Gary Bloom – Why do Players Suddenly Experience a Catastrophic Loss of Form – Injury Rehab Network Event
Following the September event of the Injury Rehab Network about sports psychology, in October we heard from expert guest speaker Gary Bloom, Sports Performance Psychotherapist.
Gary’s presentation explored the mental challenges faced by players and managers in professional football and the impact on performance. Over 110 sports medicine and rehabilitation professionals from the UK and around the world joined live for a fascinating insight into psychotherapy and the factors affecting sports performance.
Gary Bloom – Clinical Psychotherapist
Gary Bloom is the only clinical psychotherapist working in first team football in the UK. Gary also works with individual athletes and with a range of sports teams and organisations. He treats issues like loss of form, performance anxiety, and personal issues which all affect a professional player.
He is a clinician with a Harley Street practice, a broadcaster, corporate coach, and author.
His book about his work ‘Keeping your Head in the Game’ was published by Penguin in February 2021.
Why do players suddenly experience a catastrophic loss of form?
Gary’s presentation, “Why do players suddenly experience a catastrophic loss of form?” explored the mental challenges faced by players and managers in professional football and the impact on performance. Media and pundits are quick to judge today’s players, but very few people working in sport look at the personal issues that could affect performance.
Gary discussed his work at Oxford United – looking for those subtle changes that further down the line can cause such a loss of form. He tackles these issues head on from angry managers to depressed players. From the first team to the academy to the women’s programme. Gary posed the question; would any other sector allow a highly paid employee to underperform without asking ‘why’?
He works to increase performance and address loss of form by identifying problems and using psychotherapy techniques to provide solutions.
Sport Psychology and Psychotherapy Perspectives
Gary considered the perspectives of psychology and psychotherapy and discussed how his approach through psychotherapy offers counselling to help people overcome stress, address emotional problems, and improve performance.
When focusing on loss of form Gary needs to identify the reasons why players may suddenly lose it. Gary considered some of the science of the human brain including two main components associated with decision making and behaviour:
- The older limbic part of the brain which is associated with emotions and instinctive behaviours.
- The prefrontal part of the brain is newer and associated with planning and decision making.
Professor Steve Peters describes the limbic part of the brain as the Chimp and prefrontal part of the brain as the Computer in his book ‘The Chimp Paradox’.
Gary described how the limbic or chimp part of the brain is associated with fight or flight and keeps us safe from danger. When the chimp is over stimulated, people can lose form and become unable to use the computer aspect of their brain. In a professional football environment, this can lead players to lose form and Gary described how this may manifest through a freeze response where a player is playing with fear and is unsure or unconfident. This could be a direct response of criticism and/ or negative self-talk.
Gary considered the need for football players to have an internal self-belief system and told a story about a chief of a tribe who battled with self-belief. The chief was sat by a river deep in contemplation when his grandchild appeared and asked why he had looked so troubled lately. The chief replied that there were two wolves fighting inside him for his soul. The good wolf was trying to do the right thing whilst the bad wolf was encouraging negative thoughts and behaviours. The child asked which wolf will win the fight and the chief replied, “The wolf that wins is the one you feed.”
Gary explained that he works with players to focus on doing the right thing and to find ways to interrupt the bad wolf. He helps players to give a positive message of themselves and to change perception to ensure they work effectively as part of a team and with managers or coaches. Gary discussed the importance of focusing on the now and not to dwell on the past or worry about the future in the same way that a dog is carefree living in the moment.
Fatigue can affect both the physical and mental wellbeing of players and can contribute to a loss of form. The intensity of training and matches, particularly during the colder and darker winter months can compound fatigue. Gary discussed the benefits of warm weather camps and how mid-season training camps may help to reduce fatigue and boost morale.
Team Work, Tactics and Loss of Form
Gary discussed the technical side of the game and how tactics, training environment, physical and psycho-social aspects of football can all contribute to a loss of form.
System change may result in players losing confidence or becoming frustrated. Gary considered the implications of injuries and how players may struggle on and play with injuries. This can lead to a loss of form as the player may struggle to manage their injury both physically and mentally.
When working with players Gary identifies the factors effecting performance and develops techniques to enable them to have self-belief and to remain focused during a match. Gary discussed some of the techniques used including the use of sports tape around the wrist. Players write a message to themselves on the tape and use this to refocus at key moments during a match. Gary also described how he helps players to break down games into restart points such as each time the whistle is blown, or the ball goes out of play.
Keeping your head in the game
The book written by Gary, called “Keeping your head in the game”, was published in 2021 and features a range of stories about the human side of sport. Gary uncovers how athletes overcome their demons and play better in sport and life.
Off Field Issues
Gary described how sport psychology addresses on field injuries whereas psychotherapy addresses off field issues. When players leave home to play in a different place or country this change can be a huge challenge as they leave their social support networks including friends and family behind. Gary discussed how some clubs now have player welfare roles and the benefits of supporting players as they relocate and settle into a new area.
Pros and Cons of a Psychotherapist in a Club
A psychotherapist or indeed any sports medicine professional can be embedded in a club or work as an external member of the team on a consultancy basis. If based within a club, players may question confidentiality whereas if based outside a club it may be hard to build trust and rapport. Either way it is important for Gary to establish and agree how a trusted professional relationship will work at the start of any work with players.
Gary described that a benefit of being based within the club at Oxford United is the ability to have regular contact with the team and staff and to look for subtle changes. He works across different departments to understand what is going on.
Gary referred to the importance of trust within teams and how nobody wants to be vulnerable and how business consultant Patrick Lencioni considers the need for teams to grow together in the book, “The five dysfunctions of teams.” Lencioni states that dysfunction in teams is led by an inability for a team to question and raise concerns. He considered the context of this for football where players need to be expressive.
Whilst family and friends are vitally important to a player’s wellbeing, Gary provided examples of how family issues can cause problems. For example, an over protective or overly critical parent may be damaging for a player’s self-belief.
Watch Gary’s Presentation
Watch the recording of Gary’s presentation, Why do players suddenly experience a catastrophic loss of form?
Gary kindly answered questions put forward by the practitioners who attended the session.
Q. Are there differences in issues experienced by women and men football players?
A. Yes, women’s teams are very different, and women are particularly focused on working together. There is more cohesion in women’s sport. In contrast it is often important for men to be different. Women’s teams are also more open about relationships and sexuality. It is important to consider implications of the menstrual cycle.
Q. How do you work with a team of individuals?
A. Break down barriers and discuss personal history to get insight into individuals. It’s important to focus on team formation and to get the foundations right and the approach developed by psychologist Bruce Tuckman provides a useful framework. This focuses on forming, storming, norming and performing.
Q. How do you help players to build confidence and feed their good wolf?
A. Players use self-talk to improve their confidence. It’s importance to recognise or notice the bad wolf but not to feed the bad wolf by filling in gaps from the past or future unknowns.
Q. How do you build trust with players?
A. Ask about the players fears. Agree a ‘contract’ for work together. Be straight and open with players.
Q. What qualifications do you hold as a psychotherapist?
A. Completed a 5 year post graduate diploma in psychotherapy. Initially worked with a Harlet Street clinic in London before working more exclusively with sports people.
Q. How do you address loss of form in medical staff?
A. Be curious and ask what’s stopping staff from performing highly in their role? Ask what’s stopping them and how they can be the best version of themself. Sometimes people just need a break.
Q. Can feeding the good wolf too much create a cocky or arrogant attitude?
A. No, it’s about doing the right thing and having empathy.
Q. How do you approach the right person when an issue needs to be raised?
A. Do the right thing. This is particularly important when there could be a safeguarding issue. Don’t be afraid to challenge out of touch practices or concepts.
Follow Gary Bloom, Sports Psychotherapist
- Website – https://garybloom.co.uk/
- Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter – @bloomers57
- Book – Keeping your Head in the Game
The next event of the Injury Rehab Network
The next Injury Rehab Network is taking place on the 1st of December and features a presentation from oral and facial surgeon Iain Hutchison. To reserve a place, sign up with BASRaT – click here to register.
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