Leeds United are prepared for final promotion challenge

Liam Cooper says Saturday’s win showed Leeds United are in good shape mentally and physically – just as well because a leading expert says it is too late in the season for a sports psychologist to have much impact.

Liam Cooper. Picture: Steve Ellis

Three wins in their last 13 matches have called into question the Whites’ mental strength, and caused some to ask why coach Marcelo Bielsa refuses to employ a sports psychologist. Cooper’s former centre-back partner Pontus Jansson claimed he felt “mentally and physically tired” during last season’s run-in.

But there were no signs of nerves in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bristol City, which was far more convincing than the scoreline suggested, and no let-up as they pushed for a second goal right up until the final whistle. Leeds hit the crossbar twice, and visiting goalkeeper Daniel Bentley had to be on top form.

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“We always believe,” said Cooper. “We are confident in the way that we play, in our philosophy and we will keep going. This run-in is so important and we have got to be bang at it every week.

“We’ve just got to keep chalking the games off. Approach them in the right way, stick to the way we play, and what will be at the end of the season will be.

“We’ll be giving everything as we do every week with the intensity and fitness levels.”

Leeds went through an exhaustive pre-season to gear their small squad up for the rigours of the Championship, and Cooper has no concerns on that score – especially with promotion to the Premier League on offer.

“The boys are so fit, we recover well,” he said. “We’ve got a week until the next game (at home to Reading) and we’ll prepare properly for that.

“When you’re going as we are and you’ve got a chance to get out of this league, tiredness is not a thing. You’ve got so much to play for it could be a life-changing experience. To say we’re tired and burnt out is nonsense.

“If you saw the running stats you would see we run so much every single game and that’s the way it’s got to be. That’s what we pride ourselves on and that’s what we’ll keep doing.

“We see the legends plastered all over the walls at the club but we’ve got to approach it in the right way with the right mentality, be confident with each other. But why can’t we be remembered at this club forever?”

Simon Kawycz, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Liverpool Hope University, believes Leeds should already have a sports psychologist, but bringing one in at this stage of the campaign would not have the desired effect.

“The problem with bringing in a sports psychologist when a collective problem is identified late into a season, is that it’s potentially the wrong approach, in my opinion,” he said.

“If you’re going to employ sports psychology and use it effectively, it should be there from the very start of the season – even when things are going well. 

“When problems do then occur – if there’s a dip in performance or if athletes face challenges – then the support mechanisms are already in place and there’s existing knowledge of how to deal with these types of issues.

“If you’re bringing in a psychologist because you’re in a slump or you’ve lost a number of games and you’re trying to turn your season around, it may be hard for a psychologist to have a real impact in a short space of time. 

“This is not to say that it is not possible but the long-term benefits may not be fully realised.

“It should be embedded within the environment of the entire club with everyone involved in the club ‘buying into’ the process, all individuals can benefit from psychological support, even the coaches, support staff and those players who are already performing well.

“My opinion is that Leeds United should already have a sport psychologist, or access to sports psychology support, and that should be in place from pre-season all the way through the good times and the bad. And there are clubs out there who do have this support mechanism in place and who employ sports psychologists on either a full-time or consultancy basis.”

On Saturday Cooper made a point of praising goalkeeper Kiko Casilla, who kept his first clean sheet in 13 matches after having his place questioned by fans and pundits alike.

Casilla’s Sheffield Wednesday counterpart Keiren Westwood yesterday spoke out about social media “trolls” spreading rumours about him, and Kawycz says fan criticism is counter-productive.

“Criticising players – on the pitch or through social media – is rarely a positive thing in terms of their performance and the outcome for the team,” he said. 

“Players are going to be more concerned with not making a mistake than doing what needs to be done to win matches. 

“If they’re afraid to even have a go at doing something different or take a risk in the pursuit of success for fear of the fans turning on them, that’s going to inhibit the chances of success further. You’ll get passes sideways or backwards, rather than players taking a chance and going forward, because the player will ultimately seek to avoid scrutiny or make mistakes”