Sunday, January 16, 2022

‘I tried to leave England because of stress’: Steve McClaren and son Josh discuss psychology in football

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The McClarens discuss the strains of top management, football’s “stigma” over psychology and their podcast “McClaren Performance” in an exclusive interview.

“My wife was concerned about how bad it was getting that the nation was against me. She said, “I think it might affect the kids at school.” I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that’.

“We beat Andorra but I was totally knocked out,” says Steve McClaren, in his words recalling the “toxic” environment that England had become at the height of the Golden Generation era and the impact it was having on his then young family.

“So I pulled the guys together in the kitchen and I said to them, ‘Look, we’re at a turning point – if you want, I can get out of this situation and away from all the stress. I can quit if bullying you becomes unbearable.’

“They just looked at me and to one boy they all said, ‘Don’t be stupid Dad – school is great!’ My wife said, ‘Oh no’ and I said to her, ‘Well, a reason to keep the job!’”

His son Josh, now 24 and sitting on the other screen of our Zoom chat, nods along as his father offers this rare and fascinating behind-the-scenes look at life at the sharp end of elite sport.

“I’ve seen my dad face all kinds of criticism but honestly it’s not real. It’s not the life I lived,” he says I. “It’s funny, people sometimes talk to me like I’m the victim, but I’m absolutely fine! The narrative surrounding football is not real and my father is not who you think he is.”

Perhaps it tells you a lot about the McClarens’ mentality that they were undeterred by their father’s experience in England, but embraced the world of cutthroats, which they all gathered around a table at the family home in Yarm 14 years ago brought emergency conference.

Eldest son Joe is currently Derby’s head of recruitment while youngest son Josh is an aspiring sports psychologist. So why do this when you’ve seen how unforgiving it can be?

“I don’t know, I’m an idiot,” laughs Josh. “I think it’s something when you’re in this world. When Dad is presented with something most people would fear, he feels the fear and does it anyway.

“It’s normal in top-level sport. It’s about being uncomfortable with the way things are and being more comfortable about pushing yourself.

“When I look at Dad’s career people criticize him for the mistakes he made with England or later. But I don’t think people from my position understand how awesome it is to pursue this career and how inspiring it is to see it firsthand.”

We’re gathered to talk about the sports psychology of football’s ‘last frontier’ and their excellent podcast, McClaren Performance, which focuses on the topic each week.

Josh brings the theory from years of formal training, while father Steve has the ‘real world’ experience of life on the training ground in some of the biggest jobs in English football.

“Mentality and psychology are going to play a big role in football over the next ten years,” said Steve, who now holds a role as Fifa’s technical director.

“Look at the four cornerstones of football – with academies we have built players with such good technique, tactically the players have never had so much game intelligence and physically the game is faster than ever. It’s the last piece of the puzzle. The next ten years is about mentality and training that.”

An early adopter and pioneer of psychology, Steve introduced Bill Beswick to this legendary group at Manchester United that dominated English football. He later worked with Steve Black, the man whom England World Champion Jonny Wilkinson called a “genius”.

“Football has changed in its approach to psychology since I started working with Bill, but actually not that much. I’m really surprised by that,” says Steve. “Look at the reaction when Ralf Rangnick hired a psychologist. It was almost like a scandal – what are they doing?

“I think there is still a stigma. Players will talk about working with a sprint coach to improve their speed, but despite players working with a psychologist, they’re almost whispering about it. We have to change that.

“It’s not for everyone, you have to want it and be ready for it. But anything that makes you a better person and a better footballer, why not embrace it?”

It’s not just about helping players cope. As we chat for almost two hours, the message gets through that brain training brings real performance benefits, and right now it feels like football is only scratching the surface.

Josh, for example, worked with Sunderland’s first team during his master’s degree. “I wanted to get a little more insight into why players make the decisions they make when they’re in full swing,” he said.

“We got them measuring the hierarchy of the team and then measuring baseline testosterone levels. The more popular the player was, the lower their baseline testosterone was, and the less popular they were, the higher their testosterone was.

“It feels like there’s so much work we can do there.”

Josh now works with the Newcastle United women’s team on the training ground alongside manager Becky Langley to help coach the coaches.

But he wonders if the Premier League clubs would be ready for this kind of integration of coaching and psychology. “The role of exercise psychology is not yet defined,” says Josh.

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