Fernando Torres was, until quite recently, regarded as one of the most skilful and dangerous strikers in world football. El Niño had built a reputation as a player with cool intelligence and an eye for goal. Depending on your inclination, Torres is now either a figure of tragedy or fun.
The Spaniard stands at the centre of a sporting soap opera in which he is just shy of 24 hours of playing time without a single goal. Indeed, Torres has received more yellow cards than scored goals since moving from Liverpool to Chelsea for £50 million. Predictably, 'should Torres go?' polls have sprung up across the media and web, and a cottage industry of pundits have shared their views on the future of the tortured player.
One of those best placed to comment is Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea's caretaker manager, and in his day a gifted player who experienced many of the trials the game has to offer. According to Di Matteo "he has a psychological problem, and only Fernando can unlock it."
Jennifer Cumming, a sport psychologist at the University of Birmingham, might agree with this diagnosis. Long-term slumps in performance, she says, can often be traced back to "Motivation gone 'awry'. It is not just about losing the spark, but the joy for why they do the sport in the first place ... the athlete can still be highly motivated, but the motivation is focused on more external or controlling reasons for doing the sport."
Choking under pressure is something that most of us have experienced. Yet there is an implicit intolerance when superstars have problems. With the exception of Diana Ross, all of us can kick a ball. And Premiership footballers are paid stunning amounts of money just to play the game. But that is often the difficulty. The reasons that the young Torres invested huge amounts of time learning to do magic with a ball are no longer his sole motivations. With every passing game, the £50 million price tag, the disappointed expectations, and even well-meaning support shift his focus away from the act of playing football.
So there is a horrible irony at work here: the more under-performing players battle to succeed, the more likely they are to fail. The expectation of success is the ideal breeding ground for choking.
Torres is hardly the first world-class sports player to experience a crushing slump. He is latest in a long, sad line: Ivan Lendl's repeated failure to win Wimbledon; James LeBron's disastrous performance in the 2011 NBA finals; and Jean Van de Velde's now infamous collapse at Carnoustie in 1999 are just three chosen from many.
Sian Beilock, psychologist and author of 'Choke' (Free Press, 2010), argues that many of these instances of choking are caused by "excessive monitoring", by thinking about skills we had previously taken for granted.
Paralysis by analysis. Over-thinking and fear of failure are toxic mind-sets for sport.
One of the aims of sports training is to make many of the core skills shift from the players' conscious to the unconscious mind. A highly skilled athlete does not have to think about everything he does, so that his limited conscious ability is freed up to focus on the ever-changing details of the game.
But Torres, it seems, does think. He thinks too much, and thinks about the wrong things. The result is mounting a pressure that leads athletes to turn inward, and start unpicking their well-honed skills.
Some players are more vulnerable to these problems than others. And it is interesting how rarely they are picked up at the point of recruitment. And if they are, mental problems are treated as givens, beyond change or correction. Yet no one sensibly would expect a talented young player to turn up at a club physical fit for the top-level game. Clubs invest a lot of time and science building their endurance, speed and power. And if that player experienced injury, a team of medics and physios would be on hand to ease him back into the game.
If the problem is a psychological one, the response is quite different, especially in the English Premiership. If an intelligent manager like Di Matteo can shrug his well-tailored shoulders and lay the responsibility firmly with Torres, what would his less-informed peers do?
No one would sensibly claim that players are born with complex physical skills. They need to be learned and maintained over time. And so it seems to be with mental skills, and this is where sport psychologists often come in.
Jennifer Cummings has some advice for Torres, and the rest of us who might experience such slumps:
- Focus on the "controllables" (e.g., the process of performing so that the outcome takes care of itself) via goal-setting, imagery, self-talk and routines;
- Keep it fun - enjoyment levels should be high even in professional sport;
- Have a range of coping strategies to draw from to use in different situations;
- Develop confidence from a range of sources, particularly controllable ones (e.g., feeling prepared from lots of high quality training versus winning); and
- Learn to view pressure as a challenge not a threat.
Developing these skills can take time and application. And, like any other sporting skill, usually requires knowledgeable and understanding support from others, especially at the highest levels.
For all of its macho and common sense appeal, the advice to a psychologically troubled player to 'sort yourself out' makes as much sense as telling him to lift himself up by his bootlaces!