How the dressing room helps decide success or failure in UK football

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, Business Engagement Reporter, Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics

How the dressing room helps decide success or failure in UK footballBritish football’s dressing room culture, and its role in the success or failure of teams and players, was the focus of an intriguing seminar organised by Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre (SBC) at the British Medical Association on Monday 9 November.

During the seminar, titled Professional Football in the UK: The Beautifully Ugly Game, the speaker, Dr Seamus Kelly of University College Dublin, discussed his research, including interviews with players, agents and managers.

Here he found an emphasis on physical attributes over thinking skills potentially inhibited teams and also players – on and beyond the pitch. Including critical thinking skills in training could help address this.

Competitive atmosphere

Introducing the evening, SBC Director Sean Hamil noted Dr Kelly’s particular qualifications for his subject. Informing his academic perspective, as a former professional footballer Dr Kelly had earned an entry to the largely closed world of the dressing room.

That world’s positive aspects might include the social interactions of its competitive atmosphere, which, while potentially quite brutal, could psychologically prepare some players for the stresses associated with matches.

However, Dr Kelly also found bravado, indulgence and ostentation masking debilitating fears of failure to play well. Constructive competition could encourage skills development; destructive competition could undermine that. Behind apparent team camaraderie, intense rivalry for places in a squad could lead players to attack each other’s confidence and prospects through behaviour such as abusive or aggressive criticism or humour.

Developing strategies

One way (already practiced at some clubs) to help counter such behaviour could be to get players to work together in training, among themselves, to develop possible strategies to given game scenarios, encouraging player engagement, thinking skills and cooperation, which might in turn help players act more strategically in and beyond football.

Clubs could also further develop approaches that included analyses of personality as well as physical ability in player selections, acquisitions and introductions to squads.

Research into thinking skills is already happening. Since 1999 Birkbeck has worked in this and related fields with organisations such as UEFA.

Sean Hamil also pointed out that other sectors had accepted much of this thinking for decades: why was UK football different? In response, Dr Kelly noted the game’s resistance to change.

Development was perhaps therefore about nuance: consultation rather than confrontation, addressing obstacles such as short-termism and about fresh thinking on introducing approaches established elsewhere to a hitherto largely resistant arena, recognising its positive aspects.


Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre can offer consultancy on short, medium and long term projects. Please contact the Business Engagement team to discuss or see our ‘Find an Expert’ database.

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