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Sport and Exercise

The Secret Footballer's Guide to… Psychology

Our editor reviews the new book from an anonymous former Premiership player; and we have an exclusive extract.

04 November 2014

The Secret Footballer's Guide to the Modern Game: Tips and Tactics from the Ultimate Insider Guardian Books and Faber and Faber Ltd
2014, HB £12.99

(For your chance to win a copy of the book, follow us on Twitter).

'Of the 95 per cent of people who love football, only 2 per cent understand it. One of my best friends is a complete fan, sees everything, knows everything. But he has no idea… it's complicated.' – Xavi

This book, written by an anonymous professional footballer, begins with that quote from the legendary Barcelona playmaker. (Incidentally, anybody who thinks all footballers are thick should watch Xavi play, or read this interview with him). And he's right… I have played football for more than 30 years, I currently manage my son's under 11s team, and yet my overwhelming realisation on reading these 'tips and tactics from the ultimate insider' is just how little I know about the game.

I tackled this book in around 90 minutes, and it hit the net numerous times… I picked up some really useful fitness drills, nodded vigorously in agreement over what is wrong with England and the FA, and learned loads about fashions and formations in football. Despite thousands of hours over the years playing the game, or reading and talking about it, a lot of the thinking was completely new to me.

But one area where The Secret Footballer (TSF) and I are talking the same language concerns the importance of the mental side of the modern game. Even with my fledgling footballers, I am convinced that if I can just 'get inside their heads', the performances will come. And there has been a growing acceptance and use of the discipline in the professional game… we are light years from the 1990s, when the sports psychologist was generally viewed with the same suspicion and disdain as Eileen Drewery, the faith healer Glenn Hoddle brought in to work with the England team. In a chapter dedicated to psychology – some of which is reproduced below in an exclusive extract – TSF describes sports psychologists' involvement in the game as 'a revelation', and he writes knowledgeably about David Dunning and Justin Kruger, Stanley Milgram and more. Elsewhere the reader can glean plenty of psychological insight into the great managers, the average football fan, and even the corporations and tycoons feeding off the players and the game.

If you're one of the fortunate 2 per cent who understand the game, the book is worth the price for the Dimitar Berbatov anecdote alone. If you're in the 98 per cent who think they understand it, buy this book and think again.

- Reviewed by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist.

For further reading, see 'Brains in their feet', 'Smarter thinking in sport', and 'World Cup - Winning advice'. For more on the Secret Footballer, see his website and Twitter feed.

Now for our exclusive extract from The Secret Footballer's Guide to the Modern Game: Tips and Tactics from the Ultimate Insider, published today by Guardian Books and Faber and Faber Ltd.

Football is an incredibly complicated game. The intricacies that go into creating successful teams are vast and varied and the game has many variables – not least the human factor, and the acceptance that human beings will, eventually, make a mistake.

At the heart of the template for success in football lies a fundamental question, one which underpins every aspect of everything else that happens in and around the football club: can a manager get a squad of twenty-five players to do what he wants them to do?

In his quest to make that happen, he will call on a succession of people, budget permitting, in order to make sure that his players have everything they could possibly need. When I started playing football the support staff consisted of two coaches and a physio. Today, we have masseurs, chiropractors, sports analysts, fitness and conditioning coaches, diet and nutrition gurus, and a person holding the position that has proved a revelation in the game in recent history, the psychologist.

It took a little while for footballers to trust the introduction of psychologists, however – most of us were worried that our brains were about to be rewired and we'd never be able to get back to 'ourselves'. Once we learned that their role was to supplement what we already had and that, actually, they were human beings, some of them were, in fact, pretty cool, and their involvement in the game became a revelation.

The mental side of the game is hugely important, and psychology has finally broken into the mainstream – it has never been easier to wander into a shop and buy a book that will claim to make you happier, slimmer, better at your job, and everything in between. Last year I was returning from a trip to see a psychologist in London when I popped in to a WH Smith at a train station to see how the Secret WAG book was doing. The shelves were a microcosm of the public's new-found love for mental health: eight of the top twenty books in the chart were about psychology, with two in the top three.

During my time in the game I've seen a host of mental health problems, ranging from a lack of confidence in front of goal to players who worry about everything from contract talks – typically, a time when players lose form – to more serious, deep-rooted issues…. I've worked with some excellent psychologists but some are simply in a league of their own. The Secret Psychologist is widely regarded as the best in the business – not only because he has worked at the biggest clubs in the world and with the biggest names in football, but because he continues to push the boundaries of psychology and write books about the results of his innovative techniques. Huge multinational corporations pay an awful lot of money for his genius in order to fly him all over the world to help to get the best from their employees.

The Secret Footballer: If you could offer one tip to a young player to improve his mental state and ultimately his will to win, what would it be?

The Secret Psycho: Be motivated by what you wish to achieve, not by what you wish to avoid. A question a player has to ask himself is, does he play to get the cheers, or to avoid the boos? A young player could never maximise his talent by playing within the confines of 'trying not to make mistakes'. The only way in which a young player can truly express himself is by focusing upon the end goal of 'playing to his optimum'. He must remember that the only way in which he will have a great career is to become a player who focuses on learning and development. You can win and learn nothing, or lose and learn a load about yourself that means from loss you've become better. So, winning and losing must simply be seen as equal opportunities to learn. And there is also motivation to be found in something that many people on the outside would perhaps find a bit uncomfortable but, it's OK to be motivated by money. If you're primary goal is to earn £100,000 a week then the only way that you will ever reach that goal is to work hard and perform spectacularly until you have reached that point.

TSF: If a player is having a crisis of confidence like Fernando Torres went through, how could you help him?

The Secret Psycho: With a crisis of confidence such as that of Torres, there are several strategies. Some players would do well to detach from the situation – by thinking: you can make a mistake, it doesn't make you a mistake; you can fail, it doesn't make you a failure. When we detach the action from the person, we don't get the emotional attachment that creates a fog, which compromises our ability to learn.

Confidence is like a muscle: the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. We never lose confidence, it just gets 'covered over' with replays of times when we failed, and emotional connections to that failure.

A player who lacks confidence has got to fall back on the photo album of past successes in their head – the Match of the Day  replays stored away in the area we call 'memory'. The mind is the best practice area in the world. You can create any playing environment and any situation. You can also zoom in and zoom out, rewind and fast-forward, slow down and speed up on any part of the picture to understand your past successes better. The only thing is that this detail, in regard to visualisation, takes practice itself.

TSF: What is the one thing that a player can do every day to make sure that he is mentally focused?

The Secret Psycho:  Focus on the basics. When we start to ask ourselves questions in real simple terms we answer them simply too. When we get caught up in a constant diatribe of self-talk we get confused and lose commitment and focus. Think of taking a penalty. If we ATQ it (Ask the Question) we stand more chance of scoring. Ask the Question is a technique where we simply ask, 'What is my clear intention?' The answer must only ever be eight to ten words long. 'I'm going to hit the ball hard, top left.' 'I'm going to place it bottom right.'

We confuse our muscles by giving them complex instructions (either mechanical-technique focused or overly detailed) instead of very simple clear-end goal instruction.

We speak in terms of, 'I'd like to hit the ball hard in the middle, but can't take the risk. I'd look silly if I miss this. I missed one last week. I'm not having a great game, so it would be good to score this. We're one-nil down too, blah, blah, blah . . .' It's amazing you can kick the ball at all by the time all those thoughts have gone through your head.

So, just like taking a penalty, on a daily basis we must be motivated by simple, clear instructions, which focus upon completing the basics in a committed and purposeful way.

TSF: What are some of the most challenging problems that players have presented you with?

The Secret Psycho:  The most challenging problems have mainly been based around complicating the playing world with extracurricular activity: gambling, shagging, mates of bad influence, etc.

I think the most challenging problems are usually deep seated. However, what I have believe is that if you wish to drink less, gamble less, stop biting your nails, stop smoking, get on better with the in-laws and get fitter, people think you have to work on these things separately. You have to 'cure' one and move on to the other.

But I think these are not the disease, they are the symptoms. There is one thing that changes everything. There is a root cause, a 'one thing' that makes all the others happen. My advice is to find the one thing that changes everything.

TSF: Is there any part of football that you can predict just by studying what people are likely to do?

The Secret Psycho:  Penalty shootouts may appear random, but enough time has now passed for us to study what players are likely to do, particularly goalkeepers. Psychologists have now studied shootouts from World Cups and European Championships between 1976 and 2012, and they've found that after three kicks in the same direction, keepers almost always dive the opposite way for the next penalty, regardless of who steps up to take it. So, if you happen to be the fourth penalty taker then you should always stay to the side where the previous three penalties were struck.

It is the same principle as a coin toss. If somebody tosses a coin and has three heads in a row they will mistakenly believe that the next flip is more likely to be a tails. The reality is that every toss is a fifty–fifty chance, regardless of the length of any sequence. This is known as 'the gambler's fallacy', and is why the house always wins. Human beings appear to be of free will, made up of random decisions, and that is precisely what makes them predictable.

TSF: What continues to surprise you in football?

The Secret Psycho:  How insecure the best players are. I have literally had to tell the best players in the world how good they are. Perfection is an asymptote. It is never achieved, and only two things ever happen when people go looking for it. Either they live unhappy lives because they are unable to find it, or they think they've found it and then worry every day that they are going to lose it.

It will be love and hate with the fans, so just accept it

… The problem with a lot of fans is that they want to let off steam; they want to vent frustration. It's in their blood, they can't help themselves – they seem to get a serotonin rush from deriding others at football matches. In one of the best scenes from the film Fever Pitch , an Arsenal fan, an old boy, sat in a cafe and said, 'They were fucking rubbish last year and they were fucking rubbish the year before. I don't care if they're top – they'll be fucking rubbish this year too, and the year after that.'

That scene was shot to reflect the 1971 season, a year in which Arsenal won the double for the first time. At the end of his rant, the old boy turns to a kid enjoying his first-ever football match and says, 'Here, have a look at the number 8 this afternoon, John Samuels his name is. Remember his face, then, if you should happen to bump into him, tell him to sod off to Spurs.' And that, in a gloriously perfect scene, is how footballers understand football fans. As far as they're concerned, we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't.

Some people are so stupid that they have no idea how stupid they are. Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, David Dunning, argues that in order to know how good you are at something, it requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place – which means if you're absolutely no good at something at all then you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you're absolutely no good at it. Understand?

But don't take my word for it. Dunning, and his accomplice at Cornell, Justin Kruger, were awarded the 2000 Nobel prize in Psychology for their efforts and that carried a £1 million reward. I could have proved their theory after just one trip to Middlesbrough, where expectation and reality are at least ten thousand light years apart. It's difficult to tell exactly who is stupid. It's at times like this that I feel extremely religious.

Make psychology work for you

The problem, of course, is that wherever there are decent intentions and a strand of science that can really help people to get on in life, there are other people who are quite prepared to bend the rules for their own ends.

One of my heroes, an eminent psychologist called Stanley Milgram, was fascinated by human behaviour and, in particular, why seemingly regular people would follow orders – very often from people they've had no previous relationship with. 'How is it possible,' asked Milgram, 'that ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life could act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience?' Milgram called it, 'obedience to authority.'

The world of football went in to meltdown when Luis Suarez bit the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini in the 2014 World Cup. The papers were full of headlines calling for Suarez to seek psychological help; after all, this was the third time that the Uruguayan had taken a bite out of a player in only four years.

However, those of us who know about the murky world of football understand that as long as a player has a good agent, then he can utilise every trick in the book in order to get his own way. He has convinced his mind that the agent has his best interests at heart, and will always do the right thing for him. In order to help the agent achieve the player's reward the player will do anything he can think of that might help him.

In November 2010 Suarez bit a player while playing for Ajax. Two months later he got the move he was after when Liverpool brought him to England. In April 2013 he bit the Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic. This time Liverpool called his bluff and their owner, John Henry, released a statement saying that Suarez would not be allowed to leave. But with time running out for Suarez to force his move through, he bit Chiellini on the shoulder in front of a billion people, and this time, as much as they would have wanted to, Liverpool simply couldn't defend him. He moved to Barcelona on 11 July 2014 for £75 million.

The point is that the football world fell for it. Despite the fact that Liverpool had one of the best psychologists in the game in Dr Steve Peters, already in the building talking to Suarez – and despite the fact that Suarez has a track record of either signing a new contract or getting a move to a bigger club every time he gets into trouble, commentators, pundits and journalists alike concluded that a person who bites somebody three times has a serious psychological problem.

Actually, thinking about it now, it's probably the greatest bit of reverse psychology that the sporting world has ever seen. Either that, or Suarez is the finest psychologist of modern times.

But there is another theory in psychology, which argues that the only way a man can become famous without talent is through martyrdom. And while Suarez is supremely talented, well, I suppose football would be a type of martyrdom, wouldn't it?