Archive | Psychology

Tags: , , ,

Self Help Summitry and Class

Posted on 09 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

Norman Vincent Peale

In January, London’s School of Life held what it called “The Self Help Summit.” The Summit, culmination of years of psychotherapists’ frustration at what they call the Self Help Industry, brought together a remarkable range of (tongue very much in cheek) the usual suspects: Philippa Perry, Alain de Botton, Richard Wiseman, Mark Vernon, Frank Furedi, Robert Rowland Smith, Oliver Burkeman (who has recently published a new book, Help!). Vernon, on the School of Life’s blog here, summarized the Summit’s questions thus: “Can self help make you happy, develop your power, save your life? Or are it’s (sic) advocates peddlers of snake oil? Or again: given the genre is hugely diverse, is it possible to separate the dross from the gold?”

I wasn’t able to attend, but if the various reports of the event are anything to go by, it went well and did better than just avoid becoming the kind of sneerathon that might have anticipated. But I want to add a thought of my own.

I’ve read a lot of self help books in my time. I met my first as a teenager. I’d fallen in love for the first time, only weeks after fastening onto my first real-world ambition. This wasn’t a situation for which my upbringing had prepared me. I knew no one in my world to whom I could ask advice from, or turn to, or trust. It was a lonely and frightening time.

I came across a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking – in WHSmiths, probably, because this was the pre-Waterstones era. Scenting that this wasn’t a book that you wanted to be seen with in public, I read it in my room – and, for the first time, ran across concepts like goal setting, perseverance, and setting your own standards. All that and more, set in an go-getting, early-century America that was far removed from the knackered, cynical world I’d been brought up in. Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.. Advice! Tips! Guidance! Real life examples! What to do if things go wrong! I grabbed it and hung on hard.

(The religio-social background and history to NVP and positive thinking is fascinating – start with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World which is, incidentally, far harder on the self help industry in toto than the Summit appears to have been).

Over the next decade, self help played a huge part in stimulating my interest in psychotherapy as a career. I quickly found myself exploring thinkers like Aaron Beck, Irvin Yalom and Anthony Storr besides. But helpful as those great names would prove in guiding my work and practice, none of them would have been any help whatsoever to my stuck and somewhat lonely 16 year old self.

I’ve found little over the years from the official mental health industry that would have been. Even the sainted David Burns, whose Feeling Good is the favourite book of Metafilter, would have proved beside the point. Later, perhaps, but not then. Self help is not always, or not even principally, opposed to or in competition with professional therapy writing or services.

Because, with so many self-help books as with certain moments in life, mental health is not the principle issue.  Direction, purpose, and recovering some sense of control over life are central themes, alongside ideas of change and transformation. There are times along the way when that – something you are doing – not the emphasis on the style of your thinking found in some schools of psychotherapy – is what you really need. There’s room and a time for both – no one’s explicitly denying that, and ultimately they boil down to the same thing – but sometimes you need one so much more than the other, or you need one before it can become time for the other.

You might have noticed without my mentioning it that these are longstanding working class themes. The dream of breaking out into a different, better world: it’s the tale of every local lad done good, it’s the story behind Educating Rita and John Major’s autobiography, it’s the legend behind all those Carnegie libraries and Tesco and Amstrad and, and, and, and. Direction and purpose: they are not easy things to find, and they get harder to find, and use, with every rung down the ladder.

It is one of the classic “insults of class” – having to win for yourself the right to believe that you are entitled to form and follow your own ambitions. At the summit, Robert Kelsey attributed to self help his recognition that his sense of failure in life was in fact a fear of failure. That’s a hugely important point and he made it well. It’s also a middle class one. It’s easier to have a fear of failure when you know how and where to start, indeed, when you know you are allowed to start at all.

The need to change, to be different succeed is a familiar idea to anyone from a working class background. That, to put it bluntly, is because it’s true. It’s an easy thing for middle class journalists and writers to mock, who already have security, who already own the idea that you can achieve what you set out to do, who started life already halfway into the world most people must hustle and scramble to reach. It’s easy to mock when you’ve grown up knowing lawyers, poets, artists, bankers and academics and so assume that those fine careers are options for you. (I am lower middle class in origin and made it to 18 without having known personally any adults in any of those fields – I saw only computing, and not much of that. What about families where no one works at all?)

I’ve a friend, the child of a famous man, who has never read any self help, but knows it’s all crap. The family are wealthy: the chosen career is in a field with formidable entry costs. But I know this about my friend too: they’ve always had written goals. They’ve always used social “tricks” like mirroring and pacing in order to get on. They have a deliberate strategy to overcome failure when it occurs. They have another strategy for networking. They visualize their ideal outcomes.

So much of what they do is pure Tony Robbins. But they don’t know that, because actually, it’s just what people at their level in society do. Not overtly, or even knowingly: there’s no need. They’ll never be as self-conscious about it as people like me who have had to get it all out of a book (if not that one) because there was nowhere else for it to come from.

And I wonder if my friend, or anyone who has ever pitched an article for the hell of it, or just thought they might just – what the heck! – put in for that (interesting) job, or been called on to consult or whatever – I wonder if they have quite realized how unusual they are in British life. That their luck and fortune might lie – not in the results of their decisions, but in their assumption that they can make their decisions at all.

So I’m glad that the Self Help Summit left room for the genre to live and breathe. Without it, there’s really very little to fill the gap (the series of which this book is part is quite good) and beyond that, nothing but guides to gardening, cooking and cars, on into the distance. Even in England, that’s not going to be enough. And as for weeding out the dross – I think people might be sensible enough, resilient enough, to do that on their own.

Comments (6)

Tags: , , ,

Meeting Simon Clifford

Posted on 08 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

I don’t have heroes. Certainly, I don’t have footballing ones: any heroism that footballers have committed has been tangental to the actual game. Harry Gregg, yes. Bryan Robson, no. But for all that, there are people in football whose success I’ve an emotional commitment to. I haven’t often found myself around these people: it’s not something I’ve ever sought. When I am, it’s uncomfortably disembodying and disassociating. There’s a mix on these occasions, of plain old nerves and the urge to say, don’t waste your time with me, get on with it, it matters…

I last felt that way in late December, lunching with Simon Clifford in a restaurant’s private room beneath his offices in Leeds’ magnificent Victorian centre. It wasn’t an interview or anything like that – he’d offered me the chance to meet up and have a look around, and I was hardly going to turn down a chance to to see UK football’s best hope from the inside. And my nerves went, anyway, when it turned out that we’d both taken the same message from the same Rocky 6 clip.

Every time you meet someone “in football”, you come away with a stack of highly actionable stories that you could never possibly print. Clifford is a bibilophile, owner of one of the country’s most important collections of one of my favourite Victorian authors, and the stories were better than usual. I won’t pass them on. But I will pass on what else I learned.

I’ll also pass on what I learned from Clifford’s colleague Steve Nichol, now at Brazilian Soccer Schools and rated as one of the very best thinking coaches working in the UK today. One of the highlights of my day in Leeds was hearing Nichol analyse a recent Premiership match with the kind of succinctness and originality that only goes to confirm how little knowledge most of us who love the game actually have in Britain – and how much we need it. I tried to hide it from him, but I wasn’t keeping up, and felt ashamed.

In no order, then – here’s what I learned at BSS:

The future might be about to arrive

Aiden White, at Brazilian Soccer Schools from age 7 until age 18, has broken through into the Leeds United first team. Aberdeen have five BSS graduates under the age of 21 in their squad, and there are another 650 young people training up under BSS auspices in Aberdeen alone. This is happening across the country. A lot of us have wondered what would happen to the British game if real training was available to young people from the start. We might be about to find out. But:

BSS, Socatots and the Clifford philosophy are still developing


Clifford told me more than once that the existing setup of BSS and Socatots does not reflect the entirety of his thinking and that there are many more ideas awaiting execution than he and his team will have time for right now. There are further levels of attainment to be added at the top of the BSS scheme. Socatots, which is the great hope, starting young people off at the very beginning, hasn’t had time yet – it just hasn’t been around long enough – to generate its own cadre of graduates.

Local Socatots franchisees have signalled their belief – which I share – that appropriate training at that age level gives benefits far beyond football alone. Where football is concerned, the “new” ideology that we here more and more often now – that young people ought to be technically competent with the ball before moving on to game situations – has been baked into BSS and Socatots since the late nineties.

Player development

Some of what is still to come concerns fitness and focus. Steve Nichol posed the question – how do you prevent players stalling in their development after the age of 16? That is, how do you help them continue to grow once they are in the comparatively dead hands of Football League and Premiership clubs?

That’s not necessarily to criticize club academies, although the academies vary wildly in their quality, and are subject to the same coaching traditions that have held back British football in the past. But young players who make it into full contracts will do so on the back of a lot of hard work and sacrifice at an early age. The temptation to enjoy the immediate rewards is substantial and resisting it takes a level of maturity few people have at that stage in their lives.

Mental and physical discipline

Clifford and his team feel that the answers may come from boxing – a sport that calls on mental and physical discipline far beyond normal football training.

Football did originally associate itself with mental discipline. London social reformers like Quentin Hogg and Arnold Hills, saw football as a means of helping reintroduce the order to lives thrown into chaos by industrial change – mass demolition of working homes in the 1860s for Hogg, industrial depression, unrest and accidents for Hills.

But the problems posed by the modern game to young people are on another scale altogether: the human need for order and direction is obvious when survival is at stake. Less so when your choice is between extra skills training in cold weather or the chance to be the centre of female attention.

Boxing and the other martial arts put discipline and conditioning onto a different plane – presenting them as the key to adulthood and the only source of peer esteem. Importing these values into football won’t be easy, but it’s surely not impossible.

Because anyone who has spent time around good young players and decent coaches will know what I refer to as the atmosphere of “high seriousness” that they bring to their endeavours. It’s a cultural survival, a hangover from the pre-1960s Apollonian British culture that has vanished from academia, government and policing.

In football, that high seriousness has to share space with what George Best inadvertantly imported: fashion. Deep detachment: the universal application of satire and irony. The individual over the group – and groups, where they exist, are competitive, not cooperative. The priority given to sex – in direct contrast, here, to an older football tradition that evolved to deal with a world that had syphilis but no cure.

That high seriousness – friendly, but determined and implacable – was around me all day at the BSS offices. It made me realize – and think to myself out loud – they really are going to pull this off: they really are going to do this..

The place for thinkers in football


Mentors matter. Guidance matters. People, real or fictional, who guide and inspire.. and it was in that context that the Rocky 6 clip comes into play. Rocky’s message to his adult son – that to become what you must become, to have impact, you have to be ready for unlimited opposition, mental pain and physical discomfort – is a big Clifford/Nichol theme. How to find a way to exist for extended periods without outside approval or approbation.. It’s there in Raymond Blanc’s new autobiography, too, and in Ricky Gervais’ recollections: the worthwhile things lie on the wrong side of years of friendless, pitiless labour.

We’ve had League football in the UK now for 115 seasons, give or take a year or two. In that time, every single intelligent thinker who proposed that we transform the game’s skill and fitness levels has been spat out or destroyed. From Jimmy Hogan on and ever since, these people have had to make a way outside the League and FA systems. And these systems, so robust in maintaining stable competitions over an extraordinarily long time, are still digesting  the lessons of 1950 and 1953. No white smoke from Lancaster Gate yet. Not even bullet points.

Which means that any attempt to improve standards that seeks to do so via Leagues or Associations is doomed to failure. It has to be an outside job.


Clifford and Sir Clive Woodward’s experiences at Southampton show that, even at a club with a chairman who understands the issues at the right level and is open to progress, fear and ignorance win.

Nothing can move until professional footballers in Britain are equipped with skills, fitness and game sense beyond the levels achieved abroad. Anything else is beside the point. It won’t come from the clubs. It won’t come from the Associations.

It’s an outside job. And here’s the news from Leeds: the outsiders are working on it.

Comments (3)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The 14 Year Rule: Football Management and Career Length

Posted on 18 December 2010 by JamesHamilton

Sir Bobby Robson (Ipswich Town 1969-1982)

This weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson will surpass Sir Matt Busby’s record as the longest serving manager in Manchester United history. He’ll go on to serve his full quarter century next year, and eventually retire (or die in office) as the greatest manager of modern times.

However, Sir Alex did not have the opportunity to manage at the top level during British football management’s real golden age. He didn’t take over at Aberdeen until 1978, by which time the good years, for what they were worth, were all but over.

Consider this. Between 1967 and 1974, the following managers and management teams were active in the English and Scottish leagues, at the clubs which they are most famous for: Jock Stein at Celtic, Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Bill Nicholson at Spurs, Don Revie at Leeds, Clough and Taylor at Derby, Ron Greenwood at West Ham, and Bobby Robson at Ipswich.

What those men have in common are trophies, memorable football, the passionate love of the fans and – all being dead now – the status of latterday saints and guardian angels, safeguarding the souls of their clubs. They have something else in common too. Look at this:

Jock Stein Celtic 1965-1978: Tenure 13 years

Bill Shankly Liverpool 1959-1974: Tenure 15 years

Herbert Chapman Huddersfield/Arsenal 1921-1934 : Tenure 13 years

Harry Catterick Everton 1961-1973: Tenure 12 years

Bill Nicholson Spurs 1958-1974: Tenure 16 years

Don Revie Leeds 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years

Clough and Taylor Derby/Notts Forest 1967-1982: Tenure 15 years

Mercer/Allison/Book Manchester City 1965-1980: Tenure 15 years

Joe Harvey Newcastle United 1962-1975: Tenure 13 years

Ron Greenwood West Ham 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years

Sir Bobby Robson Ipswich 1969-1982: Tenure 13 years

There are obvious caveats – Clough’s post-Taylor years saw success and overperformance from Forest, and Robson’s management career had almost three decades yet to run when he left Ipswich for the worst job in the world. I’m not sure what I’ve said about Manchester City makes complete sense. Bertie Mee – a war hero who spent a decade at Arsenal – should receive honorable mention. So should Sir Alf Ramsey, England manager for 11 years and a manager for 25 years until leaving Panathinaikos in 1980.

But other than that, isn’t it striking how similar in length are the careers of British football management’s golden age greats? Although there are variations, 14 years seems to be a benchmark figure. Why?

Natural Wastage: the job of football manager is famously ageing, and it might just be that 14 years is as long as most people can take. Chapman died at the end of his, and Jock Stein – victim of a serious car crash – was felt to be not the man he had been.

Footballing Followers: 14 years is also a good benchmark length for a playing career. The great managers acquire followers: John McGovern went with Clough wherever the manager led him. Revie left Leeds believing that his team were becoming old and that the Elland Road club could not afford the players to rebuild. Do the followers retire after 14 years? Is the effort to replace the familiar faces all too much?

Vanishing playing talent: it’s striking how many of these men chose 1974 in which to bow out. By that year, the wartime children, the greatest cohort of footballers in British history, were beginning to fade away.  Derby’s first championship year was the most competitive in history, and, not coincidentally, the year in which most of that cohort were at their peak. Never again would so many clubs be realistic contenders. Did managers see a less talented future coming, as Sir Trevor Brooking does now?

The 1973 Oil Crisis: a better point of comparison for 2008-2011 than 1929, and an event that sideswiped so much of British life that we are still only beginning to realize just how extensive the damage was. What influence could it have had on British football management? Certainly, in financial terms, clubs would never be so secure again.

Pop Culture in Football: The big cultural change amongst players – think of it as the transformation from Jack Charlton into George Best – happened in the early seventies, famously bewildering Alf Ramsey. That, and the abolition of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer, undoubtedly made team-building more difficult. Has a similar change come to pass more recently, with Bosman and the vast financial power now wielded by players? Do these cultural changes also occur every 14 years or so, making generation-straddling careers that much more difficult?

Clubs used to give managers enough time: It’s true that managerial tenure used to be longer than it is now, but football clubs have always been run by trigger-happy idiots. So I don’t buy this one.

Really, though, none of these explanations feel remotely satisfactory, which tells me that one of two things must be true. Either I’ve too small a sample of managers here for such generalizations to be made – or there are indeed factors that work towards creating a 14 year career length for great managers, but I’m missing them completely. What do you think?

Comments (2)

Tags: , ,

World Cup 2018: Remembering My Russian

Posted on 03 December 2010 by JamesHamilton

When I heard the news that the Russian Federation would host the 2018 World Cup despite a near-perfect bid from England, I remembered my Russian.

My Russian was one of the very few great men I consider myself to have met. You won’t have heard of him, and I won’t give you his name.

Our paths crossed when I was working in a public library in an impoverished area of north London. A huge, bearded man with a voice deeper than a Volga boatman’s sat down in front of me at my enquiry desk, and we got to talking. He had been a university professor in the Soviet Union, but had abandoned his home and career so that his teenaged son could have the chance to grow up in the West. His son was now tearing through his comprehensive school whilst the father kept their council flat clean and did what scraps of work he could find.

Like so many new immigrants, he did not consider what he saw around him as economic poverty. His ramshackle pad was worlds better than what his old status in the USSR had afforded him, and the Golborne Road market stalls kept him in what he considered to be the style of kings and presidents.

What did shock him were the drugs. Now, it’s not as though my colleagues and I were unexposed to this: it was around about this time that the mother-daughter prostitute team would come screaming into our building provoked by their failure to score, and we had our share of poor souls with ravaged arms amongst our regular clientele. But for my Russian, all this was new.

So it started to happen that, one by one, local street junkies would find themselves being swept up by a great Russian bear, emerging some weeks later clean, happily bewildered, full of soup and stew, the colour back in their cheeks, their clothes washed and their appetite for life mysteriously restored.

I don’t know how he did it: something about not having been told he shouldn’t, I imagine. Perhaps he felt the strength of his own new freedom in London, and wanted to share it with those who had lost theirs to a different kind of unelected power. Or just force of personality. At any rate,  he sat in front of me one day months into our acquaintance and said,

James – in my country we have beautiful laws. In your country – not so beautiful. But in your country, people obey the laws. And that is the difference.

Aye, aye, that is indeed the difference, which is why even mild displays of corruption in the UK lead usually to extended or indeed permanent banishment from public life.

So it really couldn’t have been other for me, that when FIFA handed 2018 to Russia, a decision as demanding of Kremlinology as any from Kosygin or Brezhnev,  I remembered my Russian.

Comments (3)

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Brain and Mind: A Short Annotated Reading List

Posted on 03 April 2010 by JamesHamilton

I’ve put together reading lists before – see here. This one will overlap the earlier list, but is meant to provide a number of quick but intelligent ways into the whole brain/mind/therapy/neuroscience subject spread. As such, many of these books will be familiar, some perhaps not. Amazon UK links presented where possible.

The Human Brain

Rita CARTER, Mapping the Mind. A beautifully illustrated grand tour of the brain, this is, first and foremost, a thing of beauty. Lightly but carefully written, Carter nonetheless doesn’t shy away from current controversies, and if you are looking for an introduction to the subject that will detain you for no longer than a couple of evenings, this is the one to choose.

Eric KANDEL, In Search of Memory: the emergence of a new science of mind. This is Kandel’s biography and at the same time an in-depth history of neuroscience. If you’ve no previous knowledge, start with Carter, but if you have, Kandel provides a thrilling page-turner with the occasional mental roadblock as you chew on the difficult bits. I can’t forget his account of  Edgar wiring up a neuron to loudspeakers in 1928 and hearing it speak (a percussive bang! bang! bang!) for the first time…

One of Kandel’s first career goals was to find the physical location in the brain of Freud’s ego and id. We are a long way on from that, but it serves as a warning that the most basic theoretical underpinnings of neuroscience are still fresh and unstable and liable to drastic change at any time.

History of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

Frank TALLIS, Changing Minds: the history of psychotherapy as an answer to human suffering. Tallis’s book is short – only 170pp. – and is by a substantial margin the best introduction to the changing nature of talk therapies. It begins with Freud, and covers every important player and significant development. Tallis’s heroes are Beck and Bowlby – which, if you don’t know, is a demonstration of  good taste – and Tallis’s almost Jeevesian politeness doesn’t prevent him from giving famous flakes like Binswanger, Reich and Perls all they deserve.

Richard BENTALL, Madness Explained: psychosis and human nature. This is a “controversial” book, because it pretty much kicked off the current debate about both the efficacy of psychiatric treatment and the influence of culture and geography on experience of psychosis. For the record, I am Bentall’s man. You’ll find the first two chapters particularly useful on the essential psychiatry pioneers such as Emil Kraepelin, contemporaries to Freud but neglected men despite their victory in the battle of ideas (a victory which Bentall calls into question).

Edward SHORTER, A History of Psychiatry: from the era of the asylum to the age of prozac. A companion to Bentall. Shorter has the whole story of psychiatry, including ECT, which would ordinarily mean Reference Only for all but the most determined. But Shorter can write, and isn’t prepared to ignore controversy purely because he isn’t looking for a fight himself. You’ll find everything that matters here that isn’t in Tallis or Bentall. Unless you are looking for a history of the self-help/motivation movement – and I’m not aware that a good one exists. A project for Francis Wheen, perhaps.

Human Consciousness

Consciousness is still as much a philosophical issue as it is a neuroscientific one: we are still defining terms. Both scientists and philosophers matter here.

Nicholas HUMPHREY, Seeing Red: a study in consciousness. This is the best introduction to the subject: Humphrey’s ability to clarify ambiguous and difficult ideas borders on genius at times. A book that will make you feel more intelligent than you actually are.

Daniel DENNETT, Sweet Dreams: philosophical obstacles to a science of consciousness. Humphrey’s thinking is deeply influenced by Dennett’s, and, like Humphrey, my money is on Dennett’s fame in the brain Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness outlasting the competition. Sweet Dreams is a gentle, humourous attack on Dennett’s philosophical opponents. The punch-up is head-clearing. Dennett’s older, longer Consciousness Explained is also worth the effort.

Susan BLACKMORE, Conversations on Consciousness. This is an entertaining, often funny series of interviews with Dennett and his various allies and opponents in the consciousness field. Pretty much everyone who matters is here – the Churchlands, Penrose, Chalmers, Gregory, Searle… and the book is the best way to get a feel for their viewpoints before rejecting them for Dennett’s.

Human Memory and Emotion

It wasn’t long ago that the scientific study of emotion was a backwater, territory for cranks and the green-ink brigade. By the end of the 1990s, it was home to some of the most magnificent and moving scientific writing of our times.

Steven PINKER, How the Mind Works. This rather long book was always going to feature in a list of this type: it’s a good thing that Pinker can write. It’s not a comprehensive tour so much as an entertaining chase around some of the colourful bits, and Pinker is assuming that you won’t take rhetorical and logical errors too hard. Nor should you.

Steven ROSE, The Making of Memory. I can’t stand the man’s politics, nor his wife’s, but the original edition of this book won the Rhône-Poulenc Science Prize. The book centres entertainingly, sometimes chillingly, on Rose’s own laboratory work, but expands where appropriate to demonstrate the contact between experimental findings and philosophical thinking. Rose is also good on the weakness of much modern brain metaphor. There are problems, he says, with seeing the brain entirely in terms of modern office procedure. If you have to choose ONE book to read about human memory, this is the one to choose.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, Phantoms in the Brain: human nature and the architecture of the mind. A hugely entertaining series of essays about brain function and human experience – phantom limbs, mirror agnosia, Balint’s Syndrome.. Published in 1998, the book has been unfortunate in how much of it has been overtaken by subsequent work, but this is still the most accessible way into emotional neuroscience.

Antonio Damasio’s trilogy Decartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens and Looking For Spinoza is essential, but if you had to pick one, go for The Feeling, which really ought also to be listed under Human Consciousness as the neuroscientist’s contribution. Damasio mixes his own work, recent neuroscience and biographical/philosophical musings into a seamless discussion of what it means to be human. The trilogy as a whole is the most substantial single achievement on this list.

Joseph LEDOUX, The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. An intimately written, personal view of the human condition as expressed by brain activity. LeDoux is excellent company, and must be read if you aren’t going to go for the entire Damasio oeuvre. You might feel, having read this, that CBT is skating on thin ice, and you’d be right to do so.

Paul EKMAN, The Nature of Emotion: fundamental questions. This collection of expert essays is by some distance the densest item on this list. It explores different views on everything from the nature of emotion through to the issue of emotional control, unconscious emotion, emotions and mood, the subjective experience of emotion and emotional development. Fifteen years old, now but a fabulous ground breaker if you have the time and patience.

Nature vs Nurture

Steven PINKER, The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature. I will be voting Labour in the election, but I don’t expect my copy of The Blank Slate to follow suit. All mainstream British politics is required, nowadays, to take a strong position in favour of the nurture side of this debate, but Pinker won’t have it: both nature and nurture are involved, but much of nature’s involvement is, to modern eyes, both inconvenient and irresponsible. Supporters of the Euston Manifesto will find that some of the negative Amazon comments jog memories..

Alice MILLER, The Drama of Being A Child: the search for the true self. It’s only short – 150 pages or so – and it’s a passionate book that you’ll finish in one sitting. The problem with Pinker’s revival of the “nature” side of the argument has been that those who are politically wedded to an overwhelmingly nature-biased view would rather lose sight of any “nurture” element at all. Miller’s no scientist, to say the least of it, and her views are highly controversial, but there is a pro-nurture counterweight worth having here. She is also the first writer to take the situation of children raised by personality disordered parents and explore it properly.

I haven’t really touched on therapy in this list. CBT manuals are dry, psychodynamic ones can be creepy and psychoanalysis gave up on it all many years ago. Dorothy Rowe has occasional trouble disentangling her politics from her psychology (she wouldn’t see it that way: not doing so is an occupational hazard for the entire field) and Irvin Yalom deserves a review post of his own. Too many others subscribe either to an “everyone’s broken” philosophy that leaves me cold or to varieties of radicalism that do no more, I feel, than avoid the question. Environmentalism is not a source of the kind of meaning and significance that matters  for depressives, and neither is the Respect Party. There are some good collections of couch memoirs, and some good accounts of the experience of mental illness, but too many again to discuss in this post.

This subject enjoys some high quality online coverage – I recommend:

BPS Research Digest – the blog of the British Psychological Association

Mind Hacks – much of this excellent review site is written by KCL’s Vaughan Bell

Seed Magazine

Edge –  especially the Annual Question, answered by dozens of top scientists, thinkers and writers

Comments (3)

Tags: , ,

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?

Comments (2)

Tags: , , , , ,

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!

Comments (5)

Tags: , ,

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.

Comments (4)

Tags: , , , ,

Scotland’s National Team: Eleven Impossible Jobs, Plus Substitutes

Posted on 19 December 2009 by JamesHamilton

The first thing Capello said on becoming England manager was that when an Englishman pulled on his international shirt, he lost all the confidence he felt at his club: he played in fear. The task for Capello was to create the conditions for confidence that already existed at Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. And in that he succeeded, but could he have done it for Scotland? I argue not. The Scottish job, for the time being, is beyond the power of a single man. If the Scotland team are to experience what England experienced in 2009, change has to come from the Scottish FA, the Scottish press, the Scottish clubs, and, especially, in Scottish fan culture itself.

The problem doesn’t lie with Scottish managers, and it doesn’t lie with Scottish players. Scotland, as any glance at the English Premiership or at post-War European Cup football will show, has a competitive advantage when it comes to the production of fine football managers. Any country in the world, with the possible exceptions of Italy and Holland, would love to possess the Scottish managerial production line for themselves. Nor, as I will argue, are the players deficient. The obstacles are psychological. There are three of them. Sadly, just because it’s “all in the mind” doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to shift.

Obstacle One: The Scottish Team’s 2 Contradictory Roles

Scotland are underdogs, so the song says. I’ll come back to the song in a minute. It’s an easier position for a fan than a player: compare the joyous flagwaving and national pride with the fear and tension visible in that row of dark blue shirts. Beside them, the Italians, who were meant to be intimidated by the weather and the passion, jog easily on the spot and wait their turn.

Football has plenty of real underdogs – Iceland, Slovenia, Faroe Islands – countries with neither population nor history nor experience to help them. For places like these, the status can work for them from time to time, and the sheer lack of expectation can work in their favour.

But Scotland’s footballing pedigree isn’t Iceland’s, or even Norway’s. Think of that managerial competitive advantage. Think of the comparatively huge domestic audience (far more Scots per head actively watch the game than any other country in the British Isles and indeed in Europe). Think of Scotland’s clubs, successful on the European stage.

Scotland’s song is an underdog’s song for a country that is not quite comfortable with playing the underdog. There’s the sneaking suspicion that, had it played its cards more cleverly, Scotland would not now be comparing itself with nations with 5m people – the Irelands – but with nations of recent international pedigree, like France or Holland. And unlike England, Scotland thinks it should play its cards cleverly.

So in trying to play the underdog card against Italy – by throwing rain and cold and bluster and bullshit against one of the most experienced sides in the world – Scotland was both true and untrue to itself. Italy scored almost from the kick-off. It was all the ringmasters at Hampden deserved for ungracious, psychogically ill-advised behaviour. All it achieved was to put the wind up their own men.

The Italian goal cleared the air of all the nonsense, and after that, Scotland put in exactly the sort of fine performance they are entirely capable of. If only they’d been able to approach the game in a more steady, mature and calm manner – which would have been both politer to their Italian guests and less likely to play into their hands – it would, I am sure, have been the means to the qualification that Scotland deserved.

But it’s easy to say, less easy to achieve. Consider this well-known and recent moment in the history of the Scottish national team:

This is the Scottish Underdog Rampant. (I can’t watch it all the way through: it’s all so embarrassing and painful). Note the various assumptions at work: for Scotland to win, one or more players has to put in a lifetime perfomance – beating a team like France is a once-in-a-lifetime miracle and not plannable for – hysteria and invocations of magic are appropriate and acts of patriotism. (I don’t want to take away from the win against France, which was enjoyed right across the British Isles – it’s just a convenient example).

But those ingredients aren’t the only ones around. Had that been Iceland, Icelandic fans would have celebrated the win without ever looking for it to happen again. McFadden’s had to go into subsequent internationals burdened by that goal and the other one – burdened because Scotland aren’t comfortable with the underdog idea, and end up wanting underdog-style victories at regular enough intervals to achieve non-underdog footballing goals.

Let’s go back to the song, now. For those of you not familiar with it, here are the most important lyrics:

And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again

I acknowledge, by the way, that this is Scotland’s choice of unofficial national anthem – their Land of My Fathers, their O Canada. It’s the country’s obvious right to choose their own song. But that passage is in all three verses. I just regret that Scotland chose something so.. Balkan, so Greater Serbia, when they had Scotland the Brave or The Banks of Loch Lomond to choose from.

It’s the England thing, and if we’re already having to cope with a clash between the desire for underdog status and the suspicion that underdog isn’t good enough, then don’t add the England thing on top of it. But Scotland has, does, and probably always will.

It’s a pity. Because I’ve learned two things about the England thing since moving to Scotland.

The first thing is that Scotland is not just different from England. It’s probably more different from England than France, Spain or Italy. The sheer number of basic differences in language, attitude, approach and opinion is so great that there is no danger – of any kind, at any time – of Scotland being remotely impinged upon to any effect by her southern neighbour. I’ve learned that not many Scots in Scotland realize just how secure as a country and as a nation they really are. It’s a shame: they can afford to relax into themselves much more than they do where England is concerned.

The second thing that I’ve learned is how few Scots realize that the English have gone away, never to return. The Scottish-English rivalry – it’s one hand clapping. The English just don’t care. The Scots can be as passionate in their distrust as they please. It makes no difference to the Rosbifs.

It irritates, even infuriates, some Scots that English football fans will cheer a Scottish team, club or international, as if it were their own. Not all: I’ve seen Scots hush Scots during an England game when they tried to catcall during the anthems. And England, don’t forget, are still stuck with God Save The Queen, and what that awful dirge has to do with sport or country is anyone’s guess.

I can see the Scottish point of view. I don’t agree with it, but I can see it. It feels patronizing to some, as though the English still regard the Scots as property. They don’t, but that’s a common view here, and because it plays a part it, and those who hold it, need to be understood and taken seriously.

The Scots are now alive to the cost to their politics of the England thing, and there’s what amounts to a consensus that the time has come for Scotland to stand on its own financial feet as much as possible, and that the costs of that are worth the trouble. The England thing has meant a dilution of responsibility – there was always Westminster to blame! but that’s fading fast now as experience of government from Holyrood (a place Westminster could learn from, incidentally) accumulates.

The cost of the England thing in sporting terms is best described as a distortion of ambition. Beating England matters too much. If beating England matters more than e.g. catching Holland or France in the World rankings, then certain things don’t get done. Because England can be beaten in one-off games, like 1967, like 1977, or bested without victory as in 1996 and 2000. But catching Holland requires that Scotland see all that as second class goods – all very well and enjoyable, but not to the point. Letting go to that degree is hard.

We’re not finished with the England thing, but let’s move on to our second obstacle:

Obstacle Two: The Scottish False Football History

It isn’t often said, so should be said more often: the surprising thing about the 1960s is not so much that England won a World Cup, but that Scotland didn’t. England have had periods in their history when they’ve had better players available in greater numbers than 1966. 1946, for instance, or 1957, or 1970. For Scotland, the 1960s were the boom years. I look at the qualification matches for the 1966 World Cup and note that, but for five minutes of madness against Poland at Hampden, Scotland would have matched Italy for points (and beat Italy, too, 1-0 at Hampden. It would have done in 2007..)

In 1970, Scotland had to get past West Germany:

It could have gone either way: had just one of those endless Law headers turned into a goal, Scotland would have gone into their final two games with everything to play for. Up against one of the leading quartet of world sides in 1969, Scotland looked… every bit their equals.

But did they know it? Is that how it felt at the time? Up against a divided country full of American soldiers and shoved up against Russians, unable to stand on its own two feet? Because that’s the thing: you can choose underdog status without realising that you’re doing so, and it leaks all over your talent and ability, corroding what would otherwise shine. It might have occurred to the West Germans that theirs was a client country, with only fifteen years of proper football participation behind them, up against the nation of Stein! and Celtic! a nation whose men sat even until then in tanks in the Rhineland.

I think the first obstacle – the reluctant underdog thing – creates a second: Scotland do not know to this day how good they are at football. On occasion, a sort of pumped-up hysteria is allowed in as a substitute for knowledge, as against Italy in 2007, or in the equally ill-advised Hampden farewell in 1978.

The real story of Scotland’s 1970s World Cups remains to be told. The one that’s out there is inaccurate and unhelpful in the extreme. I refer to what you might call the humiliation scenario, and claims of upset hubris.

The humiliation scenario sets out to portray Scotland’s teams of 1974 and (especially) 1978 as having gone out with big heads and come back with sore ones having embarrassed the nation in the process. That’s one way to describe a winning draw with Brazil and victory over Holland.

I see those two World Cups, and to a lesser extent the (in my view) equally misrepresented 1982 World Cup, as creditable perfomances from a side who had no idea, when all is said and done, of their own powers. A side who went into tournaments full of the knowledge that they’d never proceeded beyond the first round and empty of the knowledge that they wielded a squad containing Law, Dalglish and Bremner..

..and how Capello’s “fear” comes in and works its magic. And how the idea of humiliation and embarrassment leaks in and damages everything in sight.

No one outside Scotland thought them humiliated. Outside Scotland, everyone thought that you’d just about beaten Brazil (and Scotland must have thought themselves up against the 1970 lot to begin with). Outside Scotland, everyone thought you were coping well with Peru by playing your own game, and that it was when you tried to ape the short passes of south americans that things went wrong. And as for the Holland game, no one did better against that great Dutch side, ever: Scotland genuinely beat them, in justice as well as goals, something that neither West Germany (1974) nor Argentina (1978) could claim.

Scotland, in short, took the lessons from their ’70s and ’80s losing World Cups that Argentina could well have taken from their dubious winning ones. And in doing so, Scotland creating a rolling accumulation of pain and disappointment that was both unnecessary then and too much for men to carry now. It’s time for a reassessment.

The self-flagellatingly harsh assessment of Scotland’s World Cup performances has had two powerful effects on subsequent events. First, the weight of perceived failure has led to defeats in important games that would otherwise have been won. In 1996, the unnecessary defeat came against England, who were outplayed on the day, and even a draw would have taken Scotland through to meet France in the second round. How many Scots remember a fighting draw against the Netherlands of Bergkamp, Davids, Seedorf, Reiziger and de Boer? As it was, only a Dutch consolation goal against England kept Scotland out of the next round. Embarrassed? Humiliated?

The other impact is on Scottish players now. How does it feel to fill the shoes of men you are constantly told were legends who.. humiliated Scotland, a humiliation you – you inferior soul you – have to avenge? These players were one scuffed shot against Norway away from a World Cup playoff place this year, but you wouldn’t have known that from the treatment they and the manager received, not just from the press and television, but from their own Scottish Football Association.

Properly organized, the men Scotland has at its disposal are perfectly capable of qualifying for one of the two international tournaments. But not if they are told that they’re a dud generation, lesser men than the heroes who let down their country. That’s too much to carry. It’s the same burden that did for English national teams in the wake of 1966: never as good, never as moral, never as.. English! as the crewcut heroes of yore.

There’s opinion in Scotland that thinks this is a national trait: “we”, meaning the Scots, just kind of.. go in for.. noble inglorious humiliating defeat: it’s part of our identity, part of our history… which case, why do you sing about Bannockburn before matches, and how current would this view be now had e.g. Scotland scored once more against Yugoslavia in 1974, once more against Holland in 1978, and once more against the Soviet Union in 1982?

That’s how close it was, and that’s noble inglorious defeat and national humiliation for you. There’s another way to look at it, one that could help Scotland under a new manager now. But it’s hard to make that kind of change, certainly now when that historical cement has had 30 years in which to set fast.

Even if the trick could be pulled, there’s still another obstacle in the way.

Obstacle 3: Dances of Death

That’s two dances: between the Scottish national team and Scottish national puissance, which we’ve already vaguely touched upon – and between the Scottish national team and the Scottish Premier Division.

There’s nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with a country choosing to use football to express itself on the international stage. Brazil chose to, quite deliberately, back in the 1920s, before they had any footballing tradition at all. 25 years later, they won their first World Cup, which shows what can be done with determination. Almost a decade after the Brazilian decision, Germany decided that football was a lower class pursuit and that there were better ways to assert one’s nationhood.

Scotland is in the perfect position to choose the Brazilian approach over the German. And it may be about to do so. Henry Mcleish taking on the job of reporting ways of promoting Scottish football is the equivalent of Tony Blair doing the same for England – except that, to match Mcleish, Blair would not have watched Jackie Milburn as a child (which he never claimed to have done, by the way) but have been Jackie Milburn.

There’s only a 5 million population to play with, and not many of that population actually play at present (10% of Dutch turn out in one form or another). But the depth of knowledge and the history is there, and there are good things being done quietly in some of the smaller clubs up and down Scotland that promise much for the future.

But for now, it would be better if Scottish puissance were not seen as quite the function of Scottish footballing performance it is now. It’s too much for men to carry, not without the infrastructure, training and attitude necessary to bring it off. And when so few Scots actually play the game, it’s unfair on those who do. Choose literature; choose wave power; choose Edinburgh’s superb pubs. Choose something else until football can manage it.

As things stand, any Scottish team has to carry not just the hopes, but the perceived reputation of the country on its back. No one outside Scotland thinks that the country is somehow diminished by its footballing performance, and in any case, outside perception of what that performance is is almost certainly higher in Paris or Rome than in Glasgow.

Then there’s the matter of the Scottish Premier Division. Europe’s triumphant overachievers in European and UEFA Cups, over the entire period up to and very much including Celtic’s UEFA Cup Final of a year or two ago: but there’s a perception that when the Premier Division fails, it’s the job of the national team to compensate. Or, when the Premier Division succeeds, it’s the job of the national team to do likewise. With options like those, it would be as well to take “Proud Edward” (by the way – the 1967 songwriters mean Edward II!) out of the tune and replace him with a front two of Scylla and Charybdis.


I don’t think the national side can get away from any of this: it’s the backdrop they’re stuck with. But continue in this vein, and there’s no other future but more of the same: a potentially perfectly competent side carrying too much baggage and fear to play in the way it needs to to achieve what it’s capable of.

There’s no quick or easy way out. But there may be a way out. If the Mcleish report comes up with a sensible development plan that can deliver a steady stream of decent players to back up the ones that are produced more or less by accident as they are now, that, added to the gradual away-from-England, away-from-the-past lensing effect that Holyrood is achieving (albeit by inches) might be enough.

There’s no need for a foreign manager, although I believe a case should be made for the continuing excellent crop of Scottish managers to seek work in mainland Europe more often than they have before now. But Scotland has fine managers. Learn from a Capello, sure: but Scotland’s managers have plenty to teach others. That isn’t the problem.

Flower of Scotland isn’t the problem, although it’s a nonsense and not anywhere near as good as older rivals. Playing the underdog card is the problem. Call it The Fan Delusion if you like: the idea that the emotional experience and attitude of the fan in the stand is the one required by the players on the pitch if they are to succeed. It let Scotland down badly in 2007.

I felt it coming before the game. Scottish commentator after Scottish commentator came forth to claim that Scottish passion! and Scottish weather! and the Hampden crowd! would make life hard for Italy and sweep the Scots home. It betrayed football, that attitude: it betrayed Scottish footballers. It said, you aren’t good enough. Only hysteria and superhuman (“McFadden! James McFadden!”) performances of which you aren’t ordinarily capable will get us there.

It took an Italian goal to clear all that nonsense out of the road. After that, Scotland played an excellent match. Why did they have to give Italy a goal start in order to do that? Because, as things stand, playing for Scotland is eleven impossible jobs. It’s a psychological burden that would bring down an Ali, a Waugh brother, a Michael Johnson. I wish I could see it ever being shifted. In fact, I see it getting worse.

Happy New Year, Craig Levein.

Comments (14)

Tags: , ,

Deisler, Football and Depression

Posted on 14 August 2009 by JamesHamilton


I’d like to thank Rob Marrs for putting me onto this particular story. I don’t follow European football particularly well, and the Deisler situation had completely passed me by. I doubt very much I can do more with it than rehearse the usual things, but here’s what I make of it nonetheless.

Depression is “my” problem, in that in the company of (my off-the-cuff estimate) one in three of the kind of people who’ll find themselves reading this, I’ve put up with periodic bouts of dysthymic disorder every so often since my late teens. It’s a common mistake for people in my position – those who’ve experienced the problem AND practiced psychotherapy – to consider ourselves as having an unusual insight on it or some similar reflection. For what it’s worth, I’ve read the same autobiographical accounts, textbooks and analyses of the experiences of the famous depressed as you have. And all I can say having done so is that, in terms of communicating the experience of depression to those who haven’t had the pleasure, it isn’t so much that we can’t provide the right sort of metaphor, but that we lack the kind of syntax for the job.

People talk about “pain” in depression for instance (usually after telling you that it’s different from sadness on page 1.01) but then admit that they don’t mean it: the pain in question lacks the narrative, temporal quality of pain from injury or grief. And the desires for self-harm and suicide can come at the same time but drive in quite different directions: the self-harm can feel a bit like, but altogether unlike, a signal to the outside world that one has cottoned on to one’s dragging uselessness. Suicide can be a bit like, but not like – I really apologise for this – not “ending it all”, but “ending specifically this” , this nameless, faceless ongoing way of living.

Reading this account of Deisler’s experiences doesn’t provide me with anything original to say about him either, but for what it’s worth, here is what I think there is to say.

Firstly, we’re talking about Germany, not England: the attitudes towards mental illness here do not necessarily copy across to Europe. Of course, 100 years ago, they had both Kraepelin and Freud, the men who began the essential psychiatry vs psychotherapy argument that rages on in e.g. Richard Bentall‘s books. Football in Germany isn’t exactly set up for what happened to Deisler, but they are much less likely to borrow the metaphor of possession and witchcraft that we saw with Tackling My Demons. (Although Deisler has called his book Back To Life…) home was not a place I could withdraw to for getting support as my parents had other problems to deal with.

That’s Deisler, and I can imagine a host of depression sufferers inside and outside sport nodding in recognition at that. In my own former practice, a majority of depressives had had the kind of experience that Alice Miller (a German-speaking Swiss)  describes in 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?

Back of the net, there, in my opinion. And I’m also saying that there are elements in Deisler’s experience that are only circumstantially related to football. If the genetic potential is there, if the peer influence is right (and Deisler says “When I was young playing football in the streets, the other kids would mock me for being small”) then the stage is set for the situation at home to wrap things up long before the final whistle.

Are there “pressures” in the game, however, that make it a situation unto itself when it comes to depression and other mood disorders?

The article talks about “a dream of becoming professional footballers with the guarantee of fame, a full bank account and an Aston Martin in the driveway” and comments that “it does not always lead to a happy life”. Does it ever? At any rate, if you have grown up badly mirrored in the Alice Miller sense, or otherwise feeling low in the universal pecking order, invisibly flawed, then money, fame, success and “new friends” – surely this doesn’t need saying – are, far from covering over the wounds, only likely to exacerbate them.

There are balanced people in this crazy game, and consistently they are the ones who reject the Aston Martin side of things: Shearer found himself a retreat in Northumberland and a city that would regard him with affection and respect his privacy. Matt Le Tissier did the same on the south coast. Nicky Barmby went home to Hull, and is still there, loving it.

Deisler talks about fainting girls and men admiring his money and pulling power. For someone with any depressive (and while we’re here, isn’t “depression” quite the wrong word for something that internally violent?) tendencies at all, this is the nightmare. When you need to hide, where do you hide? When you need trusted people to bore silly with your talk, which of your absurd hangers-on can you trust not to run to the papers? And look, there’s Deisler: in the papers…

The top of football is not the place to be depressed. And there’s another angle: therapists can be a predatory bunch when it comes to fame. I didn’t find many familiar faces coming into my consulting room, but there were some, and believe me, you feel the tug of money and attention playing on the lapels of your jacket. The sensation is very real, and some give in to it: think how many therapists you’ve heard of simply through their famous, publicized, clients.

If you are the famous client, you can find therapists who will e.g. not ask for a public testimonial, or gush about you to their friends at conference, but you will have to tread carefully at a time when treading carefully is the hardest thing.

And it might not help you anyway. Paul Gascoigne’s two autobiographies made me feel wretched and ashamed of psychotherapy. Firstly, there was the hideous misdiagnosis of what at a distance looked (primarily) very much like a severe anxiety disorder that he was self-medicating with alcohol. Secondly, there was the treatment, well-meaning and all, but leaving one with the picture of poor Paul padding around expensive Colorado retreats looking after everyone else except himself. That warm, caring, generous man being propelled unwitting through all that 12-step stuff which his background gave him so little traction with (is there anything more essentially middle class than therapy, really?)..

If you are prone to difficulties, then football isn’t the best place to be, and fame can make finding worthwhile help all the harder and riskier (if it’s to be found at all: can I put my hand up and say that although I criticize Paul Gascoigne’s treatment, my distant/unreliable diagnosis isn’t exactly awash with optimism about what could be done for him?) .

But is there something special about sportsmen, about footballers, that sets them up for mood disorders? Or about the environment itself?

Real sporting talent is harder to miss than it used to be. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved nutrition and working conditions meant that Middlesbrough, a place with famously little to do if you were a boy who didn’t like football, was awash with playing talent. Brian Clough could remember many a man better than either himself or Len Shackleton who simply preferred factory life to being treated like a chattel by Ayresome Park. That’s all changed now: coaches can no longer rely upon chance discoveries in non-league football of the Ian Wright variety. If you are good enough to be good at sport, it’s more likely that you’ll end up like Phil Neville, with more than one sport knocking at your door when you’re still at a young age.

And if you are that good, the pressure to take the chance given you is immense. Sometimes, it will be welcome: sporting biography is full of men and women who had been able to do nothing right until they e.g. picked up a javelin… and, finding something they could do, they hung on to it as hard as they could.

But football draws into it men and women – more and more of the latter as the game grows – who are extremely gifted at it, and able to work hard enough to develop that talent, but who aren’t actually interested in it and don’t enjoy it. Fans can miss this, because we all wanted it so badly ourselves as kids (and do you find, as you get past 30, that your fantasies contemplate retirement, your fantasies hang up their boots, your fantasies start taking coaching badges?). But it’s perfectly possible to be international standard at football and not care about the game at all.

You can live the dream and find it’s your nightmare job; and then you find that no one wants to listen or sympathise. Footballers can’t complain about anything – all that money! what more could they want? except the things that we all really want and need: an honest day’s work, and then the sleep of the just. But how many footballers fetch up with the sleep of kings?

And yes, football is ultimately a male competitive environment, and no, you can’t display weakness. One of the most revealing conversations I had in this respect was with a young coach at a Premiership club. He’d been struggling, and, whilst struggling, had overheard his “colleagues” discussing with relish how they were going to take advantage of his difficulties, pile pressure on his head and steal his opportunities. One hears similar tales from business, but business people bullshit on the grand scale, and I wonder.

Thus the environment, and I know I’ve added nothing new there. As for the footballers themselves – and the sporting mentality in general – there is something that I’ve seen, that I don’t altogether understand, that might contribute. I can only describe it as a kind of teak-hardness.

I’ve come across this mostly in golfers. By teak-hardness, I mean that from my perspective, the men (all men up until now) that I’ve seen in this appear to have trouble feeling any real emotion at all. They persist in a steady, solemn, serious, strongly judgemental frame, giving little away, not laughing except at another’s humiliation or misfortune, admitting to no grief or upset of their own, and looking ahead only to opportunities to distinguish themselves from the contemptible mass of mankind. Writing it down in one go makes it sound a lot nastier than it actually looks: there’s little unpoliteness – indeed, they will tend towards old-fashioned courtesy and a surface-level protectiveness towards women and the defenceless. They aren’t rude, but neither, you realise after a while, are they paying any particular attention to anyone else, and they have, ultimately, little interest in, and no knowledge of, the feelings of others.

Sitting with people like this – they’ll usually have come complaining of some mysterious, essentially physical complaint that they suspect and fear of being psychsomatic (ever met anyone with glove anaesthesia? rare but fascinating..) – you have the sense of being in front of a thick sea wall, with powerful currents and a world of natural chaos hemmed in behind it. If that wall goes, everything goes – identity, personality, sense of place in the world, sense of being worthy of humankind – total collapse. Worse than depression, or an anxiety disorder: total, enduring, nervous breakdown.

It’s not something I fully understand, and I suspect I’ve described it badly, but it’s a type I’ve only met in full in sportsmen. I’m reminded of that wierd BBC belief that sporting success should inspire the young. Given how many top sportspeople are solipsistic egotists who enjoy putting one over on other people, I do wonder what they are trying to encourage.

Comments (7)

Advertise Here
Advertise Here