An insight into the life of a sports psychologist

March 30, 2022
BEK talks to psychologist Ben Morrison about his journey from waiting tables to working with Gareth Southgate’s England team.

As a talented young cricketer playing in an academy, Ben Morrison often found he was his own worst enemy. Something as simple as waking up a few minutes early or late on a match-day could trigger an intense bout of self-doubt. Ben would convince himself that the opposition were all future cricketing superstars ready to annihilate him on the pitch. Inevitably, he would then fail to play to his own true potential. While this prevented Ben from realising his dream of playing professional cricket, it did give him an insight that has shaped the rest of his life. Determined to help athletes understand how their mindset can make or break their performance, Ben set out training as a sports psychologist. It was a journey that would lead him all the way to a World Cup.

"When things didn't quite work out in cricket, I was determined to stay involved in sport and felt I had something to offer. I had seen how overthinking had affected me on the pitch and wanted to help others get out of their own way. When you can learn not to overthink, you can unleash a lot more of your potential." Having completed a degree in sports science, Ben made the difficult decision to self-fund further post-graduate study to qualify as a psychologist. "I couldn't afford to do the course, so I had to work for a year to save up. I worked in the NHS medical library, filing people's records and sitting on the outpatients' reception. Once I completed the diploma, I moved up to Sheffield to do my Masters. I actually took out a commercial bank loan to get me through that period, which meant I ended up with a lot of debt." As well as the loan, Ben continued to work part-time to fund his studies, signing up with an agency that provided hospitality staff at corporate events. "I'd often do a full day at Uni, come home and then be back out to work at 6pm. My shifts serving food and drinks at Christmas parties or whatever could finish at 2am, and then I'd be back up and in class in the morning. My attitude was: I'll do whatever it takes."

This determination set Ben apart. Many of his course-mates were discouraged by dire warnings from their lecturers. The students were repeatedly told not to expect to find a job in sports psychology at the end of their studies. Unperturbed, Ben set about contacting any sports club or school he could think of, offering to put on sessions or work with players voluntarily to gain valuable experience. "I found schools were often more open to the benefits of psychology than many of sports clubs I wrote to. For example, I got to put on some sessions at the academy of a football club that currently plays in the Premier League. But the coaches there were very sceptical about how psychology could help their players. They'd say things to me like, 'go on then genius, tell us what we're doing wrong.' That was tough, but I'd just keep trying my best, taking every opportunity I could to learn, get more practice and find the next stepping stone to a paid job."  

Eventually, fate would give Ben a helping hand. "Randomly, I was working as hospitality staff at the annual conference of a company called Lane4. They were one of the few places our lecturers had mentioned where there might be opportunities to get work experience - or even a job - in sports psychology. Here I was serving drinks to them. At the end of my shift, I waited near the entrance. I forced myself to do a bit of networking. It wasn't easy making conversation with strangers, but I'm so glad I did." It turned out Lane4 had just lost one of their research interns and were looking for some help to fill the gap. "I think they could see my passion for psychology. They offered me an internship working two days per week. It was the foot in the door I needed, and it eventually led to them offering me a full-time job in 2014. That's something I learnt which lots of young people don't realise. You are so so valuable to companies and organisations. They put vast resources into finding fresh talent. They need you. But most people don't put themselves out there. If you're willing to reach out to people and show how passionate you are about what they do, things will start to happen for you."  

Fast forward two years. Roy Hodgson's England team are playing Iceland for a place in the quarter-finals of the European Championships. It's a game England are expected to win without much difficulty, especially after Wayne Rooney opens the scoring with a penalty after only four minutes. But from there, things go badly wrong. "I remember watching that game", says Ben. "I'm a Manchester United fan, and it was incredible to see a group of such talented players performing so far beneath the levels they play at for their clubs." England lost the match 2-1, and in the tournament's wake, the Football Association decided to hold a wide-ranging audit. "That Iceland match was a massive catalyst for change. Unlike many other sports organisations and teams, the F.A. did not have its own psychology department back then. They asked Lane4 to set one up. It was a four-year project, and I was one of a team of five who worked at St George's Park National Football Centre with the England coaches and players."

One of the first things Ben and his Lane4 colleagues did was to speak to current and former England internationals to gather their experiences of what it's like to play for the national team. "The overwhelming message that came back was that they didn't enjoy the experience. They felt they weren't given permission to be themselves on the pitch. Partly this was because of how they were coached, but it was also driven by the media. The players knew that if they made the mistake that saw England eliminated from a tournament, they would be hounded in the press."

The start of the project coincided with Gareth Southgate being appointed manager of the senior men's team. As Ben explains, Southgate, who had missed the decisive penalty in the semi-finals of Euro 96, immediately championed the work Lane4 were doing. "Gareth Southgate wanted to move away from the very individualistic culture that had developed in the England team, where one player would be the superstar or the villain. Rather than the primary concern of the players being to avoid personal responsibility for failure, instead, the focus shifted to actually trying to win tournaments as a team". Two years later, at the World Cup in Russia, the successful impact the project was having was plain for all to see. On the pitch, England reached the semi-finals, even winning a penalty shoot-out along the way. Off it, footage of the players relaxing together at the team hotel with inflatable unicorns showed how far they had come from that defeat to Iceland.  

As his time with the Football Association reached its end, Ben received a signed England shirt from the senior men's team as a leaving present. It's one of a few prized mementoes marking his time at St George's Park. "I still need to get the shirt framed and up on the wall. I've also got an England blazer from my time at the Women's Under-17 World Cup in Jordan, which was an absolutely incredible experience. It's brilliant to see virtually all of those players now competing in the WSL. It's funny having worked as a psychologist in football. Now, when I watch matches, I'll usually want both teams to do well. That might be because I've worked with players on both sides. It might be because of my fantasy league picks. Or it might just be because it's Man United. It's a shame they can't all win!"    

Since his time with England, Ben explains how his interests have evolved. "I started out endeavouring to help individuals perform better in their sport. Then I grew to think about how cultures are created that allow entire teams to flourish. From there, I became fascinated by the challenges in sport on the clinical and therapeutic side. There are lots of people who come to the end of their career as a sportsperson and struggle. So rather than the focus being on their performance, it's about helping them become well. That's so important."

Recently Ben has stepped away from sport altogether. His current role at EYLane4 - which he is no less passionate about - helps businesses recognise how transitioning to net-zero emissions can be the catalyst for sustained success. "I'll definitely get back to working in sport at some point, though", he says, "It will always be my first love."

During the pandemic, Ben designed and delivered virtual workshops that kept Behind Every Kick's young people engaged when we couldn't meet with them in person. He also volunteers with the charity as a mentor. Later this month, Ben will host an online session for all BEK Development graduates who share his passion for sports psychology.

Ben (right) meets Pep Guardiola while on England duty