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Olympics Athletes Must Win the Anger Games to Succeed

Posted: 17/07/2012 12:49

All the physical preparation for the Olympic Games will be wasted - unless athletes are prepared for the 'anger games' on a psychological level.

Maintaining a mental balance will be the key to winning gold, says a leading anger management specialist and psychotherapist focusing on anger in the sporting arena.

And David Woolfson believes Team GB can learn a lot from recent incidents on the field including John Terry's outburst at Anton Ferdinand and Andy Murray's performance at Wimbledon. It's all about keeping your emotions in balance, and not getting caught up in the "anger games" of constant wind-ups that occur between competitors and teammates.

"Anger has a bad reputation," says 56-year-old Woolfson. "It is a feeling, a source of energy that can be very, very powerful if contained and if managed.

"It's like nuclear energy. We know that if it goes out of control it can be very dangerous and destructive. But we also know that nuclear energy, when managed and contained can be very useful and very, very positive."


We've all witnessed sportsmen going nuclear on the field. Joey Barton's outbursts and Zidane's infamous head-butt in the World Cup final are memorable incidents which make both opponents and the offending players victims of their anger.

Woolfson, a father and stepfather, has become very familiar with the dangerous games often referred to as "handbags" that lead up to these incidents, since working with teenagers and their anger issues in London schools.

"What I know about working with young men from 16 to 35 is they like to wind each other up and score points. But it can end up as something much bigger because they hit a nerve somewhere and it goes from a wind-up to something really quite dangerous and unpleasant.

"And winding someone up to get them angry is in itself an angry behaviour. I call it anger through the back door. If I'm feeling angry, I press your buttons and make you angry.

"It's very common on the sports field and I think the incident with John Terry and Anton Ferdinand may have started as a 'winder upper' as a form of anger and then became something more real and unpleasant.


"Often anger is driven by feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and powerlessness, so if I can dump that on you I'm going to feel OK and in control of myself, it's very, very common.

"We want to get a reaction but to appear unaffected ourselves. The aim is get the other person to express anger for us

"Let me be very clear, what John Terry said, whatever the reason, is completely out of the ball park and unacceptable.

"But it's also possible that it was quite unintended in the sense that there was a build up of antagonism between him and Anton over a period of time and it got out of control.

"This is what happens with wind-up behaviour. It starts to spiral and goes too far and the two players lose control of the game.

"And it is a game."

The lessons are clear for skippers like John Terry as well as team managers. And Woolfson believes that Anger Management specialists and qualified psychotherapists like him can help soothe the team dynamics as a former England star and football pundit recently suggested.

"I'm sure it would have benefited me,'' said Gareth Southgate, famous for missing a penalty against Germany at Euro 96.

Woolfson says players should be aware of their soft spots and the things that really can wind them up but they need help to achieve this because young people's culture doesn't encourage them to open up and to be honest about themselves.

He witnessed the familiar England psychological timeline in the recent European championships after the team initially played well, when expectations were low.

"Unfortunately as we won a few matches, that bandwagon of expectation started to roll and then Rooney the superstar was introduced back into the team and that seemed to throw the whole team off balance," he says.

"I put no blame on Rooney for that. But all the England teams in their various manifestations have laboured under huge national hope and expectations and all the dreams we've had since 1966.

"English footballers need help. I don't think it's fair to ask them to carry the burden of expectation on their shoulders. I don't think they know how to do that.


"All teams have an external culture that is defined by club history, the board, manager the expectation the fans, etcetera."

Expectations are never as high for Olympic athletes, but Woolfson's advice is just as useful for Team GB in the coming weeks.

"What we need to do is create an internal culture of safety for sport and of mutual self help. And that would start with the captain," he says.

"To create a collective spirit we have to work with individuals as well as the team to see what they each bring to the party.

"The most successful teams are the ones who build up a consistent and predictable supportive culture that goes on whoever is in the team and the best example of that in football is Barcelona."


Woolfson is experienced at working with clients under the kind of pressure faced by top sportsmen and women. And when it comes to individual advice, it's all about staying in the moment.

The anger management expert, who appears regularly on LBC Radio and Talk Sport, is passionate about seeing anger in a positive light.

"Anger is an energy, a life force, a survival mechanism and positive anger is something that drives us to great things. And it is that sense of being driven, that sense of achievement that will lead certain athletes to win Gold at London 2012," he says.

"In order to discuss the tensions facing athletes you have to think of them as a system and the object is to get them to maximum efficiency and containment at exactly the right moment and that moment might be very short.

"It's like getting the nuclear rods firing with maximum energy but not going into overload."

The Olympic village will be full of factors that could send athletes into meltdown: sleepless nights, wrong food, a chance remark from another athlete or there could be a problem with training.

But often issues are more deep seated and need more specialised help.

"Particular individuals are much more prone to anger outbursts which undermine their own performance, both short-term and long-term," says keen tennis player Woolfson.

"I think it is certainly something Andy Murray has struggled with over the years. I couldn't help noticing in the Wimbledon final how much more contained he was managing to be and how he didn't suffer the same big fist-shaking and grimacing outbursts that he has in the past.


"And I can't help thinking this is something to do with the coaching of Ivan Lendl.

"Lendl was, in effect, role modelling calmness and containment on the courtside. He didn't move a muscle. I imagine that Murray in looking over at his coach takes in his body image. This is constantly reinforced throughout the match in a way that goes beyond words.

Woolfson hints that Lendl could be a welcome contrast to the presence of Murray's demonstrative mother and lack of a father figure up in the stands.

"Having someone watching you perform who you are very close to and who has a very high expectation of you, is bound to have an effect," he says.

"One of the challenges for an athlete is to stay in the present.

"The easiest thing to do is to bring on to the court your anger around the past.

"That includes mistakes in your performance, even if it was the previous point, and thoughts of the future, winning or losing."

This is something that Murray has suffered with in the past and it is particularly relevant to Olympic performers, South Africa-born Woolfson believes.

"There are ways of staying in the moment of being in the here and now and dealing with what it is, rather than what was or is to come. And I think these techniques are essential for a high performance athlete.


"One method is to become aware of your immediate surroundings, whether it's the texture of the tennis ball, the quality of the grass, any current sensations you are experiencing."

"Another way is to be aware of your own self-talk, what you are telling yourself.

"The easiest thing as an athlete when you fluff a point or miss a stroke is to go into negative self-talk."

Woolfson says getting angry with themselves in this way can undermine athletes without opponents having to do a thing.

Above all, Woolfson's advice to Olympians is to work with their anger.

"Understand that anger is OK. It's something that keeps you alive, it's your life force, it's your anger that's driving you to achieve whatever you are going to achieve.

"Your challenge is to contain it, to keep yourself in balance as a system and to bring yourself at the right moment to your destiny."

Now bring on those gold medals. No pressure.

 

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