Alan Tonge Interview: Mind-Management, Critical Moments & Sports Psychology

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From a very young age, Alan Tonge dreamed of playing professional football. In 1986, he realized his childhood ambition when he signed for Manchester United on associate schoolboy forms. Alan then played on a regular basis for Manchester United’s A, B and Reserve teams and made a first team appearance in a friendly at Histon.

After 5 seasons, he left Old Trafford. In 1991, he joined Exeter City who were playing in the old third division (now League One). Following the transfer, Alan played several times in the first team but in 1996, disaster struck. He faced the fact that he would have to retire prematurely after battling a severe spinal injury for around 18 months. After two operations, and at only 24 years old, Alan was informed that it was unlikely he would regain the full fitness needed to perform at a professional level. 

Following his retirement and a period of being lost, Alan decided to undertake a degree in Sports Science at the University of Bolton. He has since acquired a PGCE (teaching qualification) and a Master’s Degree in Philosophy. In 2013, he started his PhD at Liverpool John Moores University. His doctoral research focused on the topic of ‘Exploring Critical Moments, Identity and Meaning Amongst UK Professional Football Players’. 

As well as doctoral level study he is currently a Sports Lecturer at University College of Football Business (UCFB), which is a higher education institution based at The Etihad and Wembley Stadium offering degrees and education within sport and business in football. 

Last week, I got in touch with Alan who very kindly agreed to speak to me about the nature of his work. In contemporary society, there is added emphasis on the mental side of the game. In comparison to previous generations, athletes are now recognizing that to achieve success in sport, the mental side is as equal, if not superior, to the physical aspect of sport. Here is our conversation. 


Morning Alan. Can you tell me about signing for United? What were the emotions you felt signing as a schoolboy in 1986? 

Morning Jimmy. It was just a feeling of pure happiness and joy when I signed for Manchester United: total exhilaration. I had a trial over a Christmas period and at the end of the trial, Joe Brown, who was the youth development officer at the time, said that Man Utd would like me to sign for them. It was incredible as not many players get this opportunity. I remember getting home that afternoon, bursting through the front door and telling my Mum and Dad. That feeling is a moment that will last forever. 

In contrast to that exhilaration, when you received the news you would have to retire as a footballer, how did you feel?  

It was very difficult to take. From a young age, football was a huge part of my life. I was just starting to break into the first team at Exeter City and was resurrecting my career when I felt pins and needles down the side of my leg which went into my feet. I played on with it for a while, as I was chasing a new contract. Looking back, this was a totally stupid thing to do and the surgeon did mention later I could have paralyzed myself, but when football is your life, you grit your teeth, knuckle down and get on with it, hoping it will go away. I won’t be the first player to try and play with an injury and I won’t be the last! After a number of weeks, however, the pain was getting worse and worse, so I decided it was time to report it and go and see the physio. He sent me for an MRI scan which revealed that my lower spinal area was in a complete mess. A couple of my discs had slipped forwards and I needed two operations to correct it. I had to have screws and plates put in, and sadly that was that as far as my professional football career was concerned.  

That must have been difficult to come to terms with?

It was. It was very tough indeed. Back then there was no sport psychologists or real support mechanisms in place, so I had to face this monster shock to the system on my own. I was totally lost and didn’t know what to do next. 

What influenced your decision to pursue a career in sports psychology? 

When I retired from football, and after a period of self-examination, I decided to go back into education and do a sports science degree. The sport psychology modules were the modules I found the most interesting. 

Can you tell me about your studies and PhD? 

My PhD is based around issues that a player faces on a more frequent basis within the world of professional football. These have been termed as critical moments. Most academic research within the area of transitions has focused on end points such as retirement or exiting the game. This is too late. I believe there is a need to examine what players go through regularly (on a day to day basis) and how these issues can affect their identity. 

What do you think are the benefits of psychology in sport with regards to players who suffer injury or players who suffer loss of form? 

A critical moment provides a player with an opportunity for learning and self-development. It can give them an opportunity to examine who they are, what they want and how they are going to get there. A primary issue is that the majority of footballers see themselves as footballers and nothing else. It is imperative that they develop a richer, broader identity. In turn, this can help them deal better with the shocks to the system and gain self-knowledge. 

How important, do you think, is mind management in modern sport? 

It is very important. Having said that, I still think football is not as advanced as it should be. As sport psychology is hard to measure, it can be difficult to really prove its worth; many unqualified people, or charlatans have blagged their way in. This must be stopped. Maybe the work that I’m doing and have done within my PhD will help coaches/support staff to understand better player issues and help get more effective support in. 

What are some of the main mental techniques you try to impart with players? 

There are many tried and trusted sport psychology techniques that are used primarily. That is what the sport psychology degrees and modules focus on. These are areas such as imagery, self-talk, concentration skills and techniques which help a player to relax. I think these are very important skills and they have their place; however, it can be argued that elite level players have already acquired many of these skills as they have moved through the levels and they want something else. 

Finally, what is your stance on Jose Mourinho? Is he the man to bring back the glory days? 

I hope he is. However, I think many supporters are starting to ask questions. Fair enough, we have won the Europa League and the League Cup under him, but the supporters want to be challenging for the title and the Champions League again. If we do not start the new campaign well and are off the pace at Christmas, it is possible he could be under pressure and his job could be under threat. 

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