‘Mind Room’ in AC Milan: The story of an innovative psychological laboratory

'Mind Room' in AC Milan: The story of an innovative psychological laboratory

Baresi, Franco Donadoni, Roberto Baggio, Roberto The names are connected with the glory years of AC Milan.

All three expressed their anguish after missing their spot-kicks. All three took refuge in the ‘Mind Room,’ Italy’s first psychological laboratory.

They will also be remembered by every Italian fan who experienced the country’s World Cup penalty shootout defeats in 1990 and 1994.

Backed by Silvio Berlusconi and hailed by a succession of Milan managers from Arrigo Sacchi to Carlo Ancelotti, the Mind Room helped underpin an unprecedented run of success as the Rossoneri won 21 major trophies during the 23 years it was operational from 1986.

Things had come a long way since the plan for the first incarnation was hatched, at a meeting between a soon-to-be Italian prime minister and an amateur karate champion.

Combining stress relief therapy with cognitive training and neuroscience, the laboratory’s impact would be felt as far afield as Chelsea, where its founder constructed a similar set-up in 2009.

Dr Bruno Demichelis had been a martial arts student since he was a young teenager. In 1971, aged 24, he was beaten at an international karate competition by a less-fancied Japanese opponent. He struggled to process defeat and returned home to Italy looking for answers.

“It wasn’t a technical problem or a physical problem; I was very fit and very well-trained. Eventually, a friend of mine said to me: ‘Is it a mental problem?’” recalled Demichelis on the Football Psychology Show in December 2020.

“I realised that I had trained with Japanese people for so long they were no longer just instructors or masters to me. They were my heroes. Psychologically, you cannot defeat your heroes. It was self-sabotage.” Demichelis’ questioning prompted an interest in psychology. He eventually completed a PhD in the subject and found work as a consultant to Fininvest, a media conglomerate owned by Berlusconi.

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 his change his life. Demichelis’ pitch was straightforward: you’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,” Demichelis says, now aged 74. “I said ‘No’. I remember him stepping back a little bit and I thought ‘Oh no’. Then he asked me if I was an Inter fan. I said ‘No’ and he moved a bit further back. Before he asked me the third question, I said ‘I’m not a fan of any team!’”

Its purpose was two-fold. Firstly, it allowed Demichelis to run group sessions, satisfying the Milan squad’s growing appetite for psychological support. Secondly, it provided an opportunity to answer a question he had long wrestled with: how do you attempt to quantify and scientifically support a player’s psychological development, linking this to performances on the pitch? The Mind Room acted as part-sanctuary, part-mental training ground. Groups of up to eight first-team members – sat in state-of-the-art zero gravity chairs – were hooked-up to equipment including polygraph machines, used to monitor indicators such as blood pressure and breathing rates. A glass divide separated the players and a studious Demichelis, who was looking for physiological signs of a player’s state of mind (or what he termed “objective data in the ‘mental area’”).

After a successful start at the club that saw him win the backing of manager Arrigo Sacchi, Demichelis’ services were in high demand. Capitalising on the opportunity, he secured investment for a bespoke psychology laboratory based at Milanello, the club’s training ground. The Mind Room was born. Following a two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Demichelis was appointed as Milan’s scientific coordinator, making him Serie A’s only practising psychologist.

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