World Cup fears for England's Liverpool stars after Palace collapse
Psychiatrist Steve Peters must set his sights on lifting Liverpool's England World Cup contingent
Roy Hodgson was among those looking down from the Selhurst Park stands on Monday night in disbelief as Liverpool let slip both a 3-0 lead over Crystal Palace and perhaps also their remaining chance of winning the Premier League.
Almost two hundred miles north in Sheffield and the sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters was watching another of his students, Ronnie O’Sullivan, lose in equally agonising fashion in the final of the world snooker championship.
Both Liverpool and O’Sullivan have undergone such dramatic improvement since working with Peters that, for all the inevitability of setbacks in sport, two such major disappointments came as a shuddering surprise.
Just five weeks from the start of the World Cup finals, the wider question is whether Liverpool’s likely failure to win a first Premier League title, particularly amid all the frenzied expectation around them, will cause a hangover for England. Liverpool, after all, will supply five of Hodgson’s possible starting line-up against Italy on June 15 in Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Glen Johnson.
One of the key messages within Peters’s ‘chimp management’ model is the utter futility of “beating yourself up” over past mistakes. Another is to live with perspective and to adopt a mindset that puts doing your best far above the actual outcome of the sporting event.
That thinking was evident even seconds after O’Sullivan had lost his world title to Mark Selby when he spoke of his pride at having given his all through the match and feeling in a “better place” than he could ever remember.
This was previously the point, of course, at which O’Sullivan’s ‘inner chimp’ might very well have threatened to retire. According to Andy Barton, a performance consultant who has also worked with a range of leading sports professionals, Peters’s job with the Liverpool footballers will be to bring them back to what he calls “zero” ahead of the World Cup.
“We always start from zero,” Barton said. “If you won six matches in a row away, as Liverpool did, it doesn’t mean anything. Also if you lost the previous six matches you are still at zero. It’s a clean slate. I imagine Steve Peters is working on them to be more carefree, more in the present, not being distracted by scorelines or consequences.”
That is the theory but, in practice, how do you get a squad of 23 young men in this frame of mind? Barton says that there must be one-on-one time to understand what specifically works for individuals.
If the Liverpool players do need particular lifting, they could also be reminded of when triumph often follows deep disappointment and how “we have a choice” in our response. Routines could be established to help form certain mindsets, while perspective could be found from how every nation will be made up of players from clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona who have suffered their own disappointments.
“You also want to get the mind focused on the positive,” Barton says. “Liverpool have had an extraordinary season, far better than anyone expected. Even on Monday they played fantastic football until 12 minutes before the end. It is using that as something to learn from rather than worry about it. It’s important people make mistakes – you learn from mistakes.”
That introspection will start with Peters himself, who will be part of Hodgson’s backroom staff in Brazil.
“You get feedback from the athlete themselves and then I reflect on what we could have done differently,” Peters says. “The difficulty in sport is that it is always a throw of the dice. Sometimes you put a lot of work in, everything is in place, and they don’t win. Other times, you think 'wow, I’m not sure we have got this quite right’ and then they go and win and you are given false accolades.”
Barton is convinced that Peters will make a tangible impact this summer. “Football has been so backward in this country on the mental side. It’s changing but there is still sometimes this perception that it is about fixing someone who is mentally broken rather than being mental training in the same way as you would your skills or your fitness. I’m thrilled Steve Peters is there.
"England are probably going with less expectation and have a young team that aren’t particularly afraid. I think he will do a phenomenal job and make a real difference.”