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‘We don’t train our minds enough’: Sam Allardyce on the profound benefits of sports psychology

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Sam Allardyce

Big Sam helped make the unconventional conventional. Adopting modern ideas and methods in his coaching practice may have given rise to ridicule from some quarters at the time, but his radical approach to coaching has since been vindicated.

  • Allardyce gave radio listeners an insight into his views on sports psychology.
  • ‘If we don’t control our mind then our productive, physical and technical opportunities are diminished by that.’
  • A growing number of high-profile coaches now endorse the benefits of incorporating a psychological approach to training. 

Sam Allardyce was light years ahead of his time. A modern-day Galileo in the footballing cosmos, who had the power of foresight. 

How Big Sam would love the comparison to Galileo! 

But there are superficial parallels. The world laughed at Galileo when he wrote the Earth was a sphere and not as flat as football pitch (or words to that effect). 

And they laughed at Allardyce when he lauded sports science, psychology and data analysis as the future of football. This ‘holy trinity’ formed an integral part of his coaching methods at Bolton and beyond. 

The naysayers were quick to pounce. But nobody is laughing any more. 

Allardyce has always come in for his fair share of criticism, but it is only fair he receives his share of the credit too for his role in the modernisation of, and new science-centred approach to, the beautiful game. 

Other high-profile coaches in other sports have since taken up the baton, incorporating a psychological approach to training while investing in a team of performance analysts and sports scientists. 

Gareth Southgate and Eddie Jones are self-confessed sports psychology aficionados. 

England rugby head coach Jones firmly believes that mental conditioning is as crucial as physical conditioning in the world of high performance sport, and has been busy integrating and experimenting with psychological techniques since being appointed on a four-year contract in November 2015.

Whether you agree that Big Sam is a visionary who took football out of the dark ages, it is fair to say his long-standing partnership with sports psychologist Mike Ford was emphatically more successful than the partnership another former England manager, Glenn Hoddle, struck with his own sidekick, faith healer Eileen Drewery.

I only mention this because – having written a number of blogs on the profound benefits sports psychology can have on athletic performance recently (links below) – my mind jolted to attention when, on my drive into work the other day, Big Sam began discussing his favourite subject with Alan Brazil on TalkSport. 

It was his reaction to being asked if he had had contract talks over the vacant manager’s position at Everton that captured the attention of journalists that morning, however I was more drawn to his recap of the League Managers’ Association Masterclass conference he had attended at St Andrews in Scotland. 

‘It was on neuropsychology, which is a huge part of my life,’ he began. ‘It is about improving your thinking patterns and I think the neuropsychological barriers that you go through as a footballer, manager and coach are very important to understand if you are to get the best out of your players, the best out of your staff and the best out of yourself. 

‘I used a psychologist for many, many years, Mike Ford, who was with me at Bolton. We really did go so deep into what the future might bring and how do we get to that future and how do we get better, not just for ourselves but everybody else behind the scenes. 

‘It is a huge subject that gets frowned upon in this country and, in all fairness, football clubs don’t use it enough.’ 

Alan asked him if he took some convincing himself when he was first introduced to sports psychology while working in the United States. 

‘I was the same as every other Englishman. What’s this psychology? This is for weak people. But when you actually listen to what the guys are talking about it’s a fabulous subject. 

‘You know, we train every part of the body in football and think, that’s it, we’ve done it! But we don’t train the mind enough, and the mind controls everything. If we don’t control our mind then our productive, physical and technical opportunities are diminished by that. So the strength of the mind is important for everybody, in life never mind in sport.’

Further reading: 

The psychology of success: Strategies for coping on the big occasion

How to Catapult your way to success through the use of technology 

Help or hindrance? The use of video analysis to aid player development

The art of practice: Intentional training a model way of embedding new skills

Exploring the key psychological attributes that underpin performance success

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Comments (2)


An interesting read here, from Australian netballer Caitlin Bassett, which dropped on social media literally a minute after I posted this blog, discussing why mental conditioning is just as important as physical: 'Is it a weakness to go to the gym? No. Then why is it a weakness to see someone about talking about mental toughness.'

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Thanks Blake, fantastic insights into Big Sam's approach to sports psych. I'm a team performance psychologist, who cut his teeth with the military and big corporates. I coach kids rugby but I'm new to plying my psych trade in sports. In the military there is now a lot of openness to doing what ever it takes to perform better, to keep soldiers alive, even if means challenging the way they've done things for centuries. In some corporates too. But my experience in sport, especially football, is a lot of resistance flying in the face of the evidence. If you really want to win you have to be open to all sorts of pain, including facing up to your own prejudices.

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