The Clarets’ head of psychology, Jennifer Lace, speaks to Alex Vryzakis about the issues she has previously faced being the club’s only female sports psychologist, and how she has overcome any doubts in her role.
From the moment Jennifer Lace bounds into a room, curls swinging and teeth gleaming, it’s clear she refuses to make excuses for who she is. That includes how she looks, “As a woman, your look can reflect the kind of person you are, and people are quick to judge.”
Indeed, Lace couldn’t have picked a more judgemental workplace to enter. As Burnley Football Club’s only female sports psychologist, she’s had to work hard to establish herself as a respected and trusted member of the sports science team.
Joining the club four years ago, aged 20, meant there was a steep learning curve. “There are guys at the club who have been there from way before I was even born!” she emphasises, flashing another winning smile. There is an infectious quality to the way she expresses herself, and it’s easy to see how she was able to adapt so well despite a bumpy, and somewhat tragic, start to her career.
While completing her masters degree in Sports Psychology at the University of Chester, she was invited by Burnley to help out after a player attempted suicide. “There I was,” she says, furrowing her brow, “in the midst of my master’s degree, not fully qualified, definitely not a clinical psychologist and being thrown into the deep end.” Shrugging her shoulders, she explains that football clubs tend to delegate responsibility rather than tackle issues head on, and hiring her was the easier option. Though this may seem shocking, it makes sense. Football clubs are no different to companies when it comes to cost-cutting measures, even when it comes to the mental wellbeing of their players.
The issue of mental health has been a driving force for Lace, having herself suffered from an eating disorder during her time as an amateur trampolinist. She was also friendly with some of Everton’s youth team and saw issues within them that mirrored her own. “It was a combination of personal experience and seeing friends in sports encountering problems. I understood that psychological problems are a hidden part of sports.”
In football though, it seems that it’s women who find it hardest to establish themselves. Though the Women’s World Cup in Canada two summers ago raised the profile of women within the sport, every inch forward seems to be met with reluctance.
Lace found that something as simple as a meeting in the club’s canteen represented an obstacle to be overcome. “The canteen is a place where every member of staff, all male, and every first team player – who are also all male – gathers.” Her eyes widen as she remembers the feeling of entering the testosterone-filled room, an intangible sensation of not quite belonging. “The only other female in the room was the dinner lady!” She giggles as she says these last words, but it’s clear that the incident was difficult for her.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons with Gibraltar-born Eva Carneiro, Chelsea’s much-maligned ex-first team doctor who was subjected to José Mourinho’s wrath live on air, for simply attempting to do her job. Lace’s mere presence in the canteen changed the dynamics to such an extent that she felt everyone stare openly at her. She sighs angrily, “You become a talking point when you haven’t even opened your mouth yet.”
The simple fact of being female in a footballing environment becomes a point of contention, and Lace quickly realised that she was entering a world where women can be dismissed for their gender alone. How much could being female possibly affect one’s understanding of a game involving 22 men and a ball on a bit of grass? In the mind of many veterans, greatly. She found out that one coach had told management he wouldn’t work with her. “He explained that it was because I was young and a similar age to the players, but also because I was female. What can you say to that?”
It wasn’t just members of staff that had their reservations though. While younger players seemed to easily accept her position as an authority figure, the senior players resisted her arrival. “I was rejected outright, which was quite tough.” It was only through gradually helping the player she had originally been brought in to assist that she managed to gain players’ trust. “Word got round and travelled to the other players, and I developed a good reputation.”
Lace remains staunchly uncompromising when it comes to her sense of self, within reason. “I’m a girly girl. But let’s say I go to the club having done my hair, I have to be prepared to be on the training ground getting rained on and not be bothered in the least.” People she meets in social situations where she’s dressed to the nines rarely believe she even works in football, but that’s just a reflection of how far society still has to go. That’s not Lace’s problem.
Her face lights up as she confidently beams, “In the end, if the players feel you’re an asset and you’re seeing positive change, the personal barriers become insignificant.”
Follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexVryzakis