Psychology in German football has been under fire recently, but those working in the field feel more positive.
Regardless of who is winning, losing or playing, the major narratives in German football are often attributed to Kopfsache – literally translated as a “mind matter.”
About 5% of athletes in elite sports suffer from depression, roughly in line with the general population. German football is already extremely aware of mental illnesses like depression after the tragic death of Robert Enke in 2009, so how is the current sports psychology system in Germany faring?
In September, Rene Paasch, one of Germany’s most prominent sports psychologists, suggested the role was in need of a “paradigm shift” because “outdated thought patterns and approaches” had left little room for innovation. Many others in the field however, have said otherwise.
Johanna Belz, a sports psychologist at Germany’s most famous sports university in Cologne, has spoken positively of her time working at Cologne’s football academy, commenting on the club’s comprehensive approach to sports psychology.
“My experiences were with very open academies that do a lot more than the minimum,” Belz told DW. “But, of course, in academies where one sport psychologist is in charge of 10 teams, that’s just not possible. Some need to take a look at themselves in the mirror, but we also need to celebrate those academies that go above and beyond.”
Progress being made with mental health
There are others who feel the perspective expressed by Paasch does not reflect the current reality.
“Another problem for sports psychology in German football at the moment is that there is still a stereotypical, conservative image of psychological work in a high-performance context,” Christoph Herr, the coordinator of psychology at the German soccer federation (DFB), told DW.
“That’s why it’s very important how we publicize our trustworthy work. It’s not always about us being louder, it’s about listening more closely to our experienced colleagues who are established in football.
“And I would sometimes like to see fewer sweeping statements and more collegial, ethical behaviour. Then the image of sports psychology wouldn’t be so distorted.”
Another thing often forgotten is that it’s only been five years since the DFB made sports psychologists compulsory at academies — and that time included a global pandemic. With that in mind, progress has been solid, with Herr saying he increasingly hears academy bosses talking about sports psychology with an extensive concept behind their words.
Naturally, some old-fashioned approaches remain, but Herr believes one of the best things sports psychology in German football can do now is to become more involved with the decision-makers in the game.
“We don’t have the only correct truth, but rather want to enter into dialogue with coaches and decision-makers [through training and further education]. The involvement of sports psychologists and psychological expertise within the football system is fundamental to the healthy development of young people. Raising awareness of this should be promoted during the ongoing development of sports psychology. Some clubs are supplementing this topic with additional modern coach developers.”
Growing demand for sports psychology
The field has long evolved beyond the firefighter role it’s often reduced to, but German academies are not yet ready to meet that demand, often because of cost or a lack of knowledge.
Timo Heinze is one of two academy sports psychologists at Leverkusen and has worked with some of the best young players in Germany. For Heinze, a former player himself, the change has not been rapid, but it is happening.
“Compared to many professional fields in football, we are still in the relatively early stages,” Heinze told DW. “However, the quantity and quality of sports psychology is growing from season to season, and I am convinced that this trend will continue in the future. The need is there and is also recognized by clubs and managers. Compared to other areas of a player’s football performance such as technique, tactics or athleticism, mental skills certainly offer the greatest potential for development.
“In the end, it’s about the players. It’s about creating a space in which their mental health is protected in the best possible way despite the tough business of football. It’s about bringing them closer to individual solutions in different areas of life in the sense of holistic personal development. And, of course, to show them ways in which they can improve their performance through mental strategies.”
Invest, expand, specialise
Employing more sports psychologists is absolutely necessary, particularly in women’s youth football given, as Johanna Belz highlighted, more psychological provision was required there. But changes to the environment are also necessary to improve psychological safety.
“Why does a person often have to deal with hundreds of problems when they could actually focus on the essential issues by improving the environment?” Herr asked.
Another suggested improvement has been educational reforms, although Belz felt she got a lot of opportunities to learn more than just the theory through the 100 contact hours required to complete the course. She did, however, notice a deficit in her abilities at the end of the qualification and so completed a course with the goal of learning conversation techniques so as to feel more capable in the job.
But the German soccer federation appears to have recognized some of these gaps, firstly by offering a specific six-month course to sports psychologists working in football in recognition of the unique demands of the sport. And secondly, by introducing six regional hubs so that sports psychologists from different academies can meet and exchange ideas.
Sports psychology in German football has made strides in the short time it has been compulsory, but like any constantly evolving field it’s greatest challenge now is to keep up. If it can, there is every reason to believe a more multidimensional, holistic approach is possible.