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Exploring Clean on the Pitch

Wellbeing coach Duncan O’Brien, Mental Skills lead at South Shields Football Club’s International Academy of Football, is developing footballers’ awareness and capabilities for playing at their best using some innovative approaches.  Doris Sew Hoy finds out what he’s been doing.


Having a positive mental attitude is key to performing at your best, and especially so in competitive team sports like football.  South Shields FC’s International Academy currently consists of 14 post-graduate students from countries including Mexico, Korea, and Canada.  Many players completed their undergraduate studies in the USA on football scholarships and are now studying for a Masters’ degree at Sunderland University as part of the football academy.  Their mornings are reserved for academic studies, with football training in the afternoons.  

“It’s all about giving the players exposure to British football, which is a higher standard than in America.  And it’s a different culture to be exposed to, and different playing styles,” says Duncan O’Brien, who leads the weekly Mental Skills sessions.  His sessions are aimed at helping players find what O'Brien calls "that sweet spot" of being in the zone or flow state, where there is a seamless bridging between reality and fresh creativity and is key for high performance in a sport such as football.

O’Brien used to play as a semi-professional footballer in his student days at Loughborough University where he also completed his Ph.D. in chemistry.  After taking time out to travel and see the world, he returned to the North-east of England where he grew up and decided to move his career to become a physical and well-being coach.  Speaking about his role at the Academy, he says, “For me, it feels like it brings together a lot of the things I've learned professionally over the past 12 years since getting into personal training and coaching.”

As well as introducing players to practices that he’s found useful such as mindfulness meditation, he has been experimenting with more innovative approaches using Clean Language and Emergent Knowledge processes.  These processes, created by New Zealand psychotherapist David Grove, uses assumption-free question structures to encourage people to explore further whatever they are thinking about with minimal interference or influence from the person asking the questions.

One such Emergent Knowledge process which O’Brien has been trialling is called Clean Space, which involves physically moving to different spaces to consider how one’s perspective can change and produce new information and insights.

O’Brien took the players, together with their coach, onto the football pitch, moving them round six different “spaces”, starting with being in the dug-out where the subs sit.  “All the players were in agreement here as none of them wanted to be there,” said O’Brien, “except for the coach, who said that this is where he normally is.”

From there, the team moved to the centre circle, then to the box area next to the goal, and to the left side and then right side of the box.  At each space, he asked them a few “Clean” questions such as “What do you know about football from here?”  He wanted the players to explore what it was like being in those different spaces, and to learn from each other’s perspective.  “It was really interesting to hear the range of responses, often reflecting the position they normally played and whether they were in a defending or attacking mode,” O’Brien observed.  

“For example, the goal-keeper shared a new appreciation of how small the pitch is compared to being in the goal area where he normally is, with it all out in front of him.  A defender said how it felt good to be in the centre circle, how he felt more relaxed.  A forward said how he felt the weight of responsibility on himself after having his team-mates get the ball up to him around the box,”  he said.  “I think it was probably the first time players who were used to playing as strikers were hearing what it was like being a defender, and vice versa.”

O’Brien was also intrigued by the responses from the coach, who was also participating in the Clean Space exploration process.  “The coach noticed how uncomfortable he felt when standing in the defensive right back position.  Being a left-footed kicker, he normally plays on the left side.  And when I invited him to flip into an attacking mode from that same space, there was a change in his body language and energy. In this more familiar position, the coach said he felt he had an advanced opportunity to show a few of his skills and swing the ball into the box,” O’Brien recalled. 

From this initial exploration, O’Brien plans to experiment further with the team using other iterations of Clean Space on the pitch.  “It’d be interesting to see what we can learn from doing a full ‘dress rehearsal’ on the pitch with players all dressed in their full kit, and standing in their more normal positions,” mused O’Brien.  “Like in a dress rehearsal of a theatre performance, we could check out scenarios with players playing at their best in their positions and executing different strategies.”

Clean Space is based on two underlying principles in Emergent Knowledge - that people know more than they think they know, and that there is psycho-active power in the physical environment.  At the core of his mental skills training is O’Brien’s belief that when players are given the space and time to reflect, they develop a greater awareness about themselves and the impact of their behaviour on others. 

“It’s about opening up perception and awareness for the players, enabling them to find their sweet spot and be in flow,” he says.  His belief resonates with principles inherent in Clean Language and Emergent Knowledge, where the spirit of non-judgment and curiosity are key to unlocking human potential and performance. 


Duncan O’Brien studies Clean Language and Emergent Knowledge at The Clean Coaching Centre

Doris Sew Hoy is an accredited Clean Coach with The Clean Coaching Centre, and is author of Trust Yourself First: Cultivating Self-Awareness, Confidence and Resilience, available on Amazon

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