The psychology of playing behind closed doors: How Sheffield United can thrive inside an empty stadium

He calls it ‘The Five a Day’ - a series of questions that elite level athletes, and probably folk employed in other lines of work, should ask themselves to achieve the right performance mindset.

Sunday, 10th May 2020, 3:12 pm

But Steve Sylvester believes his creation, which has helped deliver results across a variety of different disciplines, can serve another purpose too. As Sheffield United prepare to complete their Premier League schedule behind closed doors because of the coronavirus crisis, the former professional cricketer and one-time footballer believes it also provides a template for Chris Wilder’s squad to follow as they attempt to qualify for Europe.

“There are huge challenges to it,” he says, insisting many observers still fail to recognise how difficult it will be for players to compete inside empty stadia. “Part of doing what they do is being out there in front of a crowd, playing for a crowd in fact, so a part of their identity is being taken away by the lack of people.”

Sylvester is fascinated by the mind and the mental aspect of sport. A chartered psychologist, he has worked closely with teams including the West Indies, Middlesex CCC and AFC Wimbledon since packing away his whites around two decades ago. The 51-year-old is also a familiar figure behind the scenes at Bramall Lane, having been drafted in by Wilder on several occasions during United’s journey from the third to the first tier of the English game in the space of only three seasons.

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Five points outside the Champions League places when the fixture calendar was suspended in March, the anticipated ban on spectators poses particular issues for a side whose climb to seventh in the table has, by its manager’s own admission, been fuelled by the passion of its support.

Sylvester appreciates the difficulties. He understands why, as they contemplate the prospect, United’s players and coaching staff might be concerned about the effect losing one of the most powerful weapons in their club’s armoury might have upon results. But Sylvester remains convinced, providing they adhere to certain key principles, that Wilder and his players can achieve even greater levels of intensity despite losing the backing of their followers.

“For me, asking those ‘Five a Day’ questions becomes even more important now,” he explains. “They’re are ‘Listen’, ‘Smile’, ‘Have Fun, ‘Effort’ and ‘Give’. That’s a big one, what can you give to the team, especially behind closed doors.

“They’re not going to be entering an alien environment, because footballers actually play a lot of matches in front of no one when you think about it, during training and such like. And they all clearly know to play football as well.

Steve Sylvester is a huge admirer of how Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder (above) prepares his team's mentally and physically: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

“But there will be a stress to it, even though there’s not going to be anyone watching, because there won’t be a crowd for them to feed off as usual. That’s the bit a lot of people on the outside, as it were, probably don’t quite grasp. When matches take place behind closed doors, it’s not just about intensity, there’s also going to be an issue with stress.”

Sylvester goes into further detail as he expands upon this theory.

“What it will require is a new way of thinking. Crowds can facilitate, as we’ve seen so many times at United for example, but they can also debilitate. We’ve seen that too.

“What I mean is that, when a ground is quiet, that’s not usually a good sign. That’s the association, isn’t it. And obviously, if there’s no one sat in the stands, then it’s going to be quiet.

The towering stands of the 42,477-capacity Jeonju World Cup Stadium stood empty on May 8 as South Korea opened football's post-coronavirus era without fans, but with an unprecedented international TV audience: UNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

“Because quietness isn’t usually a good indication of how things are going, if something goes wrong then correction, being able to put it right, can be hard.

“That, as far as I’m concerned, is going to be the biggest test for footballers in this situation. Not when things are going well and you find yourself a goal up early on. But when things don’t go according to plan and you’ve got to make adjustments.”

After making a partial return to training towards the end of last month, Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill have already started the process of ensuring United are ready for a return to action, with June 8 being mooted as a possible restart date.

“One of the great things about Chris and all the people at United is that they look to tick every single box,” Sylvester reveals. “They leave no stone, absolutely none, unturned.”

Sheffield United's players hope to return to Premier League action, albeit behind closed doors, next month: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

Although much of the talk among ex-professionals, commentators and coaches has focused on the physical hurdles players must overcome following what would be a 12 week break in competition, Sylvester suspects they are guilty of ignoring the mental obstacles.

“I really think it would be a good idea to give them all a psychological MOT if you like,” he says. “How much are they smiling? How much are they laughing, compared to what they’re usually like as individuals, when they come back in?

“You’ve got to appreciate that a lot of uncertainty has built up during this period. Just as fans have been wondering if the season is going to get finished, and when that might happen, the players have been worrying about the same things too. All of that needs breaking down and understood.

“But again, this is where Chris and his staff are so good. Because they know their players and their individual characters inside out.”

Emphasising the importance of planning - “You need to see how this stress, in this scenario, impacts on individuals with the team, the different units within it, and the group as a whole” - Sylvester highlights some of the methods United could employ to maintain the momentum they had built up before football entered lockdown.

“I’d be asking how can we get those intensity levels even higher? How can we be even more hungry than before? Is there a deeper purpose to what we do? Can we play for our community, which has suffered a lot of pain through this period? It’s all about generating that intensity and being able to correct something before the staff have to step in.”

Psychologist Steven Sylvester, pictured at Bramall Lane, has worked closely with Sheffield United and their manager Chris Wilder: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“On a practical level,” he continues, “There are also things that you can do. Playing behind closed doors might be difficult to mimic but perhaps you could have a training session, or a few training sessions, where no one speaks at all.

“The teams who do best in this situation are going to be the ones who recognise the challenges and talk about them properly. Not just pay lip service to them.

“You’ve got to really talk about it. Not just talk about it a bit.”

Two of United’s top-flight rivals boast recent experience of playing behind closed doors. Sylvester believes their contrasting fortunes highlights why it is vital players learn to embrace the new ‘normal’ and do their research.

“Manchester United and Wolves both had to do it in the Europa League. Manchester United won (beating LASK Linz) 5-0 and they were so sharp.

“Wolves drew (with Olympiacos) and although that was a good result, they went in with a slightly different mindset because quite a few people there had made it clear they didn’t really want to do it.”

Sylvester represented Nottinghamshire and Middlesex during his cricketing career, having previously been a member of Oxford United’s youth team. A published author, his ability to help individuals fulfil their potential in often highly pressurised situations has been utilised by Wilder on several occasions since his appointment in 2016.

“The great thing about Chris, and why I know the boys at United can handle this, is that he’s managed to create this wonderful ethos where the group always gets put first,” Sylvester says. “He’s generated that and they’ve pushed it right to the forefront of everything they do.”

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Players, substitutes, managers and officials wore facemasks on the touchline when Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Suwon Samsung Bluewings faced each other at Jeonju World Cup Stadium following the resumption of South Korea's K League 1: Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images
Sheffield United expect they will be forced to play behind closed doors when Premier League football returns, because of the coronavirus pandemic: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images