With the failure of the England national team in Europe this year, coming hard on the heels of the debacle at the 2014 World Cup in Rio, it seems that Steve Peters the team psychiatrist is likely to be leaving the England camp, along with Roy Hodgson the manager who brought him into the organization.
In their last two major tournaments, England buckled fatally under pressure – precisely the kind of thing the team psychologist is there to prevent. Doubtless, Hodgson’s “Systems win you nothing” approach didn’t help build confidence on the field, but observers like Jamie Redknapp and Glen Hoddle agree that the team looked frightened against Iceland. That’s a failure of psychological preparation and mental resilience, not a lack of skill or talent. So what went wrong?
The Steve Peters Approach
I first became aware of Prof. Peters at the Leaders in Performance Conference at Stamford Bridge in 2011, when he presented his three-part model of the mind, the Chimp, the Human and the Computer. Although he never mentioned the work of Sigmund Freud, I was struck by the close similarity between Peters’ model and Freud’s structural model of the psyche consisting of the Id, the Ego and the Superego.
Not that I’m an expert on Freud. My limited knowledge comes from a few lectures I attended by Oliver Zangwill, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge – of which my main memory is his demonstration of post-hypnotic suggestion on a hapless undergraduate. Nevertheless I did have a basic grasp of the components of the Freudian psyche, and the model that Steve Peters described seemed very much the same. To emphasise the similarities, I have written brief descriptions of the two models side-by-side.
The correspondence between the two models couldn’t be closer, yet Peters’ best-selling book The Chimp Paradox does not contain a single mention of Freud. From one point of view it’s understandable. Consultants are well-known for repackaging other peoples ideas and relabeling them to make them palatable for the consumer. And you can see that the mysteries of the Oedipus complex are unlikely to interest Peters’ clients like Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez. Similarly a diagnosis of acute penis envy would presumably irritate some of the female athletes he advises.
On the other hand, Steve Peters is not just a consultant, he is an academic, the Undergraduate Dean and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Sheffield no less, and he has no hesitation in using the title “Prof”. He should be setting an example to his students and giving due credit to his predecessors, at least in print. So it is disappointing to note that the front cover of The Chimp Paradox bears the legend:
Prof. Steve Peters
CREATOR OF THE GROUNDBREAKING MIND MODEL.
Because he’s not. He is the popularizer of Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking model.
Be that as it may, what I want to emphasize is that Peters’ model has a venerable pedigree; England’s psychological weaknesses cannot be attributed to using an idiosyncratic model of mental functioning dreamed up by a cod psychologist on a wet Thursday afternoon.
Nor should anyone doubt that Peters competence as a practitioner. Even though it isn’t terribly original, The Chimp Paradox contains a lot of sound psychology, and Peters’ success in working with prominent sportsmen and women shows he can apply it in practice. (Though the record also includes some high-profile failures amongst his star pupils: Ronnie O’Sullivan for example famously surrendered a 10-5 lead to the underdog Mark Selby, before losing the World Championship Snooker Final, with Peters in the dressing room, and Liverpool surrendered a 3-0 lead the same night.)
Why England Lost
So how come a talented group of players with Peters on board seriously under-performed and failed to deliver anything close to their potential in their last two major tournaments? I would suggest three factors are at play here; under-learning, lack of leadership and organizational culture
The key to peak performance in Peters’ model is “managing” the Chimp, in other words preventing him from hindering the fluent functioning of the Human. This is extremely difficult to do consistently. For the Chimp to be managed under pressure, the management process must be so deeply embedded in the individual’s behavioural repertoire as to be instinctive. Simply knowing about the Chimp on an intellectual level is nowhere near enough to keep him in check, nor can he be reasoned with. He is stronger and quicker than the Human and is wily enough to fool the Human again and again to get his way.
To develop the strength and skill to reliably contain the Chimp, the management process needs to be practiced repeatedly in the body (where the emotional energy manifests itself), and not just rehearsed in the head. Reading a book, or listening to a talk is not enough. Learning to manage the emotions takes time and effort, working with the Chimp on a daily basis, both in the ordinary situations of everyday life and on the field of play, until he begins to respect the Human as his equal.
That’s why it’s telling that Peters was in the dressing room during O’Sullivan’s world final. If O’Sullivan had been able to manage his own Chimp unaided, he would not have needed Peters in the dressing room. I suspect the same problem of failure to internalize may have been behind England’s flops in Rio and France. When mastery of the management process is only superficial, the Chimp is able to escape and wreak havoc when the going gets tough. True emotional resilience comes only through constant personal application over a prolonged period, and any lingering dependence on the psychologist/mentor is fatal. As far as I can tell from his book, Peters seems to think that understanding the Chimp and recognizing his tricks is sufficient to control him. But this is only the first step, because in the middle of an emotional onslaught all intellectual understanding goes out of the window. To achieve real self-mastery it is necessary to go much deeper, and for the Chimp and the Human to get to know each other and become friends. That process is not spelled out in Peters’ book. (Whether he teaches it to his clients I don’t know.)
Second, football is a team game. What works for a sportsperson on an individual level doesn’t necessarily translate to a team environment, where there are multiple Chimps to be managed. Managing a single Chimp is easier than managing a troop. Chimps affect each other; fear and anxiety are contagious. Once a negative emotion has spread within a team, there is no going back. To prevent the contagion spreading a team needs a core group of psychologically mature individuals who can calm the wobbling ones down – or snap them out of it, much in the same way that an experienced guide will slap the face of a mountaineer who has succumbed to mountain sickness and frozen stiff on the side of the mountain. Rooney, as the senior player and captain should have fulfilled that stabilizing role in France, but he doesn’t seem to have the leadership qualities to do so.
The third factor is structural. it seems that in addition to the psychological frailties at the individual and team levels, England suffers from a dysfunctional organzational culture. Steven Gerrard is quite explicit about this. He said “There is no environment of calm around the national team. There never has been. It is always hysteria. There is a culture of fear within and it has not been addressed … ”
W. Edwards Deming, the revolutionary behind the Quality Control movement counselled that to be successful an organization must “Drive out fear”. This is not something a sports psychologist is equipped to do. It requires an audit of the management styles, relationships and communication behaviours within the FA, and institution of a corporate-wide culture change program.
My Conclusions and Summary
I think Peters’ model is sound, and I think his methods could potentially have helped the England team. But although the players may have understood intellectually how the Chimp could sabotage their performance, and may even have developed sufficient awareness to see him doing it, that kind of head knowledge is not enough. What I suspect was lacking was a training program to develop the strength to contain the Chimp and to continue functioning regardless. That involves a physical element, because the emotions arise first in the body, and only later invade the mind as a second stage.
Next, the team should include a core of temperamentally stable individuals, able to recognise incipient anxiety in their team-mates and steady the ship. And lastly the organizational culture in the camp needs rebuilding to drive out fear.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that there are alternatives to the Freud/Peters model. For instance in Japan, disciplines like Kendo, Judo and Kyudo (archery) have long drawn on Zen Buddhist methods to regulate the participant’s emotional energy in intense competitive situations. In this body of tradition, the emotional component of the psyche is represented by a Bull, rather than a Chimp, which seems to better express its tremendous strength and the difficulty of grappling with and containing it. There is no reason why this system cannot be used in a western sports context, and it might prove more effective than our current methods.