Applying sports science

Paul in action for Norwich
Paul in action for Norwich

David Hennessy talks to former Spurs, Norwich and Northern Ireland striker Paul McVeigh about his Sports Science company ThinkPro who are using new methods to measure emotional intelligence. These methods can tell a football club whether a player has the mental capacity to succeed before spending a huge transfer fee.

To succeed and perform at sport’s highest level takes more than just ability. This has been evident to Paul McVeigh since before his time coming through the ranks at Tottenham Hotspurs and playing in the Premiership with Norwich City. It is mental attitude that makes the difference in sustaining a long career in elite sports.

Sportsmen and women can now be measured in emotional intelligence, giving football clubs an indication of how mentally strong a possible new recruit is, or how they need to improve. A new tool, called Emotional Intelligence Sports Inventory, or ESi, developed by RocheMartin, can measure this and hence give clubs an indication of who they are signing.

Paul McVeigh, whose ThinkPro sports science company has partnered with RocheMartin and has the use of this tool, believes this is a big step forward for the industry: “This is quite groundbreaking in sports science, especially in sports psychology because you could then have a very, very clear picture of what a player’s like before you even sign him. If that’s not worth the money of the ESi, I don’t know what is. You could get it and go, ‘his scores are absolutely terrible, at least we know that and we can make an informed decision’ rather than going, ‘I’ve seen him play four or five times, his family look okay’ but then you don’t realise he’s got these different problems that come out later down the line.

“I just want everybody to be using it because I think everybody should be using it. That’s one of the big drives I have going forward now.”

Paul, from Belfast, started in Tottenham’s youth system. He would make three first team appearances for Spurs before departing for Norwich where he scored goals to propel them to the Premier League. Paul would make 215 appearances for Norwich in a spell that ran from 2000 to 2007. Spells at Burnley and Luton came before he returned to the Canaries to finish his career.

“In nearly 20 years in professional football, not once was I ever psychologically evaluated.

“No one ever sat me down and put me through a series of tests or measurements or anything. Physically, I was measured every single day.

“Even when I was coming over on trials before I was 16 and I saw some of the players who were just so unbelievably talented and just nowhere near fulfilled their potential.

Paul works with Crystal Palace Academy last season
Paul works with Crystal Palace Academy last season

“Then I was playing with players who were in my youth team who definitely should have gone on to be Premier League players if not just professional footballers. At the end of it, I think it was only three or four out of our youth team that went on to have successful long term careers. That is really mind blowing because some of the players that I played with had more ability in their little toe than I had in my entire body. How can they at the age of 20, 21 not even be in professional football, never mind not playing in a first team?

“For me, the only reason why they didn’t fulfil their potential is purely the psychology or their mindset or their attitude or their mentality. It doesn’t really matter what word you put on it, whatever is going on in their head because technically they were far and away fantastic players, far better than most of the people not only in our team but in the league.

“It’s all about having a long term career. I had three appearances for Spurs first team and then got a series of rejections over the next three or four years so making the debut at 19 and then not really establishing myself in Norwich’s first team until 22, that’s three years of pretty much reserve football. At any stage, I could have called it a day and said, ‘it’s too much, I don’t want it’ but it was only down to my attitude and what was going on in my head: My resilience, my determination, self belief, confidence, optimism. I was so determined that I wanted to be a professional footballer.

“The problem is still to this day most players don’t work on their psychological approach to games.”

ESi has been used with the England rugby team and the Australian cricket team for years: “All the other sports, all the other disciplines around the world are using this and yet when it comes to football, no matter how advanced they are in terms of sports science and data, when it comes to the mental side, it’s still a massive massive area for potential growth.”

ThinkPro have worked with Norwich City’s youth team helping them to the FA Youth Cup. The company and Paul have also worked with Crystal Palace and continue to do so. They have also worked with a championship club but can’t reveal which one due to a confidentiality clause being signed.

In addition to his background in football, Paul has a degree in Sports Science from the University of Manchester, and has since specialised in sports psychology: “I had a good understanding of the area without being an expert in terms of the academic side but obviously my expertise in the fact of playing in the Premier League and international football, what I always felt was missing was that academic element of our offering.

“For me, that was always the huge element that was missing. I think everyone is in agreement that the mental side is huge and yet so little work is going into it.

“Over the last couple of years, that was always in the back of my brain, I needed something to try and fill that gap.”

An American soccer academy listen to Paul's knowledge and insights
An American soccer academy listen to Paul’s knowledge and insights

This gap was filled when Paul was told about Dr Martyn Newman of RocheMartin’s ESi: “It suggests the ten key mental emotional competencies. Their research suggests these ten competencies are all displayed throughout elite performance, no matter what sport, no matter what age, pretty much from an elite level and that elite circumstance means from college athlete up to professional and international athlete.

“When I say competencies, they’re not personality traits. They’re not something you’re born with. These are called competencies, it’s a skill set, even something like optimism is a skill set. You can learn to become optimistic like the way you can learn to become confident like the way you can learn to become resilient, self reliant, all these different competencies. For my mind, that’s so important for a young player to know.

“These are all mental competencies and skill sets that you need to understand and learn and like anything, if you’re prepared for what you think is coming, then you have a better chance of dealing with it.

“I said, ‘this is the perfect piece to go in our jigsaw of what we can offer because now we can measure the players at the start of the season’. So this is exactly what we’re going to do with the Crystal Palace lads, we’ll measure them at the start of the season. Then at the end of the season, once we’ve tried to impact them and educate them and shown them what we believe is the right way for them to be training and applying themselves, then we’ll measure them again and now we have the scientific and sophisticated tool to be able to measure what’s going on in someone’s head.”

Although the sums may be different, ESi could be of use to teams in any division before they spend what  could be a large amount of money for their club: “If you’re going to spend that kind of money, why would you not  try and be as diligent as possible? The big clubs are now starting to put together these dossiers on potential players, to see what they’re like: What’s their family like? What sort of academic skills do they have? What do they do in their spare time? What do they get up to? Where do they live? All these kind of things and yet, it still does not measure what’s going on in their head.

“Everything I do is purely down to trying to help the players have a more proactive approach in terms of their thoughts and their mindsets because you’re never going to be able to control all the different things that happen to the players in their career but it’s never really about trying to control that because ultimately we can’t really control anything outside of ourselves. I think that’s the greatest point that most players don’t understand. It’s not necessarily what happens to them that is the most important thing, it’s how they think about it, it’s how they deal with it, it’s how they can try and turn a situation, not necessarily a very helpful situation, into something that they can learn from and use the next time that happens to them.”

Paul is puzzled by the attitude of some in football to sports science. Many clubs do not have full-time sports psychologists. Paul also mentions he spoke to a friend, a coach at a championship club, asking for a meeting with that team’s manager. The response was that the manager said he was ‘not really into all that’.

Paul says in response: “Every one of your players and staff are going to go into a match and they’re either going into that situation with a mentality or an attitude that’s going to help them achieve the result and their objectives or they’re going to have a mentality or a psychological approach that is going to detract from the result they’re going to get so either way, one is helpful, one is unhelpful.

“It’s not really a case of ‘I don’t really believe in all that’, it’s just a case of whether you’re going to prepare another part of the game that I think is hugely important.”

When The Irish World asks if that team happened to get relegated, Paul laughs: “No, but they were close.”

For more information on ThinkPro, go to:


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