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Sport psychology, confidence tricks and the dark arts

I read with interest the comments of Paulo Di Canio, the head coach/manager of Sunderland football club in the English Premier League at the weekend. Di Canio is quoted as saying that he knows all he needs to know about getting inside players minds. He also stated that he was not going as far as saying that sport psychologists should not work in football, although I think there was a big ‘but’ behind that statement that spoke volumes. I am not sure if this speaks of an insecurity on the part of Di Canio, and a fear that he might be ‘found out’ to not be the man manager he claims. Or, whether it is a lack of understanding of what sport psychologists actually do. Maybe Di Canio and other high profile critics of the profession believe that we (sport psychologists) are confidence tricksters or peddlers of the dark arts, a view that would have emerged from a lack of engagement with the profession.

Di Canio is not alone in thinking this way. There are numerous examples of high profile individuals across many sports who feel this way. Luckily, in the main, they belong to an older generation. The academy and youth performers across many sports are understanding the value that a structured approach to sport psychology can offer them in the pursuit of their goals. However, comments such as Di Canio’s can be problematic for a number of reasons. First, this older generation are now the coaches, manages and commentators of the day. This means that their personal views carry a lot of weight. Young Sunderland football fans might be influenced by the views of their manger. Second, the media give a lot of coverage to these individuals, particularly in high profile sports such as football. This further elevates the impact of their thoughts and views. Having ‘expert’ commentators who also share these views can be problematic as well. In cricket, for example, Ian Botham the ex-England player has repeatedly said that he thinks that sport psychology is a load of rubbish. A view he continues to make on the television, which in turn is being received by a large audience.

<a So why might these views exist? Well in the case of Botham I would argue that success came easy for him, and as a result he never really had to worry about his ability to perform. So, his criticism of sport psychology suggests an inability to see the work from the perspective of other people who have not had it so easy, which in turn suggests it is better that he has become a commentator and not a coach. In the case of Di Canio I think his statement suggests that he sees himself as a good man manager and believes that a using a sport psychologist would be like an admission that he is not up to the job and a challenge to his self-image. This is a shame, but hopefully if Di Canio can sit down with a qualified sport psychologist and have a chat he might just see how our profession can help both individual players and teams to achieve their potential. He might realise that what we do is built upon science and its application to sport, and not the dark arts or simply built upon confidence tricks.

Arguably the greatest football manager in the UK, Sir Alex Ferguson offered a glimpse of the future himself at the weekend, when he said to the media that ‘sport science, without question, is the biggest and most important change in my lifetime. Now that really is something to shout about!

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