I have previously mentioned my admiration for, and regret at the cessation of, James Hamilton’s previously superb More Than Mind Games blog, which dealt with sports psychology. Way back in 2006, when we were all nippers in shorts, James linked to an article by David James (the former England goalkeeper), who often writes on the same subject (the article is worth reading in full):
The root philosophy of sport attracts obsessives. ‘You’re only as good as your last performance,’ they say, which can only mess with your head. There were times when I told myself I was only as good as my last kick.
Psychology in football is still poo-pooed, but it is interesting. The best teams have a combination of psychological make-ups – your obsessives in the back line, and one or two in midfield, who increase your chances of winning through their hard work and repeated practice. Then you have the flair players who display flashes of genius, of brilliance and unpredictability, who could almost be dubbed ‘bipolar’. The ‘bipolar’ sets the game alight, unsettles the opposition, but you can’t rely on him to win games. Perhaps some of the most gifted players of all suffered a medical condition similar to bipolar disorder – their on – and off – the field activities marked by soaring highs and crushing lows.
The symptoms show themselves in various ways. Everyone is happy to talk about superstition in football, but superstition is easy to confuse with obsession. Magpies are one thing, but many footballers have an obsessive routine that goes way beyond normal. Mine used to begin the Friday night before a game and continue right through to the full-time whistle the following day. It was a ritual so complex it could fill a page. It was made up of things like going into the urinals, waiting until they were empty and spitting on the wall, or not speaking to anyone. I saw it as preparation – mental machinery. Every ritual represented a cog in the machine and at the end of it came the performance. And the performance had to justify the process. That was the pressure. I was in this mad little world where as long as I did everything in the right order then anything could be achieved. Dangerous thinking, that is.
And if being the best means being obsessive, how healthy is it to be a top sportsperson?
Now, read that lot again in the context of Jonathan Trott’s unfortunate exit from the England cricket team and Ashes tour for mental health reasons, and take note of your head bobbing up and down in agreement. “An obsessive routine that goes way beyond normal” adequately describes Trott’s furious scratching at the crease before every ball, viewed at the height of his success as being a key component of it (which it was). And the sad case of Jonathan Trott serves to answer the question James poses above.
James goes on:
Most Premiership teams don’t employ a psychologist and Portsmouth are no exception. It was only under Steve McClaren that the England camp got one, despite all Sven’s talk of respect for the practice. Managers still like to think they know what’s best for their team and there’s a stigma attached to psychology. In football you’re not supposed to put your hand up and ask for help with your mental health.
And from another article by David James:
In 1996 I tried to introduce the idea of using a sports psychologist to one of the backroom staff at Liverpool, but the conversation was loudly interrupted by one of the coaches shouting, ‘Jamo! What you moaning for?’ Later, the backroom staff member told me that he’d been banging on at the club for years to get a psychologist, but their view was if you can’t sort yourself out you’re not good enough to play.
It is interesting to watch the Australian reaction to Trott’s withdrawal, because with a few notable exceptions the general view is one of a weak Pom having succumbed to the fearsome pressure of Mitch Johnson’s pace and boorish remarks by Warner. “Stressed Pom Quits Ashes” was how the Courier-Mail put it on their front page, which has drawn criticism from various sources. The words not quite spoken are “An Australian would never act like this.” By way of example (and I mean no criticism to the commenter who posted what is a highly amusing anecdote):
Reminds me of the famous Dean Jones innings in India. As he vomited on the pitch for the umpteenth time from dehydration he asked captain Alan Border if he could retire hurt. “Yeah, f**k off and we’ll get a real Australian on” was Border’s reply. Jones went on to score 210.
Australian sportsmen are expected to “man up” and deal with mental stress, much in the same way that David James was in 1996. But what is ironic is that probably the most fragile man in the combined Ashes squads – possibly even including Jonathan Trott – is the man-of-the-moment Mitchell Johnson:
Even after Strauss’s team had clinched the series 3-1 at Sydney in 2010-11, the Barmy Army were roaring: ‘He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is s****’.
It was cruel, and Johnson admits he spoke to Australia’s team psychologist about how best to deal with the discomfort of public mockery.
‘It definitely affected me,’ he said. ‘It’s pretty obvious. But I copped a little bit in the one-day series in England, and I handled it very well.
Mitchell Johnson performs best when there are few expectations of him. There were question marks over his reinstatement to the test squad before the match at the ‘Gabba, which he answered to devastating effect. The problem is, everyone now expects more of the same. Adelaide won’t suit him – everyone knows that – but a large chunk of Australian opinion is taking victory in Perth for granted – because the pace and bounce will suit Johnson, who skittled England taking 6-38 the last time around. What was David James saying again:
Perhaps some of the most gifted players of all suffered a medical condition similar to bipolar disorder – their on – and off – the field activities marked by soaring highs and crushing lows.
That Mitchell Johnson is gifted there is no doubt, but Australians should be way that soaring highs and crushing lows have marked Johnson as much as those tattoos on his arm. It would be an irony of some proportion if the hype surrounding Johnson over the last few days causes him to fail in Perth against all expectations, catapulting him back into the same mental state he took years to climb out of.
It is of huge credit to Trott that he stuck his hand up and went and got help, a decision which would have taken no small amount of courage. That Australian players don’t make such decisions is probably due to their being shuffled off into obscurity before they get the chance to even speak to the team psychologist. I wonder what the mental state is of Ed Cowan, who was mercilessly dropped after one match having failed to perform when shoved into bat suffering from a nasty bout of ‘flu? Like any of his mates did much better, with the exception of Phil Hughes and Ashton Agar, who – hailed as heroes – were also both dumped on the sidelines after just one more game. Does anyone think Hughes just took this on the chin and shrugged it off? I doubt it.
Trott may be the only player to be suffering publicly, but I bet he’s not the only one who’s suffering. And they won’t all be English.