Emergency Football Mental Health First-Aid Kit: Break Glass!

Emergency Football Mental Health First-Aid Kit: Break Glass!
January 22, 2017 Paul Tomkins

If you’re reading this then I am probably mentally dead. Liverpool have lost a game of football, and this is my message from the other side.

I began preparing this collection of helpful “items” before the Manchester United game, as I just had a feeling of dread that day … but it didn’t turn out so bad. Now, after a home defeat to Swansea (for which I felt optimistic), it seems time to break the glass.

(For the record, I have nothing good to say about today’s game, Roberto Firmino aside. It was a deserved defeat, but the Reds’ first at Anfield in over a year, so it’s not the end of the world – even if it does harm the ‘outsiders’ title bid, and makes finishing in the top four a little bit harder. It was clearly a fairly turgid display, Roberto Firmino aside. The final ball and shots were often dreadful – you guessed it, Roberto Firmino aside. But you may also choose to come back and read this after another setback – as other setbacks will happen. Some will be “fair” and others won’t. Most will sting; often because things had been going well at the time.)

I’ve written in the past that the natural state of mind of the average football fan seems to be a blend of paranoia, hysteria and impatience, mixed with either brief euphoria or woe-is-me despair depending on the latest result. It is a largely joyless existence, it now seems, to follow a football team. Even a successful one.

Everyone wants success, but too few teams can succeed at any one time. And once success arrives, the fear is instantly, and intensely, one of losing it.

With this in mind, I thought I’d prepare a kind of mental health first-aid kit, to help deal with setbacks. I will go on to cover various aspects of how we react to adversity, and whether or not it’s logical and justified, or illogical and irrational; and also, what we can do to (try to) remain sane. It won’t help save lives, but it might stop people kicking their cats. (Note from the RSPCA: do not kick your cat/s, or anyone else’s. However, you may kick Curiosity Killed the Cat – let no one say I’m not topical with my references.)

It’s Liverpool-specific, as you might expect, and it’s written with regard to what’s happening now, but hopefully it will also prove useful in the future, too. Because if no one can guarantee success in football, it’s pretty sure that, just like death and taxes, there will certainly be those seasons without success, no matter who you are. Games will be lost, points will be dropped. You can count on it. Several times at least, every single season.

(Again, for the record, I believe it’s still Liverpool’s 2nd-best points total at this stage in the past 25 years, so perspective is called for; even if losing to Swansea stung like hell, and there were no redeeming factors, Roberto Firmino aside. The Reds are in a poor run of form, but poor runs of form happen. And no team or squad is ever perfect.)

Just last season, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma, Napoli, Lazio, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, Monaco, Lyon, Porto and Sporting Lisbon – in addition to Liverpool – all failed to win their domestic title. Some of these had other types of success (in the cups), and some have won titles in the not-too-distant-past, but none was the best team in their domestic league last year. And many of those leagues are not filled with the rich rivals that Liverpool face in England.

Right now, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain  may join this year’s list, as they’re off the pace they set last season; as are a fair few more of last year’s big-name clubs, some of whom (like the Manchester duo) are still falling surprisingly short. And even the most successful league club in the histories of all these countries have failed to win the title far more often than they’ve won it. They’ve all had lean spells, and got blasé during the good times.

None of this is to say that losing, or falling short, is something to be happy about; just that, on balance, it’s a fact of life. Shit happens, even to good people, and good teams; just as good teams sometimes play shit.

Most of the time you will not win the title, and some of the time you will not win cups either. And even for a very good team, 40-50% of games will not be won; and for elite teams – usually the mega-spenders – often 30% of games are not won.

To have good ‘football’ mental health, we need to take stock of certain things, to determine if we have cause to be freaking out or if it’s just part and parcel of things like raised expectations.

With Liverpool right now, a fantastic start to the season raised the bar; but as brilliant as that was – before the injuries set in, and Sadio Mané went to Africa – it was never going to be easily sustained. But an unavoidable fact of this current season was always going to be that some world-class managers would not win the Premier League title, and as such, will be labelled as “struggling”, or as frauds (damn, someone kill that word). Liverpool are much, much better than in the past two seasons, yet a blip is cause for outright panic.

Remember, Leicester fans have been pissed off this season despite possibly the most unlikely league title of English football history; and Liverpool fans were pissed off just months after Istanbul, after a slow start to the following league season (I know, I got all the angry emails via my new column on the official site). After going nearly 100 years without winning the World Series, the Boston Red Sox have won it three times under FSG’s ownership; and yet their fans freak out as much as anyone.

After nearly 20 years of writing about Liverpool FC, it’s tiring to see everyone lose the plot, no matter who they support. Of course, after success, a club cannot turn around and say “well, there you go, we can all retire now, and shut everything down – let’s coast and just take the piss”. No club can rest on its laurels, or hark back to the past. But it’s never easy to replicate (or sustain) success.

If your club’s greatest achievements (such as Leicester, and Istanbul) can’t stave away the anger, frustration and downright despair for more than a short period of time – and yet you need that success to keep you sane – then you become like some kind of drug addict, unable to deal with anything but the next hit.

If you need your team to win to heal problems in your life, you will suffer. If you need your team to win in order to face up to friends and colleagues or the shame is too great, maybe you have everything out of perspective. And unlike most people, I actually need the club I support to do well, to make making a living that bit easier (more people subscribe after good results than bad ones), so failure hits me in the pocket as well as emotionally. But I choose not to freak out over every setback. I choose to try and focus on the bigger picture, not least because it seems the only way to hold things together.

First-aid kit item one: Avoid black-and-white/all or nothing thinking (aka “this is the year”)

Just before the United game I saw it said that Liverpool had to invest big in the January transfer window because this is the year. This is the golden chance.

Of course, last year was the year, what with all the big clubs being so poor. It was there for the taking, once Jürgen Klopp arrived, if only this and that.

The year before that was also the year, given that the Reds had just finished 2nd and therefore just needed to push on; and of course, that season of finishing 2nd was without doubt the year, as the Reds were in such a good position, and had Luis Suarez – and would never get as good a chance again.

(As an aside here, I was told at the start of 2010/11 that Liverpool would now win the league under Roy Hodgson, as that “waste of space” Rafa Benítez was out the way; he’d been holding the club back, apparently, and this was the year. The person who told me that is presumably now in a secure location.)

And if it’s not because of the state of the league that it’s “there for the taking” (people were still saying that, even with Chelsea’s almost unprecedented points per game), it’s a sense that success has to come right now or this or that star player will leave. The average fan seems to catastrophise over everything.

If only Liverpool had bought players in the January windows of 2009 and 2014, the argument goes, it would have sealed that leap to the summit; even though the league form in the second half of those seasons was better than in the first half, and nigh-on impossible to improve upon. What if new players had arrived and they took five months to get up to speed, at the expense of others who may not have been as good but were well into the groove? What if they Tino Asprillaed the place up and shit got crazy?

Every season it’s “there for the taking”, it seems, if you can just win all your games. It really is that simple in hindsight: don’t draw the games you drew, but win them. And win the ones you lost, too. Never play badly. If you just start winning all the games it becomes simple.

Never mind that Jürgen Klopp wants to build something based on time (improving players and team-play, and introducing youngsters, whilst bonding a unit together in the way that cannot easily be done overnight), it’s all about now, now, now.

First-aid kit item two: There’s always another chance

There’s always another game, always another season. While it could be that your beloved club never gets another chance at the greatest glories (and I’m looking at you, Nottingham Forest), the history of the game is full of resurgence and second chances. Bad teams come good, and good teams turn bad. There’s no set, preordained pattern to the cycle, but football does, in its own loose way, go in cycles.

Before too long the team you’ve just beaten will beat you, and vice versa. No one has the last laugh in football because there’s always the chance to laugh next time. (Unless you die, or your club goes out of existence.)

First-aid kit item three: Time is a healer

Liverpool are doing things more like the Spurs way now, with Spurs having become less of a joke and more of a sensible, sustainable club with young, hard-pressing players – kept together as a group – who punch above their weight and who are not being held there against their will. (Obviously they are losing whilst I write this, and obviously as I go through and edit it before publication they’ve just got a goal back; and obviously just before hitting “publish” they’ve equalised.)

But even Spurs weren’t that impressive earlier in the season, with so-so league form and a Champions League exit.

Although Leicester won the race last season, the young Spurs side were always likely to be the ones who challenged again; the tortoise won the race, but the hare lives on to race again while the tortoise is in hibernation and unlikely to ever get that lucky again. (Although, of course, it was hard for me to totally rule Leicester out this summer, having spent all of last season totally ruling Leicester out.)

To go back to my earlier point, there will be those Spurs fans who said last season was the chance. But now it seems that they are maturing as a side,   and actually doing better this time, and though still outsiders (due to the incredible pace Chelsea are setting), they are title contenders for the second season running (even though no one seemed to think they were a few months ago, and even though they are losing as I write this).

Maybe next year they’ll be that bit better again. Or maybe they’ll sell all their players and reappoint Jacques Santini and Martin Jol, and that will be the end of that. Who knows? But what we can say is that they seem to be showing a way to do things that Liverpool, without the wealth of Man City, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal, are probably wise to be mirroring.

Time doesn’t guarantee that things will get better, but nothing in football guarantees things will get better. However, time will, on balance, improve players (fitness and appetite aside, people tend to get better the more they do something), and time spent together as a team will, more often than not, improve understanding.

Only once players (or teams) pass their peak does time become an enemy. Almost no ageing players suddenly become miraculously good, beyond a burst of form here and there. But Liverpool don’t have any important older players. You may not be patient, but time is on Liverpool’s side.

First-aid kit item four: The grass is always greener (so go smoke some)

Modern life is increasingly about what we don’t have. It’s always been human nature to be jealous of what someone else has: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ox is not, I’m reliably informed, something that was first said on Twitter. (On the other hand, “I want to fuck my neighbour’s ox, lol #bantz” may have been.)

Transfers are an interesting aspect of modern football, because any website will get most of its hits based on transfer news and speculation; some exist, and thrive, based on nothing else. And transfers epitomise the “grass is always greener” mindset.

Transfers are essentially about living in a fantasy; no matter what players you have, the new signings will be better. And if you sign four great players in a summer, then why didn’t you sign five?

You must always get newer, better players in, even though the odds of newer, better players doing better are not always as favourable as people think. (Based on my oft-mentioned studies of in excess of 3,000+ transfers, on average only c.40% of moves clearly succeed and only c.60% of the really big deals clearly succeed. Better odds with the megabucks, but not the odds of guarantees.)

Obviously a club needs to add reinforcements, and always be open to improving all positions where possible, but every transfer comes with its risks, too: a divisive personality disrupts the dressing room harmony; a good player arrives but struggles, and others wonder why he’s either getting picked ahead of them, or picking up bigger wages; the new boy takes time to settle, and the fans get on his case, and he becomes a weak link; or he’s a great individual who tries to do everything himself and the team suffers as a consequence.

You could spend your entire budget on one star and the next day he goes over and snaps his cruciate ligament. You could spread your budget too broadly, and end up with a flotilla of deadwood. You can buy too few players, and you can also buy too many. How do you know in advance which it will be?

And then there are the previous signings who, given time, coaching and perhaps a change of luck (or position), may suddenly emerge as crucial figures. Fans write them off, but managers can help them to reemerge.

First-aid kit item five: Beware of the hedonic treadmill

Due to the hedonic treadmill, we acclimatise to improvements in our lives, and they become our new level of normal.

 

This is why Leicester fans were able to get angry at their team during Premier League games this season. I mean, surely a ten-year period of grace was called for?

But not all improvements are permanent. Indeed, nothing is life is truly permanent. We become blasé about past achievements and expect things to keep improving. Certainly younger people are less likely, on average, to have faced as many setbacks as older ones, whose time on Earth will much more likely have involved lost parents, lost jobs and lost health. This site attracts an older readership in part because we’ve lived and learnt. We are not the Twitter generation, even if some of us use it.

You may work hard for years to earn a qualification, and be ecstatic that you achieved your goal – the total buzz of having finally done it! But five years later, it’s just something you did – you don’t remain in that bubble of ecstasy, sated by those old achievements. There are new goals; new things just out of reach that you must strive for, and feel disappointed at not yet achieving. And perhaps the hedonic treadmill is what keeps your neighbour’s ox looking so damned tasty.

So it’s really hard to feel satisfied with your football team, particularly if you have a certain mindset which is reinforced by the direction society is moving (shallower, quicker fixes).

First-aid kit item six: What were the aims at the start of the season? Reset.

While aims may legitimately change with good form, the bigger picture is usually what the realistic hopes were at the outset. If your team is doing better than originally intended, but experiencing a dip, then that’s worth remembering. That’s the bigger picture.

As an example, take a 5,000-metre race. The guy who is by some distance only the 5th-favourite – well back from the rest – goes all out from the start. He builds up a big lead. Logically, if he’s only the 5th-best runner, he’s probably used up more energy in this tactic, and will, in time, regress to the mean. Others will catch him, as he can’t maintain that pace. If he finishes 4th with something close to a personal best, having seen his lead eaten away and then been destroyed in the sprint finish, is that a failure? If he maintains his energy more efficiently from the start he could still easily have finished worse than 4th; because there’s nothing in his history to say that if he maintains his energy he’s clearly going to win it. If the better athletes run to the best of their ability then whether he peaks early or peaks late, he’s still unlikely to win the race.

Your club may be doing better because you have no injuries; or it’s a run of easier fixtures; or the randomness of everyone just happening to be on form at once and everything clicking. But then comes regression to the mean.

The bigger the sample size, the more likely there will be a regression to the mean; so the longer a season goes on, the more likely you are to be drawn back to your normal level. But even then, a season doesn’t unfold in the same way for every team. Luck plays its part too, with estimates that it’s responsible for almost half of what happens in football (but obviously the better teams are better able to control the other 50%). The cream will usually rise to the top, but not necessarily immediately.

At no point did Leicester regress to the mean last season, even though pretty much everyone expected them to – ultimately, no one else could put any valid pressure on them. But over the bigger sample size of a three-season period – including the year before and half-a-season after their amazing success – they have performed much closer to what you would expect: lower mid-table, battling relegation, rather than the English elite.

(Of course, they are doing well in the Champions League and now bucking expectations there. But cup games complicate league form. And they’ve not had exactly the same players or managers for those three seasons, so it can never be precise. It’s a constantly shifting set of circumstances, far more complex than in any individual sport.)

Forgetting what you thought would happen is called hindsight bias. Studies show that people will, with distortion, claim that their initial guess at the outcome was more in keeping with what later transpired.

Post-rationalisation helps us to readjust and explain it away – of course that happened! it was obvious – as we overlook our original conclusions.

Afterwards, a lot of things can be said to have been predictable, even though no one was predicting them. I mean, who predicted Liverpool to be 2nd at the halfway stage, with the Reds’ best points tally at that point for three decades? Most people were predicting 4th or 5th; possibly sneaking into the Champions League positions, but not joining Chelsea in one of the best starts made by the top two in the first half of a Premier League season.

Liverpool were running Olympic medal time at the halfway mark; it’s just that Usain Bolt was in the next lane*.

(* Whilst repeating the fact that it’s far more complex than in any individual sport; and acknowledging an excess of athletics analogies in this section.)

First-aid kit item seven: understanding the availability heuristic

There is often a sense that whoever is in form now is going to win the league; and almost certainly that any current form is more permanent than it actually is. This is really hard to escape from. The latest result (or handful of results) often becomes the sample, and the rest of the true sample – what happened as a whole – is ignored. It’s the same for judging players; the old adage that “you’re only as good as your last game” (because that’s all anyone remembers).

The availability heuristic relates to what immediately comes to mind, or the information readily at hand – and how we cannot see beyond the obvious, immediate data.

In football, the sense of current form tends to overshadow the bigger picture. If you’re in a slump, it feels like you’ll always be in one. If another team is winning, if feels like they’ll continue to win. If a player is scoring freely, it seems that he’ll never stop. No one saw Man City falling away after a ten-game winning start – it was as if they could never lose.

Maybe momentum comes into this too, as people think momentum is obvious and will drive a team on and on; but most teams (even champions) suffer more sporadic form. The best teams win more often, not because of momentum but because they are the best teams. But they also lose and draw games, too. They almost always have poor periods, in which people say “aha! I told you!” and point to the immediate data rather than the bigger picture.

It’s also proven that humans are very poor at predicting change, with a tendency for people to underestimate the adjustments and alterations within their life, particularly in longer periods (studies were done on predicting where people would be in ten years’ time, and then following up ten years later to find out how wrong they were).

Where were you ten years ago? Once you’re an adult, in a career and a relationship, you probably think everything feels fairly settled. That’s you set.

Has your life panned out as planned? I’m no longer in the relationship I was (surprisingly) about to enter into ten years ago, nor am I living in the same house. My dad died just over five years ago, in late 2011; and yet, aged 82 at the time, the odds were fairly strong that he’d have passed away before what would now be the age of 87 in January 2017; indeed, 78 is the life expectancy for an English man, so anything beyond then would be a bonus. (And yet, diagnosed with cancer in 2009, he was given six months to live – and lived for 30 months. He was also given one day to live once in a coma, and lasted five.)

My dog from a decade ago was then seven years old, so it’s no surprise that he is no longer with me either (it’s just a shame his replacement got cancer and died too; but then again I have the delightful surprise of my new dog). In 2007 this website didn’t exist.

I still suffer with chronic illness, and remain bald, big-nosed and bespectacled, but I never once pictured myself sat where I am now – in a house I didn’t even know existed – typing on a computer that looks like this. Back then I thought I had a kind, friendly accountant who used to pop around to my house to help with my finances, but he turned out to be a twice-convicted fraudster who’d done jail time (for which he told his wife he was away on business). A ton of stuff has changed; more than I could ever have predicted.

The availability heuristic and the inability to foresee change may be because what’s happening now feels normal: which is similar to ‘normalcy bias’, which is a mental state people enter when facing a disaster, where they expect everything to remain as it always was; and thus fail to react accordingly. The volcano that often smokes and smoulders will be ignored when finally it starts to blow. “It’s done this before,” someone will say. People will assume it’s another false alarm, because that’s what it was before.

This is the sense is that it can’t really be happening, and evidence that it is happening gets overlooked. We sense it’s not really happening because we’re locked into how life normally is.

I still think the data clearly shows that Liverpool are a very good side this season, and better than most people expected. Therefore, take some deep breaths.

First-aid kit item eight: overcoming negativity, and how to become happy

People are more likely to see the negative than the positive; this is evolutionary, as bad things (like lions) can kill us in an instant, but good things (like food and sex) are not essential in the here-and-now; we can go without either, for a while at least. We are primed to spot what’s wrong more intently than what’s right. But it also makes being a football writer tiresome at times.

Right now you’d think that Liverpool have no good players; or maybe a handful at most. Anyone who is not playing really well right now is called into question. But how did Liverpool get to rack up so many points if so many of the players are so bad? – after all, this is no one-man team, carried by a superstar.

Today, for example, no one was very good (Roberto Firmino aside). But as Liverpool sit with a better points-per-game than expected, and in another cup semifinal, everyone bar Philippe Coutinho seems to be under scrutiny. (Pointing out flaws is one thing; utter despair is another.)

Which is also not to say that all of the players are “good enough”, but I often wonder who we compare “good enough” to? Could it be that we unfairly – with bias – compare them to paragons like the past greats and the current world superstars? Do we have any right to expect every player in the team to be “good enough” by such lofty standards? Was every player in even the great Liverpool teams “good enough” on an individual basis, or were some mere cogs in a fine-tuned machine?

For instance, dp we tend to look at Arsenal’s reserve striker, and say we’re weaker there; and Man United’s goalkeeper, and say we’re weaker there; and Chelsea’s central midfield, and say we’re weaker there; when obviously a comparison with the best players or options at five or six other top clubs will show weaknesses in certain match-ups – especially if you’re picking the best elements of four or five other teams and comparing to the one-offs in your own squad.

This is compare-and-despair, where what everyone else has seems better, in part because you don’t judge things fairly; cherry-picking is hardly equitable.

Studies in happiness show that listing five positives before you go to bed helps improve your outlook; perhaps to counter the 5:1 ratio of negatives to positives that we see through our lens of negativity bias.

So to end this piece I will list five positives, as things stand, but I could have listed more:

  1. Jürgen Klopp and his assistants are top-class. We’re lucky to have them, but they have no magic wand.
  2. The club is set-up for building towards sustained challenges rather wild attempts at fly-by-night success.
  3. Liverpool have numerous high-quality players who other top clubs would love to have, and have plenty of good squad players too. When everyone is fit the squad is good, but obviously it looks stretched when numerous players are out.
  4. Liverpool are the Premier League’s top scorers, and therefore are not up towards the top of the table based on luck. The Reds can keep clean sheets too, even if there are these “calamitous” games at the back.
  5. The low age of many of the players suggests a good chance of significant further improvement, and that optimism is well placed.

So there you have it. Further items will be added to the first-aid kit in due course (I’m working on some more), but for now this basic pack should suffice in the face of “emergencies” like today. Use it wisely.

Note: this piece was originally a mix of free and subscriber-only content, published on Saturday 21st January 2017. Some subscribers recommended that it be free for all, so I’ve made the change – but remember, subscribing is what allows us to produce what we hope is high-quality content. Reading for free does not pay our bills!

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