Shrinking sport to the bare essentials

By Steven Downes

The England football team’s first match under a new head coach tomorrow has already offered some academics an easy opportunity to publicise their work. This dropped in through the e-mail inbox this afternoon:

Both Steve McClaren and John Terry need to lead by example and tomorrow’s friendly against Greece is essential in helping both to establish their new regime, according to a top UK sports psychologist.

Ahhh. That wonderful phrase, “a top UK sports psychologist”.

The press release continues. At length. It says:

The next few weeks are crucial for both men if they are to create a strong team with a set of shared values and beliefs that can withstand the pressures of being part of the England team, according to Pete Lindsay, a sports psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University.

Pete explains, “This is an unusual situation as there are no new faces in the team and McClaren obviously has the history of his previous involvement in the national setup to build upon and overcome.

“He needs to be brave and to show the team how things are going to be different as early as possible. His main aim should be to ensure that all the players pull together and focus totally on their shared goal.”

Thanks for that insight, Professor Pete. The press release is a long one, with several more of what Tony Hancock once called “statements of the bleedin’ obvious”.

“The best team isn’t always made up of the best eleven players…”

But there’s more: “There may also be some difficult decisions to be made regarding the team members”, we are told (considering that this has been distributed a week after Beckham was dropped from the squad, one wonders whether Sheffield Hallam University has cancelled its newspaper subscriptions).

“Whatever the result tomorrow night McClaren needs to continue to build upon the new psychological momentum…”

After spending the past week in Gothenburg with the British athletics team and its performance director, Dave Collins, this article on struck a chord:

The distinction between superstition and sport psychology turns out to be rather narrow. Mental trainers push their clients to develop systematic “preperformance routines,” including relaxation breaths, focusing exercises, and self-talk. But what’s the difference between a psychological routine and a mystical one? When Nomar Garciaparra refastens his batting gloves between every pitch, is it a preperformance routine or a superstition? What about when Dirk Nowitzki sings David Hasselhoff tunes before he shoots free throws?

Can sports psychologists really help the best players in the game play even better? Nobody really knows. Despite all the scientific-sounding rhetoric, applied sport psychology remains a qualitative science—more of an art form than a rigorous clinical practice. It’s not clear if mental training improves performance on the field; what evidence we do have relies more on personal anecdotes than hard data.

The self-trained hypnotist Harvey Misel assembled a roster of 200 major-league clients thanks to his work with Hall of Famer Rod Carew. “We’re only as good as the people we work with,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The talent has to be there.”

Other sports psychologists chalk up failure to players who won’t stick with the program. It’s a reasonable premise—you can’t expect to see results if your client lacks ability or motivation. But from a scientific perspective, it’s a sham. If you just write off negative results, how do you know your intervention does anything at all?

My flight home from the athletics in Sweden brought me back via Copenhagen, once the home of Hans-Christian Andersen, the story-teller who gave the world the story of The King’s New Clothes… And to think that Dave Collins was once a professor of sports psychology.

To read the whole of Daniel Engber’s Slate article, click here.

And to contact Prof Pete at Sheffield Hallam, click here.