Friday, 27 June 2014

World Cup 2014

One good thing about England’s early exit from the World Cup is that we won’t have to endure seeing them lose on penalties. It’s typical that the one time we employ a psychiatrist to help with this, the team gets knocked out in the group stage before a penalty shoot-out becomes possible. It’s probably just as well as the players’ negative attitude to the penalty shoot-out seems to run pretty deep. I was listening to Rio Ferdinand the other day saying that he didn’t think that Dr Peters’ success in sports such as cycling was particularly relevant to taking a penalty in a major tournament. Leaving aside Dr Peters’ successful work with Liverpool FC this season, Ferdinand said “I don’t think one person can have that much of an effect on people; he can ease people’s nerves maybe a little bit and make them feel more confident. But when it comes down to that moment of going up there and taking a penalty, things change”. He went on to say: “It’s one, single split second….you’re in the middle of that pitch, all alone in a massive goldfish bowl, being watched by millions; and that pressure is all steeped on your shoulders in that one moment…it’s difficult…when you walk out there and you’ve got those fans there, it’s different (from practice)." Ferdinand described his own experience of preparing to take a penalty in the Champions’ League Final in 2008: “I was next in line after Gigsy. I couldn’t even concentrate on Gigsy taking it: my legs had gone”. Fortunately for Manchester United, Ferdinand didn’t actually have to take the penalty. I can’t think of a better description of why you should have a psychiatrist or psychologist working with the players to prepare them for the moment when they are likely to be under the most pressure of their lives. One person who did take a penalty for Manchester United that day was Owen Hargreaves, who went after Christiano Ronaldo, who had just missed with his attempt. Hargreaves had practised penalties with a lot of the Chelsea players, such as John Terry, when playing in the World Cup with England. They had seen him go the same way, every day: top left. Michael Ballack had also seen Hargreaves practise penalties with Bayern Munich. “I practised every day; I hadn’t missed for a month; top left. As I went up to the penalty spot, I guessed the Chelsea players were pointing where I was going to go. I thought that might happen. So when I went up there I thought “Why not just put it in the other corner on the bottom”. And as I went up I thought “Christ, that goal looks really small”. I’m going to do what I know best, and see if he can save…if my best is better than your best. And I smashed it top corner and it went in”. It seems you have to have been brought up in Germany to be able to clear your head and concentrate on the task in hand: decide where you are going to aim for; focus on that point in the goal; focus on the ball; shoot. The psychological problems of playing for England seem to run pretty deep. This is Steven Gerrard talking before the Uruguay game: “Basically, to realise it could be a terrible, long, frustrating summer if we don’t get it right on Thursday,” Gerrard recalled. “There is no hiding place for a player when you go out of a tournament earlier than you expect. It can be tough and it can take an awful long time to get over it. A lot of people know that in the dressing room but there are a few young lads in there too, so it was important for them to realise what is at stake and how important this game is. “I have been there. I have had that feeling. So I know what that feeling is about and that is the feeling I don’t want on Friday morning. It wasn’t a message to scare any of the lads but it was a wake-up call to everyone in the room. It wasn’t to scare anyone, or intimidate anyone, but this is the reality of where we are and we need everyone focused and right on it, individually and collectively, on Thursday, otherwise it is going to be a terrible, long summer.” I somehow doubt that Dr Peters (about whom more in due course) advised the England captain to dwell on the consequences of losing a match on the eve of playing it. That might, however, be at least a partial explanation for how Gerrard and the team played. David Donner

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The A - Z of Sports Vision - The Zone

Some athletes, when they are performing at their peak, appear to be in a world of their own. Nick Faldo, talking about his Open win at Muirfield in 1987 said “Two steps in front of me was my only focal point. The rest was a blur, partly due to the weather and partly because I was completely engrossed”. Tony Jacklin refers to it as being in a cocoon of concentration: “I’m absolutely engaged, involved in what I’m doing at that particular moment”. We now refer to this state as “The Zone”, or “flow”. When a state of flow is reached, a number of chemicals are released in the brain. One of them is a pain-suppressor, Anandamide, which shares similar properties to THC, the active ingredient of Marijuana. Other drugs that are released include amphetamines such as dopamine, endorphins (the name is derived from endogenous morphine), and serotonin, the mood-changing drug that’s released when people take Ecstasy. No wonder athletes talk of “runners’ high”. Getting into the zone requires your subconscious brain to take over control from your conscious brain. This rules out most beginners, as when you are learning a new activity, it’s likely that you are consciously thinking about what you are trying to do. But once you’ve reached the standard of an expert, the main task is to keep conscious thoughts out of it. So if you really try and get in the zone, the chances are you won’t achieve it. The very nature of it requires you not to be trying, not thinking consciously about what you’re doing. Music can help to achieve this state as can visualisation. But another way is to concentrate on your vision – supplying your subconscious brain with the visual information it requires to make the best decisions. Billy Jean King described her experience of the zone as follows: “I concentrate only on the ball in relation to the face of my racket, which is a full time job anyway, since no two balls ever come over the net the same way”. And that seems as good a way as any to end this A to Z of sports vision: I hope you’ve found them of some use or at least interest. I intend to keep blogging. My next one will be a review of a book that could change your life…… David Donner