The sheer scale of the turnaround under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has inevitably triggered a backlash in certain quarters and has narrowed the eyes of those Manchester United fans still hypnotised by the final wafts of Jose Mourinho’s poison cloud as it lifts from Old Trafford. The players are snakes, Paul Pogba’s a bastard, the sudden rediscovery of form proof that all those pundits were right to say the players must take a large portion of the blame for what happened under Mourinho. They should have been stronger. They should have battled through. Today’s stars are pampered. Precious. Weak.
Football reflects a cross-section of society like nothing else, and in the background noise to United’s renaissance is a perfect microcosm of the groaning, clunking cultural shift in our understanding of psychology and mental health. There’s the painful gradual progress in changing attitudes, and then there’s the backlash. There’s the nurturing and caring and feeling of a society finally peering into the chasm to confront our shared vulnerability, and then there’s the cries of ‘snowflake’ from the embittered and the frozen – the ones who perhaps need this change the most.
It’s only football, and it’s only millionaires in a dream job, but what’s fascinating about the response to United’s change in fortune is what it says about the public perception of psychology – and just how large the blind spot remains for a sport constantly searching for the smallest edge at elite level.
The theory goes that the players of yesteryear – those same players who faced brutal initiations, who grew up in a youth culture of bullying and intimidation – would not have cowered under Mourinho’s criticism but risen to the challenge. The theory also goes that failing to flourish was a conscious choice, a sign of gutlessness or disloyalty. It is easy to confuse the physical effects of low morale with not working hard enough, just as it is so easy to confuse the symptoms of depression with slothliness.
This is not to suggest any United player suffered serious mental health issues under Mourinho, but rather that football’s recognition of the effects of psychology – inside the game and out – is still massively under-appreciated. ‘Confidence’ and ‘morale’ are common buzzwords in sport and yet, deep down, we still don’t quite believe it when we see the impact it has on performance. United’s turnaround is a stark example, as is the current form of Alvaro Morata, a thoughtful footballer who has spoken eloquently on the issue before.
“People think we’re machines; they don’t realise that behind a bad run there’s almost always a personal problem, some family issue,” Morata told Sid Lowe for the Guardian in April 2017. “You have feelings, you make mistakes, you’re a person.” Among the Premier League players currently struggling for form – ambling about the pitch, hiding from the ball – how many are simply suffering from low self-esteem? And how many of those players have we written off as “not good enough” at a time they most need support to feel themselves again?
The Premier League is gradually overcoming its outdated ideas of mental health. Most clubs now employ a sports psychologist, and the culture has notably shifted at youth level (according to sports psychologist Bradley Busch in an interview with Rob Conlon for Planet Football), while Shellie Heather – Head of Operations at Sporting Chance, a mental health charity that works in conjunction with the PFA – told me in 2016 that “I’m not sure where else in society mental health issues are so high on an industry’s agenda”.
Nevertheless it seems strange that – aside from supporting those with serious concerns – the sport continues to neglect investing in strategies to enhance a team’s psychological well-being. Elite-level football is defined by the smallest of margins and extraordinary care and attention is given to improving technical ability, coaching, diet, sleep patterns, you name it. But perhaps the single biggest determining factor is still bizarrely under-explored: confidence. From Morata’s form to United’s transformation, the evidence is everywhere. It’s surely only a matter of time before one club sparks perhaps the last great revolution in football.
Sports psychologists tend to focus on mental exercises that produce a quantifiable increase in player performance, essentially offering a service aimed at delivering a higher yield, rather than developing mental wellbeing. As detailed in Mark Bailey’s interview with Busch for the Telegraph, psychologists teach techniques including positive self-talk, improved body language and anger-management exercises aimed at clearing the mind of outside influences. The idea is to increase focus and composure to produce more consistent results on the field.
That’s all well and good, but it only scratches the surface of what psychological support could do for players who, as Morata suggests, are not simply machines that need to be programmed to increase their output.
What about actual therapy? Every player in weekly personal therapy, paid for by the club. What about a weekly process group, a form of group therapy that is typically run by an external psychologist but led by the group’s members? This might seem like a radical – or just plain unnecessary – idea, but footballers live in a unique bubble: of fame and rejection, often shuttling from country to country in their teens, given an exact monetary value and suffering derision when they fall down the pyramid. Like the rest of us, they would have an awful lot to talk about with a therapist.
Every student of the game knows that self-esteem dramatically alters a player’s performance – even if many of us refuse to believe it when we see the results (it’s far easier to dehumanise, to judge a player’s ability as if it’s a fixed statistic on a FIFA game). Is it so far-fetched, then, to suggest clubs could gain a crucial advantage by employing counsellors to help players develop emotionally?
It’s perhaps too soon for a revolution on this scale. But eventually the taboos will disappear and the opportunity for change will arrive once the next generation –the first to experience sports psychology at academy level, the first to receive school education on mental health – grow up to be the pampered snowflakes that are labelled the heroes, or villains, of the Premier League.