Player Performance

Oxford United’s unique psychotherapy project with Gary Bloom is winning hearts and minds

“THAT morning I had no idea by the end of the day I’d be sitting in the manager’s office.”

It is 14 months since Gary Bloom walked into Oxford United to start what is believed to be the first role of its kind in English football – a psychotherapist embedded inside a professional club.

How big a factor it has been in the many explanations for the side’s resurgence since is impossible to gauge.

But the results have shown a marked improvement, as 85 points from 53 games have turned the relegation contenders into play-off hopefuls.

It began almost by accident and was prompted by United’s wretched start to the season which led boss Karl Robinson in one post-match interview to consider getting in a psychologist.

Bloom, alerted by his U’s-supporting son Josh, got in touch and was told: “be here tonight at 6pm”.

That evening he watched Luton Town win 2-1 in stoppage time to pile more misery on the faltering side.

“I thought ‘I’ve no idea what I’ve let myself in for’ because the atmosphere was turgid,” Bloom, who has clinics in Oxford and London, recalls.

Robinson had worked at Milton Keynes Dons and Charlton Athletic with psychotherapists, who come at the issue from another direction to sports psychologists.

“I treat the human rather than the athlete. If the human is happy then in theory the athlete will be much happier and playing better.

“You can’t give someone confidence on the pitch if the rest of their life is falling apart.”

Although Robinson was enthusiastic, it took time for others in the camp to follow.

“There were four or five players who gave a particular worry or concern, who I worked with every week to help issues like confidence, personal issues, disciplinary issues,” Bloom said.

“I’m not going to give names, but that gang of four their form slowly began to settle down and by the new year things had begun to take off.

Gary Bloom

“There was a bit of scepticism, but I started with one player, then two, then four.

“This season it’s about 12 or 13 as that trust has gradually grown.”

Much of the 62-year-old’s general work as a psychotherapist revolves around issues with anxiety, depression, relationships and addictive behaviours.

But one useful side to working within an organisation is the opportunity to build bridges between individuals and groups.

He said: “There was an issue last season where certain first team players found it unpalatable that younger members of the squad were tweeting after Oxford had lost.

Oxford Mail:

“They found it quite hard because the older players had not grown up with social media, so they thought it wasn’t right.

“They wanted absolute silence if Oxford had lost. That was early on in my time there when we were going through a tough period.

“It wasn’t helping the dressing room.”

Nothing aids confidence and team spirit like positive results, which have made the last few months more straightforward.

That does not mean it has all been plain sailing and despite Robinson’s stance being pivotal to the success or failure of the project, the concept of confidentiality can lead to flare-ups.

“We were talking about a particular piece of information the other day and Karl asked where it had come from,” said Bloom, who hosts ‘On the Sporting Couch’ on talkSPORT interviewing big sporting figures and focusing on mental health.

“I replied ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you’.

“That’s why there aren’t more psychotherapists in football clubs, because most football managers in that scenario would say ‘get out of my football club’.”

Steadily, Bloom’s remit has increased to take in the academy, where the problems can often be even more challenging than the first team.

The club are also about to launch an experiment into the quality of players’ sleep and matching it with their strength and conditioning data.

It is believed to be another first for football, as the U’s look to set new standards.

In a bid to spread the word, a conference is being held at the Kassam Stadium in February, with Bloom and Robinson speaking to showcase what the club have been doing.

“I would say rugby and cricket are way ahead of football in this,” Bloom said.

“I do not want to take credit for anything that’s going on at the club.

“This is about the quality of player care at Oxford United and I’m really proud that we’re looking after the players in a way that nobody else I think comes close.”