Player Performance

Gary Bloom is Oxford United’s ‘talking cure’ and English football’s only psychotherapist helping players conquer their anxieties… so will it give them an edge as League One Play-offs start tonight?

  • Oxford United play Portsmouth in League One Play-off semi-final on Friday night
  • Us finished fourth in the curtailed season and have a shot at the Championship
  • But they were relegation strugglers last season before a drastic transformation
  • Part of the reason is Gary Bloom – English football’s only psychotherapist 
  • He helps players’ mental health, dealing with anxiety, addiction and depression 

The Championship is Oxford United’s immediate target though in one aspect at least they are already Premier League.

‘Thinking about psychologically aware clubs who really want to look after their players, yes LiverpoolEvertonSouthamptonBrighton but also Oxford United and that is a marvellous achievement for a League One club,’ claimed their psychotherapist Gary Bloom.

‘We punch well above our weight. We are now becoming a top Premier League club in terms of how we look after our players. That really fills me with pride.’

Bloom, the only psychotherapist in English football, is a key part of the player care service that has helped transform Oxford from relegation strugglers last season to promotion hopefuls this.

Psychotherapy, Bloom explains, is ‘a talking cure,’ rather than medical, for mental health issues like anxiety, depression and addictive behaviour.

Helping athletes with performance anxiety and unhappiness related to areas such as injury, non-selection or loss of form, also comes under his remit.

‘It’s a chance to understand what you do and why you do it,’ he says. ‘For example, why do you keep missing when you get the ball in the area? Why do you make mistakes as a defender? Why do you lose your temper?

‘Why are you picking up yellow cards? Why do you keep falling out with team-mates? All those sort of questions we can help answer and once you understand and have tools through psychotherapy to help you understand what you’re doing and why, you can change your behaviour.

Oxford United are enjoying a great season as they head into the League One Play-offs
Oxford United are enjoying a great season as they head into the League One Play-offs 

‘Many psychological models go straight to performance. We worry about the person first, making sure they are physically well but mentally too. Happier players quite simply play better.’

The proof has been in the pudding, since Bloom got involved with Oxford after being alerted by his Us-supporting son to a plea from Karl Robinson in the local paper for some psychological assistance because his team were not gelling.

Oxford manager Karl Robinson put out an appeal for some psychological assistance
Oxford manager Karl Robinson put out an appeal for some psychological assistance 

Bloom, who has a Harley Street private practice and mental health show on talkSPORT, quickly saw first-hand the depths the confidence-sapped Us had slumped to.

On the October 2018 night of his first visit following Robinson’s appeal, a last-minute loss to Luton left Oxford second-bottom of League One.

This Friday they face Portsmouth in the League One play-off semi-finals after finishing fourth in the aborted regular season.

Bloom is keen to stress all the credit should not be his and he has instead been one part a management team who have combined to improve the way Oxford operate as a team and club, with an upturn in results following.

Relationships have improved and players are happier, encouraged to be more open. A noticeably positive environment has been created throughout the club.

It has not been straightforward though. There was initial scepticism about an outsider being granted access to Oxford’s inner sanctum.

A third of the group loved having Bloom around and would use him, a third welcomed his impact but didn’t consider his methods for them while the final third ‘would just ignore me completely, pretend I wasn’t there.’

Oxford finished fourth and in the League One Play-offs in the points-per-game table
Oxford finished fourth and in the League One Play-offs in the points-per-game table 

Trust slowly grew over time. ‘The first and second groups have got slightly bigger and the third group smaller,’ he says. 

‘Many footballers, once they hear ‘psych’ a switch goes off inside their heads, they internalise that and think “there’s something the matter with me”.

‘My job is to normalise these conversations and say “this is about performance as well as resilience. Being a better footballer and happier footballer”.’

One issue is that due to patient confidentiality there are times when Bloom knows more about a players’ personal situation than manager Robinson which he can’t divulge.

‘At the same time there are things I might encourage a player to share with the manager or I might take the concerns of several players to the manager if the players are not comfortable raising it,’ Bloom explains.

Luckily Robinson is open-minded enough and respects the job Bloom is there to do, to the point where he even accepts tips on his own managerial style.

Elliott Moore celebrates scoring in Oxford's 4-0 win over West Ham in the Carabao Cup
Elliott Moore celebrates scoring in Oxford’s 4-0 win over West Ham in the Carabao Cup 

‘It might be the way he might address players in a team meeting. I might question a team talk, sometimes his press conferences, certainly in our early time together,’ Bloom said.

‘Was it helpful to do that? He has changed the way he has managed and I think that has been my role.

‘He is very psychologically prepared and aware, probably more than any manager I’ve ever met.’

Bloom says why he is the only psychotherapist in football given the impact such work can have is the $64,000 question.

He reckons players miss out on at least up to 25 per cent of potential development if the psychological part of the FA’s Four Corner Model, which also includes the technical, physical and social elements, is ignored.

A battling performance saw Oxford draw 0-0 away to Newcastle in the FA Cup fourth round
A battling performance saw Oxford draw 0-0 away to Newcastle in the FA Cup fourth round

Studies estimate using psychotherapy can improve performance by between eight and 15 per cent.

‘Football is at least 10 years behind sports like cricket and rugby,’ Bloom said.

Bloom’s work could give Oxford an edge in overcoming the challenges presented by football’s near four-month shutdown.

They went into the pause on a five-game winning streak and have to be ready to pick up where they left off straight away for the play-offs.

Bloom said: ‘It’s about re-socialising the group because the unity of the players is key and like all the clubs in the play-offs, ours will not have been together for a long time.

‘Over the last 18 months, when things have not been right we’ve tried to address them immediately so when they come back into these social settings all those relationships are ready to re-form.

‘Imagine we have a garage full of expensive cars that perhaps have computers on board. My job is to make sure the software is ticking over nicely because there will be one or two glitches in there.’