Talking football and psychology: The players

John Nicholson

You know Alan Tyers. He joined Football365’s happy band of wanderers back in 1999 and together, we wrote ‘classics’ such as Not The Euros 2008 and the epic c*nts versus non-c*nts battle and the surreal adventures of Big Sam and Reidy (which saw them living in the drainage system of the Bangkok Hilton and Sam performing on Strictly Come Dancing naked except for a wooden barrel). Together we forged the Proper Football Man concept, which has now passed into football parlance.

But after years of writing about football and cricket, Al decided to make a brave move and change his career completely. He’s now a BACP-registered, qualified psychotherapist.  So we sat down for a chat about how his new profession informs how he sees the game. We started this three-part talk discussing psychological issues for players.


JN: It seems to me the worst thing about being a footballer is being judged in public by tens of thousands of people as a form of entertainment. Sport is unique in that. How could psychotherapy help deal with it?

AT: I guess in the first instance you’d try to invite a footballer to see that they can only control their own actions, and hopefully control the ball, not how people react. Not the worst mindset for life in general, either. And to recognise that they are being used as a receptacle for other people’s emotions – frustrations or whatever. I guess ultimately they’d need to see the love and booing alike as both transient, and only partly related to them. Even if it is directed at them.

JN: Yeah, I can see that. We waste so much time worrying about what other people are thinking and saying about us, when we have no control over that at all. It must be a hundred times worse for a top footballer.

AT: Well these players must already have significant resilience, I think. We’ve all been at matches where a player is getting a coating from his own fans and I always feel bad for them. And it’s hardly likely to make them play better or be more brave, is it? But only quite rarely do you hear, at least in public, of a player saying it has made them want to stop. So they must get pretty good at switching off the distractions and compartmentalising so that they don’t get totally distracted and overwhelmed.

JN: That amazes me. How do they do that? How do any of us do it?

AT: If you go right back to the roots of psychotherapy, that was Sigmund Freud – top, top player – crystallising the idea of the unconscious. Freud reckoned that the conscious mind, i.e. that which we are aware of, is only the tip of the iceberg and there are much more powerful forces bubbling underneath. Part of therapy is about trying to help people understand more about those forces, the stuff we’re not really aware of. Like those ‘I wish I didn’t keep falling into the same habit’ or ‘why do I always get sad when someone does such-and-such?’ feelings: in therapy, you’re trying to help people understand more about their hidden, repressed desires. For Freud that was the id, the ego and the superego. The id being the animal drives. And the superego being the fear of punishment, civilisation essentially. So football the id, superego the ref. And the ego, basically our conscious rational bit, has to mediate between the two. Tough, because the id and the superego are often more powerful, by dint of being sneaky and unconscious. Basically, the ego is over-run in midfield.

JN: And I’m sure Souey would want to know what Paul Pogba was doing about that.

AT: Ah Souey. I definitely feel in another life that he could have pioneered some very effective, very experimental, very unregulated psychological growth techniques, probably involving elbows. But clearly very few of us do our job while being told we are useless by thousands of strangers (and Souey), but we all have to build up an amount of ego strength to deal with the world around us and the competing forces of passion/drive and fear of punishment and criticism. Footballers I would imagine have to appear robust, even if they don’t feel it. VAR, which I personally hate, seems to be a very Freudian thing: the raw animal rush of a goal being picked at and scrutinised by a superego in Stockley Park.

JN: We’ll talk in depth about VAR and how it reflects the modern state-of-mind in another piece, I think, but most clubs have some sort of sports therapist now, don’t they? Do you think players could benefit from regular psychotherapy?

AT: I would say so. I mean, not every player at every moment of their life, but yeah. I reckon there’s not many humans who wouldn’t benefit from someone listening to them and helping them make sense of their past, relationships, hang-ups or whatever. Why not footballers? I think something that has really been lost in the Premier League era with the money and the media hype is that these are ordinary people with an extraordinary job.

On one hand, I guess they’re used to routine and focusing and trying to ‘improve’, so that would be a good fit for psychotherapy. Not that I think therapy has to be about improving yourself, but at least examining yourself. On the other, I would imagine that trust might be a factor and that they come from an environment where vulnerability = weakness.

JN: I always feel that is very near a lot of the players’ emotional surface.

AT: You can generally build a supportive environment for most people to open up, assuming they want to be there. Occasionally you’ll get somebody who has had to come for counselling because of a court order or a marital ultimatum or whatever, and that does tend to be a trickier fixture.

But yeah I think lots of footballers would benefit. Apart from possibly goal poachers: I think for that, you don’t really want to have too enquiring a mind. You want that ruthless laser focus, ignoring everything else, something a bit detached inside. And you wouldn’t want to turn a 25-goal-a-season machine into someone who was pondering the meaning of life when they’re one-on-one with a keeper.

JN: Ha, indeed. Overthinking can be a curse in so many aspects of life from the workplace to the bedroom. Moving on to something which we’ve both satirised much over the years: the banter culture of humiliation. Why is it still such a strong culture in football?

AT: Humans have wonderful capacity for love, but we also cannot get enough of being sadistic to each other. Part of this, I think, is that football lends itself to black and white thinking: the adored player who becomes a Judas when he leaves, the ‘us vs the world’ tribalism, the way fans and the media will unrealistically big someone up and then make out the player is completely useless a few months later. That’s part of the appeal of following football: reserving the right to have an extreme reaction. Banter culture is all part of that.

JN: It also seems to me to be a very male thing. I can’t imagine a female footballer shitting into a team-mate’s kitbag in the name of #bantz, can you? That black and white, right or wrong attitude, also seems to be largely a masculine thing.

AT: In general, that sort of thinking does seem to cause problems for people. Very early in childhood, that’s all we have: things are all good or all bad, bliss or rage. But as the personality forms and we develop, we are able to see a bit more light and shade, although there’s always that pull in us to go back to a split, ‘everything’s good’ or ‘everything’s awful’ way of thinking, particularly under stress. I mean, you only have to look at the news and social media. You don’t get many retweets for going ‘Oh well that pundit wasn’t spot on but I could see where they were going.’

I’m not sure if that’s gendered or not really but I would say that men might feel societal pressure to be decisive, have strident views, not admit wrong, like anything nuanced might be a weakness. Clearly we live in an age where loads of people are asking what it means to be male, or masculine. Quite often male clients are wrestling with those expectations, roles, pressures. Although I would say that any stigma about men going to therapy has changed hugely in the last generation, those waters run deep.

JN: That’s changed much even in the last couple of years. If you said you were having psychotherapy in the 90s, you’d be slaughtered mercilessly for it. The boys would probably make you wear a hat with ‘nutter’ written on it, and have a straitjacket made for you. That being said, it’s often said, especially by ex-players that players are ‘softer’ and more sensitive these days and don’t like being shouted at. If that’s true, is being more sensitive a good or bad thing in this context?

AT: From what I read and watch, the women’s game seems to have been a long way ahead in terms of understanding mental health but the men’s game has clearly made a big effort in the last, what, ten years? I remember when I worked at F365 and us kind of boggling at John Gregory saying that rubbish about how could Collymore be depressed when he’s on 20 grand a week – that must be nearly 20 years ago and it seems a long time ago, in terms of what football people will say in public at any rate.

Footballers in their 20s are from a generation that is way more familiar with depression, gender and sexual identity, mental health, bullying, racism being in the conversation. If I think back to being that age, we just didn’t really have a facility with language that younger people do to talk about a lot of those feelings. I’m not sure if the players are harder or softer, but I think they probably would be bolder at calling out bullying.

JN: Though clearly, there is an issue around being gay and being a male footballer which isn’t present in women’s football.

AT: That’s a bridge that has yet to be crossed, certainly, perhaps out of fear of being bullied. Being bullied at work can be seriously distressing, not least because it might reactivate buried feelings of abuse, of all kinds, from earlier life. Clearly in a competitive environment, people are going to lose their rag every now and again, but yeah, if it means that some dinosaur manager can’t scream in the face of a 19-year-old kid then I think that’s probably a good development. It’d be a shame if there were incredible footballers we are missing out on because they cannot put up with Dave McBastard yelling at them or people cutting their trousers in half because they don’t bother with the golf.

JN: I like the sound of Dave McBastard. I think he once managed Falkirk but was sacked after punching a horse in a team bonding drinking session that got out of hand.

Following on from that, how much of being any good at football is psychological and how much talent/skill? Seems to me that you can have all the technique you want but if you’re mentally not in the right place, it’s almost useless.

AT: Along with the fact it isn’t scripted, I personally find the interplay between the mental and physical to be the most enduring fascination of sport. Football, being a chaotic and kinetic team game, makes it maybe harder to pick out the mental from the physical than, say, darts when you can see one player growing in mental strength as another wilts. But clearly there have been any number of players who have made the best of limited resources and supreme talents who have underperformed due to not being able to focus, stay on the straight and narrow, or what have you.

JN: How you respond to stress is obviously an individual thing. I think back to that Lee Bowyer and Jonny Woodgate business, God, that’s about 20 years ago now. And Bowyer was in great form throughout that trial but Woody looked weighed down by it. For one the football seemed to be an escape, but the other couldn’t let it go.

AT: We’re still learning about the effect of stress and trauma on the brain, particularly in younger people, and how pathways get set in the brain with our responses to situations. Obviously your Sigmund Freuds were leading the way at the end of the 19th century but psychotherapy really got promotion into the top flight after the First World War. A generation of people came back from the war with what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or similar. There was a medical and compassionate angle but a lot of psychotherapy was establishment, military, productivity related.

JN: Is there such a thing as a winning mentality, do you think? If there was, surely whoever owned it would win all the time.

AT: It’s an interesting question. We hear about this mythic thing all the time. ‘He’s a winner’ and all of that. I do believe that you can get a culture in an organisation that runs deep and might not be fully consciously understood by the people in the organisation. In the same way fish probably don’t know they are in water. And that culture could be positive or negative. I think you can create an environment where both people or a group are predisposed to believe that things are going to work out, and develop a robustness to deal with it on the occasions they don’t. I personally and clinically don’t go in too much for the self-helpy ‘get a winning amazing life in three easy steps’ side of things, but I think by understanding ourselves and our own story better we can increase our resilience to setbacks – why is this causing me so much distress? – and feel a bit stronger to deal with the inevitable uncertainty of the unknown future.

JN: So being ‘a winner’ and having this ‘winning mentality’ is actually as much about how to handle setbacks as it is having the grit and determination to be the best?

AT: I would say so. In individual sports you hear people talk about flow, that semi-mythic state where everything seems to be happening in slow motion, they feel like everything they try comes off. I find that intriguing, and think about how that can happen in everyday life as well – playing music, writing. Also I think that feeling when you’re talking with someone and you feel on the same wavelength, genuinely connected. I think that’s one of the most special feelings you can have. I mean, most of us are never going to know the feeling of receiving the ball to feet and time seeming to stop as you glide away from a defender, or knowing for certain that the next shot you play is going to the Lord’s cover boundary for four, or whatever. But I think human connection can feel similar to that flow.

JN: I suspect that is the addictive thing about it. A drop of the joy in knowing you are, in the moment, brilliant, must be a powerful brew and hard to do without once you’ve tasted it.

AT: Maybe this is why some supremely talented players struggle with their post-playing career. In ‘real’ life, lots of people only really find their path in their late 20s, 30s, or beyond: at the same age when footballers are ‘retiring’. It seems weird really to think of a guy at 33 ‘hanging up his boots’. I mean I know there’s a sporting reality, knees, lack of pace, whatever but you see time and again what a shock to the system it is for guys who have been living a dream until their mid 30s and suddenly they don’t have much purpose, or at least they have to find a different purpose.

Any big life transition can really rock someone’s sense of self and who they are, not just because of the changes themselves but because it dredges up other feelings of loss, abandonment, loss of potency, not feeling good enough. It’s all sex and death basically.

JN: And with that bombshell, we’ll draw this to a close before Dave McBastard returns to shows us all too graphically just how much it really is about sex and death, with the aid of an inflatable doll and a large knife.

Next week we’ll be discussing managers.


Al Tyers is a psychotherapist and counsellor in London, and online, with a focus on anxiety and self-esteem issues in adults who might have had difficult experiences earlier in life. He was talking to John Nicholson.