Coaches need coaching. In the modern environment of professional football, pressures from various sources can overwhelm coaches and players and it can become crippling. No one has understood this more than Bill Beswick. Having worked with Steve McClaren with the England national team and at clubs including Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Twente, Beswick is the first sports psychologist to operate fully in the English professional game.
FIFA.com spoke with Beswick to learn about his journey and his vision for psychology and mental development to play as big a role in football as technical and tactical development.
FIFA.com: You are the first sports psychologist operating fully in the English professional game. How did you get there and what motivated you to get there?
Bill Beswick: I started life as an average player, a point guard, in basketball. I became a successful national coach and realised, as a lot of experienced coaches realise, that performance is driven by attitude and character. I came to a stage in international coaching where I was deciding which player had the ball at the end of the game for the final shot on character, not talent. I thought psychology of performance was interesting and got a master’s degree. I had been a teacher, so I put everything together and said, "I’ll give it a go!" We need to shape our sport in a different way. My motivation was to help develop this newly recognised avenue of performance.
How have you seen the field evolve in the last ten years?
It’s been incredible. I wish I were starting again! Sport evolves, it goes in cycles. I think we’ve had a cycle of physical, technical and tactical development. I think the next cycle is psychological and technological. The next 20 years sports can be dominated by psychological and technological advancement.
What does that look like to you?
This means more support for the players mentally and emotionally - better training earlier in dealing with the pressures and stresses of sport, more work on character as against talent. Technologically, it means more real time feedback, more profiling, more talent identification and more analysis of performance so the players have better feedback situations.
I ask coaches when I first go into a club to pick a player out and tell me five things about that player that are not to do with football. I can tell when a coach is caring and building relationships and has depth of concern. Often coaches don’t know a thing about them. They see players, but they don’t see people. I’m trying to move them to see people and then get to players. You’ll make better players if you care for them as people. I like balance. I think too much football is a dangerous thing.
The biggest tragedy of coaching is over-coaching. I like coaches to be interested in different things. There’s a thing called emotional drain, which I’m very interested in and football drains you. Unless you go into another environment, which replenishes you, you’re working with the energy tank draining away. A lot of coaches are running on empty. I talk about treadmill psychology; it’s non-stop. They’re working to live and they’re not living. Many coaches I work with are not living. There’s a word I use called ‘harmony’. We should teach our kids a balanced life. Football’s important to us but it’s not as important as good health and having a nice family. But it starts with the coach.
It’s this thing about how we’re only satisfied if we win. It’s the owners at the football clubs, the pressure of the leagues and it’s parents. It’s parents on the sideline that are difficult with a young coach trying to develop young children. The parents are often not in harmony with what the coach is trying to achieve, so the coach is put under pressure and the coach tries to answer the pressure by working harder. The answer’s not working harder, it’s working easier. Very often I say to the team, “You’re training too hard, get a smile back on your face. Enjoy football, don’t endure it.” Many coaches endure football, and they forget why they’re doing it and they stop enjoying it. The best thing that happened to me as a coach was having my two boys. Perspective changed dramatically.
Visualisation is very important because what the psychologist tries to do with a player or a team is provide a mental script or a way of thinking your way through the game situations. Top level athletes don’t need to constantly think during games. When you’re playing a big game, you actually don’t think, you're in automatic mode. What you do is go into the game trusting the preparation you have done, your body and your mental script. So I might say to players, “Just think about the first kick, the first touch, the first pass, the first header, the first tackle. The rest of the game will flow because you know what to do.” Visualisation is a way of scenario planning. It’s thinking ahead to what will happen in a game. When you get into the game, you’ve got something to go to. Visualisation helps create good mental habits and therefore develops confidence.