Franco Baresi. Roberto Donadoni. Roberto Baggio. The names are synonymous with Milan’s emergence as a European superpower.
It is also etched in the memory of every Italian fan who witnessed defeats in the World Cup on penalties in 1990 and 1994.
All three talked about the shock they felt due to the missed penalty kicks. The three sought solace in the “Mind Chamber”, Italian football’s first psychological laboratory.
Backed by Silvio Berlusconi and praised by the succession of Milan managers from Arrigo Sacchi to Carlo Ancelotti, Mind Room has helped fuel an unprecedented run of success as the Rossoneri won 21 Grand Prix in the 23 years it’s been in business since 1986.
By combining stress relief therapy with cognitive training and neuroscience, the lab’s impact will be felt as far away as Chelsea, where its founder set up a similar group in 2009.
Things have come a long way since the plan for the first incarnation was drawn up, in a meeting between a soon-to-be Italian prime minister and an amateur karate champion.
Dr. Bruno Demichelis has been a student of martial arts since he was a young teenager. In 1971, when he was 24 years old, he was beaten up at an international karate competition by a lesser known Japanese competitor. He struggled to process the defeat and returned to Italy in search of answers.
“It wasn’t a technical issue or a physical issue; I was very fit and well trained. In the end, a friend of mine said to me: Is it a mental issue?” Presentation of the psychology of football In December 2020.
“I realized that I trained with the Japanese for a long time. They were no longer just coaches or masters to me. They were my heroes. Psychologically, you can’t defeat your heroes. It was self-sabotaging.”
Demichelis’ questioning sparked an interest in psychology. He eventually completed his Ph.D. in the subject and found work as a consultant for Fininvest, Berlusconi’s media group.
In February 1986 Berlusconi bought AC Milan. Sensing an opportunity, Demichelis arranged a meeting with the club’s new owner. It was a discussion that would change his life.
Demichelis’ speech was straightforward: I’ve seen the benefits of psychological support in the business world. Now apply them to football. Berlusconi’s response was equally direct.
“The owner asked me if I was a Milan fan,” says Demichelis, now 74.
“I said ‘No’. I remember he stepped back a bit and I thought ‘Oh no’. Then he asked me if I was an Inter fan. I said ‘No’ and went back a little bit. Before he asked the third question, I said: ‘I’m not a fan of any team!'”
After a two-and-a-half hour meeting, Demichelis was appointed as Milan’s scientific coordinator, making him the only psychologist in Serie A.
After a successful start at the club which saw him win the support of manager Arrigo Sacchi, Demichelis’ services were in high demand. Taking advantage of this opportunity, he secured an investment for an on-demand psychology laboratory based in Milanello, the club’s training ground. Mind Room was born.
Its purpose was twofold. First, Demichelis was allowed to run group sessions, satiating the Milan team’s growing appetite for psychological support. Second, it provided the opportunity to answer a question you’ve always grappled with: How do you try to scientifically identify and support a player’s psychological development, and relate that to performance on the field?
The Mind Room was part sanctuary, part mental training ground. Groups of up to eight members of the first team – who sat in state-of-the-art zero-gravity chairs – were connected to equipment including polygraphs, used to monitor indicators such as blood pressure and breathing rates. A glass gap separates the players from the industrious Demichelis, who was looking for physiological signs of the player’s mental state (or what he called “objective data in the ‘mental zone'”).
For example, if a player says they feel discouraged or lack confidence due to a muscle strain, Demichelis will perform an electromyogram (EMG) test to measure the electrical activity of the muscles.
The readings enabled him to identify conditions such as post-game “tightness” and take appropriate remedial actions, including carefully calibrated breathing training. By doing this, the mind room was not only aiding physical recovery and performance, but also supporting the development of psychological characteristics such as confidence.
Demichelis has also used the results of Mind Room tests to create cognitive exercises. These included the use of biofeedback devices, such as electrodes, which, when placed on a person’s scalp, can monitor the brain’s electrical activity. By seeing how an individual’s neurons behave, it becomes possible to focus on strengthening the synapses associated with skills such as problem-solving. This type of therapy is designed to help players recreate the kind of negative “inner talk” that can affect them in high-stress situations. Baresi, Baggio and Donadoni were among those treated.
“Someone said to me, ‘I dropped the ball and took three or four steps back,'” Demichelis says. Then a little thought came to my mind: What if I missed? ”
I started to look at the ball like a tiger. Then I looked at the coach: another tiger. Then I looked at the players and my teammates: another 21 tigers. Then I thought about the people watching at home. In an instant, I had 4 billion Tigers looking at me. I was shivering. I felt confused. I almost felt like crying.”
In addition to stress relief and cognitive training, Mind Room also focused on improving players’ reaction speeds using response time tests. Participants were provided with two buttons and a pair of LEDs, by pressing the left or right button if the corresponding LED was lit. Blinking arrows – often pointing in the opposite direction to the light that was on – were used to add a greater degree of difficulty to the examination.
Although the concept appears basic, reducing the time it takes players to respond to rapidly changing situations on the pitch – even by a few tenths of a second – has been seen as another way Milan could extend the careers of Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini. , who played until the age of 41.
“You can’t train 37-year-olds to be faster physically, but you can train them to be faster at analyzing situations,” Demichelis says.
“If they can process data more quickly, they can make faster decisions. That’s why we’ve been able to keep players going.”
Clarence Seedorf was the embodiment of this spirit. Nicknamed “The Professor” by his teammates, Seedorf regularly visited the Mind Room, which was considered a psychic “station” within a broader physical and mental “circle”, known as the Milan Laboratory. The Dutchman’s dedication to self-development would pay off in more ways than one.
“The general manager of the Milan Lab said to him, ‘Oh my God, you’re 31, but in terms of fitness you’re 26,'” Demichelis explains. Your biological age is much younger. “
“Give me this printout,” Seedorf said. He went to the CEO and said, ‘Listen to what your lab is saying about me.’ I’m 26, biologically speaking, so I extended my contract for another four years. “And they did!”
Seedorf’s age-defying physiology may have been aided by the six-minute daily health checks given by Demichelis, as part of his role as the club’s science coordinator. By combining GPS data with physiological measurements such as heart rate variability, the scans were used to develop a “risk scoring” system. By monitoring changes in a player’s score against the baseline, Demichelis was able to indicate potential susceptibility to injury and proactively apply treatment.
For example, a 10% drop in a player’s score will result in a yellow flag, with a 20% drop resulting in an orange flag. A decrease of 30% is a red flag and a preventative treatment in the mind room.
According to Demichelis, the techniques he helped introduce contributed to a 91% reduction in soft tissue injuries during his time at the club. It’s an amazing statistic made possible in part thanks to the support the Mind Room has received at both the board and management level.
“I had the players on my side because we had the club on our side,” Demichelis says. “We had the coach on our side because he believed in our philosophy. At the time, he told the players, ‘Don’t play football with your feet.'” You play football with your mind. “It’s a great asset to the sports psychologist.”
The departure of Ancelotti and Demichelis in 2009 effectively ended use of the Mind Room at Milanello, but the Italian duo established an equivalent base at Stamford Bridge after joining Chelsea.
Petr Cech was among a number of players who took advantage of the methods used by Demichelis in Milan, which psychology professor Mark Jones described as truly innovative.
“The mind room was breaking new ground in terms of its integration into the training environment,” says Jones, who has worked with a number of football clubs.
“The fact that there was a physical presence inside the Milan training ground was without a doubt the exception rather than the rule.”
Jones’s name has come true from John Sear and Chris Connolly – who provided psychological support to Tottenham players in the early 1980s – as Demichelis’ stooges, but you have to look back to 1958 and World Cup-winning Brazilian psychologist Joao Carvalhaes to find a similar accolade. Example of a lab dedicated to cognitive skills training.
While the Milan award goes some way to demonstrating the impact of the Mind Room, the public testimony to the directors who supported Demichelis’ brainchild is perhaps telling. In his book The Immortals, Sacchi’s esteem for the Lab was so high that he called Demichelis “a psychologist I needed more than the players.” Meanwhile, Ancelotti spoke of the “value” Demichelis added to Chelsea “through his experience with the Milan lab”.
Appreciation seems to be echoed by the players Demichelis has worked with. In 2014, after being appointed as Milan manager, Seedorf lured his former teammate back to the San Siro.
The reunion was short-lived – Seedorf’s managerial reign ended after four months – but the Mind Room’s long-standing legacy is steadfast. According to its founder, embodying the innovation that characterized Milan’s off-field and on-pitch operation during the 1990s, the roots of its success lie as much on an ancient premise as on modern technology.
“We have developed the skills that are well-defined: recovery, attentiveness, stamina, speed in analyzing situations and making decisions,” Demichelis says. “The difference is that our players were able to deploy these skills under pressure.
“As a player, you need to have that ability if you’re going to take a penalty in the World Cup final.”