Thursday, 31 March 2011

Turn That Frown Upside Down: The psychological strains on the modern day sports star

Having taken a not so well-earned break from my ‘work’, I read a piece on the BBC Sport website about Andy Murray’s visit to 5th Street Gym in Miami. Murray was invited along to the iconic boxing gym by David Haye, who is currently in training there. Amidst this relatively uninteresting article, the question was raised as to “how Murray's tennis benefit from the boxing experience?”

This question was posed to Murray and answered with predictable dullness. Critics have been once again challenging Murray’s mental strength as he appears unable to play his best tennis on the biggest stage yet this was not touched upon in Jonathan Overend’s piece.

The Scot’s lose in the final of the Australian Open seems to have triggered somewhat of mini crisis. He has since flopped out of the Miami Masters - having lost to a qualifier for the second straight tournament, this time in the form of Alex Bogomolov Jr - and is now looking for a new coach prior to the French Open.

This is not, however, a post about the fortunes of Andy Murray. I simply don’t care enough about him to write anything like that. This is, rather, a look into the old clichéd ratio between the importance of mental to physical strength within sports (90% mental, 10% physical and all that guff). The other news from last week of Michael Yardy’s battle with depression adds a further, deeper dimension to this debate.

Yet the point remains largely the same. That is the great importance of being able to cope mentally with the strains and pressures that come with being a sports star in the modern day. Lambasted by sections of the public as being overpaid men 'just playing a game', it is all too easy to overlook the seriousness of the psychological effects of playing sport at the highest level.

Naturally those playing any sport at the highest level are gifted with both physical and technical attributes that allow them to excel beyond the average man. Furthermore, they are then of course trained and conditioned to optimise this gift. The issue then lies in the mind. To revert back to my opening example, so as to make it appear slightly relevant, a boxer can have excellent reflexes and being in superb condition but that can only carry them so far. As Murray illustrates, having the technical talent to beat an opposition counts for nothing if you cannot utilise or optimise this talent.

To be successful, whether it is in an individual or team sport, you must execute what you have been trained to do but under immense pressure. This may be taking a penalty, bowling a delivery to land on a precise area the size of a post card or it may be hitting a backhand winner down the line all with millions watching intently. The mind must obviously be able to cope with the pressure if the body is to perform effectively. Nerves, doubts, fears and pressures can cause the slightest variations in usual technique and execution that can lead to errors.

‘Clutch’ performers, as the Americans call them, build reputations as being able to perform at the key, decisive moments. An example being Kobe Bryant who is renowned as being the go-to-guy when a basket is needed in the last seconds of a game. Generally speaking, the top sportsmen are just that because they have the ability to perform under pressure. Such an ability comes with specific coping mechanism in such moments and often an unfaltering confidence in their own ability.

Andy Murray, the evidence thus far in his career would suggest, is yet to develop these mechanisms. He usually looks visibly tense and nervous in the big games and his play reflects this. When he is losing he struggles to find the calm self-belief to gather himself and instead becomes very animated and vocal at his own frustration. This is not meant as a criticism of Murray or any other supposed ‘chokers’ in sport. I get sweaty palms during a penalty shoot out on FIFA and struggle to hold my nerves so would not have the audacity to preach at them for losing their bottle.

The case of Michael Yardy exemplifies how constant exposure to these strains can have a far more detrimental effect on a person beyond simply their performance in any given moment. This is coupled with the difficulties of living away from home for extended periods of time. Sub-par performances, an unrelenting schedule of high intensity sport and critical media attention, one can understand why there would be serious physiological side effects for sports stars today.

While many eagerly wait to criticise any mistake they make, both on and off of the field of play, sports stars battle against both the opposition and their own mental demons. It is easy to forget or underestimated the severity of the strains placed upon them and even easier to fail to sympathise with people earning the amount of money they do to do a job that most of us ‘would give our left arm to do.’

Yardy’s admission of his problem and the subsequent ignorance in the comments from Geoffrey Boycott highlights both the nature of the difficulties sports stars face and the all too common reaction to them. In the seats of the stadiums, through the screen of the television and within the words of the press, there can be a tendancy to become overly critical of modern sports stars. We expect too much of them as people and as athletes. In doing so the humanistic nature of sport is diluted in our assumption that these people are in some way super-human because of what they can do in their respective sports. The truth is that through the technical and physical gifts they possess, they are exposed to strains, pressures and expectations that are almost unparalleled in any other profession.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please…

Monday, 28 March 2011

Player Prejudice: The blinkered nature of football coverage

Apologies for my prolonged absence from the site but hopefully something resembling regular blogging will now return. I have been tempted out of my month break from writing any posts by a growing displeasure at certain aspect of football coverage so further apologies for the negativity of this latest piece.

We, as football fans, are naturally highly subjective. We often have preconceived ideas about teams and players which will inevitably detract from our ability to make fair and accurate judgements. This unavoidable instinct extends beyond simple, negative prejudices against rival clubs or unpopular players, often it is applied in a positive manner as we lavish praise on someone’s performance when it really is not warranted.

To put it another way, as a football community we see certain players in a certain way and any judgement that we may cast about them is distorted by the lens through which we like to view them. The prime examples of this of late are Jack Wilshere, Gareth Bale and Neymar. Now I am not, of course, suggesting that these are not exceptional talents. They most certainly are. Their reputations as such, however, results in a complete fixation on them by journalists, commentators and fans alike.

When these players step onto the pitch every touch they take, pass they complete or bit of skill they show is met with cries of brilliance. Obviously logic would suggest that as these are extremely talented players, it is to be expected that they will provide us with these moments that are more worthy of praise. There is truth in that. Yet I have seen Wilshere complete a five yard pass and be compared with Xavi and Iniesta while Gareth Bale can bumble his way past a defender and be called the best winger in the world. Too often these players just can’t put a foot wrong.

Some off-the-field misdemeanour may alter our opinions of them but until that point such players are heralded as demi-gods. Nothing they do is by luck; everything is a moment of perfectly planned, expertly executed genius. This works the other way round too. Football is littered with its collection of villains and comical characters that are scrutinised for their slightest mistake so that it can be put in super slow mo and over-analysed by pundits after the game. Coverage of this type leads to misleading and inaccurate portrayals of the game, acting only to exacerbate the preconceptions we have about those who play it.

Had Gareth Bale played on the same pitch as Wilshere on Saturday afternoon it is quite possible that Chris Coleman would be harbouring a never-subsiding erection today. Bale could have stood on the pitch and done little more than make a couple of jinking runs or dangerous crosses and there still would have been a montage made to commemorate his performance. The problem with this tendency is that it makes football coverage painfully predictable and repetitive.

Match of the Day have their weekly script virtually written for them. It will feature footage of Blackpool’s adventurous attacking play, Arsenal’s defensive frailties and Stoke’s long throw. These things are as certain as Mark Lawrenson’s tone is monotonous. These things become innate within our understanding of the game, they are inbuilt into how we watch and talk about the game. As such we approach every match with an expectation of what we will see and by doing so further pander to the stereotypes that are endlessly repeated to us.

The example of Neymar in Brazil’s match against Scotland exemplifies this point. Again, it is important to stress that I am not trying to discredit him as a player. Yet there was so much hype before the match about him and so much focus on him during the match that his performance was never going to be judged purely on its own merits. His performance was impressive but to call comparisons with Pele and Ronaldo premature would be an almighty understatement.

Teams are categorised, players are pigeonholed and we as fans are forced to watch football through the predetermined views of the broadcasters, commentators and pundits. If you look hard enough then you will see what you want to see. As such, football matches become broken down into clichéd side shows.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please…

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