Tuesday 21 November 2017

Richard Sadlier: Reds in right frame of mind to claim title

A psychiatrist has helped Liverpool to become contenders, says Richard Sadlier

The psychological preparation Liverpool have put in this season has undoubtedly contributed to their remarkable form. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
The psychological preparation Liverpool have put in this season has undoubtedly contributed to their remarkable form. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

During our promotion-chasing run-in of 2002, we were given the same set of instructions from the boss after every game. We would barely be back in our seats in the dressing room before he'd launch into what became a very familiar and effective routine.

Whether we had won or lost, played well or not, we were told to turn our thoughts completely to the next game and practically delete from our minds the memory of whatever had just happened. Preparation for the next challenge would begin right away. We were left in no doubt as to the importance of being mentally focused.

Steven Gerrard gave a similar message to Liverpool last weekend. Moments after the final whistle against Manchester City, he was instructing his team-mates to turn their attention to this afternoon's game at Norwich. There was no talk of enjoying the win or basking in the glory of what had been achieved. "This is gone," he told them. "We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. We go again." Psychologically, it was already time to move on to the next opponent.

It's hard to explain how Liverpool have gone from 33/1 shots in August to odds-on favourites in April. In some ways it makes no sense at all. Few would have predicted it a couple of months ago, and nobody thought it possible before Christmas. Even within the squad, not one person began the season expecting this scenario. But they'll be champions if they win their remaining games. Four victories and they'll have pulled off the greatest upset in the Premier League era.

While some are comfortable putting it down to fate and destiny, the majority require something more tangible. It seems too simplistic to dismiss it as something that was just meant to be.

And so begins the search for the one factor that could have made this all possible. The silver bullet. What have Liverpool done that, if repeated elsewhere, could transform top-four hopefuls into title favourites? After all, they've defied the notion that financial investment is the essential ingredient. Their best work in the summer transfer market was to scupper their top player's efforts to leave. They're not managed by someone who has been here before either. A new narrative is required because all that we thought we knew is being turned on its head. Enter psychiatrist Steve Peters.

First of all, it's worth pointing out that Liverpool have yet to achieve anything. Victory today would ensure a top-four finish, which was the club's ambition at the outset. They are looking like potential champions, but they are also four games away from creating the kind of history that may haunt the club and their supporters for many years. The moderate expectations have been banished from the conversation, and failure to win the title from here will be seen as a colossal disappointment. And if that happens, the focus will surely be shifted to the area of psychological readiness.

So, either way, it looks like Peters will be the central character in the story of Liverpool's season.

This may reflect a lack of understanding among the football media for what Peters does. Remember, he holds a position at Liverpool that until recently did not exist and many other clubs still don't employ people like him. Or it could be an over-compensation for dismissing the expertise of men like him for many years. What Peters does, one day a week, is to work individually and collectively with some of the players at the club to help them manage their minds and their emotions better than before. Like nutritionists, physiotherapists, sports scientists and strength and conditioning coaches, he helps them to prepare better for the situations they are likely to face. They're all looking for the marginal gains that will make the difference, but to give all the credit (or blame) to one area would be off the mark.

The importance of psychological readiness cannot be overstated and I'm not being dismissive of his input. Quite the opposite, actually, as I'm not sure how any club can afford to invest millions on players and fail to give them this kind of support. But Steve Peters is not the reason Liverpool are where they are. He's not the reason Luis Suarez hasn't bitten anyone in a year and he didn't single-handedly remove Manchester United from the title race. He has no tactical input into how Liverpool play and by his own admission, he knows nothing about football.

But he does what he can to help the players to help themselves. It's not miracle work and it's not magic. It's not guaranteed to get results and it's not to blame if teams fall short. Because it's relatively new to the game it's being put forward as something it's not, but it's help that every player should avail of if they want to improve.

It's great that men like Steve Peters are being employed in professional football but it would be even better if people understood what it is that he does.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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