At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, there was something different about England’s football team. They appeared happier than teams of the past, more confident, with no memory of crashing out at the group stages in Brazil and far from the side driven to boredom under Fabio Capello in South Africa eight years prior.
On the pitch, they looked unburdened by the pressure of the nation’s expectations and instead played with joy and a hunger for success. They overcame their penalty shootout fears to beat Colombia in the round of 16, which was their first World Cup victory on spot kicks and their first in any competition since 1996; and they made it all the way to the semifinals for the first time in almost 30 years.
As pictures emerged of the squad racing down a swimming pool on inflatable unicorns, and playing darts against journalists, much of the credit was given to Dr. Pippa Grange the sport psychologist.
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Grange was hired by the Football Association as the head of people and team development in November 2017, tasked with building resilience and improving team relationships and culture. She helped England face their fears by confronting the failures of recent years and allowing them to open up on their experiences and anxieties, while also improving the overall culture in camp, working with coaches and the wider staff group as well as the players. By the time they got to Russia, the squad looked in a better place psychologically than it had for generations, with even Prince William commenting: “England were a better team with [Grange] onboard.”
However, sports psychology was nothing new in 2018. Psychological science has been applied to the context of sport since the 1960s and in some areas, such as Olympic sport, the set-up is extremely well established. Even prior to Grange, the FA already had started to focus on the mental side of the game, hiring psychiatrist Steve Peters before the 2014 World Cup, before working with performance consultancy Lane 4 on psychological tactics. The only difference in the lead-up to Russia was how sports psychology was embraced, with it being reported that players only had access to Peters if they so wanted it. So why did Grange working with England warrant so much attention?
“Football is a perfect example of when people stand up and pay attention,” Dr. Charlotte Chandler, lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Derby, told ESPN.
“It is such a big sport, so many people are watching it. It must be phenomenal in some ways, but I think that also adds to the challenge as well. I’ve done some research and worked with people who have worked in football, generally their experience, it’s just so challenging.”
At Russia 2018, England made it all the way to the semifinals for the first time in almost 30 years by beating Colombia on penalties. Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images
For Grange, one of the challenges in the aftermath of England’s success was the media attention. Headlines heralded her as England’s penalty hero, despite that being just a small part of her work, and she struggled to correct the misconceptions. “I look back at that now and you know, the external world imagines this kind of guru out the front, doing some kind of mind trickery to help somebody take penalties. It’s the tiniest piece,” Grange told The Game Changers Podcast last year.
“I felt really weird at the end of that because the media had made a hero out of me, which is a difficult thing to experience within an elite sport, and I felt really awkward about that.
“And I think it did create some tension. I never said a word through the whole thing,” she adds.
In fact, it was only after she came out of the bubble in Russia, and then when she left the FA at the end of 2019, that she could finally speak about her experience in her own words.
Rebecca Levett found herself in a similar position to Grange when she worked with England Under-21s during their successful run to the Euro 2017 semifinals, where the focus was all on her helping to overthrow the national stereotype instead of the wider remit of her work. Described as a “vibrant, positive soul” who “wants to pass on positivity” by player Alfie Mawson in a news conference that tournament, Levett suddenly found herself in headlines across the country, noted as the first sports psychologist to be taken by an England development side to a competition.
“I wasn’t first,” Levett told ESPN. “There’d definitely been others that had done that before me.
“[The press] love a headline. I think one of the headlines was ‘they shrink it’s all over’ and you think ‘oh God’ — that makes you cringe.
“They love anything that sounds like it’s making a difference when in reality [we’re] just playing a small part, the same as every other member of staff. It’s no different.
“So it is a strange experience when you get exposure. You get exposure like that and to be honest, that kind of 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, a nutritionist or a technical coach, as just another part of the team working to improve performance — albeit one that gets more recognition than others.
Rebecca Levett (C) runs psychology consultancy Sporting Success, and has worked with Surrey Cricket in the past. Getty Images
For Dr. Hannah Stoyel, who owns consultancy Optimise Potential, it can be challenging to speak about what she really does behind the scenes. There are confidentiality agreements, and strict rules — but there is also the pressure of accepting praise when your job is to support athletes.
“I think there’s that worry that you would never want someone to think that you wanted the glory for yourself,” Stoyel said. “I think that I’m really conscious of that when I put my name out there for things.
“I think there’s a little bit of that worry that you’re going to come across as too brash or bold or attention seeking when you’re meant to very much remain behind the scenes — that can be hard.”
The shift in culture in the wider sporting world to embrace sports psychology is just one reason why we are seeing more athletes beginning to speak up and wanting and seeking support. The stereotypes around mental health are fading, and like in the FA, coaches have become ever more receptive to that value sport psychologists can bring, especially in high-pressure environments. Although this is an inherently good progression, Levett believes the previous lack of reporting on sport psychology has not helped reduce much of the stigma around it.
“From a general point, to me, the more things don’t get spoken about, the more taboo they feel and that’s half the problem,” she says.
Stories are, at times, written for the shock factor, to make the audience ask why their favorite athlete is seeking mental help. But sports psychology is an integral part of performance, and nothing to be surprised about anymore. “It still is a headline at times — so and so’s engaged with a sports psychologist and you’re like ‘oh wow’. It shouldn’t be that,” Levett added. “To us it’s like, how is that even newsworthy?
Dr Pippa Grange was the Head of People and Team Development at the Football Association between 2017 and 2019. Tom Jenkins
“I think the reporting of sport psychologists isn’t accurate most of the time. Sometimes, it actually does the profession more harm than good — things get kind of taken out of context.”
For Stoyel, it also comes down to the nature of the profession. To be an effective sports psychologist you need to build up a relationship with the athlete, allow them to trust and connect with you so that they feel comfortable to talk about, often, sensitive subjects.
“Sometimes when you land these jobs you’re not meant to say where you are or where you are working,” she says. “Some people feel really strongly that we shouldn’t be known.
“I don’t think that is necessarily true… I think that adds to the stigma that you shouldn’t see someone for mental health or mental support.”
As the interest in sports psychology grows increasingly stronger, with demand for sport psychology services increasing rapidly since the 1990s, the more people want to know. “I think sport psychology is, as a discipline, becoming more interesting,” Chandler says. “There is a growing focus on well-being and fusion of psychology to an athlete’s performance.
“All of those things together are going to make a difference in terms of how people pick up on them.”
Through her time as a lecturer, Chandler has witnessed the growth in popularity first hand, with interest in sports psychology-related research in the student population increasing. A lot is still evolving, but the awareness is there and will continue to grow.
“It’s great because it’s getting traction, and it’s getting attention,” Chandler added. “Whether it’s getting attention for the right reasons, I guess because people find it like unique… Either way it’s getting the coverage it deserves.”