Mens Team

'Solidarity, patience and discipline is key for the squad'

With normal life effectively on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it's a unique and challenging scenario for us all.

In the second of a special two-part series, club journalist Neil Leigh spoke to first team sports psychologist David Young about the challenges facing the first team squad and coaching staff, as well as the coping strategies that can aid both the players in particular and society as a whole.

David, many thanks for your time.

The current scenario afflicting us all also presents its own special challenges for players and coaching staff alike. How do you think the players and staff as individuals can best deal with being separated from their team-mates and colleagues?

"I think that they are facing the vast majority of challenges that we all do, which generally stem from fear of the unknown and a lack of feeling of control and this applies to all of us.


"The two areas where it may be even more stark for the players are a: the change in daily routine and b: the fact that the stimulus of match day is not going to be here for a while.

"Many of them will have been through a career where they have had a very rigid routine and there won’t have been much room for manoeuvre in terms of making their own decisions on establishing daily routines, and a daily structure.

"Now, suddenly they have found themselves waking up asking what I am going to do today?

"Initially, that might have been nice for a few days, but I think quite a few of us are at the stage where the novelty has worn off now and are facing the stark reality of that this is going to be with us for a while.

"So, what we need now, more than ever, is routine and structure. I know the science and medicine staff are providing excellent programmes for the players but the autonomy that they have now is very different.

"It is important to spend some time planning a schedule for the following day.

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"Be strict about it, set your alarm and get up at a decent time and plan in stuff that might not be fun but which will be meaningful such as exercise, getting some jobs done around the house, maybe even learning something new rather than just binging on Netflix or Call of Duty or whatever it is the guys play now!"

Is it also key that the players try and establish a key balance so that it’s not all work and no play and vice versa – that they can find a happy medium?

"That is exactly right. We know that people tend to enjoy reward much more when they feel as if they have earned it.

"That obviously happens in football as they spend the week doing the hard work in order to get the reward at the end of the week by playing and, hopefully, getting the win.

"Now we need to balance it by having the discipline to do the stuff that maybe isn’t fun but which is important and then really allowing ourselves to sit back and watch a film for example.

"Comparative to the general population, they will be good in terms of looking after their physical fitness which is obviously going to be so important when we do get back.

"As we know, not all of them love fitness training! But they do it as they know it will help them improve their performance on the pitch. We all need to find our equivalent and remember why it is important to put effort into the things that aren’t always fun or exciting."

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Given their daily routine of training and interacting with colleagues and the very essence of football as a team sport, will it be just as important for the players to focus on their mental approach and positive mind-set as well as seeking to stay fit during this enforced period of isolation?

"Definitely. I think that there a number of lessons from sport psychology that we can all bring to the current scenario and vice versa. There are so many parallels from football to the current situation.

"The most obvious would be focussing our attention on the things that we can control.

"In the current scenario, we can easily become emotionally charged by the selfish action of others, or by how long this may take, but actually we should all be focussing on our own actions and responses.

"It highlights to me the lessons that are so applicable from sport in life.

"We can go around complaining about the referee or concerns about the pitch, but all of those things are distractions that don’t help us.

"And, right now, getting annoyed with people buying excessive amounts of toilet roll or getting annoyed with the government, for example, won’t really help us.

"What we need to focus on is our own behaviours, how we go about our business and how we react to a challenge such as this.

"The best sportsmen and women are very good at that side of things.

"A separate point is the importance of accepting the process of adjustment. The temptation is to try and stay as busy as we can and do more initially but, in reality, it is helpful for all of us to accept that things have changed for a while and it is OK to feel a bit worried about it.

"Many of us will now be coming to the realisation that this is going to last a while and it is important to be realistic about this."

How important do you think the role of technology will be for both the coaching staff and players over the next few weeks?

"It already has been for communicating training programmes and will become even more so in terms of maintaining a level of connection in the coming weeks.

"On two levels it’s key.

"On the practical level, I know that the sport science team have sent the players individual training programmes and videos which are interactive so they can be online watching the guys train, providing live feedback.

"So that has been massively helpful.

"But, for all of us, I think just staying connected will be so important.

"Had this happened 20 years we would have been in a very different position as technology tools such as Face Time weren’t available then so, from that perspective, I guess there is a level of gratitude.

"For a lot of guys their families are overseas so that will be another big challenge.

"It is also important for us to consider who might be more vulnerable and the two key factors are a: being separated from support networks and b: the other almost less obvious one is that for some people being confined to the house with certain other individuals for 24 hours can be a bit of a challenge!"

I would imagine mental discipline will also be a key component for the squad in terms of ensuring they maintain the right diet, exercise routines etc?

"The majority of the guys once they get to this level are pretty disciplined anyway. Otherwise they wouldn’t have got to where they have.

"The sustainability of that self-discipline over time is key and is it is interesting to consider the balance between being realistic about the gravity of the situation, while maintaining an appropriate level of optimism.

"There are conflicting views in the psychology field regarding optimism but my view is that it’s not helpful just to say that we have to be endlessly optimistic and positive and wake up every day and know we are one day closer to knowing its ending.

"That’s not sustainable.

"What I believe we all need, which I’m encouraging all the staff and players to do, is accept the negative feelings we are all going to have at some stage. Many of us will experience low moods, loneliness or anxiety, which can be really tough for all of us at times.

"I’d be amazed if everyone hasn’t got one or two people in their lives who might be vulnerable if they were to get the virus.

"So, we’re naturally going to worry about that and if we deny ourselves the right to feel low or concerned then you almost suppress that, and it then becomes more problematic.

"What we need to do is acknowledge these feelings and accept them, but it doesn’t necessarily have to drive our behaviours.

"You can feel low or anxious but can still stick to your schedule and help out those around you.

"It’s actually more difficult to stick to a schedule if you force yourself to be positive as what you might do is supress those other negative feelings and then the mind says ‘to hell with it’ and the danger is you don’t bother at all.

"We are all going to have periods of feeling low or anxious but if we accept these feelings as normal, we can then commit to doing what we said we would do.

"This takes effort but we will all feel better for doing it."

Obviously, the fixture schedule is normally the perfect barometer underpinning our weekly preparation. Will the hardest thing for the players and coaches be dealing with the sense of unknown in terms of a timeframe for when the action will resume?

"Having spoken to people I think this is potentially the biggest source of stress.

"In terms of not really knowing when it will all end. After all, it is in our make-up to want to have a finish line to work towards.

"It is a bit like having an injury and not knowing when you will able to return. One effective way of managing this is by breaking time into smaller chunks.

"For these guys who have had a serious ACL injury or similar, they have always got in the back of their mind that ‘I know when I’m going be back in training’, ‘I know when I’m going to kick a ball’ and ‘I know when I’ll be available for selection.’

"This is similar in many ways, but the difference is we don’t know where the finishing line is.

"It’s very, very difficult to have that and what we all tend to do is constantly search for information.

"Is it going to be two weeks?, four weeks? etc and the reality is we don’t know.

"I believe the best way to deal with it is to a have a level of acceptance and to break time down."

"Ask ourselves how we are going to handle the next two weeks. What am I doing to make sure the people around me and I are well supported, how will I make use of that time and the review and reset at the end of that period?

"Everyone is looking for certainty but we are going to have to work within our own timelines and establish our own deadlines and our own goals as no-one else is able to do that at the moment."

Will another important psychological strategy be to try and maintain a sense of motivation for the squad with games currently on hiatus?

"The obvious short-term stimulus of match day has been taken away for a while and it will be really important for us all to stay as connected as we possibly can.

"The players are used to coming in every day and feeding off each other so we will need to be creative about keeping that connection over the coming weeks.

"It’s all still relatively new and I’m pretty confident the guys will be staying fit and healthy.

"As time goes by, we will look at ways of being even more interactive and being able to connect them together to make them feel like they are working as a community which is one of the basic needs for all of us actually

If the hiatus goes on for far longer will the scale of the challenge increase?

"It is likely that it will become more challenging for all of us if it goes on for even longer than we might have expected.

"We will need to hold on to the genuine belief that football will come back, and that the Etihad will be full again.

"We know that will happen and we’ve got to keep that belief.

"That’s the deep-rooted drive that keeps us all going.

"Almost everyone I have spoken with at the club has talked about how amazing it will be when we are back and that’s the thought that we all need to keep focused on, even if it might be weeks or even months away.

"The players do what they love and they’ll be chomping at the bit to stay fit and come back in peak condition."

The symbiotic relationship between fans and players is a key tenant of the game and Pep has spoken eloquently that football without the supporters is nothing. Do you think this current impasse will only reinforce for the squad the huge role that the fans help play in their professional lives?

"Yes, I think they are aware of this and Pep’s view is mirrored throughout the club but something like this current situation does just bring it home.

"We help them prepare for matches but if you just imagine playing those matches without the fans it really does lose its meaning.

"And it just highlights the reason football is so meaningful for us in that it is so important for so many people.

"You are not just going out there playing a match, you are going out there representing thousands of people and it will have a direct impact on how they feel the next day.

"The privilege that goes with that can’t be overstated.

"The fans invest a huge part of their lives in the Club and I’m a sports fan as well and this has just served to illustrate how important football, in particular, and sport in general is.

"For people who do invest so much time and money and emotional investment, being part of a community that means something. And it’s something really important for us all in terms of our own well-being.

"When we lose, we lose together and when we win the euphoria we have as a community is something so powerful.

"Sport creates that and, at the moment, the paradox is the whole idea is to stay away from people when, of course, the very thing we want is to be connected as a community."

As and when football does resume, do you think that the players will be armed with even greater desire and determination to succeed?

"To get to this level, the ones who ever questioned if it was important probably haven’t made it but what it does do is it helps reinforce that aspect.

"Something like this helps us cherish what we do even more, and recognise the fragility of it.

"Will they be even more motivated?

"Perhaps, but I think they are as motivated as they can be any way and Pep demands that, but this does highlight what a privilege it is to be a part of this Club and sport and how fragile it all is."

Finally, David, as and when this awful situation abates, do you think it will make everyone appreciate all the more the key role that City in particular and football in general can offer us as a society?

"Now is the time to show solidarity, self-discipline and patience and we have to make sure we keep these things at the forefront of our mind as and when we do come back.

"I really do think we will all come back stronger.

"In this scenario you can see the best and worst of each other but to see the way communities are coming together, helping each other, understanding what’s really important… I hope we keep a sense of that.

"I think it broadly reflects exactly what society needs right now.

"And I think every fan, player and member of staff will have thought about how it will be in the first match back at a full Etihad... and what a special moment it will be."