Sheffield United: A leading psychologist explains how supporters and Chris Wilder’s ‘rock stars’ can work in tandem to make their dreams come true

Sheffield United's supporters really do have a crucial role to play, says Steven Sylvester: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Sheffield United's supporters really do have a crucial role to play, says Steven Sylvester: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Steven Sylvester knows all about pressure. In fact, he has made it his business.

The former cricketer turned psychologist recognises sporting excellence too, having made first class appearances for both Nottinghamshire and Middlesex before going on to work closely with the West Indies.

So three days ago, after being invited in a personal capacity to watch Sheffield United play Millwall, Sylvester was fascinated by what he witnessed. It revealed, the 50-year-old explained, how previously carefree players can find themselves consumed by an occasion. And perhaps more importantly, given the nervous tension inside Bramall Lane, why talk of a crowd being their team's 12th man is more than just a cliché.

"Players and fans, it's all part of the same system," he explained last night. "The two think the same things, they feel the same things and they're part of the same framework. 

"So if there's a positive atmosphere inside the ground, then the people on the pitch are going to feel positive about themselves. If it's negative, then the same thing applies. It's not a case of anyone being at fault. Simply a recognition that everyone is part of the same process if you like. That there's things we can all do to help each other."

Last weekend's game, which finished all-square after Jake Cooper's 94th minute equaliser cancelled-out Gary Madine's opener for the hosts, left United three points behind second-placed Leeds with four matches remaining.

For a squad approaching the end of only its second season in the Championship following six in League One, even being in with a shout of automatic promotion is a remarkable achievement. But, with United's losing all eight of the play-off campaigns they have previously been involved in, the thought of trying to take that particular route to the Premier League inevitably fills some folk with dread.

Intriguingly, if Wilder's squad are unable to overhaul their rivals from Elland Road, Sylvester believes the best course of action would be to confront that record head on.

"I definitely wouldn't avoid that," he said. "I know people will be thinking 'why are you talking about that?' But why not be the team that does things differently? You don't want to be stuck in a world of hurt and pain. Celebrate what you're achieving and then change that record.

"You need to know history because history is everything. But I'd be reminding people, this is a different group of players with a different manager."

Sylvester, whose clients also include some of the world's leading snooker players, thinks it is important to embrace culture and identity too. Acknowledging fear is inevitable when the stakes are high, his pioneering methods focus on ensuring individual sportsmen and women realise they are actually a part of something much bigger.

"If you came to me and said you were worried about the situation, I'd say that's normal," he continued. "When the end is in sight, people usually start to think about what might go wrong. My response would be to actually think less."

"Think about how you can serve the the team and the club? Concentrate on mastering your art because it helps the team as well.," Sylvester added. "You have to be selfless because you're here to serve.

"People always under-estimate the power and the importance of being a community. It sounds strange but don't think about winning or losing. Just think how can you entertain the crowd or, if you're actually a part of that, how can you help the community. Allow your body to do your job and allow your head to serve the club."

Sylvester used events against Millwall to illustrate exactly what what he means.

"Never under-estimate the importance of culture," he said. "Obviously the club has been through some pain in the past but it doesn't have to be self-fulfilling.

"Listen, those boys are within a gnats' breath of the automatic promotion places in only their second year back. That's an amazing amount of progress in that time.

"I appreciate how difficult it is to cross that white line. Millwall sat in and even Barcelona might have struggled to break them down. It's about bringing all these moving parts together and making them work in tandem.

"It's important to remember issues might not always have anything to do with football. Remember, there's a great manager here, great staff and a fantastic set of players who have no reason to feel anything other than good about themselves."

Wilder, a lifelong United supporter and former player, has spoken in the past about the importance of ensuring his team reflects the values of the city as a whole.

"The attitude in Yorkshire is very uncompromising," Sylvester said. "In a good way. It's about honesty, hard work and delivering. If you don't show what, then you can very quickly become a villain.

"So, if you're a player in that and you were sat in front of me, I'd be saying 'Put down your own ego. Think about what it means to be a part of that community. If you do your job, then the crowd will love you. The noise is a reward for you giving something back.

"In summary, its about getting out of the way of yourself and recognising that you don't actually need anything. It's about knowing that crossing that line is difficult, accepting mistakes will happen and embracing them, but just making sure you recover quicker. And finally, remembering you are there to serve an entertain."

"Go out there and be a rock star," Sylvester added. "If we bring it all together then people can set a new dawn. I always tell the players to feel like they're rock stars. Love it. And if they're bringing friends or family, tell them to be heroes too."