Contrary to talent, that innate determination to work hard to excel isn’t as easy to discern and often clubs find out about that side of a player only once they sign him. Which explains why clubs are investing heavily in sports psychology in order to ensure that help their players’ mental fortitude.
“Developing professional football players is a complex process. My view is that, the coach, the parents and the players play a large role in developing and harnessing strength of character,” David Buckwell, who delivers psychological support across Bristol Rovers’ academy (from U9s to U18s) to players, parents and coaches, explains. “The coach has a large element of control over promoting a competitive environment, which supports a desire to win during training. This can be achieved with efficient practice design with relevant and specific challenges to create competitive practice.”
“However, it is the desire to win, away from the training environment, which most greatly impacts how much a player really wants to win,” he continues. “For example, how much is the player ensuring he is completing schoolwork to ensure other commitments don’t interfere with his preparation? To what extent does the player fully understand his role, embrace it, learn about it and challenge himself to execute it better?”
“This may be from making wise nutritional choices and maximising recovery opportunities to ensure the player is injury free. This is important, but what we need to remember is that children must enjoy childhood as they don’t get another chance at it. This is why it must come from them.”
“I think that we are entering a stage in youth development now where, the focus is more on harnessing a desire to improve over a desire to win. If players are working hard to improve, then success on the pitch in the long term will be a bi-product of that hard work.”
“A player’s strength of character underpins their beliefs and attitudes towards this desire to win.”
“I think character represents the way in which a player reacts in different situations. For me, a strong character is represented by staying true to your values and beliefs under circumstances of sustained pressure.”
“Your character is largely a representation of your personality, which links to your mental toughness. Mental toughness is a part of someone’s character and can relate specifically to different situations in a young players lifestyle and training.”
The question, then, is to what extent that mental toughness and desire to win can be coached.
“I would suggest that developing mental toughness is part of the role of the coach, the player and the parent,” Buckwell replies. “Your character determines your behavior to approaching the development of mental toughness in that you may be curious or forthcoming or perhaps a little shy. The development of mental toughness however is instrumental in the development of players at Bristol Rovers.”
“At Bristol Rovers, we are supporting an environment which helps build character by valuing learning, hard work and commitment as key to the way our players interact with information delivered and participate in practices and matches. Above all, however, it is during difficult situations when it becomes more difficult to learn, work hard and maintain commitment that players need to have a ‘strong character’”
All of this is encouraging to hear as is, frankly, the presence of someone with Buckwell’s background working at academy level.
“I have always been intrigued by human behavior and in particular how performance within different environments is contingent on factors such as pressure and confidence,” Buckwell explains as he talks about his interest in psychology.
“I am intrigued by the uniqueness of individuals and how people interpret and react differently to similar situations. As well as the pressured performance arena, I am also interested in the journey in which people take to elite performance in different sports and the role in which thoughts, feelings and behaviors can impact upon commitment and motivation of athletes during this journey.”
“To date, academically, I have completed a BSc Sports Coaching degree and an MSc Applied Sport Psychology degree. In line with these qualifications I also hold the UEFA B Coaching License and the FA Youth Award as well as working towards my British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES) accreditation specialising in Sport Psychology.”
Inevitably, however, the path that took him to Rovers was filled with gradual steps. “I first started with the academy in the 2010-11 season in a voluntary capacity as a coach,” he recounts. “Matt Bennett, who has since moved onto Brighton and Hove Albion, provided me with the opportunity to work with Dave Bruno and Tom Parrinello (now lead Youth Development Phase coach) with the U11s.”
“At the time, Jonathan Henderson, now academy manager, ran the development centers for Bristol Rovers so I was also coaching with him as well. Prior to the summer of 2012/13 I proposed a psychological skills training program to Matt and the academy manager at the time, Ken Oram, who welcomed the introduction of psychological development into the academy.”
“That position was part-time then the following season, under ex-academy manager Tom Curtis, I was appointed as a full-time member of staff.” Currently, he also coaches the U15 age group (alongside Paul Britton).
The work that Buckwell does changes as the players grow older. Indeed, initially, it is with the parents that he does most of the work.
“I think within the foundation phases (9 to 12 years old) players should go through a journey on their own and have the freedom to react and think freely.”
“As a coach you will teach them right or wrong but in that age, it is far more beneficial to spend time with the parents discussing motivation, feedback and confidence and the role in which they play over their child’s development, as opposed to directly with the players.”
“For example, a player may be crying on the pitch and goes to his parents for comfort, the parents ignore the player and he then learns to deal with (the situation) himself.”
When the players themselves grow older they sit into workshops that are aimed for whole teams with 1 to 1 support being provided to any individuals who request it.
“The sport psychology program is an arm for the players to lean on during their performance pathway. Inevitably some sessions will be closer aligned to one player’s situation more than another but the key message is to help the players predict, understand and control performance. This comes back to the players having a desire to learn and this, from my experience, is the biggest challenge.”
That of belief is also an issue although, surprisingly, not in the form of lack of belief. “It is important that players believe in themselves, however one of the biggest challenges in the academy environment is that the player’s belief doesn’t outweigh the reality. This can be potentially counter-productive as players lose focus on the learning and the development and they don’t progress to meet the demands of the competitive environment that is youth football.”
“I agree, to succeed at times, you need an illogical optimism, however when the ego takes over and the hard work takes a back seat, player development suffers. I think the environment needs to lend itself to a mentality of continued progression, as coaches we need to continually challenge players and as players they should continually challenge the boundaries of performance.”
Such an inflated sense of self can also have other implications, especially for those players who do not make it as professional players and who have to deal with this failure having for so long linked their sense of self-worth with their footballing ability.
Buckwell agrees that this can be an issue. “I guess the key message here is to be a good person first and foremost. It is inevitable that player’s will associate their feeling of worth as a footballer to their football.”
“We should really focus on their application towards developing to becoming a footballer as opposed to their ability to execute a particular skill. Reinforce the message that they can control the way they interact with people, the respect they show towards others, the respect they show the game and the work ethic required to reach their maximum.”
“The closer aligned the players judgment of themselves is related to these attributes, the closer they are aligned to feeling their sense of self-worth of being a good person as opposed to a good player.”
All of this highlights the importance of a programme that is both well-structured and also tailored for the different age groups.
“Typically, the messages have been around the 5C’s of football - commitment, confidence, concentration, communication and control - and psychological skill development such as self-talk, imagery, layered stimulus response training, progressive muscular relaxation and attentional control,” Buckwell says as he talks of the system that they have at the Bristol Rovers academy.
“However, within the foundation phase the key messages are delivered to parents and centre around feedback, reflective practice and sustaining self-belief. Within the older squads such as the youth development phase (13 to 16 years) and professional development phase (16 to 18 years) we have introduced a technique called mindset monitoring which looks at the players behaviors in four categories (training to grow, pre game, during the game and after the game). It is a technique, which is used with the Golf Union of Wales, and something I learned more about from working with Dr Rich Neil and the Golf Union of Wales Sport Psychology Support Team.”
“The intention is that the players are working towards regulating their own behaviors in each four categories and the specific characteristics within each category.”
That mindset monitoring also provides a way of measuring the success of the work that Buckwell has been carrying out.
“Within the mindset monitoring of players, the player will rate their perception of how well they believe the can do the task.”
“For example, in the training to grow section one behavior is related to motivation ‘I often think of the end goal to motivate me’ and the player rates the extent to which they can perform that mental effort on a scale of 0-5 (I’m certain I can’t do this – I’m certain I can do this). Therefore we will monitor the player’s perception of how well they believe they can complete particular tasks throughout the season.”
Throughout the conversation, it is clear that Buckwell is not only passionate about his work but also extremely fulfilled by it.
“I thoroughly enjoy my role at Bristol Rovers. I enjoy working with a variety of age groups as well as players, parents and coaches. We are a foreword-thinking department with a great group of staff and continually seek opportunities to strengthen our program.”
This does not exclude that he has other ambitions - “in my career however, I would like to work with senior players and within a performance environment, which supports performance at the highest level under intense pressure” – but for the time being he has other objectives.
“I believe that over the next few years we can test ourselves to develop players even further to what we are asking of them now through the development of the department’s knowledge.”
This is the third instalment in a series of articles looking at the various roles within a professional academy. Parts one and two can be found here and here. David Buckwell can be found on Twitter.
If you enjoyed this article then you will probably be interested in Blueprint According To… Volume 1 and Volume 2, the e-books issues by Blueprint for Football where a host of coaches talk about their ideas and beliefs.