Footballers and compartmentalising
I enjoyed doing some interviews recently with the brilliant football writer John Nicholson about sport and psychology. They are on the football365.com website.
John and I talked about how footballers are the target of so much abuse from the stands and now, sorry to say, on social media as well. We discussed how they must have to get very capable at compartmentalising, and also at recognising that people who are saying horrible things to them might be protecting their own frustrations and anger onto someone who seems to be untouchable or remote or bullet-proof. A convenient target. That’s a reason, although not an excuse, and it must be horrible to have strangers saying terrible things to you. The interview is here.
John asked what you’d say in therapy to a footballer who was getting shouted at by the fans during a match, which is a great question and not an easy one.
I said: “I guess in the first instance you’d try to invite a footballer to see that they can only control their own actions, and hopefully control the ball, not how people react. Not the worst mindset for life in general, either. And to recognise that they are being used as a receptacle for other people’s emotions – frustrations or whatever. I guess ultimately they’d need to see the love and booing alike as both transient, and only partly related to them.”
Once you start to consider that other people might not just be reacting to you and what you say or do, but that their behaviour is based on their own stuff, their own parts of themselves they don’t like or cannot deal with, then it can help make sense of why.
Another thing I have noticed about sport and especially football is that fans have a black and white mentality about their team. Obviously, this is part of the fun: you love your players, the ref’s always against you, you have an irrational dislike of Dundee United because they play in particular shade of orange.
This can obviously be a fun, harmless, joyful pleasure in supporting a football team. But in general life, these extremes of love and hate, the moral absolutism, can be a real barrier to accepting others, and more importantly, accepting ourselves as flawed beings who have some good, and some bad points. For me, therapy can definitely be about helping people to live with all parts of themselves. Self-acceptance can be an enormously powerful, liberating journey. Why not take a step?