Football's mind game is often the most punishing of all
Published 05/12/2010 | 05:00
'Suppose he thinks he's Gordon Banks now, does he?' This was the response of one of the lads when a team-mate returned from a session with a sports psychologist. That was a few years ago, but seeking help in that particular profession was dismissed out of hand by most. I hope things have changed since, but I suspect they haven't.
Prior to Liverpool's game in the Europa League last week, the mental state of Joe Cole was discussed openly by Roy Hodgson at a press briefing. According to the manager, Cole's failure to make an immediate impact this season has resulted in the player doubting himself and his ability.
I'm sure injuries haven't helped, nor has the quality of some of his new teammates, but Hodgson said everyone is doing all they can to help him out. Joe Cole himself was having none of it.
The experience of playing with low self-confidence is unique for every player. All players deal with it differently and attempt to overcome it in their own way. On my very worst days, I deliberately stayed away from any of the older players in the warm-up on the pitch prior to kick-off. I was one of the youngest in the squad at the time so I pretty much ran around on my own without the ball.
I was so sure I was out of my depth that I doubted my ability to control the ball if it came near me. Avoiding the ball meant avoiding a mistake which would result in a bollocking from the lads. It would simply have re-affirmed what I believed to be true already: that I belonged elsewhere. You can imagine how I performed in matches on days like that.
Putting myself in goal-scoring positions wasn't overly appealing given the absolute certainty I felt that I'd miss if the ball came near me. It's what pundits mean when they refer to players hiding on the pitch. It's not because you don't want to score.
It stems from a belief that you won't because you're just not good enough. I get that feeling every time I watch Emile Heskey play, for example. The criticism for not being in the right position is a lot easier to take than the stick you hear if you miss a sitter.
The flipside was equally powerful. Playing with the belief that you are at your very best can be priceless. Every player has played on days when they just knew they would be a success.
It can be very difficult to describe why you feel that way, and harder still to understand why you can't be like it in every game, but these are the days you enjoy more than any other. Everything seems effortless.
Cole dismissed Hodgson's comments immediately after Thursday night's game and I would imagine he was none too impressed at having to do so. Lacking belief is seen as a weakness in football and few would openly admit it.
That Cole was quick to rubbish his manager's comments is understandable. It is rare players open up in post-match interviews anyway, but I have no doubt he would have had plenty to say to his manager in private for bringing such a topic into the open.
If low self-confidence is really an issue, he will get a lot more value out of a few sessions with a sports psychologist than any number of pep-talks from the senior
players who are said to be supporting him, some of whom might want his place in the team anyway.
Anyone who has ever played the game (or any other game for that matter) will talk endlessly about the importance of confidence and the difficulties of performing if it's in short supply. However, not everyone is open to the idea of contacting those best equipped to help regain it.
Football is notoriously slow to embrace new ideas, but ignoring psychologists in a business which relies so much on the psychological strengths of the players is nonsense.
Clubs have done a lot to educate players on looking after their bodies, but their minds are frequently left unattended. The practice of relying on the kitman or the physio to lift spirits or boost confidence of players who cost millions is ludicrous. Many managers leave players to sort themselves out when help is needed most.
It's not just footballers who need their heads looked at.