For the last few months, Leicester City have been scripting an underdog success story that has culminated with them clinching the English Premier League title.
The question everyone is asking is how a team battling relegation a season ago became EPL champions, that too with a bunch of players who were told they were not good enough by clubs at different points. N’Golo Kante was once deemed too small, Riyad Mahrez was considered lightweight, and Jamie Vardy was playing non-league football in 2012.
One man who is perfectly positioned to make sense out of Leicester’s unfathomable success this season is Ken Way, who has been the club’s performance psychologist since 2011.
“You can’t miraculously conjure up new skills or speed within a season. So, the main ingredient (behind Leicester’s run) is belief. The players started to realise, to believe, that they were capable of performing at a much higher level,” Way told HT in an email.
“Mental conditioning is vital at the elite level since there is a level playing field in terms of fitness, flexibility, nutrition, etc. So you have to find an advantage somewhere else,” added Way, who worked with squash player Dipika Pallikal in 2013.
In an era where most managers try and play mind games with rivals by making statements in the press, Leicester’s Claudio Ranieri has often come across as a simple man, reserving his messages for his players. A tactic the Italian famously employed to motivate his players to keep a clean sheet in EPL matches was to promise them pizza — a ploy which has since then become a routine at the club.
“Claudio would make a very good psychologist — he has a way with words, even in his non-native language, that have a big impact on his players. He has a wonderful way of combining serious goals, like clean sheets, but making them seem quite light to achieve. This is marvellous psychology,” Way asserted.
Ranieri cleverly downplayed his side’s chances of winning the title for most of the season, instead telling reporters that the target was staving off relegation by crossing the 40-point mark. Almost everyone expected the club’s spirited challenge to falter sooner or later. Way revealed it was only in February, when they beat Manchester City 3-1, that he and many others in the coaching staff actually started to believe they could go on to win the league.
Way has worked with EPL clubs like Derby County, Southampton and Hull City, but only at Leicester does his work involve one-on-one sessions rather than a mixture of group and individual sessions. He also says his work has actually been easier this season as opposed to the previous one, when they were battling relegation. When results starting going Leicester’s way, pressure decreased. He even took a vacation in the middle of the season.
So, now that the title is won, will his work get easier from next season?
“I anticipate that I will be working harder next season — not because I expect a performance drop, but because we have the added challenge of playing mid-week European matches which will bring other headaches,” Way said.
Just like they did in the EPL this season, Leicester may spring a surprise or two in Europe next season. The one guarantee though is that there will be more pizza on offer for the players and the staff.
“Claudio took us to an Italian restaurant the day after we won the title. However, as a true Italian, I anticipate that this will not be the last pizza we are offered!” Way added.