Saturday 22 October 2016

Perpetuating the myth that football's real men don't need psychological help

Published 20/09/2015 | 17:00

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho

Ever wonder why Patrick Vieira spat in the direction of Neil Ruddock? Or what caused Roy Keane to throw a punch at Alan Shearer? Why would Luis Suarez bite three different opponents? And what brought Zinedine Zidane to the point of head-butting Marco Materazzi? After all, it's not like these were players who had to make up for shortcomings in their ability.

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There was a time when a player's psychological make-up was discussed in simple terms. Footballers were big-game players or bottlers. Some were seen as 'confidence players'. You might have heard others be described as a 'man's man'. Mental toughness was key to success, but you either had it or you didn't. I don't remember players being described in terms of emotional intelligence, but in the realm of sports science and sports psychology that's the term now used.

Jose Mourinho last week dismissed the need for sports psychologists at Chelsea. His team were under-performing, conceding goals and losing matches, while appearing to lack confidence, cohesion and togetherness. Mourinho was asked if a psychologist was needed to help the players return to previous levels, but he was having none of it.

There are many reasons why a manager would be against employing a sports psychologist. He may be too insecure to give an outsider total access to the minds of his players. He might also be sceptical of the merits of the work. And I'm sure Mourinho thinks he knows a thing or two about motivating elite players to be at their best. Some managers just don't believe they need the help.

Mourinho gave a particular reason as to why such expertise wouldn't be needed at Chelsea. "No psychologists," he said. "Because I think we are men. Because our group is very strong."

Men don't see psychologists, then? Only people who aren't strong see psychologists? Some of his other comments were quite vague, but essentially, he seemed to be saying that in this area he believes people are self-sufficient.

But not needing a psychologist because they are men? In fairness I don't think he means all males. I don't think he is saying that psychologists should limit their work to females or that by virtue of being born male you shouldn't need this help.

It would appear he is doing what many before him have done, and many more continue to do, which is to promote a particular idea of what constitutes being a real man.

To Mourinho, that's someone too strong and too robust to ever need help. It's someone who knows exactly how to be at their best in any set of circumstances. Someone who deep down has all the answers themselves and shouldn't require external input to know what to do.

Mourinho is subtly perpetuating the myth that a real man shouldn't find himself in a position to need help. As he put it, his players are too strong and too experienced for all that. They have the solution within themselves so they'll be fine. It hardly needs to be pointed out at this stage, but this is exactly the thinking that has so many men in insufferable pain in all areas of society. They believe the option of asking for help is not on the table. Buying into this bullshit of what defines masculinity is what costs men their lives.

Emotional intelligence may be a new term to use but the concept is an old one. In elite sport, it's always been about finding ways to think clearly when the bullets are flying. Can I repeat the most basic of skills in the harshest environment? When the stakes are high can I keep my cool and perform? And if I can't, most importantly, what do I need to do to improve?

Even if Chelsea build on yesterday's win over Arsenal, Mourinho was wrong to say what he said. His players may have qualities he respects and admires, but this is about more than whether they can control their minds and their emotions during a match. Psychologists are trained to work effectively with people who could do with the help. People shouldn't suggest that asking for that help means you're any less of a man.

Mourinho probably thinks hiring such expertise would make him look weak to the rest of the dressing room, or that from the outside it would be seen that he's starting to lose control. He's far too insecure himself to allow either to happen.

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