During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, there was something different about the England football team. They seemed happier than teams of the past, more confident, with no memory of falling in the group stages in Brazil and away from the bored squad under Fabio Capello in South Africa eight years earlier.
On the pitch, they seemed relieved of the pressure of the nation’s expectations and instead played with joy and a thirst for success. They overcame their fears of penalties to beat Colombia in the round of 16, which was their first World Cup victory on kicks and their first in any competition since 1996; and they reached the semi-finals for the first time in nearly 30 years.
As footage emerged of the team racing down a pool on inflatable unicorns and playing darts against reporters, much of the credit was given to Dr Pippa Grange, the sports psychologist.
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Grange was hired by the Football Association as a people and team development manager in November 2017, responsible for building resilience and improving team relationships and culture. She helped England face their fears by coming to terms with the failures of recent years and allowing them to open up about their experiences and anxieties, while improving the general camp culture, working with coaches and all staff and players. By the time they arrived in Russia, the team looked psychologically better than they had for generations, with even Prince William commenting: “England were a better team with [Grange] on board.”
However, sports psychology was not new in 2018. Psychological science has been applied to the context of sports since the 1960s and in some areas, such as Olympic sport, the device is extremely well established. Even before Grange, the FA had already begun to focus on the mental side of the game, bringing in psychiatrist Steve Peters ahead of the 2014 World Cup, before working with performance consultancy Lane 4 on psychological tactics. The only difference in Russia’s preparation was the way sports psychology was embraced, it was reported that players only had access to Peters if they wanted to. So why does Grange working with England deserve so much attention?
“Football is a perfect example of how people get up and pay attention,” Dr Charlotte Chandler, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Derby, told ESPN.
“It’s such a great sport, so many people watch it. It must be phenomenal in some ways, but I think it also adds to the challenge. I’ve researched and worked with people who have worked in football . , usually their experience, it’s so difficult.”
For Grange, one of the challenges in the wake of England’s success was media attention. Headlines heralded her as England’s penalty hero, although that was only a small part of her job, and she struggled to correct misconceptions. “I’m looking at this now and you know, the outside world imagines this kind of guru out front, doing some kind of mental trickery to help somebody get penalties. It’s the smallest piece,” Grange told The podcast. Game Changers last year.
“I felt really weird at the end because the media made me a hero, which is a tough thing to be in an elite sport, and I felt really bad about it.
“And I think that created some tension. I never said a word during all of this,” she adds.
In fact, it wasn’t until she came out of the bubble in Russia and then left the FA at the end of 2019 that she was finally able to speak about her experience in her own words.
Rebecca Levett found herself in a similar position to Grange when she worked with the England Under-21s during their successful run to the semi-finals of Euro 2017, where the focus was on her assist to overthrow the national stereotype instead of the broader mission of his work. Described as a “vibrant, positive soul” who “wants to spread positivity” by player Alfie Mawson at a press conference at that tournament, Levett suddenly found herself in headlines across the country, rated as the first sports psychologist to be taken on by an England development side of a competition.
“I wasn’t the first,” Levett told ESPN. “There have certainly been others who have done it before me.
“[The press] like a title. I think one of the headlines was “they’re shrinking, it’s all over” and you think “oh my God” – it makes you cringe.
“They like anything that seems to make a difference when in reality [we’re] only playing a small role, like all the other staff. It’s no different.
“So it’s a weird experience when you’re exposed. You’re exposed like that and to be honest, that stuff doesn’t need too much attention.”
Levett would compare the work she does as no different to an athlete working with a strength and conditioning coach, nutritionist or technical trainer, as just another part of the team working to improve performance – although it is more recognized than the others.
For Dr. Hannah Stoyel, owner of consultancy Optimize Potential, it can be hard to talk about what she’s actually doing behind the scenes. There are confidentiality agreements and strict rules, but there is also the pressure to accept praise when your job is to support athletes.
“I think there’s this worry that you would never want anyone to think you wanted the glory for yourself,” Stoyel said. “I think I’m really aware of that when I put my name out there for things.
“I think there’s a bit of this worry that you’re going to look too brash or daring or attention-seeking when you’re supposed to stay behind the scenes – it can be difficult.”
The culture shift in the wider sports world to embrace sports psychology is just one of the reasons we see more and more athletes starting to speak up and want and seek support. Stereotypes around mental health are fading and, as in the FA, coaches have become increasingly receptive to this value that sports psychologists can bring, particularly in high pressure environments. While this is a good intrinsic progression, Levett believes the lack of sports psychology reporting hasn’t helped reduce much of the stigma surrounding it.
“Generally speaking, for me, the more things you don’t talk about, the more taboo they feel and that’s half the problem,” she says.
Stories are, sometimes, written for the shock factor, to make the audience wonder why their favorite athlete is seeking mental help. But sports psychology is an integral part of performance, and that’s no longer surprising. “It’s always a headline sometimes – so-and-so is engaged with a sports psychologist and you’re like ‘oh wow’. That shouldn’t be it,” Levett added. “For us, it’s like, how is that even newsworthy?
“I think the reports from sports psychologists aren’t accurate most of the time. Sometimes it actually does the profession more harm than good – things are kind of taken out of context.”
For Stoyel, it is also a question of the nature of the profession. To be an effective sports psychologist, you need to build a rapport with the athlete, allow them to trust you, and connect with you so they feel comfortable talking about often sensitive topics.
“Sometimes when you get these jobs, you’re not supposed to say where you are or where you work,” she says. “Some people really think we shouldn’t be famous.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily true…I think it adds to the stigma that you shouldn’t be seeing someone for mental health or mental support.”
As the interest in sports psychology grows stronger, the demand for sports psychology services increasing rapidly since the 1990s, the more people want to know. “I think sports psychology is, as a discipline, more and more interesting,” says Chandler. “There is a growing focus on wellness and merging psychology with an athlete’s performance.
“All of these things together are going to make a difference in how people pick up on them.”
Throughout her time as a lecturer, Chandler has witnessed the growth in popularity firsthand, with a growing interest in research related to sports psychology in the student population. A lot is still evolving, but the awareness is there and will continue to grow.
“It’s great because it grabs and grabs attention,” Chandler added. “That he’s getting attention for the right reasons, I guess because people find him unique… Either way, he’s getting the coverage he deserves.”