TGG Podcast #44 - Sally Needham: Human development at Sheffield United

SALLY NEEDHAM is the Human Development and Performance Culture Lead at Sheffield United's Academy.

Before joining the Blades full-time in April this year, she worked for the Football Association for more than 15 years as a coach developer and skills programme leader.

On Episode #44 of the TGG Podcast, Needham gave us the lowdown on her unique role. You can listen via the player below and read an edited transcript after that.


Sally Needham: Human development is around us understanding the players as humans and them understanding themselves. We’re caught up in a world where emotions and feelings are regarded as being bad or good; they’re not, they’re just emotions and feelings.

We do a lot of work on breath, mindfulness, journalling, yoga. We look at the fact they will have ups and downs, times they’re not feeling great, but how do they get their mood back up, what works for them?

Every individual we have is totally different and we have to ask why. If a player is losing their head and getting sent off, why? What does the behaviour tell us? We have to separate the behaviour from the child.

The other day when we had an Academy player make a first-team appearance. If we hadn’t given him an understanding of himself then I’m not sure he’d have been able to cope with that experience.

He had his strategies - his sleep the night before, his journaling, knowing about his breathing. He knew he would feel nervous, because it’s normal, and we'd done some bits on laying some of the groundwork, so that when you’re having a different experience the nervous system is familiar with it.

We do a lot of visualisation. Your brain doesn’t know if you’re doing it or thinking it, so we can lay some patterns so the window of tolerance doesn’t shut. Then they can make better decisions, be more present, be more aware of what’s surrounding them and take the experiences in more.

When I first came in, people said to me, ‘What do you do?’ I said, 'Change perspectives.' When we have a child at 16, 17, who looks like they’re not bothered, often they are, but it's about brain development. Separate the behaviour from the child. What's the behaviour telling you? Let’s unpick it before making a judgement based on it.

I’ve not come through this system, I’m female and I come from a different background, so my lens is slightly different on brain and child development. I can give a different perspective. I do come from a coaching background though (Needham has the UEFA A Licence and Advanced Youth Award) and I think that helped the buy-in.

Part of my research for my Masters was the application of neuroscience in the Foundation Phase. Now I’m doing a Professional Doctorate in Elite Performance through the University of Central Lancashire and am trying to show that I can apply what the academic research tells us.

A lot of it has been about trial and error, what works and what doesn’t, what resources we can pull together for the boys. The biggest asset in this building is the staff, they are just so open to ideas.


We try to give the players bits of the science they can tap into, to help their mood, their performance, their wellbeing, their decision-making.

For example, when I first came into the Academy we did a lot on transitions. It got mentioned that it takes them (the scholars) until Christmas to settle in. Why is that? If you understand the neuroscience, about loss and grief in a circuit in the body and how that’s kicking in, you can help from a psychological safety point of view, so we’re not missing out on four or five months of development.

It's about them (the players) understanding and the coach understanding that as well; understanding that their brain doesn’t settle until the age of 24, 25. If you looked at it purely from a brain development perspective, you wouldn’t be making decisions on players until their mid-20s.

For me, I am trying to think what we can do to strengthen their window of tolerance to enable them to cope with whatever gets thrown at them later on, whether that’s in or out of football. I link really closely with the education team so they (the players) can cope with the demands of life and the game.

All of the boys have a peg with their name on in the changing room and a picture that represents their purpose for playing, their values and then a phrase. The boys have different trigger words, different images. They practice what works for them and what doesn’t.


(Needham has turned a changing room at the Academy into a mindfulness room).

This room has just recently been done and will still be a changing room on a weekend. It isn't a million-pound room, it’s somewhere the lads can chill out in. What we tell them is that we effectively have a break and an accelerator in our nervous systems. When we push on the accelerator too much we can have an imbalance. But when they’re in balance, their immune system, wellbeing and thinking work well.

We’ve got a colouring in-wall and a lot of the boys have their own mindfulness book. I had a text message the other day from a player who had left us and he did it (looking at his mindfulness book) before his debut, he took it in the changing room. He had felt nervous and this helped take him back to being present.

We’ve got some greenery and scenic pictures in here, because we know from neuroscience that this can release chemicals in the body that relax the nervous system. We’ve got some blankets, so the lads come in and chill out on the beanbags; we’ve got some mats and they do breathing, meditation and yoga. We also have the sound of running water and music coming out of the speakers.

They use the power of the breath to help the nervous system. We told the lads about (Erling) Haaland and meditation and how he uses it to stay connected to the game. The more we can stretch their window of tolerance the more concentration and focus they are going to have.

Every morning is breath work before they go into individual work. We’re also doing some stuff on sleep with Anna West.

The younger ones love it all. A lot of them do it in school, so it’s not new for them. We’ve had some real success stories in the Professional Development Phase too, where the ones that have really taken it on have had some real benefits.

However, unless we have a scanner to scan the brain I have to ask them to feel it, to believe it and to work with it.


Last week with pre-Academy we filmed the staff and did a little CPD session around connection before correction. We did a bit on the science and how you arrive, facial expressions, touch and how you use your tone of voice.

We said, 'We’re going to think about this just as much as we do the technical elements of the session.'

We filmed and mic’d the staff up, then sent them the footage and they came back and reviewed it. 'What do I need to do more of, what do I need to be more purposeful in?'

We've been doing some work with our PDP goalkeeper - around communication and observing the first-team keeper (Adam Davies). He put these reflections in his journal. He’s also going to a singing lesson on Thursday to try and understand about his tone of voice. Power of words - what you say, how you say it, when you say it, who says it, facial expressions - are all massive.

So too are reading cues and triggers. Our threat detection comes from our eyes to our mouths. You have to be curious about why people react as they do.

Conversation analysis is another area I’m really interested in. We have little square mics we can put in the GPS vests. We can analyse tone of voice, what they’re saying.

We are doing some bits around acting and how they play a role. What they are here will be different to what they are at home, which is the sociological theory of playing roles and impression management.

We’ve done a lot on journeys and had our older keepers explain their journeys, around how they felt in their emotions and what they did about them.

I had a conversation with our goalkeeper today and said, 'All my role is is to give you an understanding of these elements and bring them into your conscious awareness. I’ll support you, I’ll guide you and then I’ll let you go.'

I’d not had him in for a few weeks and he said, ‘Morning breath work in the car, afternoon breath work, journalling, colouring in. You’ve taught me well!’ I was like, 'Ah, perfect, let you go.'

For me, the small conversations you have are the most impactful, rather than the formal ones. I tend to stay at the training ground two nights a week and go round the staff and have a chat. We’ve got to the point where the staff will come to me. It’s giving them the knowledge and understanding, so that if I leave it can be sustainable.

Every member of staff is our psychologist.


We use a model of red and green zones to help them understand about decision-making and where they are in their thinking capacity.

I see a lot of players going into freeze response, so they disassociate from the game and ‘go missing’. These are physiological responses. We have to go back through fight and flight to get them thinking.

We do a lot of work sensing the emotions and then re-setting back to the green zone. Green means making good decisions, so you can scan, plan and reflect and give both non-verbal and verbal communication. In the red zone they will not give much eye contact, not give much verbal communication.

Red and green is a teaching model for the boys to be able to recognise it both in themselves and in each other. It allows them to have a concept to understand what’s going on. If you miss the first chance, recognise that frustration is normal, accept the emotion, feel it, work with it and go again.

Then, when the next chance comes along, you will read the triggers and make good decisions.

We had a talk recently - the first team and then the PDP - from a gentleman who was in the special forces (Steve Heaney). We've written one of his messages up on the wall - 'Feel the emotion, work off it, let it go, be present.'

If you have a negative experience, your brain says, 'I’m going to get you ready to protect yourself.' It’s all about safety. So your window of tolerance shuts slightly. It’s about understanding how you are and sensing in.

It’s about catching your thoughts. Are they helpful? What’s the science behind them? And then understanding what’s happening in your body. You can’t switch it off, you have to understand it and work with it.


Even though 'culture' is in my job title, it’s everybody’s responsibility and we’re all in it together.

What is our identity? We are clear on that. If you watch a Sheffield United team you can see it - 'out run, out fight, out play.' I think that’s clear in the vocabulary that’s used, the sessions that are delivered, the expectations, the habits and in the players we have.

We have steel in our behaviour, our teams relate back into our community, it’s all very grounded. We are a working-class city and the city replicates in here. We want the football club to reflect what the city is about.

It’s also about understanding your impact on the environment, so sociological as well. We took the boys to the Lake District for three days recently and they had to understand that their behaviour impacted others. If they completed the task and started running off, then the next person would do that as well.

Do you pick up your water bottles? Do you tuck your chair in after dinner? Do you drive other people on in training? It’s about understanding yourself as a person and then how that fits into the wider team and then us understanding those individuals as well.

Read more on:

PodcastSheffield United

More stories

Sign up to our newsletter to get all the latest news from The Guru