The mind games that saw Carlton Cole become a lion

Sports psychologist DAN ABRAHAMS explains how he helped the West Ham and England striker…


THE BRITISH seem to have an inbuilt aversion to psychology. If we have a bad tooth, we go a dentist. An ingrowing toenail can be cured by a chirpodist. A few visits to an osteopath and that bad back becomes history. Yet if we have a problem in our mind, whatever it may be, too often the misguided response is: “sort yourself out.” To see a psychologist or a counsellor still carries a certain stigma, despite the ignorance of such views.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind games are acceptable, even fun, but to see someone about your mindset is looked upon differently.

Yet in sport the difference between success and failure, winning and losing, can be minimal…inches, a split second or just the confidence to do whatever it takes to win, in England’s case converting penalties.

Football is one of of many sports that has seen the performance level of participants rise because of psychologists. Dan Abrahams is a former professional golfer who holds a First Class Honors degree in psychology and a Master’s Degree in sports psychology. He has worked with numerous footballers in England and while he cannot turn anyone into the next Lionel Messi, he can look back with professional pride at players he has helped, West Ham striker Carlton Cole one of the most high profile.

“I’m not blind to the obvious fact that physicality, technical ability and tactical understanding are the hallmarks of elite football,” said Abrahams. “To me football is not just a physical challenge – it is a game of mindset.”

A manager does not have the time to devote hours to helping an individual player off the training pitch, but in many respects Abrahams’ ideas and beliefs can be transferred to anybody in any job. It is about improving self-belief and confidence, thinking positively and banishing automatic negative thoughts (or ANTs as Abrahams calls them). Cole was a youth team player at Chelsea and looked set to make a big name for himself, but Claudio Ranieri, the Blues’ manager at the time, said: “I watched Carlton play for the reserves and I saw two animals in him. One was a rabbit and the other a lion. I want to see that lion come out in him more often.”

After unsuccessful loan spells with Charlton, Wolves and Aston Villa, he joined West Ham in 2006. In training Cole would run the show, but on match day the lion did not show up.

“There is no hiding place then,” said Abrahams. “On match day you have to get it right, especially at first-team level. Carlton started to question his abiligty and his future. He forgot the dozens of goals he had scored for the youth team, he didn’t listen to Ranieri’s praise. His only vision became one of him failing. His only voice became one of ‘I can’t.’ Negatives drowned positives and his performances suffered.”

Abrahams worked “religiously” with Cole on attempting to squash the striker’s negative thoughts. “Your brain is brilliant at focusing on problems as you play,” said Abrahams. “Make a blunder in front of goal and your brain will do its best to bring your thoughts back to this moment time and time again.”

So how do we stop the infestation of ANTs?

“Simple. Just see a STOP sign in your mind., You see a STOP sign like the one you see on the side of a road. Or perhaps just say STOP to yourself. Even scream it in your mind, you need something that you can consciously see or say to snap you back into the present moment and instantly stop the ANTs from spreading.

“Once Carlton had become accustomed to spotting and stopping these negatives, I wanted him to take ownership of his inner voice as he played. I knew if he did he would be able to utilise the skill and vision we all saw in him when he was in training mode.

“Carlton became an England international because he committed to the process of improvement. We worked hard together but he also learnt greatly from his managers Alan Curbishley and Gianfranco Zola plus coaches such as Glyn Snodin and Steve Clarke. Above all, Carlton was enormously proactive with his inner voice on the pitch. He refused to allow ANTs to settle and destroy his performance mindset, When he won his first cap for England he stood on the side of the pitch squashing ANTs as he readied himself to come on against the European Champions Spain. When he ran on to the pitch as a second-half substitute he did so with a clear,confident mind. He was ready to play with focus and freedom.”

*Taken from Soccer Tough – Simple Football Psychology Techniques To Improve Your Game by Dan Abrahams (Bennion Kearny, £12.99; http://www.danabrahams.com)

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