It is all in the mind!

It is all in the mind!


It is all in the mind!

The World Cup clock is ticking. Every team manager is seeking an edge, because tiny details might make the difference in Brazil when the tournament starts a little more than 85 days from now. These managers and coaches are isolated men. They do not have daily access to the players who from now to the end of May belong to clubs, often in another country and on another continent.

Yet Roy Hodgson, the experienced manager of England, has just introduced a fresh voice, a new mind, to his backup staff. Hodgson has hired Dr Steve Peters, a consultant psychiatrist and university senior clinical lecturer, to work with his squad.The sports media has concentrated on one aspect where Englishmen have regularly lost out at major tournaments — during penalty shootouts. There, indeed, is a mental challenge at the end of tiring physical stalemates. And England has failed, notably against Germany, in those shootouts.

Hodgson’s choice of a so-called mind mechanic appears to be a sound one.Peters has worked with England’s captain, Steven Gerrard, over the past two years at Liverpool. Indeed, Peters has also been available to Liverpool’s striker, Luis Suárez, who will be a direct opponent when England takes on Uruguay during the World Cup.Suárez is brilliant, impulsive and capable of being the best and worst player on the field at any moment.

However, the wider implication of introducing a mind therapist so close to the tournament is intriguing. Hodgson wisely points out that Peters will be there as a sounding board to players who wish to consult him. There will be no compulsion to talk to him.

Those players of an open mind will already know from their captain Gerrard that he credits Peters with helping him manage his anger — the tendency to take home the frustrations of playing and losing on the field. The students among the England squad may even have read Peters’s book, published in 2012, called “The Chimp Paradox,” in which the scientist speaks of different aspects of the mind. Peters became known for helping Chris Foy and Victoria Pendleton become Olympic champions in the velodrome.

He helped the snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan work through some dark passages. And he has worked in high-security prisons treating inmates with serious personality disorders.

Without suggesting that there are any like that playing for England, there is nothing new in soccer coaches’ reaching out to psychologists, rather than the psychiatrist that Peters is.

Back in the 1950s, after Brazil lost the World Cup on home soil to Uruguay, it responded by putting the best of its millions of gifted soccer players into highly concentrated training camps that lasted three months at a time. By the time the young Pelé was introduced to the national team, he had already been analysed by the team’s resident psychologist. In fact, there was a resident doctor, a nutritionist and a dentist on call under the national coach Vicente Feola. It is legend now that the psychoanalyst, Dr João Carvalhaes told the coach he should leave out both Pelé and the marvelous, mercurial winger Garrincha.

Pelé still dines out on the story, which he wrote in his autobiography “Pelé: My Life and the Beautiful Game” in 1977. One month before the World Cup in Sweden in 1958, the mind doctor had told the coach that Pelé was “too infantile” and Garrincha “too irresponsible” and that neither should be on the team.Brazil had broken the long journey from Rio de Janeiro to Stockholm by playing preparatory matches in Florence, Italy, and during one of them Garrincha had dribbled through the entire opposing defence, then stopped and waited for a defender so that he could trick him again before scoring.

Irresponsible, indeed.And Pelé? He was only 17 - too young, too juvenile for the World Cup, surely.Initially, Feloa did leave them out. But the team started tentatively and senior players asked the coach to restore Pelé and Garrincha. “The rest,” Pelé concluded in his book, “is history.” Pelé scored uninhibited goals right through to the World Cup final game. Garrincha was impish and irrepressible. And according to Pelé, it stemmed from the moment the coach told the psychologist: “You may be right. The thing is, you don’t know anything about football.”

Brazil won that World Cup, and the next, with both Pelé and Garrincha in the lineup.Decades later, when I worked on a book with Trevor Francis, the first player to be traded for more than a million pounds, that story repeated itself.Francis was 16 when he broke into the Birmingham City team in England. The team manager, Freddie Goodwin, employed two renowned American sports psychologists to analyse his playing squad.

Their reports suggested that Francis would never make a player. His temperament, they stated, was as fragile as an eggshell. Goodwin kept Francis until Birmingham sold him at an unprecedented price. And Francis went on to score the goal by which Nottingham Forest won the European Cup.

When we came to write the book, Francis showed me the questionnaire he had filled in for the mind specialists. “I was a kid,” Francis said, grinning broadly. “I filled in some answers for laughs.”

Irresponsible. Infantile. His career spanned 1971 through 1994. He scored match-winning goals in hundreds of games in the top English and Italian leagues. So he did make a player.

The psychology profiling, sometimes based on simple Q&A papers, is still very much in evidence and used by soccer managers from Brazil to the Bahamas.

In England’s case, Hodgson is neither the first nor likely to be the last to seek whatever help he can find to get inside the mind of his players.

 But Hodgson has been around the world. He has managed in many cultures, and read books in various languages about what separates winners from losers in life.Hodgson is wise enough to tap into the mind game of Steve Peters. But with very few days at the end of a long season to gather 23 players for the World Cup, the coach has made the important stipulation: Mind therapy is there if - and only if - each player wishes to tap into it.