Why sports psychology is so important in the modern game

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Loris Karius lies flat on the ground, his face buried in the turf. Prostrate in the middle of his penalty area, the Liverpool goalkeeper is distraught. Uncontrollable tears escape as the moment swallows him up.

The German’s two high-profile howlers in the Champions League final against Real Madrid have made him a laughing stock across the world. The scourge of his own fans, the butt of the internet’s unforgiving quips. As Karius is scraped up and dragged towards the tunnel, he cuts a traumatised figure. His dreams and career in tatters.

“In watching that game, the goalkeeper [Karius] was showing real signs of stress and loss of concentration early on,” observes Phil Johnson, a sports psychologist who has worked for a host of top clubs, including Monaco.

“But what then happens that causes him to make mistakes that under ordinary circumstances he simply wouldn’t make? Imagine a camera scanning the pitch. That’s a description of concentration because your brain is tending to something, but the minute you focus and it takes your attention, it’s like zooming in – you’re absolutely concentrated and have focus.

“It’s a dynamic state you need to stay in. So, when something like the referee’s whistle breaks that attentional focus, it distracts you by nature. The next thing Karius knows, the ball is coming to him and instead of catching it, he’s pushed the ball away and it’s in the back of the net. And everybody is asking, ‘how did that happen’?”

Johnson makes Karius’s blunders sound so simple. Yet while many of his Liverpool team-mates could empathise with him suffering pre-game jitters before the biggest match of his career, it was the gloveman who made the critical errors.

It’s an occupational hazard for a goalkeeper when most mishaps are more severe than for an outfield player, so dealing with adversity is a key part of any stopper’s armoury. But Johnson says that as soon as self-doubt or fear creep in, such as by a freak mistake similar to the one that led to Karim Benzema’s Champions League final opener, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that more will follow.

“When you think about repeating a mistake because you don’t want to do it again, all your brain is saying is ‘don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it,’” he explains.

“It’s like if you’re on top of a mountain, all alone, with a piste of downhill skiing, one-kilometre wide, in front of you. There’s nobody else on the hill, just this one tree, which is half a kilometre away and I’m going down thinking ‘I’m not going to hit the tree’. But I hit the tree. Instead of avoiding it, our brains are focusing on something we don’t want to do so much that it causes us to do it.

“When we go back to this situation, our brains and physical bodies remember everything. What we remember is subconscious and our actions in those memories become automated, just like breathing. So, Karius might have been thinking, ‘I was in a high-pressure game three years ago and gave a penalty away and we lost’. If he’s thinking about something like that, his body is already reacting to it, just in the same way the skier is. It’s immobilising.”

Careers have taken a downward spiral following far less high-profile humiliation. Although others have recovered from much more extreme reactions, such as David Beckham’s national vilification after his red card was blamed for England’s exit from France 98.

With the four characteristics of trauma being hyper-arousal, numbing, intrusion and avoidance, an individual’s subconscious path can make all the difference to what happens next.

“For me, the John Terry penalty miss for Chelsea [in the 2008 Champions League final] is interesting because he didn’t take another penalty for 18 months after that,” Johnson says.

“In that example, you see avoidance: avoiding a situation, place, person or event so you don’t reproduce the same kind of situation that got you noticed by a hundred million people. We know John Terry is an incredibly tough character and even he couldn’t manage to deal with that for a period of time.

“You might have intrusive messages in your mind instead saying ‘don’t mess up’, or a nasty feeling in your stomach that you keep pushing down to supress unwanted negative emotions. The fourth characteristic is hyper-arousal that causes your brain to release cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones in that flight or fight response, which is the sympathetic nervous system driving the energy you need to run, stop or fight.

“What’s important to recognise is that it’s in performance that we are potentially at our most vulnerable.”

For Karius, the best course of action was to remove him from the firing line. A summer loan move to Besiktas suggests there may be a way back for the 25-year-old in the future, although any Anfield return may trigger those feelings again, no matter how much time acts as a healer.

Johnson says it’s difficult to reverse that brain-body memory response through cognitive behavioural therapy and points to brain spotting, a method that focuses on the core reason for the original mistake, as the best way for Karius to make a successful recovery.

“It’s not just about working with that Champions League final scenario – you look to see all of the antecedent history of things that happened before which were precursors to making that mistake. For any player, it could be another mistake, missing a sitter or getting seriously injured.

“All of those things create a conglomerate experience which the brain processes automatically and subconsciously, and that’s what would be happening to him [Karius]. In order to those feelings of humiliation and anticipating failure, you need to remove the negative experience of those memories and change the negative thoughts to stop the triggered, physical experiences.”

Whether Karius ever conquers his demons remains to be seen, but if he does, that night in Kiev will take some forgetting.

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