Jonathan Trott and Sports Psychology

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.

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19 Responses to Jonathan Trott and Sports Psychology

  1. That’s not quite an accurate telling of the Allan Border / Dean Jones story, by the way. In every other telling I have ever heard (many), Border essentially told Jones to “Toughen up, you weak Victorian. Or do you want to go off so we can bring in a Queenslander?”. State rivalries are very strong in Australia, as you must have noticed by now.

    That’s typical of Border, by the way. He was a great batsman, and a good captain, but he was not very good at managing people who did not have a certain type of stereotypically Australia character. His successors Mark Taylor and (too a slightly lesser extent Steve Waugh) were much better at this.

  2. Bardon says:

    So the question is this, given that the English team management were aware of his mental condition prior to him spinning out, what type of support was given to him. Did the very large team entourage include some kind of capability in this regard, because whatever they done was ineffective, unless him leaving early was the objective.

    Mental health issues happen to all people in all walks of life, from high performing sportsman to manual labourers, to the unemployed. It is no worse for an elite sportsman than it is for a small guy, its the exact same terrible thing. The only difference is that if you are an international sportsman and it hits you at the wrong time then everybody gets to hear about it. That is one of the negative aspects of being a sporting professional that the individual will no doubt be aware of, something that does not entitle them to any increased level of sympathy over others.

    I have been reading the pommy press lately and it has been very amusing and enjoyable to hear about their horror, shock and outrage on Australian sledging, swearing, the calibre of the Australian press and MoJo’s tash. This is the classic pot calling the kettle black. I quite enjoyed the Courier Mail coverage and thought it was refreshing good fun and non PC media just for a change. The Oxbridge journalists and Etonian commentators taking the elite high ground in this regard are typically English the irony being the lack of comment on the moral bankruptcy and poor journalism in their local surrounds.

    I don’t think the poms will do themselves any favours trying to hide from the press either just as they recently did, especially when we all know that they like nothing better than to ramp it up in better times. Its only a game of cricket after all and there are many that have forgotten this basic fact.

    And don’t you worry too much about the vulnerable Australian cricketers, many a pom is quite fond of using the harden the fuck up expression as well. But lets face it, the Australians being the bad guys is exactly the way that the Aussie strategy for success in this series if successful, would unfold. So far so good on that score and bring on the good guys for the next one.

  3. dearieme says:

    The thing Aussies will never forgive you for is playing like an Aussie. See Jardine, or more recently Broad.

    By the way, I too miss James Hamilton; his successor blog lasted only five minutes. Alas.
    http://www.garreteer.co.uk

  4. dearieme says:

    Aha. I’ve found that James H is twittering. Not for me, that.

  5. Tim Newman says:

    @Bardon:

    So the question is this, given that the English team management were aware of his mental condition prior to him spinning out, what type of support was given to him. Did the very large team entourage include some kind of capability in this regard, because whatever they done was ineffective, unless him leaving early was the objective.

    At a guess, I would say they were aware of the problem, assisted him as much as they could to manage it, but left it to the individual to make the final call as to whether he could continue in his current role. That’s pretty much how it works in any other job.

    It is no worse for an elite sportsman than it is for a small guy, its the exact same terrible thing.

    The point is that the unique pressures under which elite sportsmen find themselves exacerbate the condition, not that the condition itself is unique to elite sportsmen.

    And don’t you worry too much about the vulnerable Australian cricketers, many a pom is quite fond of using the harden the fuck up expression as well.

    For sure, but the Australian approach does smack of Liverpool FC in 1996. Then again, that’s pretty much where Australia is on most measures. :)

    But yeah, I agree with most of your comments. It is just a game, and the press on both sides are assholes. I don’t think the players are though, on either side. The problem, as usual, is the fans. Have a look at this post for my experience of English football fans.

  6. Tim Newman says:

    @dearieme:

    Not for me, that.

    Same here. Real shame James has transferred lengthy, nuanced posts to 146 character soundbites. I’m sure he’s still a top lad, though.

  7. Bardon says:

    “That’s pretty much how it works in any other job.”

    In my line of work we wouldn’t let the employee make the call, that is far too risky a proposition.

    “The point is that the unique pressures under which elite sportsmen find themselves exacerbate the condition, not that the condition itself is unique to elite sportsmen.”

    That is not something that I would agree with. This unfortunate cricketer has his fight or flight hard wired response confused between physical danger and some random thought. If you know any sufferers they will tell you that they freak out at the thought of going to their next backgammon meeting.

    I did like this poignant comment on one of the articles that you posted above.

    “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.” – Keith Miller.

    “Have a look at this post for my experience of English football fans.”

    Yep that reminds me of an experience in Thailand in the eighties, this is before it was swamped with pommy chavs. A large bulldog inner city firm member befriended me during an equally large bender and we were talking about the craic. Anyhow he had a singlet, shorts and thongs on and I said to him that he was obviously breaking one of the firms cardinal rules in that he wasn’t tooled up. He proceeded to show me a double bladed Stanley knike key ring! This guy was scary and when he got the enormous bill from the little Thai guy he ate it and asked him what he was going to do about it.

  8. For sure, but the Australian approach does smack of Liverpool FC in 1996.

    Except for the hooligans.

  9. Tim Newman says:

    I think the hooliganism had been stamped out by then, at least in the stadiums. More of an ’80s thing, fighting at football grounds. Despite the reputation, English football stadiums have been largely safe and peaceful for almost 20 years, thanks to a combination of ticket prices, CCTV, and heavy police presence. I went to Maine Road for the best part of the 1999/2000 season, and never saw a sniff of trouble.

  10. dearieme says:

    I’d never seen any trouble at a Scottish football ground as a child or young adult, unless the appalling Rangers or Celtic fans were present. Then I went to a Hibs vs Leeds match: the Leeds fans were pissing on people in hopes of a fight, for which they were presumably ready and equipped. Why England suddenly became like that I’ve no idea though no doubt someone will blame it on Thatcher. This, however, happened in the ’67-’68 season. I blame that Barbara Castle.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hibernian_F.C._in_European_football

  11. A cheap shot calls for a cheap shot.

    The thing which still rather horrifies me about English football is that the fans from the two clubs are at opposite ends of the ground, with barriers and gates separating them and preventing them from killing one another, presumably. Australian sporting grounds are not like that. It doesn’t matter the strength of the rivalry (Collingwood v Essendon, say) – the supporters of the two clubs mix together in the ground and nothing happens other than a lot of noise. I explain this to English football fans and they almost don’t believe me.

  12. Bardon says:

    dearieme, do you remember when Hibernian signed up George Best as a gimmick. Crowds doubled and there was a famous incident at Easter Rd when the opposing Rangers fans were targeting him with abuse. He was about to take a corner and someone through a half empty can of beer at him. He stopped to pick up and pretended to drink it, the next moment the Rangers fan starting singing his name, golden moment and all that.

    I take it that you are a Scotsman then? I was there in September at a place called Tayinloan right on the beach just north of the Mull of Kintyre on a family holiday. We caught good weather and the setting was fantastic then my mother and I caught a boat from Campbeltown to Northern Ireland. I looked at a fabulous home in Campbeltown on the south facing side of the loch, it was built during the days of the tobbaco empire by wealthy Glaswegians, I think Campbeltown was some form or original holiday town for the well healed. Bloody stunning and grand stone house it was and for about BP180k, my planned renovation here to a small wooden house in Brisbane will cost far more than that purchase price. Bloody weird how this gap has opened up.

    I noticed that the Scots are getting ready for the independence vote, do you have a view on that?

  13. Bardon says:

    Yes Michael we are sports mad down under and fortunately the excitement is exhibited through large crowds, scarfs, colours, flags, rivalry, banter, singing and shouting and violence is not part of it. I have been to many big AFL, Union, Soccer games including the grand final and its a great family day out, you also don’t need to worry about mingling with the opposite fans as the rivalry is all in good taste. Excellent father son interaction as well.

    Unfortunately there has been some violence in recent years at one or two soccer games in Melbourne and Sydney this was only with teams that had ethnic Croatian and Siberian fans, I cant see it spreading any further as soccer is also known as a family game here and incidentally is the most played sport here now. This is due to it being played Australia wide whereas other codes have geographical restrictions.

  14. dearieme says:

    “I noticed that the Scots are getting ready for the independence vote, do you have a view on that?” Aye; bluidy madness. You either rub along with the English or you’ll end up ruled by the Glasgow Labour Party, a combination of Comrade Stalin and Al Capone. Think of the Kennedys without any of the charm.

    And the idea that independence will be good because of its bracing effects, and then to plan to be a member of the EU – madness in spades. You’ve only to see how the Germans kicked the poor bloody Irish around to see the folly of that.

    P.S. The West Highlands are magnificent in sunny weather . The best bet is May-early June when often easterlies blow, so that the West Highlands are in the rain shadow. Marvellous! Hell, they even get droughts. The next best bet is September when the heather is a wonderful sight. The worst time is July and August when it often pisses down. That’s when the bulk of the tourists visit, poor sods. Poor drookit sods.

  15. dearieme says:

    P.S. We lived in a house on stumps in Brisbane. Loved the dry season! Oh God, the wet, though. Aargh!

  16. Bardon says:

    Yes I understand you point, I couldn’t quite grasp the we want out of the Union. okay so far, but we will stay inside the Euro thing, uh?. I suspect that as always there will be some bad motives going on a swell, not that I said that to any of the Scots that I met in the pubs when I was there, also very pc, lost of subject taboo there now.

    Believe it or not we had massive drought for six years here in Brisbane and Qld when the wet just stopped, its back again with a vengeance and bucketing down now. I was out in the bush yesterday, flight, remote area drive, flight thing. I got caught in a big storm, in the middle of nowhere on a real slimy and greasy dirt road. I had to slow right down to 20kph as my4WD was sliding around due to lack of weight, got lost, missed my plane, fair to say that my adrenalin was pumping. Fucking magic though.

    When I was in Scotland I borrowed a car and took it rally driving around the Mull of Kintyre right round to where that RAF Chinook came mysteriously down, I had to reverse about two miles as there was no turning point and the edge of the track was pure bog. Great driving, risky, rarely got above third gear and absolutely stunning scenery looking at the edge of Scotland and the coast of Ireland. We were on a St Columba’s heritage trail thing and this is where he landed when he was exiled from Ireland. You can stand in his footsteps where future kings of Scotland were supposedly crowned or had to stand there or something like that near Southend. The graveyard there had many Knight buried below.

  17. Tim Newman says:

    @Michael: Fair point on the cheap shot. :) For sure, the football crowds are the worst of the lot, but you don’t need to look to Australia to make a comparison: just look at a British rugby match (of either code) for example. And as I said, a large part of the relative peace at football grounds is brought about by the enormous police presence, which is still very much necessary. The police at rugby matches are simply controlling the crowd’s movements and stopping the odd streaker.

    I have my opinions on why the two crowds differ in nature, which I might put in a separate post.

  18. dearieme says:

    It’s striking, Tim, that Murrayfield and Twickenham have both hosted Rugby League crowds quite happily.

  19. Australian rugby league crowds – which can also be very large and often consist of people with a similar social profile to soccer crowds in the UK – are like all the other crowds described above. Crowd violence is essentially unheard of. Australian rugby league is legendary for its off field player misbehavior, but the crowds are none the less perfectly civilized.

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