From St Georges Park to Rio 2016…
Being part of the senior England Cerebral Palsy (CP) Football team has been one of the most intriguing and rewarding situations I have found myself in during my 16 years as a practicing sport psychologist. At the recent CP World Championships held at St Georges Park, Burton-on-Trent where the team finished 5th (their highest position at an international tournament) and duly qualified for the Rio 2016 Paralympics I was excited at the potential I witnessed in our team and how far we can go in Rio.
As a newcomer to CP football I have had to educate myself around CP, the implications of players with CP, classification processes, and the tactical nature of 7-a-side CP football. Within in our team we also have a number of players who have endured brain trauma through horrific accidents, or stroke and therefore trying to understand the challenges and frustrations of these individuals has been fascinating and allowed me to reflect on my own expectations and beliefs!
Listening to the many challenges that all of our players have experienced whether living with CP from birth or having a professional football career terminated because of a freak accident has been enlightening as well has humbling.
My work with the team has been largely based on my typical approach to doing sport psychology but has also drawn on the research and applied excellence of colleagues at Staffordshire University. To illustrate, we would typically work with coaches, help to create a relaxed and comfortable performance environment, work individually with players to develop robust confidence, deal with pressure more effectively and become more rational in how they see themselves and the world in which they perform.
First, we get players to “be better coaches to themselves” (thanks to Professor Marc Jones!), to not beat themselves up when things don’t go to plan. Much of our work is about challenging players on their expectations-does perfect football exist? Do players make mistakes? The idea behind challenging such beliefs in athletes is to allow them to have logical and helpful expectations which in turn will yield helpful emotions relative to football performance. In our research with Dr Martin Turner we call this Smarter Thinking. Smarter Thinking is very much at the forefront of our applied philosophy and the performance culture we try to create. Smarter Thinking encourages individuals to have realistic, yet helpful expectations.
Second, much of our work is also about developing a challenge culture which has been derived from the work on challenge and threat states by Professor Marc Jones and Dr Martin Turner. As support staff working in elite sport it is important to remind players of past success, controllable factors, and things they need to do to perform well. Believe me when I say this (and I am biased) but England CP players are one resilient bunch-they have dealt with so many life stressors due to CP or brain injury that when playing football there is an sense of freedom and expression-pressure is something they look forward to and thrive on.
Finally, we would also support teams from a leadership and cohesion perspective. With this in mind we establish a performance culture which is similar to that used by the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Union team and draws heavily on the contemporary research on leadership developed by my colleague Dr Matt Slater. Indeed, given Matt’s leadership expertise he is integral in looking at how teams function as a group and how they can maximise their potential. Accordingly, it is important to develop a vision and values system which draws on the aims of the staff and players.
With the Rio 2016 Paralympics just under a year away excitement is increasing as we look forward to the challenge of competing against the best players and teams from around the world- my main concern will be that I can practice what I preach and hence perceive the Paralympics as a challenge not a threat, be a Smarter Thinker and provide the necessary leadership when required!
Dr Jamie Barker