Now is the summer of our discontent…

We were led to believe that the summer of 2012 was going to be golden. While the sun didn’t shine that much, in sporting terms, it certainly was a golden period. The London Olympics lived up to the hype and Team GB came away from a home Olympics with its best ever medals haul (still not so sure about the closing ceremony but let’s not dwell on that). The following summer, Chris Froome became the second Brit to win the Tour de France, the England cricket team retained the Ashes on home soil and Andy Murray was doing the unthinkable and actually winning at Wimbledon. Sadly, the feel-good-factor feels like it has melted away in the early summer sunshine of 2014. To paraphrase Shakespeare, now is the summer of our discontent.

I refer, of course, to recent performances in those mainstream sports that capture most public attention: Most notably the early exit from the Football World Cup by the England Men’s team. Football is a national obsession for many and while there were no great expectations about winning the event, losing the opening two games (for the first time ever) and elimination from the group stages is rather embarrassing. At the same time, the England cricket team was finding a way to lose from a winning position in the final and deciding test match against Sri Lanka at Leeds. This was meant to be the perfect stage for the post Kevin Pietersen era to begin and to demonstrate the debacle in Australia (the 5-0 Ashes whitewash) was being laid to rest. Instead it only served to demonstrate how you have to take your chances in sport. When you are playing at the elite level, where teams are evenly matched, it comes down to taking chances – a scuffed shot or a dropped catch can cost you dearly. For me, the psychology of elite sport is about remaining calm when under pressure, especially when the opposition are on top. But if you hold firm and hang-in long enough, then chances arise and you have to take them to change the momentum of matches. It’s amazing how goals can transform the thinking and approach of both teams. A team playing with confidence suddenly starts to doubt their ability – the opponents, on the back foot for most of the game, appear energised and somehow faster and more dangerous. Not all people have the mental toughness to cope at the top end.

It was interesting to me that the England football team took Dr Steve Peters with them to the World Cup, with the belief he could be the man to psychologically prepare players to deal with the pressure of penalty kicks. Of course, this time, it didn’t come down to penalties. There were some disparaging voices within the press about what this “shrink” could do and no doubt the bandwagon will begin to roll (along with some heads) by those being wise after the event. In the UK our press seem to take great pleasure in building people up and then knocking them back down. Steve Peters was a vital component of the success of the Team GB Cyclists and has helped numerous other top sportsmen and women to prepare psychologically and deal with the pressures at the elite level.
One article I read a couple of month ago was entitled “A bad night for Steve Peters” – in the aftermath of his client, Ronnie O’Sullivan being beaten in the final of the World Snooker Championship (what humiliation that was for the five times winner!) and the England Football team (another client) losing a warm-up match. A sense of perspective wouldn’t go a miss. No doubt the knives will be out and psychology will once again be labelled “mumbo jumbo” by some of the national press. The truth is, however, that Peters’ success with his clients has been based upon a long term relationship – not a couple of months (as is the case with the England Football team). Changing the mind set of sports people (and the general public for that matter) is not a short-term gig. It’s also something that needs to occur in the earlier stages of development. My own research showed that at one highly successfully football academy, the staff had very limited knowledge of how to aid the psychological development (in particular the mental toughness) of young players. While millions of pounds were invested in facilities and developing the technical and tactical qualities of players, the role of psychology (which the academy staff believed to be the cornerstone of player development) was virtually ignored. If we miss out this important part of players’ development – or leave it to chance – should we really be surprised when problems surface later on as players reach international level? We don’t need a “sticky plaster” approach (i.e. a couple of months of psychological support) we need long term planning. We need to see the psychological development of gifted and talented players being skilfully nurtured at each level by well-informed and qualified professionals. If we are not prepared to invest in this support we shouldn’t be surprised by failure.

Hopefully our summer of discontent (football and cricket) can lead to reflection and analysis that lays the foundation for longer-term success. If that’s the case then short-term pain can be endured. At the end of the summer, perhaps there will be lessons to learn from how the big names in other sporting events have prepared and handle the pressure of the Commonwealth Games, the Tour de France, the Ryder Cup, and so on. Still, lots to look forward to so enjoy the rest of the summer sporting calendar!