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Premier League Football - The Psychology Of Playing Behind Closed Doors

Adrian Chiles: Steven Sylvester joins us a Chartered Psychologist. Steven, thanks very much for coming on.

Steven Sylvester: Oh my pleasure!

Adrian Chiles: Playing behind closed doors is it fair to say that some players are going to excel on it, the kinds that habitually do really well in training but then struggle to reproduce it and others will struggle without the energy negative or otherwise in the ground?

Steven Sylvester: I think all players will be affected by the lack of crowd because we know that if your feeling great at what you do the crowd accelerates that feeling and you do better your rhythm, your pace, your play, your interaction with your fellow players your teammates really well and the crowd gives you that intensity they give you that emotion that allows you to perform at your best. I don’t think it's a thing about which players perform well and which players don't. I think it's about can the crowd get in behind the player to do the very best in what they do.

Adrian Chiles: Okay but how do you explain the phenomenon that games in training there are players that excel as Patrick was just saying and every footballer got stories of players who are brilliant in training but never quite reproduce it in front of a crowd.

Steven Sylvester:

Well that’s a great question Adrain because that's about the emotional blind spot of that particular player because if you can perform in one environment and not in the big game that says something about the player's inability to understand their emotional world.

Charlie Webster: Steven I was really looking forward to speaking to you because I know you worked with Sheffield United for around two years and have worked with other premier league footballers at the moment too. You were described in 2017 as Sheffield’s secret weapon and I know you’re pretty close to the boss Chris Wilder and he’s acknowledged so much about the fans role in United's performance. What have clubs been doing like Sheffield to try and I don’t know, get used to that I suppose because I know they have been training at Bramall Lane rather than the actual training ground does that make a difference?

Steven Sylvester: Yeh it does because it’s going to be game day and in my time there we always went to Bramall Lane for training sessions so it’s a normal thing to do maybe on a Friday do your pre-match at Bramall Lane and have some feel for what’s going to happen on a Saturday during the game time but the players always know there are no fans around at training so that's good so you get on and do your work and you love to play in the theatre of Bramall Lane so that’s a good thing. What’s happening now is a really good thing which is they are playing like it’s a game so actually Sheffield United and Patrick said this, "you train the way you play" so you got to ensure that the level of intensity and Chris does this very well because he has a fearless approach to his management style which allows the players to express themselves freely under pressure so the players know they have absolute clarity of what's expected and the training at Bramall lane will no doubt be a preview of the actual game

Charlie Webster: Do you think it's a real level in terms of home advantage then, as in the fact that there won't be?

Steven Sylvester: 100% we've already seen it in the Bundesliga that the home advantage has gone, it's disappeared, because like I said football is tribal, it's emotional and it's about serving your community. When your community isn't there you have to find another reason to perform with the intensity.

Charlie Webster: Steven I wanted to ask you something about sports psychology because I think we are talking a lot more about the role that psychology plays and mental health plays across the board. I was speaking to a top elite softball player in Australia. She was saying how in Australia sports psychologists are at the very beginning of people's careers. I mean she was seeing a sports psychologist at the age of six years old. And she said that was the key to her success but also her longevity and sustainability in her career. Do you think that's something we need to implement more here?

Steven Sylvester: Well I would say absolutely. As a former professional cricketer, if I had someone like myself alongside me during my career I would have done so much better. And the Premier League players that I speak to every week, on a weekly basis continuously, they improve, because by talking we unravel are difficulties. We can have difficult, uncomfortable conversations and that allows us to to the freedom to explore our emotional world, our stress, our pains, our frustrations, our inadequacies, etc etc.

So yes having a psychologist, a support structure in your life, is it absolutely necessity for every human being.

It isn't just about if you're an elite sportsman, because an elite sportsman faces the same issues and the same struggles that we all face in life. So why do we separate them out? And one of the findings that I really, that struck me over my 20-year career as a psychologist working with elite athletes who went on to become World Champions... Those individuals were at the moment of becoming the best in the world, they were selfless, they were not thinking of themselves. They were thinking, how can I do this performance to actually improve and develop the people around me or to give them something else.

So I think there's a really strong need to understand that good psychology is really important, particularly in the climate that we are in, particularly given the things that have happened to George Floyd. My absolute condolences go out to him and his family and all the protests.

Especially with all the things that are going on, we need good psychology. We need the freedom to express ourselves, we need care, we need support, we need to come together with different cultures, different races, different people. And one thing that football does, is it brings together community. You have different players with different backgrounds, from different races with different religions and do you know what, they always come together as a family.

And what we're going to see over these 9, 10 game platform. We are going to see which teams are together and which teams are not. What we've seen from the Bundesliga is that the best teams are the ones that come together because there is no atmosphere in the crowd and there’s no emotion to drive it from within and alongside each other, we have to manifest it so that's in an important.

Adrian Chiles: The interesting thing is you sound such a kind empathetic gentle person and then I get a text from someone called Johnny Ackins saying that,

Steve Sylvester comes on my radio, I remember him bowling at my head on a regular basis. Got anything to say about that Steve?

Steven Sylvester: Yeah I hear this, I get this all the time because I think the art of competition is about win. Win-at-all-costs. And if you get my book Detox Your Ego, it's about getting rid of self-interest when the only thing that's important to you is self-interest. So as a cricketer and as a young sportsman, I just wanted to obliterate the world, particularly the level of unfairness and unequal access of opportunity that made me even more passionate to go and destroy the opposition and now as a psychologist, I realise that winning and competing is wrong. What you should be doing is focusing on community, you should be focusing on joy of giving to others. And when people do that and have a deeper reason and purpose for their performance, they go beyond just trying to bowl bouncers....

Adrian Chiles: But some people do need the fight. If you've heard the Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix. I'm sure you've seen it. He would make up things that advisories had said to make himself angry.

Steven Sylvester: Yeah absolutely, but Adrian on that. That is using your fears and Michael's was an exponent of being able to use the fear in himself deep, to then go beyond in his performance. But what my work has told me, again, I've worked with so many World Champions, over so many years you can't, the negative energy needs to dissipate and actually you're a better person if you use positive energy. And the positive energy that Michael got was from his coach Phil, who actually said "look come on do it for the team, don't win-at-all-costs" and you can see through the whole series he moved away from win-at-all-costs, to winning collectively. And it's a little bit of what Chris Wilder and Alan Knill at Sheff U are doing. Think about the badge you're wearing, think about who you're serving and play for them.

And my kind of edict at Sheffield was, you know let your head serve the team and let your body do the work. Head to serve, body to do the work.

Charlie Webster: Just before we go Steven you did mention George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and how we can use football as a community. How do you think it can lead the way? I mean we've been seeing some of the things about Raheem Sterling and amazing stuff like Marcus Rashford has been doing.

Steven Sylvester: Yeah I think it's fantastic you know from Lewis Hamilton to Raheem Sterling, to all the guys. The black figureheads out there, that have a voice to the voiceless. You know like me. I would of been inspired as a young man, hearing those guys talk about their feelings and their experiences and their narrative about the unequal access to opportunities. We know there has been a recent report on all governing bodies around the UK and there is hardly any black representation at board level. I think UK athletics might have one person. Apart from that, if you look at all our British sports from cricket to football etc, there aren’t any black representation at board level. There aren't many black coaching...

Charlie Webster: ... or even like coaching staff, I was just about to say, coaching staff in football...

Steven Sylvester: Yeah... so coaches and managers... There are a lack of black coaches and managers. Now what does that have, it has a massive impact on the community. And then when you see the pain and the horrific way George Floyd lost his life. It just sends an absolute fervour of emotion. Certainly in me, but as a psychologist my job, is to bring disparate groups together to find and celebrate the differences and ensure we bring the community together.

Adrian Chiles: Okay Steve all the best thanks you very much for talking to us.

Charlie Webster: Yeah great speaking to you!

Adrian Chiles: Steven Sylvester Chartered Psychologist.

Steven Sylvester: Thank you very much Guys.


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