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.”
“THAT morning I had no idea by the end of the day I’d be sitting in the manager’s office.”
It is 14 months since Gary Bloom walked into Oxford United to start what is believed to be the first role of its kind in English football – a psychotherapist embedded inside a professional club.
How big a factor it has been in the many explanations for the side’s resurgence since is impossible to gauge.
But the results have shown a marked improvement, as 85 points from 53 games have turned the relegation contenders into play-off hopefuls.
It began almost by accident and was prompted by United’s wretched start to the season which led boss Karl Robinson in one post-match interview to consider getting in a psychologist.
Bloom, alerted by his U’s-supporting son Josh, got in touch and was told: “be here tonight at 6pm”.
That evening he watched Luton Town win 2-1 in stoppage time to pile more misery on the faltering side.
“I thought ‘I’ve no idea what I’ve let myself in for’ because the atmosphere was turgid,” Bloom, who has clinics in Oxford and London, recalls.
Robinson had worked at Milton Keynes Dons and Charlton Athletic with psychotherapists, who come at the issue from another direction to sports psychologists.
Bloom said: “I treat the human rather than the athlete. If the human is happy then in theory the athlete will be much happier and playing better.
“You can’t give someone confidence on the pitch if the rest of their life is falling apart.”
Although Robinson was enthusiastic, it took time for others in the camp to follow.
“There were four or five players who gave a particular worry or concern, who I worked with every week to help issues like confidence, personal issues, disciplinary issues,” Bloom said.
“I’m not going to give names, but that gang of four their form slowly began to settle down and by the new year things had begun to take off.
“There was a bit of scepticism, but I started with one player, then two, then four.
“This season it’s about 12 or 13 as that trust has gradually grown.”
Much of the 62-year-old’s general work as a psychotherapist revolves around issues with anxiety, depression, relationships and addictive behaviours.
But one useful side to working within an organisation is the opportunity to build bridges between individuals and groups.
He said: “There was an issue last season where certain first team players found it unpalatable that younger members of the squad were tweeting after Oxford had lost.
- Picture: Steve Daniels
“They found it quite hard because the older players had not grown up with social media, so they thought it wasn’t right.
“They wanted absolute silence if Oxford had lost. That was early on in my time there when we were going through a tough period.
“It wasn’t helping the dressing room.”
Nothing aids confidence and team spirit like positive results, which have made the last few months more straightforward.
That does not mean it has all been plain sailing and despite Robinson’s stance being pivotal to the success or failure of the project, the concept of confidentiality can lead to flare-ups.
“We were talking about a particular piece of information the other day and Karl asked where it had come from,” said Bloom, who hosts ‘On the Sporting Couch’ on talkSPORT interviewing big sporting figures and focusing on mental health.
“I replied ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you’.
“That’s why there aren’t more psychotherapists in football clubs, because most football managers in that scenario would say ‘get out of my football club’.”
Steadily, Bloom’s remit has increased to take in the academy, where the problems can often be even more challenging than the first team.
The club are also about to launch an experiment into the quality of players’ sleep and matching it with their strength and conditioning data.
It is believed to be another first for football, as the U’s look to set new standards.
In a bid to spread the word, a conference is being held at the Kassam Stadium in February, with Bloom and Robinson speaking to showcase what the club have been doing.
“I would say rugby and cricket are way ahead of football in this,” Bloom said.
“I do not want to take credit for anything that’s going on at the club.
“This is about the quality of player care at Oxford United and I’m really proud that we’re looking after the players in a way that nobody else I think comes close.”
Granit Xhaka’s angry reaction to his own fans booing him upon being substituted at home to Crystal Palace last month led to him losing his role as Arsenal captain.
Is the art of captaincy dying or evolving to keep up with a changing game? In a documentary on talkSPORT tonight, some of the biggest names in sport examine what it means to be a captain today.
“Ideally it’s a guy who is the voice of his manager in the dressing room,” says the Frenchman, who was the Arsenal manager for 22 years. “It’s a guy who can remind people what they are there for and what is the target, and he is listened to.
“What’s changed a bit now is that every player in the big clubs is basically a club within a club. They have their own advisers, their own video specialists, their own fitness coaches. So it’s more complicated today.”
The former Manchester United full back, capped 85 times by England, says: “At United, when I first broke in, there were seven captains; Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Bryan Robson and Peter Schmeichel.
“The manager is never in the changing room in the training ground so he is away from you most of the time. You need to make sure your captain and those senior players have the right work ethic, the right standards and the younger players below them are always looking up to them and thinking, ‘That’s what I need to do.’ ”
“In sports psychology there are three types of captain,” he says. “One is what we call a task captain, how well do you execute your role. The other is a motivational captain and the third is an external captain, who is a social leader of the group who might have other tasks in making sure everybody is OK. Rarely does a person do all three.
I think of players like Billy Bremner, Tony Adams and Roy Keane — he would be a great example of task and motivational. You wouldn’t want to be in the same team as Keane if you weren’t pulling your weight.
“With more modern players — Vincent Kompany is an obvious example. He would be a task and motivational captain but it is easier to pick out players of yesteryear and the past ten years than it is today.”
The former Wales and Lions rugby captain says: “I had a daughter in 2016 so from then I didn’t want the captaincy. I had a new found perspective and I can’t say I enjoyed being captain. In hindsight it was such a privilege, I’m glad I’ve done it and I’d do it all over again but it was more enjoyable not being captain. I thought I’d rather continue to be a leader, still in the leadership group, but I didn’t want the captaincy. It’s just the weight of it.”
“It is about the way I was brought up, the values from my parents and friends, I’ve had that responsibility for my whole life,” the Liverpool captain says. “Having a younger sister I looked after when I was quite young, I always had that responsibility to look after people.
“Brendan Rodgers [the former Liverpool manager] saw the leadership within me and felt I could lead Liverpool, which gave me a lot of confidence.”
Frank Lampard on John Terry
“John was a natural leader in all senses,” says the Chelsea legend about his former captain at Stamford Bridge. “He was chest-thumping, you’d watch a game and you could see he was the leader. But he also had lots of touches behind the scenes, which are the important thing when you take everything away. I was vice-captain and quite happily so because he would have everyone’s phone number in the building in his phone and I didn’t. He played with a quality, a determination, an absolute desire to be successful that rubbed off on the squad, and in terms of work he had a huge humility to him.”
“The one thing all good leaders demonstrate is a care for the people that are in and around them,” the former West Ham United and England left back says. “If you and I are working together and you know I’ve got your back and care about you then you are more likely to follow me as a leader than if you think ‘hang on, this fella is just in it for himself’.
“I always think that as a captain I had to set an example, on the training pitch and away from it as well, in how you live your life. Live like you would want the rest of your team to live.”
● The Art of Captaincy, narrated by Henry Winter will be aired talkSPORT tonight from 8-9pm
The psychotherapist in the dressing room: ‘There are very few people like myself, if anybody, dealing with personal issues’
Gary Bloom will walk into Oxford United’s dressing room about 90 minutes before their home match against Doncaster Rovers on Saturday. Usual drill; handshakes, the meet and greet and then off to do the rounds, checking in with the medical staff before offering a word here or there with individual players, little prompts around “what we’ve been talking about,” reinforcing those positive messages.
He will listen to Karl Robinson’s team talk, gauging reactions, “looking at the expressions on the faces of players,” and then speak to the captain and the other leaders of the squad, reminding them that where they go, others follow. Then, when the buzzer sounds at five to three, when adrenaline surges and the heart-rate quickens, he will be part of the huddle, arms linked, giving everybody “a sense that we’re a united group.”
Bloom is not a first-team coach, a specialist in strength-and-conditioning or analysis. He is not a physio or a kit-man or a doctor, not in the traditional sense, and he is not a sports psychologist, either, even if he strays into this area. Bloom is a psychotherapist, whose day job is
“treating things like anxiety, depression, addictive behaviours and relationship issues,”Gary Bloom
and Oxford, the League One club, are true pioneers.
“This role does not exist (anywhere else) in English football,”
he says… He does not wish to stir controversy for the sake of it, but this stuff is important and Bloom makes reference to the suicide of Gary Speed in 2011 when he was Wales manager. “Obviously, I hope I’m wrong, but unless football deals better with mental health issues, particularly for ex-players, where there has been a huge increase in referrals, my fear is that it might happen again,” Bloom says. “I stress the word might. I just think everything is there, so why wouldn’t it?”
Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day and football is playing its part. Mind is the official charity partner of the EFL and its awareness campaign “Goals Worth Talking About” features eight commissions of street art. At the headquarters of A Love Supreme, the Sunderland fanzine, adjacent to the Stadium of Light, there is a beautiful depiction of the goal Carlos Edwards scored against Burnley in 2007, securing the team’s promotion to the Premier League.
Football has power and football starts conversations; the correlation with mental health is obvious. “We’ve still got a long way to go and I think there are some generational issues, but we’ve begun to see a shift in terms of talking about it,” Kathy McKenna-Churchill, a training manager at Mind, says. “Players who have experienced mental health issues and talked about them have started to break down the stigma.
“For us, that’s one of the biggest barriers to accessing services — the stigma or embarrassment associated with something that’s about life. We’re emotional beings. But from an early age, we’re often being told we shouldn’t be talking about them or that we should ‘man up’. I’m suicide prevention coordinator for Sunderland so, for me, the earlier we can have the conversation, maybe the more lives we can save.
“One in four people will experience mental health problems, so if you think about a crowd of 40,000 at Sunderland, it means 10,000 people are going through that. And because it’s fluid, it doesn’t stay with them, it moves to the next 10,000 and the next. Football and emotion go hand in hand and the emotions we feel at the match are also the emotions we feel as part of life. Just imagine all those people in there getting the message that it’s OK to talk about it.”
It is not just about awareness and spray-painted pictures. Mind have worked “very closely with Sunderland” and are delivering mental health training for club staff. They will also have a dedicated space at the Beacon of Light, Sunderland’s brilliant Foundation, before home games, where fans “can have access to a counsellor if they’re struggling or if they know someone who is struggling and they need that emotional support,” McKenna-Churchill says.
Speed’s was one of them. What follows is not like those, but then not all conditions are the same and the same applies to the consequences.
It is the first-hand account of a player who was a stalwart in the Premier League for many years. He chose not to be named, not out of any sense of shame, but out of respect for his clubs.
“I just thought I was frustrated about being left out of the side, but I woke up one morning and felt particularly low, unnaturally low,” he says. “It didn’t feel like being frustrated or even miserable — it felt worse than that. As the days went by, I couldn’t get that feeling out of my head. It became all-encompassing like my brain had gone into overdrive with negativity. If it’s new to you and you don’t understand it, you try to fight it by yourself, but that’s not something you can do.
“It was really affecting my sleep. I was struggling, because the more you want to sleep the more impossible it becomes and it got to the point where I was taking a sleeping tablet the night before a game and even that wasn’t enough; it would be three o’clock on a Saturday morning, and the mind would be racing, knowing you’ve got a match. Telling yourself you’ve got to sleep is the worst possible thing. Everything gets mixed up in your head.
“I was never suicidal, but anguish and a lack of sleep can manifest itself in lots of different ways. It can affect your diet — eating too much, or not enough. It’s almost like being locked in your own head and if you’re not comfortable enough to open up and the support network and the help isn’t there, then I can understand why people get themselves into very difficult situations, because you literally aren’t thinking straight. You’ve had a breakdown in your rationale.
“In their own way, players can overthink and it stops them performing. Ideally, you want them going out there knowing the tactics, feeling confident in the manager’s game-plan and in themselves and their team-mates, but if things aren’t right off the pitch, with themselves or their family … I call it ‘scrambled head’. When your head is scrambled, even the simple things look difficult. Your processor goes into overdrive. It affects your motor skills, everything.
“Eventually, I just found somebody in the Yellow Pages. I had a good chat with a therapist and I was put on some medication, which actually made me worse, because I didn’t realise you were supposed to take it an hour before going to sleep. I was taking it in the morning, so it was affecting my training. When I went back a couple of weeks later and got the correct medication, that was when I opened up to my family and some very good people at the club.
“They had noticed that something wasn’t right and they were incredibly supportive and helpful. They also kept it quiet because at the time it was seen as taboo. They helped me recover. I was always conscious of it and I could see it in other players. I remember we signed someone from another city and he couldn’t settle. I’d speak to him and say, ‘Have you got the black clouds today?’
“That’s how I used to describe it; the black clouds rolling in and enveloping you, almost like you’ve got the blinkers on until you can’t see the good in anything. The fact you’d acknowledged it with somebody else always helped. It’s hard for people to open up about it. I’d have a word with the medical team at various clubs, saying ‘Just have a look at so-and-so, because I’ve seen that look in people’s eyes before.’ Sometimes the look was in mine.”
They have not previously discussed their partnership at Oxford, but this is precisely why Robinson invited Bloom to work at the Kassam Stadium. “I don’t think there’s enough done,” the 39-year-old says. “A lot of clubs bring in psychologists, but psychologists are about supporting people and making them feel better about themselves. A psychotherapist deals with the deeper issues, the darker issues and the coping mechanisms to get through life.
“I’m really, really big on stuff like that. I see so many people get lost, so many people struggling with the different challenges modern life throws at them. We live in a social-media world where everything looks perfect except for your own existence. If I become Prime Minister tomorrow, I’d ban all social media. All kids see is everyone wearing new clothes, new trainers, everyone looking immaculate — and it puts as much pressure on the parents. It’s killing society.”
This is a minor digression, but Robinson has some experience in the field. “I used to go and see somebody in Harley Street,” he says. “It was through the League Managers Association. As managers, we go through some challenging moments and sometimes the knock-on effects can be difficult.
“Andy King, who used to play for Everton and Luton, was a really close friend of mine. He was chief scout at MK Dons when I was manager there and he passed away in 2015, the year we got promoted to the Championship. Sometimes you try to deal with things on your own, but I just felt like I needed someone to speak to. It was a lightbulb moment; maybe I just needed a coping mechanism.
“It was great for me to be able to speak to somebody, to put myself in a position where my vulnerability wasn’t something I had to be fearful of. In the world we live in, vulnerability can sometimes be perceived as a massive weakness, but more and more, I’m learning that it can be a strength. Once you put things in perspective, it doesn’t half help when you’re dealing with young men. You see these little trigger points.”
In a previous incarnation, Bloom was a sports broadcaster — those worlds collide in his revealing talkSPORT radio show, On The Sporting Couch — and Robinson knew of him. “We decided it was right for everybody at the football club to understand there’s someone they can speak to about making their lives safer and better. I’m very excited about the club driving this and I’m very open-minded within my dressing room. I don’t have anything to hide.”
Bloom is involved at every level at Oxford, “working with the first-team, the under-23s, the academy, all the way down to the under-nines, speaking to players who have a whole mixture of personal problems.” He operates tightly with Robinson, discussing the messages he is putting across to his squad. “He’s very reflective,” Bloom says. “I take my hat off to him. In my opinion, he’s the most modern-thinking manager in football.”
Bloom believes his own background helps. “How do you speak to sportspeople?” he says. “In my experience, they find it hard to go to somebody in a white coat and say, ‘Deal with my mental illness.’ If you put your glasses halfway down your nose and say. ‘How are your emotions today?’, they’d tell you to fuck off. You wouldn’t talk about the Oedipal Complex or Freudian Splits, because they’d laugh you out of house and home.
“But if you say to them something like, ‘I notice you swapped positions today, you were playing left-sided centre-half and I’m just wondering how that was for you’, it’s a really good way of starting a conversation. It needs to be in the parlance of football. The fact I’ve been around dressing rooms all my life in a broadcasting position or doing post-match interviews means I know the layout of a football club, if that makes sense. I know how to talk to people.”
Football has its own strange rhythms and complications. “In your life and my life, we get dumped by girlfriends, we have job interviews that don’t go well and those things help us grow up and help us deal with how the world treats us,” Bloom says. “The world can just be a bit shit at times. Many players will never have really had those crushing disappointments, in a way that leaves them in a slightly regressed state a lot of the time.
“When they get their first injury or they get dumped for the first time or they get transferred out of a club they really wanted to play for and have to drop down a division after being told they’re going to be the next great thing, it’s incredibly difficult. What you find with a lot of young players is that they can’t hold these two things together; that the world is good and wonderful and full of love and kindness and success, and a bit shit at the same time.”
Bloom attended the PFA’s Injured 3 mental health and emotional wellbeing conference at St George’s Park last Thursday, where there were contributions from, among others, Michael Bennett, the players’ union’s director of welfare, Gareth Southgate, the England manager, and Andrew Cole and Emile Heskey.
Football is now treating the issue seriously; the PFA has a 24-7 counselling telephone hotline for all past and present members, their family and friends.
More work is needed.
“There’s not enough education for young players coming out of school or college and going into the professional game,” the anonymous former player says. “The average career lasts about eight years. Realistically, what percentage of footballers are going to make enough money in retirement to have children, a house and an income to live for another 60 years? It’s wonderful being a footballer but it doesn’t last for ever.
“Too many people live for today and don’t plan for tomorrow. The PFA is doing some really good programmes about transitioning into retirement. They can’t do enough of those, because mentally, when you finish playing, it’s a shock. All those years of being told where to be, what to do, what to eat and wear, means the decision-making process is taken away from you. When that switch is turned off, so many players end up in financial, emotional and psychological difficulty.”
For Bloom, the most pressing issue is what happens in between, at first-team level. “There are very few people like myself, if anybody, dealing with personal issues,” he says. “If they’re not dealt with, they often get blown up out of all proportion by the individual and they end up knocking on the PFA’s door, by which stage, it’s a major issue.
“Fifty clubs turned up at the PFA conference, but virtually nobody from the first-team. I thought I would come across at least one other me, but 99.9 per cent of the people were working with academies, who have to have some sort of mental-health provision under their charters, hence there’s much more player liaison, welfare and protection. They don’t seem to exist in first-team football. So although the PFA has made massive strides, it was preaching to the converted.
“As well as Oxford, the other club that’s probably at the forefront of this is Leicester City. They’re looking at communication between their players, encouraging their first-team staff to talk imaginatively about their roles. When you do that, you can go to a director and say, ‘Why don’t you look at this? Why don’t we think about changing things to improve our club?’”
None of which is meant to imply negligence on behalf of others, more that they are yet to embrace professional therapists at first-team level. As a random case study, Sunderland have two wellbeing committees made up of medical and coaching staff — one for the academy and one for the senior football department — which meet regularly to discuss players they may have concerns about.
Oxford have gone a step further, employing Bloom and running mental health first aid courses for their staff. “My captain will be on it, the under-23 goalkeeper will be on it and the captain of the under-18s will be on it,” Robinson says. “Then, it’ll be our physio, our academy director and so on. What it will do is give us a better understanding of the dressing rooms we’re working in. And the people inside the dressing-rooms might spot something before it gets too late.”
“It’s OK to say, ‘Charlie might be a bit down. We don’t know what’s happening with him’, but the question is what to do next,” Bloom says. “I actually work with this stuff. I could recognise a player having a broken leg but I wouldn’t know what to do about it. There are always reasons for someone’s behaviour, whether they’re in the most secure mental institution in the country, on a football pitch or in a factory. Whatever they’ve done makes absolute sense to them.
“If there’s a message I want to put across, it’s about prevention rather than cure. When you get to the cure stage, it’s a bit like with medical injuries… By the time you get to the oncology unit, it might be too late.”
That is one side of it — the vital, human, life-enhancing, life-saving part — but the other is about sport; surely it stands to reason that a happier, healthier football team has a better chance of winning?
Bloom says that Oxford have taken 70 points in his year of working with them — “play-off form” — and although he does not take credit for that, as Robinson puts it, “protecting young people and making sure they’re better at what they do” can only help.
“This is me helping to alter the way players and coaching staff think about doing their jobs,” Bloom says. “My belief is that if you get that right, improvements in performances are inevitable. I encourage people to talk about their feelings and to talk without fear. That’s what a therapist does.”
THE ROLE OF A PSYCHOTHERAPIST IN A FOOTBALL LEAGUE CLUB
A 13 year old boy sat opposite me – his head bowed in the small counselling room. He said.
“I’m gonna do it an’ all – I mean it – I’ve written the note to Mum saying goodbye and I’ve got the tablets – you won’t see me again after today.”Undisclosed Player
Before working in a football club I’ve worked as a psychotherapist embedded within state schools in the south of England. My job there was to work with underachieving pupils both behaviorally and academically.
Tommy (not his real name), was quite typical of the students I was working with. Very bright although
underachieving, and eeking out a living selling soft drugs locally, but found himself in the impossibly traumatizing situation of being caught in the crossfire of the messy divorce between his Mum and Dad…