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Why athletes can get best of all worlds from therapy

There has been much sympathetic commentary towards Jürgen Klopp after the death of his mother, Elisabeth, and the impossibility of going back to Germany to be with family. Football can be considerate but I wonder how that reaction would play out if the Liverpool manager were to return home, taking a break for a week or two, missing matches.

It is a topical way into a far broader question that occupies Gary Bloom, as the only psychotherapist to work within a professional football club, about how much tolerance we have to vulnerability within sport and wider life, especially among men.

Bloom, a former football commentator who retrained as a therapist, knows the game and the attitudes it generates so has an immediate response to that question of whether a manager like Klopp could step away, even for only a few games, to deal with grief.

“The reaction would be, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ And then you would have every camera at Anfield, reporter or social media warrior saying, ‘He’s not up to it, he can’t do the job,’” Bloom says.

Given that Klopp had to scotch rumours that he may quit after showing just a flash of emotional turbulence, Bloom is surely right. Wellbeing may matter but not half as much as whether Liverpool can beat Everton tomorrow.

Is this just about sport? Few workplaces, in my experience, make it easy to open up about vulnerability, to ask for help — whatever they may claim.

Sports journalism is still learning how to break down taboos. When I “outed” myself in print a few years ago as someone who had benefited hugely from therapy, as insightful as the number of colleagues who made contact was the secrecy with which they did so.

Not everything needs to be paraded or emoted in public (some will think “enough already”) but if we are a long way from normalising these conversations, Bloom thinks that football lags far behind, to the detriment of players’ lives and, perhaps more significantly to you as a spectator, their output on the pitch.

“The by-product of what I do is enhanced performance,” Bloom says of his therapeutic work. It is a very significant by-product if your business is winning, which raises the simple question of why this work is not more mainstream.

“This is where it becomes my crusade to normalise psychotherapy in sport and life and beyond,”

Gary Bloom

“Crusade” is a big word but one that seems necessary given what Bloom has encountered in sport. “We are miles off,” he says. “The stories I saw as a broadcaster are nothing on what I have seen as a psychotherapist in the last six years.

“I’ve worked in a football club where they had a player who had to wear a pink bib as the worst trainer of the week with the words ‘I am shit’ written all over it. That’s bullying. I said to the club, ‘Someone can sue you.’

“The story this week about the state of British athletics, the casual sexism and misogyny around female coaches. There’s a huge report coming up around gymnastics, which is going to unveil all sorts of malpractice. Where do you want to start?”

It is not just extremes of behaviour that trouble him. The more he peers inside sport — with up to 40 footballers, plus leading rugby players, cricketers and jockeys, among his clients — he sees forbidding cultures.

“What I define as the tyranny of success,” Bloom says. “Nobody is allowed to say, ‘I might get injured at the weekend, we might get beat, I’m vulnerable, I’m frightened, I’m playing shit and I can’t score a goal.’ Nobody is allowed to do that. With me, there they are, being able to hold those fears.”

This is beyond patching up athletes with an encouraging word to get through a Saturday afternoon, or the odd team-talk from a sports psychologist.

That trade has grown significantly over recent decades but Bloom’s belief is that too many psychologists are research academics, or in back offices rather than on the front line. “I’m the only person I know of in my role allowed inside the dressing room at five to three,” he says. “Why is that?”

He can access all areas at Oxford United thanks to Karl Robinson, the head coach, who invited Bloom not only to work with individuals but also to have input into group dynamics at the League One club.

To help his crusade, Bloom has written a book, Keeping Your Head in the Game, drawing together stories from sporting clients, their identities masked, to illustrate his work.

It may be the footballer whose personal life is in turmoil, carrying those woes into the dressing room; the snooker player with low esteem consumed with jealous thoughts between breaks; the struggling, homesick cricketer.

Much of his work centres on identity and how athletes, perhaps more than most of us, are defined by what they do, not who they are.

“But what happens when you can’t?” Bloom asks. “If you’re a goalscorer who can’t score goals, who are you? If you’re a footballer who has to retire, who are you? If you only measure yourself by what you do, you are always going to be on a slippery slope.”

He also notes that football, in particular, remains a highly macho environment where it is not cool to show softer qualities. “All your friendships and relationships are based on being this tough aggressive competitor. Then you finish playing, who are you? All your relationships are based on a previous persona that is maladaptive.”

If it all makes so much sense, why do more not adopt it? For an individual, it can take a lot of courage, often a crisis, to seek therapy. It can be easier trying to muddle through, focusing on the job.

There is the short-termism of the manager Bloom came across who told him: “Don’t get me on this psychobabble shit. If I lose my next six games I’m out of the job and so are you.”

He has also encountered a manager’s fear of someone knowing so much about the state of mind of his players. Some managers want therapy work kept well away from the training ground, a private business.

That may apply across many sectors and not just at the Premier League club where a visiting therapist had to be discreet in reminding players of appointments. They were fearful of team-mates knowing they were seeing the “shrink”, as if the act itself were an admission of weakness rather than growth. “Becoming a better version of themselves,” Bloom says.

Drysdale and Judge go head to head on Wednesday

He is selling the best of all worlds: a balanced athlete who is more self-aware and, therefore, more productive.

I mention the perception — been there, done that — that it is necessary to be furiously driven, perhaps even unhealthily so, to thrive in a competitive work environment. Bloom is adamant that we must challenge such views, which can simply be justifications for damaging behaviours, or a way of avoiding deeper issues.

“Happier players play better. Happier journalists work more effectively,” he concludes. He will find no argument here.

•Keeping Your Head in the Game by Gary Bloom will be published by Penguin Life on Thursday.

When will the players say sorry?
The difference with Darren Drysdale, the referee facing an FA misconduct charge for squaring up to Alan Judge, the Ipswich Town midfielder, is that he knew he went too far and recognised it. The official swiftly apologised for uncharacteristically losing his cool.

How long must we wait for the hundreds — make that thousands — of apologies still owed by countless players and managers for their incessant haranguing of officials?

We reported this week that the FA was taking “a strong stand against abuse directed towards match officials across the professional and grassroots game”. Those words are laughable. Ask my sons who referee on Sunday mornings. Ask anyone who regularly attends football at any level.

The last time I ran the line before lockdown, I flagged a player offside. I was told, more than once, that I was a “f***ing c***!” The response of the referee was to ask this teenager to quieten down.

Of course he should have taken stronger action but it will take more than one park ref to tackle this entrenched culture. As for that lad, he was just getting away with what his heroes do every week.

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