Archive | March, 2010

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Talk Therapy, Sympathy and Meaning

Posted on 30 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Metatone raised three questions in comments on my earlier post here :

1. Is the common factor in talk therapies that work the regular contact with a relatively non-judgemental/sympathetic person who seems to be paying attention?

2. Is the common feature of all the talking therapies that they represent a process (thinking of process over outcome) and that largely any process is an improvement on no process?

3. Is it true of, a benefit of, talk therapy that it provides a language for things, a way of talking about them, that was otherwise lacking?

I’ve paraphrased the questions to some extent and might have gotten away from what was actually being discussed. I hope not too far away. In turn:

1. Common factors between effective forms of talk therapy.

It turns out, as I mentioned in the previous post, that it’s hard to establish through testing ANY features of ANY talk therapy that are definitively useful. That might be because we just haven’t been able to define a series of tests that we are currently capable of delivering that would establish such a thing. Or, it might be that talk therapy doesn’t work, at all, and that any improvement experienced by the client is down to reversion to the mean, outside factors, changing circumstances or the wisdom of age. Heaven forfend.

Each therapy has its own rough idea of how things might be expected to proceed, all being well. In CBT, the client counters the thoughts and beliefs that underlay negative emotions. As they get better at this, over a period of weeks, they feel better bit by bit. In psychodynamic counselling, which can last years, the building client-therapist relationship creates a safe testbed for all of the client’s beliefs and assumptions about his relationships with other people – the therapist becomes a confidante, a mirror and a source of advice and commentary. The client finds their own better way through all of this.

So go the manuals. But if the manuals were always right, there’d be none of those heaving shelves of case studies.

My own experience of this was pretty stark. I had only one case in ten years go by the book. In every single other case, things went differently. Over time, I came to notice patterns in what was happening. Common factors did exist. They just weren’t where training told me to look for them.

I’m probably not the person to ask about whether it’s about sympathetic attention of someone appearing to take interest. At any rate, I find it a hard question to answer. What made my therapeutic relationships work or not work were intangibles – who in their life did I remind them of? Did they instinctively like me, or did I turn them off from the outset? Sometimes, the relationship would start off well, and then get closer as the sessions passed, and this, if there was anything, seemed to matter. Some that had started well stalled, and once stalled, never recovered.

Moreover, even when the relationship was going well, there would always be the question at the back of the client’s mind of money. Did I really care, or was I an actor, pretending interest in order to earn a living? Some vocalised this, some, I’m guessing, kept it to themselves. Frankly, the money was never good enough to be any kind of motivation, but any monetary exchange suffices to raise the issue.

2. Is any process is an improvement on no process?

Yes, I think so. It’s not an answer in itself, but it’s important nonetheless.

By process, I mean (1) a structure by which I as a therapist believe things operate, and (2) a procedure one can present to a client as a roadmap and route to a solution to problems they can see no way past on their own.

I came to suspect that most of the problems that were presented to me were the result of people not accepting some of their own feelings.

Imagine a Great War trench under bombardment. In it, imagine an officer whose father and grandfather were both career soldiers and war heroes. Now his own war is underway, and he wants desperately to live up to them. Like them, he must be brave, a leader, an example. Down come the shells. One over there, another – damn! that was close! He can’t believe how scared he is. He wants to turn and run. Get to the coast, get a ship..  But all around him are resolute faces. How much braver these common men are! What a coward he is! I must be brave.. but he’s frightened, frightened through.

Sixty miles away, upstairs in a moonlit nursery, his daughter, not yet six, stands at the open window. The air carries the bombardment to her, distant thunder. Her Daddy is very much on her mind: childish instinct tells her that what she can hear is bad news for him. In her imagination, she feels him hurting, and his hurt makes her cry as she listens. Her mother isn’t sleeping either, and comes in, gathers her, rocking: there now, there now…

Both the officer and his daughter were scared. But the officer didn’t think it was OK for him to be scared. For him, courage meant lack of fear. He felt fear: he was wrong to feel fear. He was wrong, there was something wrong with him: he was less the man than his forefathers who’d neglected to tell him only a fool doesn’t feel fear. Instead, as he stood, a small child, at the top of the stairs, they’d urged him to jump down: come on.. you’re not scared! You’re not scared, a big brave boy like you!

The officer took a lesson from his fear: that he was an inferior man. His fear was prima facie evidence of his flawed status, of his failure to continue a line of heroes.

Whatever the CBT he didn’t live long enough to undergo might have told him – e.g. challenge the belief that you are inferior because you are afraid – the bottom line was his regressive questioning of his own emotions.

I’d give that officer some chance of undergoing the experiences we label together as PTSD. At any rate, the cases of PTSD I saw all had a common theme: not just traumatic events, but a rejection of the feelings experienced during those events or a negative reevaluating of those feelings later on. I’d give him some chance of developing depression. But I’d have few fears for his daughter as a direct result of her experience that night.

I’m placing weight here on the meaning people give to their feelings, not the feelings themselves or their strength. I’d look for that in a client. What did their feelings mean to them?

The very fact that they were there indicated that they were having feelings that they didn’t want to have. Help me, I ‘m experiencing panic and proper people don’t experience panic… Some people experience panic but don’t think any worse of themselves for it – but it’s unlikely that they’ll be experiencing panic attacks in the horrible, often random way that we refer to when we discuss panic in clinical terms.

So there’s process in terms of a therapist having an idea of what’s going on, where a client sometimes won’t – why am I panicking? because I’ve really no idea and I’ve tried everything. There’s also process in terms of a comforting programme to undergo. I’m talking to an expert now: I can – to some extent – relax and hand the problem across. Trust and first impressions on the client’s part matter here – many of my clients thought that what I was telling them sounded unlikely, but were willing, having met me, to give me the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t, for instance, think that phobias are about the focus of the phobia and some sort of traumatic experience involving it. I don’t think phobia is about extreme fear. Fear’s in the mix, sure – but it’s only one of a number of emotions at full pitch that are involved. What I think doesn’t matter: every phobic client did think it was about fear of the phobia’s object(s). They expected to prove me wrong, but, for now, I had a plan for them, I sounded at least halfway intelligent, and they were here now: I was better than nothing.. It’s a relief for people to be doing something, anything, about a longstanding problem that has resisted all their own efforts.

3. Providing a language for things

When you’re a stranger to something, an expert’s familiarity with the territory is hugely comforting, if occasionally humiliating: the RAC man doesn’t take his eyes off you as he reaches an empty hand behind him into the engine, tweaks something, and the car roars into life..

The therapeutic equivalent might be to shine meaning on what had looked random and malicious. Showing that there is a way of looking at it, rationally, sensibly.  Giving evidence that it can come to an end, can be overcome or outmanouvered. Showing that there is a way in which it fits into the grander scheme of things.

But meaning can be elusive. A client once came to me shining at the start of our tenth session, saying that “everything had fallen into place” about their life in the intervening days. And your panic attacks? Oh, those.. (thinks) no, no panic attacks. None for a while. Doesn’t matter, really. I’m just never going to let myself be treated like that again. It’s not on. I didn’t see that before, but it’s not on.

What’s that about? Well, it’s not about training yourself to relax, learning to recognize your triggers and cutting down on coffee, is it? If I’m right, and some symptoms are a consequence of interplay between a person’s core personality and their own rejection of their own feelings, then that client had come to accept and affirm their feelings, on their own, when I wasn’t there, thus breaking an ugly cycle.

But there are other instances when finding a form of words to describe someone’s experience provides them with a new and – at last, useful – way of looking at it. My therapeutic supervisor would talk about a type of client who had in essence grown up being their family’s scapegoat. All of the family’s faults and shortcomings would be projected onto that individual who, in order to cope and to maintain a belief in their family’s good and loving nature, absorbed the lot. All the client would know would be an enduring guilt and tiredness, a lack of trust in their own feelings and a sense that it was unsafe to express themselves.

So often, working with depressed people, I found myself thinking this is all about pecking order, and you’ve been trained all the way to the bottom. But “pecking order” had little appeal for people: my supervisor’s “scapegoat” rang many more bells. It introduced the thought into tired minds that perhaps I’m not as bad as I think I am. Once that thought’s there, the rest often follows.

Not always, though. When we change our view of ourselves, the people we live among don’t, not necessarily, and may indeed have a lot invested in our staying as we always were. It can feel safer to go along as we always have than make a break for light and freedom. Alice Miller has written a host of books, but I’ve always felt one paragraph from one of her earliest was sufficient to sum up the whole dilemma. From The Drama of Being a Child:

It is one of the turning points in therapy when the patient comes to the emotional insight that all the love she has captured with so much effort and self-denial was not meant for her as she really was, that the admiration for her beauty and achievements was aimed at this beauty and these achievements and not at the child herself. In therapy, the small and lonely child that is hidden behind her achievements wakes up and asks: ‘What would have happened if I had appeared before you sad, needy, angry, furious? Where would your love have been then? And I was all those things as well. Does this mean that it was not really me you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all?

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Seligman & Layard: Positive Psychology in Politics

Posted on 30 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

This post is in response to part of Metatone’s comment on my earlier post here

Sport got there first, of course, and got there many decades earlier. Even before Freud and Kraepelin had begun constructing their contrasting disease models of mental illness, athletes and footballers had come to a basic conception of positive psychology. It was an Arnoldian model, even in America. Meaning, significance and life satisfaction could be found in a context of team, in the refusal to give up, and in the deliberate exercise of courage.

The three core traits of optimism identified by Martin Seligman – belief in misfortune’s temporary, local and impersonal status (it’s not forever, it’s not everywhere, and it’s not me) permeate Tom Brown’s Schooldays and underpin Arthur’s famous conversation about cricket. It’s more than a game. It’s an institution..

A Window in Stirling, Scotland 1929

From whence, ultimately, sport psychology. And sport psychology’s shadow science, which says, crush your opponent. Grind him into the dust, and then take his women.

Clearly, Martin Seligman and his team are not responsible for sport psychology or Thomas Arnold.  The comparison is in taking a visible, positive outcome, and trying to understand it. Where psychotherapy concentrates on putting the roof back on where it’s been blown off by depression, anxiety, panic or phobia, positive psychology sits the carpenters, tilers and thatchers down and asks them what they know.

What do I think? I think, about time, and well done.  I’ve benefitted directly and personally from reading Seligman and his team. I see no reason at all why people who seem to deal with life’s ups and downs with resilience should be studied less than endlessly depressive pains in the neck like myself. Surely there’s value in beginning a conversation about what human strengths are, now that we’ve come so far in describing the pitfalls and weaknesses. Martin Seligman and his team are doing the job properly, and making the effort to share their results in intelligent layman’s terms.

The trouble is, of course, that sooner or later, the idea crosses the Atlantic. Good American thinking doesn’t always get across intact: some ghost squadron of U-boats surfaces halfway and torpedoes the balls, brain and spirit out of it. That, or it’s met at Fishguard by a particular sort of unrestrained English middle class enthusiast. The kind Richard Dawkins describes. The ones who have had some expensive education, and reckon from that that they know how to think…

So Seligman’s sober positive psychology, with its endless analytical questionnaires,  its slowly emerging studies, its quiet determination to establish, incontrovertibly, what there is to establish, lands on British soil and becomes Inspiration! and Happiness Now! and breakfast TV interviews with the kind of men who wax.

And then we come to Richard Layard, who wrote yesterday:

..happiness is good for you — yet it still eludes all too many of us. As Samuel Beckett once said, the tears of the world are a constant quantity. But what if he were wrong; what if it were actually possible for individuals and whole societies to boost their happiness?This is the simple idea behind the Movement for Happiness, which is being launched in September by Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington college, Geoff Mulgan, the former head of policy at No 10, and myself. We hope it will become a mass movement, extending far beyond our borders, with members who are committed to trying to produce more happiness in all spheres of life. Underpinning the movement is the burgeoning new science of happiness, which is currently unravelling why some people and some societies are happier than others.

It’s currently unravelling that, is it? I see…

There is plenty of advice around about how to live if you want to be happy. The New Economics Foundation, for example, prescribes the spiritual equivalent of the five fruits and vegetables a day required for peak physical health. All you need to remember is “Great” — giving, relating to other people, exercising the body, attending to the world around and teaching yourself something fresh.

Quite apart from the sheer mawkishness – this is where David and Mr E do things so much better than I do – and I admit that I’m having trouble finishing the sentence: the incredible bloody cheek and nerve of it leave me lost for words. Britain is full of existing mass movements – scouting, the RSPB, the National Trust, Amnesty, the bleeding Football Association even – that implicitly promote all of these goals and give people a wider context than their own lives. And how many local clubs and associations?

I’ll be frank: I don’t trust the happiness surveys Layard cites. Too subjective, too many competing meanings. I don’t think the British trust the concept very much either. And whilst I agree with Layard that resilience can be taught – to some degree – I warn him against saying things like:

We know from scientific trials that resilience can be taught in schools to reduce teenage depression and anxiety. We know that an optimistic frame of mind can help people recover faster from illnesses.

Blame and accusation lie down that road. If only you’d attended more to your resilence lessons, you wouldn’t feel low.. and that’s all too close to saying, don’t feel low, it’s not allowed.. And as for the optimistic frame of mind and illnesses, come walk a cancer ward with me, and see just what material these people get sent by cranks in their time of extremis and see how it makes them feel. If only I’d eaten better.. if only I’d gone jogging.. if only I could raise my spirits.. if only, if only.

There are consequences for an individual when they have a feeling, and emotion, and have a secondary layer of feelings, beliefs and emotions that tell them that the first feeling is wrong. That they are wrong for having it. Unforseen consequences of happiness lessons: the unhappy, already underground, dig further. I wonder if this isn’t why Seligman chose “authentic happiness” instead of “happiness” on its own: it says, there is fake, surface happiness, and there is authentic unhappiness.

Layard has said elsewhere that he wants “the burgeoning science of happiness” to influence government policy. Fortunately, I think the recession has kicked that ball into the deepest, longest, thickest outfield. Someone will rediscover it one day, perished, deflated and with quaintly old-fashioned markings, the veteran of fifty summers sitting in the sun with only the birds and adders for company.

Because if it were not so, the idea is bloody dangerous.

Whenever government gets ideas beyond the crudely economic, the unforseen consequences start queuing up. That’s under normal circumstances, and goes with politics. But if Layard gets his way, the unforseen consequences of it will do more than queue: they’ll rush the gates.

I know a lot of psychotherapists. The crank and creep factors are high. But so are barriers to entry. Layard’s suggestion that we lower them – by training, as a high priority,  thousands more – has one good side to it: the NHS psychotherapy bottleneck might widen a little. But the downside – a dramatic increase in the proportion of inexperienced therapists in the system – speaks for itself.

On the other hand:

Dr. Seligman is now turning his attention to training Positive Psychologists, individuals whose practice will make the world a happier place, in a way that parallels clinical psychologists having made the world a less unhappy place. (Here).

Even here, I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck come awake, and not in a good way. But done slowly, with care, with attention to the changing research news, that might be change I can believe in.

What if we believe the happiness surveys? Even then.. the surveys plot rising happiness until a plateau is reached in about 1975. For the first time in human history, it’s possible to see what happens to a society without serious material want. That should be extremely interesting. But at the moment, it’s a case of studies being used to confirm and promote the pre-existing political beliefs of the people using them. I’m a mixed-economy leftist myself, who thinks we should have toughed it out in ’79 instead of panicking our way into Thatcher. Politically, I should support Layard, but I don’t.

As a former therapist,  I find the idea of my field extending its political influence and clout sinister and frightening. I want it stopped.

And so, for this reason and on this occasion only, please, charge your glasses: the toast is Recession!

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Does it matter if Sport Psychology is Cod Psychology?

Posted on 28 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Usually, it starts with an email: “James/Hi James/Dear James: I’ve been reading some sport psychology textbooks and it’s all rubbish. Please could you point me to the real deal?”

These emails are hard to answer. Because what my interlocutor has noticed is that the content of sport psychology is unacademic, unproven, shallow, and all too similar – in their eyes – to that terrible thing called self-help. They want to be told that this isn’t true. They want to believe that they are just reading the wrong books, and that if I can point them to the right ones, the subject will open up to them like a flower in sunshine.

It’s the same reaction, responding to the same instinct, to the one found when people talk about “cod psychology”, “cheap psychology”, “shallow self-help manuals” and the like. It’s the belief and hope that out there beyond the Mind and Spirit shelves there’s a real body of established psychological knowledge waiting to be tapped into.

And without doubt, sport psychology and self-help do share a lot of the same principles. The importance of setting goals. The different kinds of goals. Visualization. Affirmations and mental rehearsal. The winning mentality. A general obsession with performance, achievement and change.

And this is in fact it, so far as sport psychology goes. It doesn’t have to be bad news: all of these things will “work” to some degree. Your mileage may vary, and if you have substantial underlying issues (which is where we blend into psychotherapy a little) you’ll probably find they do less for you than they might for others.

But it would be unfair to write sport psychology off just because it bears close resemblance to a field that intellectuals find repellent. Crudity and simplicity aren’t the only issues here. Politics is involved. Any psychology built for sport jocks is going to feel uncomfortable to the average left-leaning academic commentator.

Sport psychology is crude and simplistic when put up against 20s-style Freudian psychoanalysis, undoubtedly, yet the bulk of broadsheet-level media think that Freud (boo!) has been decisively seen off by CBT (hurrah!) which is scientific, peer-reviewed, etc. And CBT is considerably less subtle and ambiguous than psychoanalysis.

Any sensible review of CBT would applaud its willingness to undergo proper, extensive testing, and to adapt to what that testing found. Aaron Beck and his colleagues have done the entire field an enormous favour by making the attempt, and they would be the first to want to tell you about the real problems that have emerged and what plans are in place to deal with them.

I’ll come to those in a moment, but first I want to discuss self-help.

Both British and American culture has a long-established place for books, tapes and films offering help and advice. British gardening guides have been silent best-sellers for years, but so have books on job hunting, sex, cookery, car maintenance, pet care and DIY. There’s room, surely, for books covering some of the real personal problems that people encounter. Because believe me, it’s far from the case that the UK has become therapy-ized. The people I met in my consulting room didn’t want to be there. Nor did they want to have their phobias, or their depression, or panic attacks, or their general sense of being in the wrong place, in the wrong time, in the wrong skin. Of having taken a wrong turn so far back in time…

Running a full-time therapy practice, even at break-even levels, costs enough to price such services out of the reach of huge numbers of people. State services are over-run with patchy coverage. It would take a decade to turn the state services into what the dedicated people running them would want to see. Then we come to the issues of getting time away from work and family. Why shouldn’t there be a genre of British book aimed at providing whatever help a book might be capable of delivering?

A couple of self-help “classics” helped me out in my teens when there were things I wanted to achieve that I had no experience in and no hope of advice from school, friends or family. So I have some bias in their favour. Without them, I’d have been entirely on my own.

The reality with self-help is that many of its fiercest critics haven’t actually read any (Frances Wheen reviews Tony Robbins in his otherwise excellent How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World… I say “reviews”, but the phrases he uses are all lifted from the back cover of one of Robbins’ books, and there’s nothing to suggest he ever went inside or felt that he ought to). What this means is that many of the most common charges made against self-help don’t ring true to anyone with more acquaintance with the genre. To take Tony Robbins alone, his books warn against aiming to become rich for its own sake – desolation, loneliness and unfulfilment lie that way. Nor is “success!” the goal – you must define your own success, by your own values, your own life, your own philosophy. Nor is it about “becoming a new person!!” – but it is about finding ways to frustrate yourself less.

Nor is it especially American. Not compared with Samuel Smiles, at any rate, whose Self Help, the British progenitor of it all, is the kind of destructive, dishonest claptrap that is supposed to characterize the whole genre.

But there are bad self-help books. Not as many as some people think, and few that are rotten all the way through or based on the kind of clicheed values that critics deplore. Some, if not the best, are written by CBT professionals and employ as much of established CBT technique can be employed by a reader working on their own. Nevertheless, self-help not being as bad as all that is one thing: an established body of knowledge “out there” to be drawn upon is quite another.

I admit to being frustrated by what follows. I envy people with my interests who will be young in fifty years’ time, because by then the really interesting discoveries about the human brain, the human brain acting in the concerted context of the body, and the human brain acting in concert with other human brains, will be coming on stream. All we’re able to do with the most extraordinarily complex organ and the philosophical problems it raises at present is learn what the right questions might be. At the moment, even the questions are uncertain.

Neuroscience and psychotherapy have developed separately from one another, as have neuroscience and psychiatry (crudely, in the UK psychotherapy refers to talk therapy and psychiatry to drugs. The US often uses “psychiatry” to refer to both talk therapy and drugs). It will all come down to neuroscience in the end, but the end is a long, long way off, and when we get there, it will in all likelihood be unrecognisable and quite possibly inaccessible to anyone without a postgraduate degree in mathematics.

The quickest way to get a flavour of where we’re coming from and where we’re going is to read Eric Kandel’s terrific memoir In Search of Memory. It’s Kandel’s autobiography, but also a great deal more than a potted history of the field. Kandel joined it some 30 years after the earliest pioneers, enrolling in medical school in 1952. Within 3 years, he’d switched to neuroscience, with the stated aim of finding, within the human brain, the physical locations of Freud’s ego and id…

Of course, by the time he retired, all that was well behind him, but at the time, the idea was far from foolish. There are certain to be hundreds of similar ideas being pursued now that will look every bit as bizarre fifty years from now. How I wish I was going to be there. But I’ll be dead in my deckchair under my Daily Telegraph long before that..

It’s easy, obviously, to decry a science in its formative years, which is what neuroscience is. But that isn’t the only problem that the established body of knowledge faces. Consider the situation of CBT.

One of the issues that prevented psychotherapy being tested in the manner expected of a drug has been the sheer number of unmeasurables in the therapy situation. CBT avoided one of the most familiar – the relationship between the therapist and the client – by deciding that the nature of CBT rendered that relationship irrelevant. Many early studies of CBT were done with just that assumption in place, and these studies helped elevate CBT to its current position. It wasn’t just an idle assumption – Beck and his colleagues had worked hard to make the CBT experience consistent regardless of whose name was on the door.

This is no longer the official CBT position. Change came partly through the experiences of CBT therapists, who found that working “from the manual” for studies was less effective than what they would do in sessions when a test wasn’t underway. And part of the change came through growing sophistication in statistical techniques (N.B. this is not my field – don’t ask me what the statisticians achieved. Matthew Turner and Dan Davies probably know) which enabled client-therapist relationships to be measured. “Transference” is back in the room.

CBT is one of over 280 recognized psychotherapeutic approaches. It, and the various forms of psychodynamic therapy, dominate a field that classic psychoanalysis has quit forever. Proper testing is now more or less accepted across the board, courtesy of Beck and his team’s pioneering determination which set the bar for everyone else.

There are a number of measures undertaken. Different therapies can be compared against each other. Therapies can be compared with equivalent psychiatric treatment. And elements of individual therapies can be “removed” from testing to see which parts of a particular approach are the most important.

Frankly, the results of all three directions of study are dismaying. Everything – every therapy, every psychiatric treatment – works. What’s more, it all works to more or less the same degree. This is known as the dodo bird verdict and that pretty much sums up the disappointment surrounding it. What’s worse for talk therapies is that removing elements of each therapy to find out what works, to find out what might constitute best practice, produces no significant conclusions. Nor is one therapy especially better at dealing with a specific problem than any other. It isn’t that psychodynamic therapy is better than CBT at dealing with PTSD, for instance. They’re about the same. The philosophical conclusions to be drawn from this if it continues for another 20 years are profoundly depressing.

Much the same goes for psychiatric drugs. Serotonin theories of depression have come, raised our hopes, and gone away again. “Brain chemical imbalance” turns out to be extraordinarily difficult to establish.

There will be, given time and work, the “body of knowledge” we need. It’s simply the case that this task is infinitely more complex, philosophically more challenging (I have deliberately avoided the study of what consciousness is here, although I believe that to be central to the whole problem) and potentially more expensive than the Manhattan Project or Apollo. Understanding the brain – and through that, understanding the existential experiences of mankind – turns out to be the work of ages, not the work of fifty years in American labs. Kandel and his colleagues broke the ground, but it’s stony and sandy ground by turns and it never seems to rain.

We thought, for a while, that measuring blood flows in the brain went some way to measuring relevant brain activity and that meaning could be drawn from the measurements. That one went away about two years ago.

It’s not that there’s been “no” progress. Far from it: there have been magnificent careers lived in this field, and there are thousands more underway now. The insignificance of the progress is relative to the giddying size of the task and its almost malevolent complexity.

In a real way, then, it’s all cheap psychology for the time being. And if you’re here, now, in the early twenty-first century, wondering what to do because you can no longer go outside because your phobia of rats has extended itself to squirrels, birds and dead leaves (I’ve treated people to whom this has happened. Don’t put any hope in “injections that can kill fear-inducing memories”. Phobia’s an experience of fear that is somehow not rooted in fear, or in memory), then what exists now, both self-help and therapy room, is imperfect and incomplete. And as many have found, you’re as likely to “revert to the mean” under your own power as find help in official channels.

So does it matter if sport psychology is cod psychology? Probably not. What exists does work to some extent, even if we have no real idea as to how or why. One day, which I won’t live to see, there will indeed be that body of knowledge out there beyond the Mind and Spirit section, and then we’ll really be able to get to work. Until then, go on the “B” of the bang, go for process rather than outcome goals, and if it’s dartitis or the yips, you have my deepest sympathy.

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I Had Not Thought Death Had Undone So Many

Posted on 26 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

I’ve just been groping through piles of statistics and have come across a thoroughly melancholy fact, namely that there are no survivors of England’s pre-War internationals.

The earliest international match for which we have a living English representative is Northern Ireland v England on 28th September 1946: Sir Tom Finney (b. 5th April 1922) scored on his war-delayed debut.

But there’s relief in that Sir Tom isn’t actually the oldest surviving international: that honour belongs to Phil Taylor of Liverpool, born on 18th September 1917. Taylor actually made his league debut on 28th March 1936, so we are still in the company of pre-War footballers, if only just.

Bert Williams, goalkeeper against the USA in 1950, is also still in the land of the living. “The Cat” may be the oldest surviving player with a nickname: he was born on 31st January 1920.

All this means that there are at least three former league players who predate the grouping of the railways.

Here’s Sir Tom Finney, combining with Sir Stanley Matthews to score against Uruguay in the 1954 World Cup:

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Belgium v England 1954

Posted on 26 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

This isn’t a memorable game, but one rarely seen I suspect.

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Brazilian Physical Preparation – World Cups and More

Posted on 16 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Tim Vickery is as always worth reading in full on Brazil’s preparations for South Africa 2010, but I wanted to draw your attention to the three crucial paragraphs. Because this is what Simon Clifford and Sir Clive Woodward have been saying for years, and this is what the English in particular have been slow to grasp (I’m hearing good things about Hibs’ new facilities, although I’m not sure that even those, or the new indoor centres in Glasgow which are equally encouraging, go anywhere near as far as the South Americans):

Shortly after the World Cup I interviewed Paulo Paixao, then as now in charge of Brazil’s physical preparation. He was understandably proud of the contribution he had made to his country’s victory. But with great nobility, he was desperate to stress that the merits were collective. “Brazil has a number of physical trainers who could have been in my place,” he said. “Nowadays , in terms of methodology of work, Europe is way behind Brazil, but the culture of physical preparation we have developed doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’re judged in socio-economic terms, looked down upon because we’re a South American country.”

He had visited Juninho at Middlesbrough and couldn’t believe the amount of players who were injured. “They don’t seem to mind,” he said. “If one player gets injured they go out and buy another.

“Without carrying out tests you can’t draw up a work programme, and in Europe they hardly seem to do any. In Brazil all the big clubs have physiology labs. From the start players are dealt with in a laboratory situation. The young player goes through a battery of tests to find out what he needs to fulfil his athletic potential. What we do is focus on the specifics that a player requires, be it muscular re-enforcement, stamina or aerobic work, or addressing muscular imbalance. You don’t see this kind of work carried out in Europe”

All of this is eight years ago, Vickery says – and in the meantime, Paulo Paixao and a colleague have done work in Europe. Some of this sounds very Arsenal-like, but given Arsenal’s run of injuries – consistently very long even when you take x-rated tackles out of the equation – it isn’t working for them. Or perhaps Colney is mere mood music, or advanced for its time but no longer so current.

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Owen, Beckham: it feels like growing old

Posted on 15 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Beckham out. Thus passes a generation of English players who came to prominence at the very end of my twenties. This is how the story ends, then: that group have indeed passed on without winning an international trophy. What Gary Neville feared, and perhaps expected, has come true.

Truth to tell, England’s teams since 1998 have always fallen well short. First France, then Spain, have produced better squads and performances. Holland have also just lost a generation – one which began with the astonishing Ajax European Cup winners of 1995 – but one that always seemed more likely than England’s to succeed.

Moreover, the best players of the 1998-2010 era have always been prone to injuries. Owen and Beckham were doubtful for both 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and weren’t fully fit at either. But for 1998 and the era of AOL, Freeserve and BoL, we’d never have seen either man playing at full tilt at the top level.

So much for a golden generation: England’s 1998 team, were, after all, the best of modern times. What would you give to have even an ageing Shearer now?

But these are the thoughts of someone for whom Owen, Beckham and co. were the last players to arrive when they themselves could still conceivably play.

For anyone now in their late 20s, the attachment to Owen and Beckham might not be there. Instead, each injury to the Old Guard brings Milner, Huddlestone, Lennon and now Adam Johnson closer to their destiny.

And there’s little doubt that Capello, for all his regret at losing players through injury, is capable of picking and organizing replacements. Only Wayne Rooney, of the 23-man squad, lacks an equivalent, although there are other capable goalscorers. Unlike in 2002, the injuries to Beckham and Owen make little difference to England’s chances. Beckham’s dead ball skills would have made him a useful substitute, but it is more than time that someone made the right wing their own and remade it in their own style.

It might not be over for either Beckham or Owen. Owen will play for another couple of years, and although at present it would take some real slapstick on the injuries front to knock over everyone who stands between him and the squad, it can’t be ruled out altogether. And Beckham was supposed to be gone after 2006. The man’s ability to dig himself out of the grave faster than his critics’ spades can bury him is a source of lasting entertainment and amusement.

But across the rest of the established squad, there are injuries, losses of form, ennui, niggles, an accumulating depression. Under any other manager, this would be worrying. It would prompt reflections that perhaps the time to rebuild the team is now: to use the World Cup to rebuild around the Huddlestones and Johnstones. But Capello doesn’t work like that or think like that.

So while Capello gets on with the job of seamlessly closing the gaps opened by injuries and turning James Milner into a kind of calm Paul Gascoigne, let’ s reflect on how Owen and Beckham will be remembered.

Not, I dare say, like Shearer and Adams are remembered. At his peak, Shearer gave England the sort of security you feel when you’ve been trapped by freak weather in a millionaire’s pantry: that feeling of infinite backup. Both he and Tony Adams had a football fan’s sense of priorities (which Shearer comically rehearsed all over again in this Smalltalk interview). I approve of footballers having hinterland – Owen’s racing, Beckham’s… skiing. But I know that most fans would rather their heroes be as obsessed as they are.

There’s some chance that Beckham will morph into something Charltonesque: he’s already to some extent a go-to-guy when it comes to competing for Olympics and World Cups. He’s good at being an ambassador, and if English football needs anything, it needs a sunny exterior to show the world. Beckham will not be wasted as Bobby Moore was wasted.

Owen’s own future is already well mapped out. A bit more football, then training racehorses. He’ll pop up on television now and again as a contemporary, relevant figure in a different sport, one which some suspect he prefers. His relatively closed personality will leave him with an enigmatic air around him: a man who appeared very suddenly, scored 40 goals for his country, and then went away again little older than George Best.

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Sport in Modern Europe: perspectives on a comparative cultural history

Posted on 12 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Anyone with an active interest in the history of sport will be glad for an introduction to the Sport in Modern Europe research network. It’s being led by Dr. Chris Young at the University of Cambridge assisted by Professors Alan Tomlinson of Brighton and Richard Holt at De Monfort.

Chris summarizes the goals of the group:

Until now there has been no attempt to draw together and critically examine the various strands of research emerging from across Europe, and North America. No person or even small group of individuals could hope to master the diverse range of research material on the subject; and there is, to date, no forum for collaborative exchange between experts from different disciplines, countries and national scholarly traditions. This is exactly what our network is striving to achieve.

Sport as a participant activity and as a spectator entertainment has been a central cultural feature of European economic, social and political life in the “long” twentieth century. There is now a critical mass of research on the development of sport in Europe from the diffusion of British sport in the late 19th century to the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 20th century. However, there is no general account of the modern history of European sport from a comparative and international perspective.

The last symposium in their series is taking place in Cambridge this Easter, but summaries and reactions to early symposia have been posted on the website and make excellent reading.

Plans are in place for presentations in Germany and Italy, and follow-up projects that may include a book and journal special issues.

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Football, British Urban Growth and Incomers

Posted on 06 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

The market at London’s Petticoat Lane, 1903:

So many people, and so many of them young. The market is every bit as crowded today, but the age mix is quite different. In 1903, Petticoat Lane was no longer towards London’s eastern edge. Beyond it now lay mile upon mile of Victorian brick terraces, still new: Bow, Silvertown, East and West Ham, Hackney, and, further north, Stoke Newington and Tottenham. A new city as large as the old one had been built in little over 30 years.

That new city contained many of London’s football clubs, and the clubs’ presence there tells us a lot about the game, about urban and population growth and about just how a new area came to find its identity. Identity is a problem, when you’re cheek by jowl by a city built by the Romans. Identity is a problem when your area looks exactly the same as every other new area that has appeared on the outskirts of old cities.

A new professional football club needs two things: space in which to build, and a sizeable, rapidly growing audience within easy reach of it. Those two factors were present together in an economically viable way in the north before London and the south. The north had spare land, yet a densely-packed and rapidly growing population in areas that lacked the diversions and entertainments that established settlements could turn to.

And it had expertise. The football stadiuim was a new form of architecture. Northern urban industry was posing all kinds of new challenges to building and architectural firms, and the ideas that arose to solve those challenges also proved relevant when it came to Goodison Park, St James’ Park and Old Trafford.

At the end of the nineteenth century, before the rise of cinema, there was a period of opportunity in which a football ground would offer the principle form of mass entertainment in an area. No theatre could hold as many people as Old Trafford – with a football stadium, you could surround your stage on all sides with revenue-earning audience space. Most of a football ground was made up of standing terraces, too, so you could pack as many people in as you were able.

The football stadium was a weapon in a sporting arms race. Businessmen had to wield it before their local rivals. Local businessmen bought up the clubs that the churches and factories had founded, built huge grounds for them, and fought tooth and nail to get their clubs into the best possible league structure available to them as quickly as cash and corruption could carry them. Time was short – no one knew how long the football craze would last.

The great British stadia went up in a fifteen year frenzy between 1895 (Goodison) and 1910 (Old Trafford). That surge of construction ceased with the end of dense urban population surge. After World War One, the cities would go into middle-aged spread: suburban semis and flats now, not terraces. Football’s youth and moment of opportunity had passed.

There are two aspects to nineteenth century urban population growth that show why football, although no longer in its astonishing phase of growth, survived and persisted after World War One. They show how a craze could become a national institution, a sport as intrinsically British as cricket or steeplechasing.

The first is the astonishing growth in the British population across the last two thirds of the nineteenth century. The famous pre-industrial cities of Britain – Edinburgh, Bristol, Norwich, Glasgow,Bath, London, Cambridge, Oxford, Salisbury, St Andrews, Aberdeen, Chester etc. – were established in a recognisable form with still-familiar street patterns before the Reformation. They were the population centres of a pre-industrial Britain whose population swung up and down between two millon (1377) and six million (1342 and 1750). By comparison, about 1.5 million people attend league matches alone at Old Trafford each season. By 1850, the population had surged to 16 million. By 1901, with Goodison Park up and running, it had almost doubled again, reaching 30.5 million.

What is the psychological impact upon a United Kingdom when, within the space of less than a lifetime, there are twice as many people walking the streets? Of course, there was epic overcrowding, especially in Glasgow, which would remain the world’s most densely populated city until World War II. And there was housebuilding on a huge scale, although never enough to cope. There were, in any case, no working definitions of what “coping” would look like. But what did it feel like?

There’s surprisingly little proper work on this. John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses does at least recognize that there might have been a psychological impact, but he’s content to use it as a means to humiliate the Bloomsburys by highlighting their elitist, eugenicist impulses. Wealthy, upper middle class authors, Carey says, dreamed, not of electric sheep, but of enlightened mass murder and the promotion of high culture over the right to life of the low born.

At any rate, football, and not Bloomsbury, is directly relevant to how Britain actually did cope with its swarming population. In 1848, when football pioneers Arthur Kinnaird and Quintin Hogg were in curls, the prospect of a crowd of 100,000 gathering in London inspired a kind of controlled panic in government. As Kennington Common filled with radicals and proto-socialists, London filled with soldiers. Special constables were hurriedly recruited. Snipers crowded the rooftops.

By the time Kinnaird was 54, the FA Cup Final at Crystal Palace between Sheffield United and Tottenham Hotspur could attract an estimated 115,000 people. A small number of unarmed bobbies came along to enjoy the sunshine and ice cream. This was progress. Football was helping bed in the idea that the British could assemble peacefully in large numbers without riot or disturbance.

A doubling of the population would cause disgust to Virginia Woolf and have her friends dreaming of class genocide. But Bloomsbury had missed the point. What was Crystal Palace 1901 all about, if it wasn’t the back of the newspaper coming to the rescue of the front?

Football, then, helped Britain process terrifying population growth, and demonstrated to government that, although there were twice as many people as before, those “masses” were capable of governing their lives in ways that were as civilized as any law and order obsessive could have desired. That’s not to say that there was no crowd disorder around professional football, or that professional football was respectable. There was plenty, and it wasn’t. But population growth didn’t mean crime and breakdown: it meant busy turnstiles and a brisk sale for the post-match pink ‘un.

A population that was twice the size of 1850’s didn’t fit into the old towns and cities. Even with increasing population density, 30 million Britons meant, in essence, that a new Britain, with its own new centres of population, had sprung into existence. I’ve already asked about the psychological consequences of population growth. Now I’d like to add another question. What is the psychological experience of living in a new place, with everyone an “incomer”?

If you run a list of pre-reformation towns and cities through your mind, images and symbols for each come immediately. Wells Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, The Tower of London, Oxford’s dreaming spires, Bath’s Roman remains. Now think of Gateshead, Middlesbrough, or Salford.

At the time of the football craze, these Coronation Street towns and cities were as new as Milton Keynes is now. They were home to many thousands of people. Only some of those people had come in from the depressed agricultural fields of Britain looking for work. By 1900, a large proportion of them were young children born to “incomers” living in new and – in truth – unlovely places. There is a rootlessness to this existence that you can actually feel.

What would create place loyalty in those circumstances? Writing of her upbringing on a 1960s council estate, Lynsey Hanley said that there were times when she longed to have come from “somewhere.” Her estate wasn’t a place in as strong a way as a Hampstead or an Edinburgh New Town was. Was it like this for the people of Victorian Gateshead or Middlesbrough?

Rather than ask where people in such places could find a sense of place or group identity for themselves, we can simply observe what happened. Liverpool’s docks are a World Heritage Site, but if Liverpool were to catch fire, most people would choose to throw Anfield and Goodison into the overnight bag instead before making their escape. (And if there’s room, the Cavern Club..)The most famous building in Manchester is a football stadium. The same can be said for Birmingham. And Stoke. And Glasgow. And Bolton, and Preston, and Leeds.

When the football craze was first underway, no one anticipated that clubs would become the focus or external identity for the new and history-deficient incomers areas in which they were built. By the time Manchester United changed their name from Newton Heath, there was an inkling of what was afoot. But even then, no one knew how long football would last: the surviving literature of the time is too astonished by what had already happened to dare to look into a crystal ball.

And what had happened? Football clubs had been among the first things in these new places with their “incomer” populations and their new but bad housing and their smoky modern air and their brash shops and their electric trams to draw the local people around something of their own, to give them a way to say “we are here, and this is us.”

Loyalty to your home town is easy if your home town is Ludlow or Tewkesbury. In Salford, in Gateshead, when they were new, and you were only there for work or by accident of birth, less so. Football helped. The surroundings might have been ugly, but your neighbours were honest, hardworking people, and your team carried that good news out to the rest of the world every time they played away from home.

These days, London is surrounded by new growth areas that appeared after the football craze had burnt itself out. Bromley, Croydon, Sutton, Morden, Norbiton, Beckenham, and Penge are home to cumulative hundreds of thousands of people. There are no famous buildings that symbolize these places for outsiders yet, and very little well-known history.

All of them are on the sites of ancient settlements, but in real terms, each of them is new, like Lindsey Hanley’s estate. What will happen there is yet to happen. Like Gateshead and Middlesbrough when those places were young, they have economic existences, not spiritual or historical ones.

These things come in time. Football helped the new ninetenth century Britain, with its 15 million new people, coalesce and find a sense of place and belonging. But walk around Sutton or Morden today, and although you’ll see plenty of Chelsea FC car stickers, it isn’t the same. In travelling time, Sutton is further from Stamford Bridge than Edinburgh is from Glasgow.

Loyalty to Chelsea, in Sutton, is a loyalty borrowed from pre-War ancestors who lived in Sands End and Fulham and moved away. Football gave Sands End a name and feel: the memory of that happening in 1905 can’t do the same to suburbs in south London in 2010. Nor can the Conference and Ryman League clubs of Sutton and Carshalton. What football did for Middlesbrough, it will probably never do again.

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1939: The Great North Road in Colour Film

Posted on 05 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

In some senses, this film is not for the football historian: the A1 Great North road is a cyclist’s route, going through rugby country. The large conurbations and urban industrial centres that gave birth to professional football were in the west of England and Scotland – Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Preston, Blackburn and Bolton.

But this colour film, which dates from August 1939 and quite obviously the work of someone who wanted one last look at his beautiful country before it was ruined by war and the consequences of war, is not to be passed over because of that.

I grew up near the A1. By the 1970s and 1980s, it was a road on which the sun usually forgot to shine. Our cameraman had better luck with the weather. Speaking of luck, of course, you decide: was he lucky to have lived to see England in its pre-War state, or unlucky to have lived to see the coming of World War II? The camera dwells on barrage balloons, on war memorials bearing fresh flowers. Lucky at least, to have afforded a motor car and Kodacolor movie film at the end of the Great Depression..

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