From St Georges Park to Rio 2016….…Working as a sport psychologist with the Senior England Cerebral Palsy team

As the Cerebral Palsy World Cup comes to St Georges Park in Staffordshire, Dr Jamie Barker, the England CP Teams Sport Psychologist and Associate Professor of Applied Performance Psychology at Staffordshire University writes about working with the team in the build up to the championships.

 

Being part of the senior England Cerebral Palsy (CP) Football team has been one of the most intriguing and rewarding situations I have found myself in during my 16 years as a practicing Sport Psychologist. As we rapidly approach the CP World Cup which will be hosted at St Georges Park, Burton-on-Trent from Mid-June, I am genuinely excited at the potential I have witnessed in our team and how far we can go in the tournament-but as a Psychologist I guess I would have to be positive in my outlook!

As a newcomer to CP football I have had to educate myself around CP, the implications of players having CP, classification processes, and the tactical nature of 7-a-side CP football. Within in our team we also have a number of players who have suffered brain trauma through horrific accidents, or stroke and therefore trying to understand the challenges and frustrations of these individuals has been fascinating and allowed me to reflect on my own expectations and beliefs! Listening to the many challenges that all of our players have experienced whether dealing with CP from birth or having a professional football career terminated because of a freak accident has been enlightening as well has humbling.

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From a psychological perspective we would typical work with coaches, help to create a relaxed and comfortable performance environment, work individually with players to develop robust confidence, deal with pressure more effectively and become more rational in how they see themselves and the world in which they perform.

Indeed, much of our work with elite sport is drawn heavily on the research and applied excellence of colleagues at Staffordshire University.

First, we get players to “be better coaches to themselves” (thanks to Professor Marc Jones), to not beat themselves up when things don’t go to plan. Much of our work is about challenging players on their expectations-does perfect football exist? Do players make mistakes? The idea behind challenging such beliefs in athletes is to allow them to have logical and helpful expectations which in turn will yield helpful emotions relative to football performance. In our research with we call this Smarter Thinking. Smarter Thinking is very much at the forefront of our applied philosophy and the performance culture we try to create. ‘Smarter Thinking’ encourages individuals to have realistic, yet helpful expectations.

 

An introduction to the rules, regulations and playing of CP football

Second, much of our work is also about developing a challenge culture which has been derived from the work on challenge and threat states by Professor Marc Jones and Dr Martin Turner. As support staff working in elite sport it is important to remind players of past success, controllable factors, and things they need to do to perform well. Believe me when I say this (and I am biased) but England CP players are one resilient bunch-they have dealt with so many life stressors due to CP or brain injury that when playing football there is an sense of freedom and expression-pressure is something they look forward to and thrive on.

Finally, we would also support teams from a leadership and cohesion perspective. With this in mind we establish a performance culture which is similar to that used by the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Union team and draws heavily on the contemporary research on leadership developed by my colleague Dr Matt Slater. Indeed, given Matt’s leadership expertise he is integral in looking at how teams function as a group and how they can maximise their potential. Accordingly, it is important to develop a vision and values system which draws on the aims of the staff and players.

With the CP World Cup just around the corner the excitement is increasing as we look forward to the challenge of competing against the best players and teams from around the world. To reach the Rio 2016 Paralympics England are required to finish within the top 8 at the World Cup so the stakes are high but the players are ready- my only concern remains that I can practice what I preach and hence see the tournament as a challenge not a threat, be a Smart Thinker and provide the necessary leadership when required!

 

For more details of the Undergraduate degrees and Masters degrees we offer in Sport and Exercise check out our webpages in the School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise at Staffordshire University.  We are a leading UK University for Sport degrees in the heart of England.  We produce Internationally recognised research which is driving knowledge in this area forward and we work with leading national sporting teams and our degrees are ranked in the top 10 of new Universities in the UK in the Guardian League Table.

 

 

Dr Jamie Barker is an Associate Professor of Applied Performance Psychology at Staffordshire University.  He is currently Chair-Elect British Psychological Society Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology.  He has researched and published extensively the field of performance psychology as well as being a consultant to Sport and business.  Jamie is also a PhD & Stage 2 Supervisor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamieBarker during the World Cup.

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