Sunday, 3 February 2008

Gradually going Sons mad

First published in Sons View, 02 February 2008, Dumbarton -v- Elgin

Is being a Sons fan doing yer heid in? It’s the sort of question that occurs to a number of us just as what looked like a welcome draw gets scuppered by an 89th minute goal from an opposing team that refuses to realise one simple fact: the honour of playing the Famous DFC ought to be enough to satisfy anyone’s appetite for glory. No need to go around trying to beat us. Especially at home.

Alternatively, the Dumbarton Sanity Equation, as the regular delicate balance between despair, hope and fury is technically known, may rear its ferocious head between post-match jars of milk and honey in the Community Suite. Often when it’s your round. Make that a chaser, then.

Psychological coaching has played an important part in the game of football ever since the first coach pinned the first centre forward to the dressing room wall and figured that throwing every insult known to humanity at him was bound to improve his performance in the second half. Sometimes, strangely, it worked.

But things have taken a quantum leap since the Fear Factor was first dreamt up in a blind impotent rage at actually being two down to a bunch of one-legged welders from (insert your least favourite team here). Nowadays team talks in faraway places may resonate to the echo of subtle motivational banter (“tell yersel yer gonnae win, y'bunch ae losers!”) or even to a bit of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

NLP, in case you’ve missed it, is a set of techniques for taking a problem, ‘visually framing it’, and then rendering it harmless by association with an image that gives you confidence – that thug of a centre half you’re up against being stuck in a small box and attacked by squirrels, or something.

Alternatively, as a penalty taker, you may be encouraged to imagine that the goal is really very big indeed, thus boosting your ego so that you are sure you will score if you hit the ball right.

That last one has always struck me as part of the problem, however. The whole point is that the goal really isn’t as big as you might be tempted to imagine. That’s why it often gets missed at crucial moments.

While it’s easy to milk psychobabble for cheap laughs (like I’m doing here) there’s a serious side to all this – namely that there are only 138 or so fully qualified football psychologists on the books of the British Association for Counselling and its recognised associates in the sporting field, according to one recent survey.

That means quite a few teams are getting little or no advice at all, while many more are prey to the kind of bonkers stuff that, a few years ago, led Robbie Fowler to be told by Glenn Hoddle’s favourite Medium that his goal scoring problems were caused by seven demons. He was playing for England, so the misinformation didn’t matter, but you get the point.

Now anyone who’s kicked one of those round muddy things around with intent knows that team spirit, fearlessness and self-belief play a massive part in what we achieve, in addition to raw skill and training.

As a kid I would play well some weeks, atrociously on others, especially when I got near goal. I somehow never believed I was going to score. Which meant that I usually didn’t. Fluffing a chance and the thought that you might fluff a chance become close companions in that bit of flexible stuff we have between our ears.

My school coach used to say, “self-belief doesn’t grow on trees, you have to work at it.” He was half-right. If evolutionary psychology has anything to it (Desmond Morris and pals still provoke furious rows) confidence may precisely grow on trees – in the sense that it is the residue of the basic mental survival mechanisms our ancestors used to negotiate the jungle.

So could many players at lower league clubs do with having their pep talks more scientifically tooled up in the mind-warp department? Research says yes, and it wouldn’t turn the game into some Orwellian nightmare played by automatons.

This is because human beings are messy as well as creative; so most attempts to ‘programme’ them are destined to fail. Even so, psychological assistance might help iron out some of the more disabling errors players are prone to. As well as stopping the fans going completely barmy, possibly.

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