Leadership Lessons From the Premier League: Six Things We Learned When We Spoke to Footballer Paul McVeigh

In this episode of the Workday podcast, we speak to footballer-turned-psychologist Paul McVeigh about his career in football, the psychology of high-performing teams, and what business leaders can learn about workplace culture from the Premier League.


Audio also available on SoundcloudApple Podcasts and Spotify.

When it comes to building a high-performance culture, there’s a lot that people-leaders can learn from the world of professional football. As one of the most competitive environments in the world, the difference between those who thrive in the Premier League and those who don't often comes down to mindset.

At Workday Rising EMEA in Barcelona, we were joined by Premier League footballer-turned-psychologist Paul McVeigh. Paul spent nearly 20 years playing top-flight football in the UK for teams including Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City, and Luton Town, as well as playing internationally for Northern Ireland. Following his playing career, he became the first Premier League footballer to qualify with a master's degree in psychology. 

Here are six things we learned…

1. Psychological wellbeing is the most important ingredient when it comes to creating high-performing teams

“I think it's everything,” Paul says. However, when he started his career in football the concept of psychological wellbeing was mostly unheard of. 

“It was the complete opposite of what it is today. There was none. You pretty much needed to go in and try to be the alpha male. You'd have to be the kind of old-fashioned leader, the one who was shouting the loudest, kind of beating their chest the loudest, beating their head against walls.”

2. A more data-driven approach transformed the world of professional football during Paul’s playing career

When Paul signed his first contract with Tottenham Hotspur in 1994, football was a very different profession to the one he left in 2010 when his career ended. And he thinks a lot of businesses are still stuck in the 90s.

“There's still so many people, so many companies and industries -- that's the way they do it. They push as hard as they can to try and squeeze every drop of productivity out of that person. And they go, right, thanks very much, as soon as they can't do it anymore. And that was exactly what professional football was like in the 1990s.” 

In 1994, Tottenham became one of the first teams in the league to hire a sports scientist. Fast-forward thirty years and Paul says football has changed a lot. “I actually left my role a couple of years ago as the sports psychologist at Crystal Palace. And just in the [youth] academy, there were two sports scientists, two strength and conditioning coaches, two physios, a masseur, a doctor, a nutritionist, a yoga teacher, me as the psychologist. You're just thinking it's miles away, miles apart.”

3. The best leaders give people the space to learn from their mistakes

And when it comes to learning from the best in the business, Paul looks no further than treble-winning Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. 

“In the footballing world today, there's probably no one better than Pep Guardiola when it comes to telling his players time after time, do it this way, and if you make mistakes, I'll keep backing you. And I'll keep rewarding you by putting you in the team even if you're making mistakes.”

4. One book changed Paul’s life

Early on in Paul’s career, a friend gave him a copy of Awaken the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins, which sparked his interest in psychology. 

“It just completely challenged every single thing that I ever thought, all the way down to being an Irish Catholic and just growing up in that world and going, just because I've been told that, is that something I need to believe?"   

“That was such a game-changer for me. I'm a 17-year-old kid. I'm not doing particularly well in the youth team. I'm not keeping up. What a surprise. I'm not keeping up athletically with these guys, because I just wasn't living the lifestyle. So my challenge was, how do I change my life so that I can achieve what I want to achieve, so I can be what I want to be, do what I want to do, and have what I want to have in my life?" 

“And Tony Robbins had it in his book where it's, essentially, your mindset will dictate what your life looks like.”

5. Culture is what separates high-performing teams from under-achievers  

During his career in football, Paul’s been part of successful and unsuccessful teams. For him, the key thing that set them apart from one another was culture. 

“And that's because the standards that are set every single day, as in all day, every day, will dictate whether you can be part of that [high performance] environment or actually, it's not for you.”

He gives the example of Champion’s League winner Paul Lambert, who managed Norwich City during Paul’s time at the club, as someone who always maintained high standards and cultivated a strong winning culture.

“He just wouldn't miss a beat. His observation skills across everything, he wouldn't let the standards slip by one second.”

6. As well as a footballer and a psychologist, Paul is a published author

To counter the misconception that footballers are stupid, Paul got himself a publishing deal. 

“It was when I finished playing in 2010 that, a year later, I went to Bloomsbury and I was like, I've got an idea for a book called The Stupid Footballer Is Dead, and this is what it's going to be about. And they ended up giving me a publishing deal.”

More Reading