Have Liverpool 'Flops' Been Fixed By Brain Mechanic?

Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson look like new players in recent weeks. Is it a coincidence that Liverpool appointed a man known as the 'brain mechanic'?

Last Updated: 22/01/13 at 16:35 Post Comment

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Before playing Manchester United earlier this month, Brendan Rodgers talked about how he had restored some value to Jordan Henderson, Jose Enrique and Stewart Downing. In fairness to Liverpool's manager, even his archest critics would have to agree that each has been much improved of late - even if the Rodgers spiel smacked of more than a little self-promotion. So what could be behind the changes that have left all three players looking, well, decent?

Perhaps it was an encouraging arm round the shoulder from the gaffer or even fear of Brendan's sinister Derren Brown envelopes that has brought about the improvement. Or maybe the impending transfer window helped focus the players' minds. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these things - or none of them at all. It could simply be that each has just settled down to life at Anfield and found their feet.

But there is another interesting possibility - Brendan Rodgers' decision to hire the man they call the 'brain mechanic', Dr Steve Peters, at the tail end of November. Some of you will have recognised the name immediately. For those who are unfamiliar with the good doctor, Peters is the sports psychiatrist who was seen as central to the overwhelming success of the British Cycling squad in recent years.

When plotting the road to success for the cyclists, their lauded manager Dave Brailsford sought to assemble a team of experts not just to manage the athletes - but to support them in every conceivable way, both mental and physical.

Brailsford is a great believer in the idea that a focus on small details can bring numerous incremental gains, the kinds of gains that can make the difference in top level sport. Peters was headhunted to strengthen the 'mental architecture' of the likes of Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, and if their testimony is anything to go by, he succeeded in furnishing them with a critical mental edge.

Brendan Rodgers holds similar beliefs to Brailsford - and without the money to compete in the transfer market with the league's big guns, feels he must explore other ways to chip away at their advantage. In making the appointment, the Liverpool manager explained that with so much emphasis in football being placed on technical, tactical and physical training, the mental side of things can be ignored.

Peters has been hired to address this issue. As a psychiatrist, he will delve deeper than the sports psychologists that are now commonly used by football clubs and do more than just coach positive thinking techniques. Peters focuses on identifying flaws in an athlete's mental architecture, flaws that when the pressure is on will undermine any positive thinking technique and inhibit the athlete's performance. The brain mechanic offers an enabling approach that helps athletes manage the way they operate under pressure, with the emphasis on differentiating between emotional and logical thinking. The logical part of the brain, according to Peters, is what an athlete must access to enhance performance; the emotional, irrational part of the brain, the source of doubts that foster inhibition and cloud decision making, must be switched off.

Definitively ascertaining whether an athlete's performance is improving because of psychiatric consultation is extremely difficult - something Peters freely admitted to Brailsford when initially asked to work with the cycling squad. But according to Peters (in an interview for the Leaders in Performance organisation last year) Brailsford "accepted that while some things can't be measured, you can still recognise the outcomes. That outcome may not be directly attributable to the psych work but it correlates with it. In other words when you start seeing trends and correlations, it's clear that it's working".

Could this explain the improvement we are seeing in Henderson, Downing, Enrqiue - and even in Joe Cole (now back at West Ham)? Henderson's brilliant goal and Downing's wonderful assist in Saturday's thrashing of Norwich are obvious examples of growing confidence. But pehaps the longer-term trend has been a discernible change in attitude in both players. For far too long, both played in fear - concerned about abuse from the stands, they kept things simple, did everything easy, kept the ball red. But neither was really impacting the game - neither was doing what they were bought to do. Downing's inhibitions became all the more glaring when you compared his efforts to the fearless, positive play of Raheem Sterling.

But in recent months, you can see a change, most marked in the willingness of both players to try things, to be positive, to affect the game. Are these the kinds of outcomes that Peters talked about with Brailsford? Who knows for sure - but there is a correlation, at least in terms of time, with Peters' appointment by Rodgers and the improved form of the two England internationals (and cole and Enrique).

If Peters had not gained renown with the all-conquering cycling team, his appointment might just be seen as more hocus-pocus from Rodgers. But given his reputation, the man who earlier in his career spent 12 years working to make dangerous psychotics less of a threat to society, might well be at least partly responsible for making Downing and Henderson more of a menace to Premier League opponents.

Paul Little - find him on Twitter @little_football

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