football, so there is no empirical documentation at all, so asking the same kind of questions is not possible. Never.

“But with new technology, the old-school football coach suddenly becomes a scholar.

“For me, football has a traditionally conservative culture, and skepticism towards new things, new methods and new innovations is more common than in other sports.”

For Ancelotti, it is evolution through force. In his eyes, football is bound to change given the growing demand for psychological support from the sport’s most important protagonists, the players.

“When I was playing, my perception of a therapist was not someone who could help me perform better or manage people better.

“Even today, some parts of the football world aren’t so open to this aspect. I think it’s just a matter of the culture that we have in this sport.

“In England, I think they are more open to talking to a therapist. At Everton, we had players who struggled with anxiety and they were doing mental health care. In other countries like Spain and Italy, the situation is different. Different, there are more taboos.

“But we have to improve the way we manage people and improve the decision-making of our players.

“Society is changing and we have to adapt.”