“Everyone looks at sport from the neck down,” AS Monaco director of performance James Bunce tells Get French Football News’ Luke Entwistle. But not at AS Monaco. In line with the societal shift towards an increased focus on mental health, football is evolving. The Principality club are at the forefront of change, integrating two psychologists (Emilie Thienot and Sophie Huguet) into the performance department, to help the club harness what Bunce describes as “one of the most under-tapped advantages in football.”
The “neck down” approach to health and fitness is particularly pronounced in football, and in Ligue 1. Investment in the psychological element of the game is minimal. Following Paris Saint-Germain’s capitulation against Real Madrid in the Champions League last year reports that the club was set to hire a sports psychologist surfaced, however, no arrival was ever officialised.
Monaco’s approach breathes modernity and innovation. The club are constantly trying to break new ground and gain competitive advantages; the completion of their avant-garde performance centre in La Turbie is just one manifestation of that quest.
Speaking ahead of Monaco’s 4-1 win against Nantes at the beginning of the month, manager Philippe Clement said he was pleased with the recruitment of the two psychologists, who take over a role that he had assumed since his arrival in January. “[The psychologists] are very important. I spoke with Paul (Mitchell) and the President after the season and I said I thought it was important to grow as a club, for the players, for the staff, for everyone [to have them]. For me, it’s very important to have psychological help here, because last year, I was the psychologist here, but in the end, I am also the man who decides.”
He continued, “It’s important, especially with lots of young players, who were all big stars during their formative years, otherwise they wouldn’t be here, because of that they weren’t really in competition, and now they come here and there is a lot of competition. That can have a mental impact, and an impact on confidence as well. We have to help the players, and give them tools to channel their emotions.”
Get French Football News sat down with Bunce to talk about the role of psychology in sport and the way in which Monaco are harnessing it in order to gain a professional advantage.
The physical aspect of the game seems to be very much favoured over the mental aspect. Would you say that is a fair assessment?
“I wouldn’t say that [physical well-being] is favoured deliberately over [mental well-being]. Everyone concentrates on the neck down. Everyone looks at sport from the neck down. We have got super, super good at monitoring the neck down, physical outputs, training loads, accelerations, sprinting, and duels won. We’re really good at looking at that. Not deliberately, but I think we often overlook the mental side because it’s really hard to evaluate. It’s really hard to train and to teach, and to have objective moments in that.”
“However, even if you anecdotally look back and listen to players and coaches speak after games, a lot of them will talk about a mental attribute that either helped them or caused the problem. “We switched off, we weren’t at it, we didn’t put the effort in, we weren’t motivated” and so it’s a really ironic situation where the thing we talk about when we struggle when we talk about mentality, but we don’t train it to anywhere near the same extent as we do other things. So that’s why psychology for me is one of the most under-tapped advantages in football and even in the wider sporting environment. I speak a lot about this topic, and how we try and get this right.”
Monaco is one of the first clubs in Ligue 1 to take the mental aspect of the game this seriously. Is this about gaining a competitive advantage as well?
“We as a club, prior to my arrival, but also since mine and Paul’s (Mitchell) arrival, we are trying to innovate and push forward. We were the first to get a full-time nutritionist, so we were breaking new ground there, one of the first to invest in the performance and medical department as we do and so psychology for us is about getting a competitive advantage but also trying to develop our players to be the best they can be, that means on and off the pitch. That means trying to develop champions, trying to develop the French national team and international standard players, and we know the mind has to be a part of that. So a big part of our reflection and the changes we made is about building a structure that gives us the ability to develop this to a higher level.”
How will the recruitment of the psychologists manifest itself on the pitch?
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“Getting an objective marker is really difficult. We speak to the players about their mental fatigue, their emotions and things like that, but it’s not like a blood sample, it’s not like a metric that we measure like running speed. If we do a fitness programme we can say that they’ve increased lifting weight from 100kg to 150kg – that’s a 50% increase, they’ve gone from this speed to this speed. There isn’t a concrete, objective marker. However, what we hope manifests in the building is that with the playing group they begin to be able to develop attributes that they didn’t have, that they might then use. So it’s not about seeing that in every moment they are using a mental skill, but about giving them a tool case full of ways to handle different situations.”
“If we are in a moment where we are 1-0 up and it’s the 90th minute and we need to see out the results, we have the mental skills to deal with that adversity, or with the motivation, or with the capacity to manage the game in a better way. What our psychologists are always trying to do is give the players the tools to cope with scenarios, and when they come to those scenarios, they are better equipped than they previously were to deal with them. The way we have built the department of psychology is that it doesn’t only extend itself to players. Obviously, the players are hugely important and we want to develop their psychological characteristics, abilities, and traits, but we also wanted to develop the staff within the building.”
“So we have Sophie, who works with the players every day. She’s the one that has the individual meetings, the team meetings, the team building and all of those kinds of profiling aspects. Then we have Emilie who is overseeing the project with more of the staff, with the technical staff, with the departments, with the leadership to build a culture of psychology and the culture of what a Monaco player is. What are the attributes of a Monaco player that we want psychologically and how do we transfer and transmit that energy and that development onto the players.”
At this level of football, success or failure often hinges on the most minor details, and at AS Monaco, every such detail is scrutinised in order to extract every and each competitive advantage. By tapping into the psychology of football, the Principality club are at the forefront of change. They may be an outlier for now, but they are unlikely to remain so for too long.