Sport’s psychology is becoming more and more prominent in the modern game. The old school, mean-eyed footballer is a thing of folklore. Today’s player is a delicate, fragile being, one that both physically and mentally requires strength and conditioning training. In the modern game, where matches are so abundant and criticism and public opinion so readily available, it’s clear that players can often lose confidence and belief in themselves. This is even more prevalent when you have young players leaving their families at a young age in pursuit of a dream. Some have financial or family pressure; others have passed up the opportunity of education that is not always offered to children around the world, in the hope of a career in a sport they love. This is not even to mention the issue of depression that is only starting to garner the respect and exploration it deserves.
It’s impossible for me to delve into such an expansive topic and expect to cover all sides of the debate, the pros and cons to sports psychology and whether we are doing enough to deal with many of the concerns that are affecting the human mind of what most fans deem to be an asset to their club, a commodity that can be bought or sold (unless your name is Nicklas Bentdner – in which you simply cannot be sold).
I will not attempt to cover these issues, nor do I claim to be in the know or even remotely knowledgeable about the intricacies of the human mind but I would like to touch on a few things I’ve found very interesting this season.
Firstly, let’s look in our own backyard; in the last 18 months we have seen the physical rehabilitation of Aaron Ramsey. The pain and pressure he put his body through to regain physical fitness must have been excruciating but the mental pain and anguish he experienced must have been unfathomable. This was a kid whose talent was undoubted; he could easily have become a rugby league player if reports are correct. The emotional and mental trauma he would have suffered would have been phenomenal, he suffered a potential career ending injury just as he was beginning to break through at one of the top teams in the country. After seeing Eduardo fail to rediscover his form, he must have been thinking the same fate was a very real possibility.
On his return from injury, it was clear Rambo was playing tentatively. He was slow and ponderous in possession and was asked to play an unfamiliar position. The thinking behind shoehorning him into right midfield has been questioned by some and lauded by others. In truth only Arsene and his backroom staff know why he was asked to play such an unfamiliar position. This season we are seeing the player we had caught glimpses of pre-shawcrossed; a player who is exuding confidence and class, trying things on the pitch that others would never have deemed possible from the Welshman 12 months ago. Whilst the medical staff, who often come in for criticism over our injury list, deserve a great deal of credit; so too, do the personnel who spent time with Aaron focusing on his mind frame and confidence.
Of course it’s obvious in this day and age of medical marvel that players are going to have the best care when returning from injury but match day preparation has also become an avenue for sports psychology. I vaguely remember after the Wearside derby Fabio Borini, who scored the winner, being asked ‘did he ever dream he would score the winner in the derby?” To which he replied that his personal trainer and him had spent hours envisioning a number of situations in which he could come on and have an impact on the game, one of which was him being presented with a decent chance at 1-1 and scoring the winner. They practiced it in training, ensuring that Borini was constantly thinking about the positive repercussions of scoring rather than the ramifications of missing. It is hard to tell whether it played an effect on him or not but the young Italian claimed it did; and if you had seen the goal, a scorcher from just outside the box, it’s hard to argue against it.
Managers also to use all manner of sport psychology in the lead up to games, the purported mind games between Mourinho, Ferguson, Wenger etc would not have escaped your attention – Hell! Even David Moyes is attempting it now. Mourinho often creates an ‘Us against everybody else’ mentality in his club, Wenger prefers his players to talk through problems and situations at half time rather than have a manager dictate tactics while Ferguson likes to strike fear into his team with the use of some hairdryer he keeps in his pocket. But a more unusual one I have come across is Rene Meulsteen’s tactic of getting his players to imagine what type of animal they would be on the football pitch – I kid you not. Aside from a giraffe comparison to Hangeland, I have no idea what the players would have said and why on earth Meulsteen would even have such a discussion – but each to their own.
I would imagine that if Meulsteen is discussing zoo animals with his players then Wenger would be comparing his to chess pieces – but that’s just my imagination running wild.
Anyway, it’s obvious that confidence and mentality is vitally important in the modern game, you can tell when a player is struggling or which sort of player thrives in controversy. There are players who need an arm round the shoulder and others who need a kick up the backside. Some players need only one goal or one miss to eschew their confidence whilst others help to build the confidence of their teammates and club by offering advice and leadership. It is a complicated and unformulated minefield.
Let’s not forget this next time one of our boys is going through a rough patch, as booing and jeering may, and most likely, make things worse.
Til next time,