Contextual intelligence: Considerations in professional football.

Understanding the context in which you operate is probably the most important aspect of ensuring successful applied work. On numerous occasions I have witnessed practitioners who demonstrate a high level of knowledge in a certain context but can often struggle to transfer this knowledge across borders. This is mainly down to a lack of understanding of the limits of knowledge they possess together with the poor application of that knowledge in different environments.

Working with a high level of contextual intelligence is vital in my role as an applied psychologist across different high performance football environments. Interestingly, researchers have indicated that in order for interventions to be successful when working with players, they should focus on the player’s own language and also understand the player’s own perspective of preparation and performance. During presentations to academics, psychologists, and elite coaches, I often reiterate this point as I believe in addition to relationship quality, prior experience within a high performance football culture as both a player and as a coach allows me to effectively relate to people when developing and maintaining core mental aspects of performance. Similarly, understanding a manager, coach or player perspective within the environment is key when factoring interventions into daily schedules that are heavily influenced by technical, tactical and physical work. Gaining knowledge or embedding knowledge of structures, processes, attitudes and beliefs into existing frameworks undoubtedly allows better transition of ‘new’ work into the already established ways of thinking and working. Indeed, it is this intelligence that underpins successful intervention within a demanding culture of professional football. The ability to reflect on the context whilst maintaining focus on both significant language and empathy for a manager, coach or player perspective highlights key aspects of communication that will open doors to critical and meaningful dialogue and enable you to develop trust and respect from those who are often sceptical towards a new way of thinking and working.

Over a period of time whilst working in and around professional and International football I have acknowledged the importance of contextual intelligence. I have been fortunate to gain experience both as a professional player and as a coach so in addition to my theoretical knowledge this has proved to be invaluable when working closely with managers, coaches and players. In order to work effectively as an applied psychologist within professional football, there are several significant areas that need careful attention and embedded (wherever possible) within intervention processes:

  • Gain full understanding of the game model. This dictates pretty much everything in terms of what and when players will work on certain aspects in preparation for games and throughout the season. This will vary from club to club but the process should remain consistent throughout a season. The importance of understanding for example, strategy (e.g., game phases, pressing options etc.), tactical management (e.g., in and out of possession), transitions (e.g., between possession), and specificity of development will enable you to communicate at the same level as the manager, coaches and players and allow you to discuss content that is both significant and relevant to preparation and performance.
  • Work closely with support staff. As technical, tactical and physical pillars are more fully understood and embedded within processes in professional football, this will provide you with an opportunity to engage and give you some idea as to how you can gain more influence. Listen and observe how support staff work with the manager, coaches and players and utilise the language and processes that they use. Wherever possible, multi/interdisciplinary approaches to intervention can be a good way to establish yourself and help with your role when integrating with players. Firstly, it will enhance communication in order to gain confidence with certain issues and secondly, will provide an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of psychological aspects of preparation and performance.
  • Endeavour to provide objective and relevant feedback as part of your intervention. I find that linking mental aspects to technical, tactical and physical work through data and video footage strengthens psychological aspects and helps to engage the person you are working with. For example, there are psychological aspects to all components of fitness and the behaviour you see players demonstrating both in and out of possession so utilise this as much as you can. The point is to be aware of the context that you are operating in and strengthen this from a psychological perspective. It is often difficult to talk separately about the psychological aspects of preparation and performance so aim to link this in with the language that they are used to and the reality of the situation.
  • Transition to game day – what you say and do has to relate to what the manager, coaches and players carry out on game day. A common approach is to work in an isolated manner when delivering psychological work within a football environment because that has been the way it has been carried out in the past. The more visible you are in training and on match days will undoubtedly help you to develop awareness of the culture and environment of professional football. There are many barriers to this because of the way football operates, but the more you can be integrated into the environment and processes (e.g., training, meetings, travelling etc.) then the more you will be accustomed to the reality of the manager, coaches and players and in a position to observe behaviour and intervene in the most appropriate manner. Only being available when there is a problem stifles the development of contextual intelligence and as an applied psychologist you have to been seen as an integral part of the 4 pillars of preparation and performance on a day-to-day basis.

The ability to relate to the culture and environment cannot be underestimated when you work in professional football. Contextual intelligence can be developed in numerous ways but it seems consistent throughout the relevant research that understanding the language and perspective of the environment in addition to the people within it are key for intervention purposes. For me it is important to stay focused on those aspects that are normally dismissed because they are assumed common sense. Common sense must become common practice and the more you tap into the reality of managers, coaches and players then the more likely you are to become a valued and effective applied psychologist within the current professional football environment.