Stephen Hunt: How our manager once swam a filthy, freezing cold river to break a losing cycle
Published 30/10/2016 | 16:30
I very much doubt that Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho jumped into a freezing river and swam to the other side to try and jolt their teams out of recent bad form, but that was exactly what I encountered with pretty much the first poor spell of my career.
When Martin Allen took over at Brentford towards the end of the 2003-04 season, we were on a very bad run, and he knew something had to change drastically. So, he did something rather drastic. We'd driven over 250 miles to Hartlepool and, when we got there, he called us together to go down to a local field. Now, I'm not talking about a football field, this was a field for cows, where we were doing stretches and a few set-pieces, whatever.
There was a dirty river at the end of the field and it was absolutely disgusting-looking - as well as very cold. So, Allen pulls us over and goes "if you're going to swim it, swim it" - as if to say, "if you're going to win it, win it; if you're going to do it, do it".
Then, he just strips off, jumps in and swims it, gets out on the other side in his soaking boxers and then runs about 200 metres in the Baltic cold.
I didn't know at the time that he was a bit of a lunatic anyway - he's known as 'Mad Dog' for a reason - but it did take the focus off losing. We ended up talking about him rather than the desperate need to get three points. The 'normality' of losing had been broken, and we went out the next day and won 2-1.
There was definite method to the madness.
In the dressing room and at training, players don't actually use the word "form" that much, but it shows that it is a phenomenon and one that's often psychological.
When you lose two, three games in a row, the subconscious doubt and tension starts to accumulate. A certain impatience - and then anxiety - develops in your game.
You start to see pictures of the game in your mind. You start actually thinking of the pass you're about to make, rather than doing it naturally. When you work with a sports psychologist, you would visualise situations in the build-up to a game, so you could do it naturally on the Saturday, but it becomes a problem if you're doing that mid-game. It shows you're thinking about it all too much and just aren't playing with the same trust and confidence in yourself.
Top teams will become that bit more elaborate and over-complicated in attack, while bottom teams will go too direct.
When you're on a winning run, by contrast, you don't need to think about what you're doing. Everything comes naturally and everyone is on the same wavelength. Sure, you've taken on the tactical preparation, but you're then able to instinctively apply it. You're just free-wheeling all the way and don't dwell on anything.
Something in that is distorted when you're losing.
What you'll notice with a team on a bad run, too, is that they often start games well. It happens so often. That's because they're consciously trying to get on the front foot, to get at the opposition, to force themselves out of it.
Then, there'll either be one bad pass, or one bad decision, and everyone is on the back foot again. The team gets nervous, the crowd gets nervous, and you get into that negative cycle.
A defender will go to clear and slash at a ball, and then it just kind of drops on everyone, not just that player.
But then it's amazing how the psychology works. When it gets very bad and you've no longer got anything to lose, you suddenly go for it. Sunderland are a classic case of this almost every season, or Fulham in 2008. The mentality changes from a nervous mentality to a fighting mentality.
Up until then, a losing run infects an entire club. You know Monday to Friday at training is going to be a grind, whether you're doing preparation on the tactics board, or even 11 v 11 on the pitch. You're dwelling on everything and find yourself looking at the table all the time. "Well, if we do this, and that club slips up . . . " All these things are in your head.
That's why you need good characters to bring the mood up, to alleviate the tension. I think I was good at that, and Steve Coppell (above) used to use me as bait, to have a bit of a laugh. One problem we had with Reading in 2007-08, when we eventually got relegated after a good 2006-07 campaign, was that we signed a few new characters and it created a clique in the dressing room. That can be enough to get the balance wrong. One or two might come in, aren't happy with certain things, and start whispering in people's ears about problems. They get sucked in and, rather than discussing this with the manager, the problem festers just under the surface.
The key question is what managers can do to get out of this. They probably need to change something, but not too much so that the players realise he's very worried too.
Coppell was Reading manager at that time; he was usually calm, and very good at man-management in that way. One of the most effective techniques he ever used was suddenly and subtly switching tack. Coppell was always very constructive with us, even when on a bad run. After one particular bad game, though, he just came into the dressing room, looked at us, shook his head and walked out again.
It made us go home thinking we'd done something really wrong, if even Steve wasn't talking to us about it. But the clever thing was that it put responsibility on us for a change, forcing us to think about what the problem was.
That's the extreme opposite of Allen, who also once did tactics in the middle of a roundabout in London.
In those situations, you often hear managers go on about how the only way out of it is to work hard. Antonio Conte has already said it this season, as have Mourinho and David Moyes. That's just a line, of course, because it's not necessarily the case. Sometimes you just need a bit of love, to maybe take a step back.
I remember we were struggling at one of my clubs, and this manager's response was to work us to the bone. I was a senior player so I approached him and explained we needed to take the foot off the gas a bit. Training was becoming as intense as match day, when it's meant to be different, so the energy of the team wasn't right. He nearly went purple. I could see the veins popping out of his neck, and he immediately snapped back: "is that why you played badly on Saturday?"
But he took it on and listened, as good managers do. They tend to be mature and open-minded to players.
Most of them, however, return to their strong point. Mourinho believes in good shape, so he went back to that. You could actually see the relief after he got that win against Manchester City
That's what a first victory again does. It frees you up. It stops you second-guessing yourself.
You don't always have to jump into a river - although it might work sometimes.