Danny Kelly from Talk Sport Radio interviews Dan Abrahams on a variety of football psychology topics, as well as introducing Dan’s new book “Soccer Tough” to the Talk Sport listeners.
Talk Sport – With me as well is football psychologist Dan Abrahams.
Talk Sport – I’d like to ask you 2 questions. Firstly, what is the difference between a sport psychologist and a football manager, and then…
Talk Sport – No, no…let him answer that first…because I think it takes some answering.
Dan Abrahams – I’d say there’s a difference in expertise. Absolutely, football managers do do psychology, I don’t think anyone would debate that. Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson are great football psychologists. But the amount of football psychology they can do within their role is slightly limited. And whenever a football manager says to me, I’m the team psychologist, I’m the football psychologist at this club, so why would I need you?
Talk Sport – Fear! That’s fear speaking isn’t it?
Dan Abrahams – Yes! The first thing I’d say to them is…the problem with that notion is that no footballer is going to come to you and tell you that they lack confidence. Why? Because you are a decision maker. It’s a flawed concept the manager as football psychologist to some extent because you are a key decision maker. If a footballer comes to you and says “Gaffer, I’m not confident right now.” What are you going to do? There is no chance you’re going to play him. So what I say to football coaches and football managers is, look I sit in between you and the players. The players can come and see me and say “I’m suffering from a lack of confidence, or I don’t know how to focus, or something is going on off the pitch and I’m not too happy with and it’s effecting me on the pitch”. I’m that buffer if you like. I can then say to the footballer, would you like me to address this with the manager and the footballer will most likely say, no let’s just work together on this. Or he’ll come to me and he’ll be happy for me to address the situation with the manager. So there are other differences, but that would be one of the main ones.
Talk Sport – And are there any differences between working with an individual sportsman, like say a golfer or tennis player, and a team player like a footballer.
Dan Abrahams – The only difference is that with a team player you will work to help him communicate a bit more effectively, or a lot more in some cases. Whereas in an individual sport communication is less important. But otherwise the concept of teaming and team cohesion, what you’re trying to do is help a footballer, for instance, be the best individual he can be and the best team player he can be. So they work along similar lines.
Talk Sport – Stuart Robson, who sits in that chair often, and who I think is a very smart man. I think he would disagree with you. He says, as an ex professional footballer of course, captain of West Ham and Arsenal in his time. He says the players do the best they can for themselves and if that happens to help the team then so be it. But first and foremost they look out for themselves. They play as well as they can personally and then the team comes next.
Dan Abrahams – I wouldn’t disagree. The inner workings of a football club…it’s far more of an individual sport than you’d actually think at all levels. Footballers are being dropped all the time and they’re absolutely gutted and devastated when they are. Younger footballers are trying to make their way into the team with other older footballers in their way. So in terms of club politics it’s quite an individual sport. That said, and Stuart is 100% correct, you are trying to be the best you can be as an individual on match day. So you are trying to execute your role and responsibilities with the utmost belief and confidence that you can. However you are also there to help your team mates. You are there to vocalise either support or instruction. Now if you’re a full back next your centre back…that centre back can’t see the whole pitch…so you’re there to communicate to that centre back what’s going on around him, so, look, you’re trying to be the best individual you can be but also the best team player you can be.
Talk Sport – And of course it is noticeable that the very, very, very top; most of the outstanding footballers of the last few generations, and maybe this is because you have to be…I’m thinking about Messi, Zinedine Zidane, they have been fantastic team players as well. There are exceptions, where you could argue not. Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t always been the most fantastic team player although he has proved under Mourinho even in that respect. Something I wanted to talk to you about, the difficulty of dealing with individuals in the environment that sport tends to produce. What interested me was Marcus Trescothick’s (a cricketer) award winning autobiography a few years ago, in which people tended to focus on the fact he admitted he was depressed while playing for England. Although that wasn’t the thing that interested me the most. What interested me was the thing that was holding him back from revealing this to even his nearest colleagues was the locker room atmosphere where it’s all about being blokey, taking the mick out of each other. He felt that his whole career would go down the drain if he admitted to anybody in cricket, not just his manager, that he wasn’t enjoying the game anymore.
Dan Abrahams – Absolutely, and working in a football environment, the environment is very much about banter. Having a sensible conversation at a football club can be few and far between. I think the pressure on sports people is the immediacy of outcome, the immediacy of result. If you make a mistake, if you’re out for a duck, if you miss a golden opportunity, you get punished verbally, you punish yourself. Straight away, it’s there for the world to see. That’s enormously stressful, and that’s why someone like myself, a sport psychologist is so important in this situation. If you take the Marcus Trescothick situation, and I don’t know huge amounts about it, and I don’t want to make assumptions about the England management at the time, I think it would have been important to have someone in place who Marcus could have spoken to prior to it coming out or it manifesting itself in depression. So I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a blokey, banter dressing room provided there is an escape, a safety valve for those players.
Talk Sport – Have you ever worked with a manager?
Dan Abrahams – Yes.
Talk Sport – Really, so it’s not just sportsmen? And what the manager lacked confidence?
Dan Abrahams – Yeah, there’s a range of things you work on with managers, whether it’s their own self-confidence or whether it’s managing themselves under pressure. I always say your pulse rate doesn’t want to get above 100, you don’t want to be either too up or too down, otherwise you can’t think rationally. If you think about an exceptionally emotional moment you have, the part of the brain that thinks rationally, that thinks intellectually, the part of the brain that will help them sort out the tactics in a match day situation completely shuts down, so they need self-management strategies. But you’re also working with management to be able to communicate effectively with players. Communication tends to be this invisible thing, but it’s so important to be able to manage your relationship with the players, being able to motivate the players, which is a much more subtle thing than you actually think. So yes I do a lot of work with managers and coaches.
Talk Sport – There are two major junctures in professional sport. The first is when they get their first professional Premier league contract or their first IPL contract in cricket and suddenly find themselves very rich people and they also have a second junction Dan Abrahams when they effectively stop playing their sport, and there are some horrible statistics that there is more suicide among cricketers than anyone else in the nation and in football there seems to be divorce. There seems to be consequences of retiring. The PFA tend to treat this as a social issue…save your money, prepare for the next life and all the rest of it. But it seems to me that on a deeper level this is a deeply troubling time for people when they give up the game.
Dan Abrahams – Absolutely, they fall in love with the lifestyle. They fall in love with being around their mates everyday and when you retire that is gone…that is gone forever. And I think that realism kicks in when you’re sitting in your armchair at home, and you haven’t got that banter and you haven’t got Saturday to look forward to.
Talk Sport – Even though you are fantastically wealthy?
Dan Abrahams – I don’t think wealth inoculates anyone from feeling lonely, not having your friends around you that you’ve had for your whole career. So it’s an enormous challenge, and I think one of the things we have to do…and I can speak in terms of football…it to make sure, as young footballers win pro contracts that they have other things in their life. I know from having worked at several Academies, those who win pro contracts aren’t advised or made to go on and continue their education. There is no provision there, and I think that is very important that that should be provided.
Talk Sport – I think I’m right in thinking that that is a very extraordinary life event. There we go I’m signing my name on a piece of paper, that took one and a half seconds. In that one and a half seconds your life is profoundly changed for you. It would be unusual if that didn’t change people.
Dan Abrahams – Absolutely. I always quote the Barcelona Academy here. They say, we are not trying to create extraordinary footballers, we are trying to create extraordinary individuals. If they become extraordinary footballers as a consequence then absolutely fantastic. But those young players coming through up to the age of 18, they go to school until 5pm, they then go and train. They are at the La Masia site. They stay there. Their environment is managed. That makes an enormous difference. They are grounded, they are humble, they are focused. And that is what we have to bring into British football.
Talk Sport – Do you think that one of the reasons for the high divorce rate could be that the husband and wife see more, maybe too much of each other after retirement?
Dan Abrahams – Possibly. Many sports are subject to going on tour. I can say as a teenager, I looked at the golf tour, and I thought wow you get to be away 30 weeks a year and you think, fantastic. But then you get to your early twenties and you’ve got your friends at home and suddenly going out on tour isn’t as appealing. And I know several golfers who have won major championships or big tournaments and thought, is that it? All this hard work, 8 hours a day, my hands are bleeding, I’ve gone and won what I wanted to and that’s it really.
Talk Sport – Well listen, we’ve been talking for the last half an hour, and I hope entertainingly and illuminatingly. But these are theories, these are concepts. This is football psychology we talked about without example. You’ve written a book. It’s called “Soccer Tough”, subtitle, “Simple Football Techniques to improve your game.” And Dan in there you’ve actually written about some of your successes, and you can actually name names, and I’m sure the players won’t mind. Who would you say has been your greatest success, someone you’ve really helped?
Dan Abrahams – Yeah sure that would have to be a guy called Carlton Cole. I started working with Coley in August 2007 when he was languishing in the West Ham reserves. 18 months later, a lot of hard work later, he won his first England cap under Fabio Capello.
Talk Sport – And he’s a classic example, and I’m not a football psychologist, you may have worked that out by now, but I can still see, he is, we call them confidence players. There are times, you can tell me how you contributed to this, I remember when he started to really play well for West Ham. He was playing against Arsenal for West Ham at Upton Park. He was playing against some of the best players in the world. He must have had 40 touches of the ball in the entire game, every one of them brilliant, absolutely spot on. He led the line, he pulled the Arsenal players out of position, and I thought, why doesn’t he play like that all the time? Clearly he can do it, he is a confidence player. What did you have to do?
Dan Abrahams – There was a lot of things we worked on. It was really a case of helping him manage his environment, rather than his environment managing him. I can say this because it is in the book…he admitted to me, when I run onto the pitch, when I cross that white line in the Premier League, I don’t feel as comfortable as I should do, I don’t feel as confident, I’m not full of self-belief. So really it was a case of helping him take control of himself.
Talk Sport – Why did he feel like that, because he’s a big strong guy, he gets well paid, he’s physically very fit and clearly you can see at times he can play football. Why did he feel so unconfident, so alien in his workplace?
Dan Abrahams – You know what the first time he walked into the room and I met him, I just couldn’t believe this guy. He’s 6 foot 3. I thought he’d be exuding confidence. But he wasn’t. Your outward projection doesn’t always represent how you feel inwardly, and he just didn’t feel that way. You know Claudio Ranieri called him his lion when he was a youngster at Chelsea, but that confidence dissipated and didn’t carry through. You know he came on against Middleborough on his debut and scored, but he didn’t manage to build that momentum of confidence. And I think there were outside influences, focuses that took him away from the game. But what it added up to when he was 24 when I met him at West Ham, was this guy isn’t confident enough. So just some very simple techniques revolving around him taking control of his body language, taking control of his physiology, and taking control of what he was saying to himself. He had an infestation of what I call, and I use this term in the book, ANTs. ANTs is an acronym for automatic negative thoughts. I said to him, your job is to squash those ANTs. You need to find a way to talk to yourself in a style that is confident, dominant and dynamic. And you need to silence that inner critic by getting on your toes, dancing your feet and getting your head up. Once he was able to get his head up and once he was able to get on his toes, he was able to become more aware of what was going on around him. That sped up his anticipation. That sped up his decision making. That helped him become much more confident. I think back to the Spain game when it all culminated with him standing there. He came onto the pitch in the 75th minute and he said “I refused to let the pressure get to me. I was standing there, I kept my head high, I was bouncing up and down. I stormed onto that pitch. I was reciting in my head… Come on, this is my day, I’m going to be dominant, I’m going to be dominant.” And he had a great 15 minutes.
Talk Sport – At the other end of that scale, could you help Nicholas Bendtner? Who has had the mickey taken out of him for long enough for saying he’s the best player in the world. He thinks he’s a great player. He had an excellent Euro 2012. He did play well for Denmark. But for Arsenal and other clubs he’s been loaned out to. He still goes on saying what a great player he is, but it doesn’t turn into, in our opinion, often enough, action on the pitch. Can you be over confident?
Dan Abrahams – Overconfident probably isn’t the word, maybe false confidence. One of the biggest challenges for any footballer or athlete is to have that balance between thinking about how great you are and remembering the good stuff, but also being able to take a microscopic look at your areas of weaknesses, the areas you need to improve. And what I’d like to do with someone like Nicholas Bendtner, you need to give him objective evidence, so you’d give him statistics, you’d stick in front of the game and force him to objectively analyse that game and try to break down that game. I want footballers to be excited and passionate about being a student of the game and not enough of them are and that’s very frustrating. I want them to watch their games back, examine what they did well, but also what they didn’t do well.
Talk Sport – Can we lie to ourselves?
Dan Abrahams – I think you can consciously say in your mind enough times “I’m great, I’m fantastic” and that takes us off in a focus direction of everything we do well. If I say to you the word, the colour, ‘red’, instantly in your mind what are you looking at now? The red colours around the studio become attractive to you. So if you’ve got a player like Nicholas Bendtner who is constantly saying to himself “I’m great, I’m fantastic” he will tend to orient only to what he does well. You are trying to direct his focus away from that onto areas he needs to improve, but at the same time maintain his confidence, and that’s enormously challenging, but possible.