How a psychotherapist is aiding Oxford’s FA Cup heroes: ‘If the human being is happy, the athlete will ultimately benefit’
Karl Robinson, the Oxford United manager, has embraced the idea of psychotherapist Gary Bloom working with him and his players
Gary Bloom tells the story of a struggling footballer. “I asked him, ‘What message do you give when you go into training?’ and he said, ‘I’m p—– off, I can’t get in the team’. So I said, ‘What’s training like?’ and he said, ‘I get through it’. So I said, ‘Tell me how you greet your team-mates?’ and he replied, ‘Sod them, I don’t care’.”
Bloom told the player his behaviour had to change. “‘Go and see the manager, ask him how his kids are, have a big smile on your face’. He came back two weeks later and said, ‘The gaffer has put me on the bench’. I said, ‘Why do you think that is?’ and he said, ‘I must have been playing well in training’ and I said, ‘Why do you think that is?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I was a bit happier’. So the perception around that player changed.”
The player was not at Oxford United, who face Newcastle United in a FA Cup fourth-round replay on Tuesday night at a sold-out Kassam Stadium, where Bloom is the first sports psychotherapist to work with a professional first-team squad, but he uses the example to illustrate how he operates. He will be in the dressing room before the game.
Bloom has clients from across the sporting world and sums up the difference between what he does and what a psychologist does as thus: “To the layman, sports psychology treats the athlete and sports psychotherapy treats the human being, with the understanding that if the human being is happy in their personal life, then ultimately the athlete will benefit.
“I was working with a rower and he said he had been with a sports psychologist and the psychologist said, ‘How quickly can you get back in your boat?’ and he said, ‘I don’t want to go near a boat’. His private life was dreadful, he was going through a painful break-up and his motivation to row was nil. Football clubs need to seriously look at how they deal with their players.”
On Feb 19 at the Kassam Stadium, the first football psychotherapy conference will take place. Among the speakers will be Bloom, Karl Steptoe, who works with Leicester City, Michael Bennett, the Professional Footballers’ Association’s director of player welfare, and Karl Robinson, the Oxford manager, who has a keen interest in mental health and has embraced the idea of Bloom working with him and his players.
Bloom will be a familiar name to football fans, having spent most of his life as a football commentator, starting off at Radio City in Liverpool in the 1980s and going on to work for Sky Sports and also on Channel 4’s Football Italia, before training as a psychotherapist.
“There are managers who would feel uncomfortable about me holding information about players that they don’t have,” Bloom says. “Over 18 months, I have embedded in the club [Oxford] and have become very ‘every day’ and that has demystified the role of the therapist.”
Bloom talks about making clubs “psychologically safe” and a place where problems can be aired and discussions had – including if a manager has got his team selection or tactics wrong. “At Oxford, we are allowed to do that, which is a compliment to how Karl works,” he says.
A big issue in modern football is social media which, Bloom says, is “highly destructive”. “Some players are not psychologically robust enough and that’s tough because who is? We do care about what we care about and footballers have their wares critiqued daily.”
To those who say that footballers are well paid and should just get on with it, he has a forthright answer.
“What’s money go to do with it? I don’t understand the correlation between money and happiness. What’s the logic? That suggests that money can buy you happiness, where therapeutically money, sex and food are normally about love. People are usually masking their desire for love with one of those three. So, I would argue the desire to be recognised by social media is quite an interesting psychological concept. Maybe it drives a lot of people into sport. The desire to be needed and in the public eye is quite interesting because you want it, but the thing that you crave can also be your poison as well.”
A phenomenon in football – and modern society – is also the rise of the “Network Generation”. Young people have grown up surrounded by technology but also with “helicopter parenting”, where fathers and mothers intervene if things go wrong. It has affected how they communicate and deal with setbacks.
“There is a lot of pressure on academy coaches – ‘Why is my son not playing? If you don’t pick him I will send him to another club’. All that sort of stuff,” Bloom says. “Then they get to 16 or 18 and the harsh reality kicks in that your mum or dad can’t swing it anymore. You can’t ring up Karl Robinson and say ‘put my kid in for the weekend’ because that’s not how it works.
“So, those people are not particularly resilient. They have been rewarded all their life and suddenly they get an injury or a loss of form and they can’t cope with it.”