As a younger man, I often represented several teams over the course of a weekend. Turning out for these sides, usually packed with cynical veterans and hatchet men eager to autograph me with their studs, was my perverse way of obtaining a modicum of relief from the stresses of incessant study. You see, playing football was what I did to maintain my mental health and, as I got kicked around pitches up and down the country, I never remember one coach enquiring as to my mindset. The presumption was that motivation, confidence and drive were inherent and that a failure to find them by oneself, in one's own make-up, spoke to a frail mentality; a character to be wary of; a potential bottler in a crisis.
In the 80s and 90s coaches in amateur football weren't big on gauging the psychologlical effect of repeated assassination attempts by a hoary old centre back. One simply got on with it and was urged to do so, via the medium of expletive-laden exhortations emanating from the sideline. Even in the professional game, it took a long time before so much as lip-service was paid to the importance of mental preparation. As late as the Gérard Houllier era at Liverpool, I can remember flat-cap wearing, old-school icon Jack Charlton dismissing the Frenchman's innovative ideas and methodologies with a catty comment about not being a fan of "schoolteachers in football."
Modern football has many abhorrent and regrettable traits but at least there has been a movement away from that benighted era in which any difficulty attaining the right mentality was dismissed as weakness. Of course, some dinosaurs remain, often employed as television guff-merchants, but increasingly coaches are embracing everything that offers them an advantage, and the appreciable benefit of training players' minds as well as fine-tuning their bodies has been identified. A class attacker with a positive mentality is a superior asset to that same player plagued by doubt, fear, anxiety or rage. That's science, folks.
Now, however, we come to the nub of the issue for many. Can that kind of positive intervention with individual athletes translate into an overall improvement in a team's mentality? Clearly a collective of happier and better-adjusted individuals is preferable to a motley crew of disenfranchised naysayers, but how can one quantify any resultant improvements in performances and results? Where is the line between the mentality of the team and the tactics employed or individual brilliance displayed? In an era of stats-driven analysis, bottom-line types are frustrated -- yes, fine, it's good, but how can we measure it, dammit?
At Liverpool, the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Steve Peters, author of the much-vaunted The Chimp Paradox, has famously been working with the squad in a one-to-one capacity. Those who have engaged with the process have been uniformly positive about its benefits, none more so than club captain and role model Steven Gerrard. Indeed, despite being and old-fashioned soul in many ways, Gerrard is virtually evangelical about the benefits he has seen from working with Dr. Peters. He goes so far as to imply that the man is responsible for helping him to elongate his career and recover from a serious injury.
"I had a career-threatening injury called a groin avulsion where the muscle comes off the bone," Gerrard said. "I’d seen three or four surgeons and they weren’t really convincing me that I could play again so I turned to him. He helps you with positivity, the power of thought, and staying upbeat, that sort of stuff. It was a very important stage in my career. I read his book and now I basically understand the different parts of the brain. He does simplify things and I am a lot more patient as a person now and I think I’ve improved as a person. He’s also helped me with the game as well."
The profundity of Gerrard's words will not be lost on any fan. Craig Bellamy would say that the same man was responsible for vastly altering his own approach to the game for the better, as would any number of world class cyclists. Whilst such personal testimonies are clearly subjective, the results of the work -- improved performances and extended careers -- are plain to see. Now, a little late to the party, noted innovator, Roy Hodgson, has had a vision of Utopia. He has approached Peters, via Brendan Rodgers, with a view to him working with England ahead of and during the World Cup.
"He is not just any psychologist, he is a very famous man in that area," Hodgson insisted. "He has a great CV of working in different sports and has been doing some work with Liverpool. It is something we have spoken about for some time but we wanted to get the right man - luckily Brendan let me talk to Steve and he has accepted our invitation, so we are happy with that. We are really happy that we got the man we wanted, someone who can understand the football environment and join us rather than lecture to the players."
Gerrard, always so passionate about wearing the three lions, is no doubt delighted to have Peters on board the good ship England and as he looks forward to this week's friendly with Denmark in the company of at least five of his clubmates, he is keen to stress the role played by Brendan Rodgers in Liverpool's marked improvement, paying tribute, ironically to the positive mentality and moral courage of the Northern Irishman.
"I think we have got five in the squad and everyone is in good form and feeling very confident," he suggested. "If everyone is selected hopefully they can bring their performances tomorrow night. There is a great feeling back at Liverpool. We are happy with where we are in the table. You have got to give credit to (Liverpool boss) Brendan Rodgers for giving the British lads a chance -- if you are good enough he plays you. He is not scared. He has been paid back by them with top-class performances and that is what the manager has seen and it is why they are here."
In the midst of all this positive thought and mutual admiration, you will excuse your scribbler a moment of sepulchral pessimism. With Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Glen Johnson and Daniel Sturridge all likely to feature in Hodgson's team to play the Danes, I will be watching the proceedings from behind the sofa, in the foetal position, through the fingers of the hand clasped anxiously over my face. Please Roy, just don't break them. The psychological damage that could do to Liverpool fans would take a squadron of Dr. Peters clones to address.