Psychology Is The Future Of Football – An Interview With Neuroscientist, Tony Faulkner

Many young footballers have their careers cruelly ended prematurely, but few take the path of ex-Manchester City youngster, Tony Faulkner.

Faulkner is a co-founder of the Masters in Sporting Directorship course at Visionary Sports International (VSI) which develops an understanding to lead, manage and coach. Former England manager, Steve McClaren, and former Liverpool midfielder, Dietmar Hamann, are some of the clients currently enrolled in the course.

He is now one of the country’s leading experts in neuroscience and how it is utilised in sport after being forced to retire as a 19-year-old.

“I signed for Manchester City and went through to 16 which was when I left school. From there I went to Bristol City on loan and unfortunately, at around 17 or 18, I got a back injury. Eventually, it got to a point where I realised I was never going to be able to play again in the professional game. I was advised on medical grounds, at the age of around 19, to retire,” he said.

Having the opportunity of a lifetime snatched away can have potentially devastating consequences, and Faulkner admitted the news took a significant toll on his life.

“When I was told, you lose your identity. One minute you are a young footballer, the next you are told you will never be able to play at a professional level, what are you going to do?

“I didn’t know what to do, and I was lost. For a year, I felt a bit sorry for myself. At this stage, I put a bit of weight on. I wasn’t as physically active as I was and I didn’t know where to go,” Faulkner admitted, but a conversation with former Manchester United star, Norman Whiteside, offered him the break he desired.

“It was a chance conversation with Norman Whiteside where he told me that he was going to college to train to be a physiotherapist. That conversation got me up, and I thought if it was good enough for him, a player who played at the World Cup at 16 and an FA Cup winner, it was good enough for me.”

Despite having no real interest in physiotherapy, Faulkner worked at both Manchester City and Blackburn where after studying psychology, he became head of performance management which involved working closely many different departments.

Asked what the role entailed, he said: “I was primarily responsible for developing a vision and a strategy to bring the academy success on the pitch – winning games of football but also giving youngsters a path from the academy to the first team.”

Faulkner believes neuroscience and sports psychology is becoming increasingly important to clubs. Back in 2014, Brendan Rodgers hired a psychologist to get the best out of his Liverpool team and current England manager, Gareth Southgate, is also looking to recruit a top professional ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

“I know that the mind messes up performance more than the body. You need to have a greater understanding of how you impact the behaviour of those around you. Having that level of understanding enables you to perform better which allows your staff to be more impactful in their performance.

“In the next 20 years, I believe that the greatest advancement we will see in football is how we understand how the brain drives performance,” said Faulkner.

Back in 2014, Brendan Rodgers hired a psychologist to get the best out of his Liverpool team and current England manager, Gareth Southgate, is also looking to recruit a top professional ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

“It is huge in business and many other sports, football has recognised it, but I still think it is not completely understood. But someone with that expertise should be there all the time, so they are there to ensure things are ticking over smoothly and providing the right environment as well as a framework for success,” said Faulkner.

Faulkner believes clubs will start paying more attention to the science of the sport and believes that they will start winning more fixtures as a result.

“I think clubs are going to pay more attention to how they recruit their people and the type of person they need in that particular role.

“They will win more games of football. If a head coach doesn’t understand the negative impact his personality, persona or behaviours has on the team as a whole, then the likelihood is that the team won’t perform to their maximum,” he stated.

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