Peters has become a victim of his own fine work

Turns out he can’t get everything right.

Peters has become a victim of his own fine work

In fact since May 5 some folk have began wondering can Dr Steve Peters now get anything right.

That evening Ronnie O’Sullivan lost the world snooker championship final while Liverpool lost a 3-0 lead to Crystal Palace and pretty much whatever chance they had of winning the Premier League. Tomorrow another high-profile client, England, head home from Brazil, the earliest any England side has from a World Cup since 1958.

As we suspected, what Roy Keane said about Peters before the tournament was bang-on. He felt football people in Britain had been closed to the mental side of the game but they should be more open-minded to it, especially Peters. A frustrated or anxious player could get a lot from a chat with him. “But for God’s sake, don’t be hanging your hat on him [Peters],” Keane said.

The real sports psychologist should be the manager.

That’s how it is in the real world of sport. Someone like Peters can make a subtle and big difference to players and an organisation, but as Bob Rotella’s good old friend Ken Ravizza tells Major League baseball teams and young sport psychologists he meets, “We’re not trying to save the day. We’re just trying to make a small piece of the pie a little bit better.”

Very few practitioners in Ravizza’s game have made that pie better than Peters. Sky and British Cycling will testify to how he helped influence their culture while he has been a key factor in Liverpool’s transformation. Yet as much as he might complement and influence a Brendan Rogers, ultimately the manager or coach has easily the biggest influence in the mental state of any team.

One of the most basic principles in all of psychology is reinforcement but in so much of team sport the biggest form of reinforcement is selection or de-selection. Someone like Peters can’t pick the team or drop a player.

Contrary to popular perception, it would be very uncommon for a sport psychologist or psychiatrist to address an entire team at half-time. It would be very uncommon for a manager to not. Peters might have helped tutor a Hodgson as to how to coach or handle a situation in line with best psychological practice but ultimately it is the coach who has to perform that coaching.

When Hodgson publicly questioned Luis Suarez’s world-class status prior to last Thursday’s game, Peters, knowing both men, would have cringed, not approved.

If you take both a closer look and a wider view though the last couple of months have been testament to Peters’ fine work. Those who questioned him when O’Sullivan lost that world final neglect just what an achievement it was for the Rocket to get back to a third straight final; as O’Sullivan himself would say, years ago he’d have thrown in the towel earlier. For Liverpool to be even in a position to supposedly ‘bottle’ it on May 5 was a measure of how much their mental strength has improved under Peters – and Rogers.

Then there’s been transformation of Luis Suarez. A year ago the Uruguayan couldn’t manage his raging temper, or to cite Peters’ famous model, couldn’t manage his chimp. As leading sport psychologists can tell you, most over-aggression comes from frustration. It is also something that is socially learned, even reinforced.

In a magnificent, must-read portrait of Suarez for ESPN Magazine last month, the writer Wright Thompson explored how Suarez has been so violently volatile. At 16 he head-butted a referee because he was afraid that a bad call would cost his team a big underage game, missing another big game through suspension would cost him a career as a professional player abroad, and that would cost him his dream of ever meeting again his girlfriend who had emigrated to Spain only the previous month.

That girlfriend would later become his wife. Such a hateful act had stemmed from love. Once you understood that the lunatic was actually a romantic then you understood why he head-butted the ref and why empathetic local governing bodies covered it up, and why his friends and mentors continued to justify similar behaviour through the years, such as biting Branislav Ivanovic.

Even Thompson was seduced by it: “When a defender presses close,” he’d write, “Suarez doesn’t respond as if the man is trying to take the ball... [but] trying to send him back to the streets of Montevideo, alone.”

Peters and Rogers have been able to coax and coach Suarez that it doesn’t have to be like that.

You’re not under threat. That’s only your chimp. So manage your chimp. The old notion that if you take away your fire you take away your game is bunkum. You can keep the fire without losing the rag.

For a year now Suarez has been of the most centred as well as complete players in football.

England learned that to their cost last Thursday. In a way their psychologist has been a victim of his own fine work. As long as Suarez stays in Brazil, Peters’ influence on this World Cup remains too.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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