By Alan Tonge

In the latest in our UCFB In Focus series, lecturer Alan Tonge gives an insight into his ongoing research on the psychological demands faced by professional football players. He hopes his research will help players navigate the rigours of professional football so that they have a longer playing career, and to then aid their transition into the game when their playing careers are coming to an end.

Alan, a lecturer in sport research at UCFB Etihad Campus, is a former professional himself, having played for Manchester United and Exeter City, before a he was forced to retire at the age of 24. He’s since gone into academia and has a Master of Philosophy in Sport Psychology. Alan is currently undertaking a PhD on ‘exploring critical moments, identity and meaning amongst professional football players’.

My primary research interests focus on the world of football and more specifically the psychological demands that a player faces within their journey into, during, and out of professional football.

Key topics within my research include transitions (e.g. End points such as moving from one age group or playing level to another; coming out of the game following deselection; or retirement through injury) and critical moments (e.g. Challenges that footballers face on a more frequent basis such as being dropped, going out on loan, or falling out of favour with the coach or manager). These transitions and critical moments can place high psychological stress on the player and dealing with a transition or critical moment will evoke anxiety. Many current academic papers recommend sport psychologists managing the above stressors through cognitive based techniques such as imagery, goal setting or self-talk. It can be critiqued however that many players, especially at elite levels, already have well established and developed cognitive skills and although having their place, it can be argued that this type of support isn’t enough and players want, or need, more.

Another key area within my research is the topic of identity/meaning. Many players who come into professional football full time at 16 years old have been associated with the game since they were very young and have received specialised coaching in the sport from as young as under 8s. This can lead to something termed “a strong athletic identity” (e.g. I am a footballer and nothing else) and may become problematic when the identity is threatened, or even obliterated when having to leave the game.

There have been many research papers that have examined the traditional end points of football and how these end points affect identity (i.e. deselection and retirement), however little has been written on the daily challenges of a footballer and the critical moments they face on a more frequent basis. My ongoing research aims to provide a profound understanding of the complexities of a player’s world, so that more effective sport psychology support can be provided and issues dealt with more efficiently. This may include supporting players to deal with the consistent highs and lows (i.e. winning and losing!), an incredible amount of change over the course of a short period of time, heightened exposure from external sources such as agents or supporters and the macho, sometimes inauthentic culture within these environments.

Critical moments may also include homesickness, cultural adaptation such as players coming into clubs from other countries, and issues outside of the football environment. Arguably, a detailed understanding of these sorts of issues are lacking within formal sport psychology training packages and when many young sport psychologists enter this world to practice, they can be metaphorically likened to a rabbit caught in the headlights. This is something I feel can be really improved. My research will centralise in finding out what the players want, instead of sport psychologists providing what they think the players want.

Hopefully with the research being seen at various conferences and with ongoing academic publications highlighting the above differing issues, many more players can be supported to grow and stay within the beautiful game for longer. This is the ideal going forwards.