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Performance anxiety

March 9, 2010

Professional athletes are under enormous pressure, and for some players the burden can be too much. In soccer, more than other sports, the taboo on seeking help is a hard one to break. Could change be underway?

Leverkusen player Manuel Friedrich stands at the goal, disappointed
Failure before millions of viewers is par for the course in pro athleticsImage: picture-alliance/Pressefoto ULMER/Bjoern Hake

'Professional soccer player' might sound like a dream job: lots of money, adoring fans, and you don't have to wear a tie to work.

But in reality, the pressure on those chosen few athletes can be unbearably high. Imagine thousands of people watching your every move while you work, screaming - often cursing - at you for even small mistakes. On top of that, there is a constant threat that illness or injury could end your career in the blink of an eye.

For a long time, dealing with this stress was a job for soccer players to manage alone. But in recent years, that has begun to change.

Since 2006, the clinical sports psychologist Aneta Szpigiel has worked with a union that represents German pro soccer players, the VDV. Her office is in a sports-medicine and physical therapy clinic next to the Schalke soccer stadium in Gelsenkirchen - conveniently located so that players can come to her for help with their problems.

Soccer is resistant

"We mostly deal with crises that are tied to injuries, to the players' fears of losing their place on the team, or with returning to play after they were out," Szpigiel said. "We deal with fears related to their career outlook, with their future in soccer."

Soccer player Mario Gomez looking frustrated
The gestures of frustration can be read in the standsImage: picture-alliance/Pressefoto ULMER/Claus Cremer

Szpigiel's job is not unusual; the field of sports psychology has been growing steadily over the past decades, and the business of keeping athletes mentally fit is booming. What sets her apart, however, is that she works in the field of soccer - a sport that has tended to focus on hard physical workouts and mental toughness over discussing feelings and emotional strength.

Jeannine Ohlert is a sports psychologist, lecturer and researchers at the prestigious German Sport University in Cologne; she agrees that professional soccer is among the most resistant sports when it comes to using team psychologists.

Part of the problem is a misunderstanding about what kinds of help sport psychologists can offer, Ohlert said. Athletes need to know that the main aim of sports psychologists is "not to solve problems, but to prevent them."

"The aim of a sport psychologist is that the athletes are able to give their best performance when they need it. Not just in training but in competition," Ohlert said.

Popular among team sports

Team sports are increasingly turning to have sports psychology to improve performance; both field hockey and ice hockey teams in the Germany have had therapists on their staff, Ohlert noted.

"But in soccer, it’s still not accepted," she asserted.

Francesca Schiavone of Italy shouts in frustration after missing a shot against Belgium's Justine Henin in their third round match at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia on 18 January 2008.
Sometimes it is hard to keep your cool while playing sportsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The reason is at least partly historical, Ohlert speculates. "I think a lot of (managers) are people who played in the clubs themselves when they were younger. And they say, 'I managed without a sport psychologist. So the players today will be able to manage by themselves if they are strong enough.' That's difficult," she said.

But VDV's Aneta Szpigiel says the job is in fact "a lot like clinical psychology." She talks with her clients about the thoughts and emotions; what's more, she prescribes exercises for players trying to deal with blockages or injuries. The aim is to help them regain confidence in a certain series of movements.

"Soccer (here) is the most popular sport. There is incredible pressure attached to it, and a lot of money. The planning starts very early in life: Will I be a pro soccer player, or not? That is enormous pressure," she said.

Reaction after Robert Enke's death

Playing pro soccer under pressure is anything but new. Wolfgang Overath, a star player in the 1970s for FC Köln, had trouble dealing with the high expectations put on him by himself and others, even in his day.

"I played in the World Cup in Mexico 1970. And then Günter Netzer played the European Championship in 1972. He was in great form and mine was getting worse and worse at club level, and then the public said: Now Netzer should play," Overath recounted. "I kept getting worse because I had less and less self-confidence. That is something that can happen when the pressure gets higher."

Back in the 1970s, however, access to professional help for players was much less readily available. Today, though, the sports professionals are busy people. Szpigiel noted that, especially after the suicide death of German national team goalie Robert Enke in November, 2009, many professionals had a sudden need to talk.

Bianca Kappler of Germany competes in the Long Jump qualification at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Berlin, German
Athletes often perform better in practice than in competitionImage: dpa

Still, Szpigiel says she wishes that in the future, psychological help for athletes could be even more commonplace.

"I believe that sports psychologists should become even more widely accepted than they are today," Szpigiel said. "It is taken for granted that every sports team has a team of physical therapists on hand. But the same should go for sports psychologists."

Not surprisingly, the Sports University's Jeannine Ohlert agrees. She notes that some other countries have a different attitude to Germany, and cites the example of in Seville, Spain, which has 11 sports psychologists on staff. She believes that shows "they care about their players' whole development as a person, and not just as a soccer player."

Room for improvement

If soccer teams had a staff of psychologists, they could work on "communication, cohesion, structures... so many things," Ohlert said, with the ultimate goal being to strengthen players to stand up to the pressures of pro athletics.

Meanwhile, Ohlert points out that more German clubs - she gives Hoffenheim as an example - are starting to turn to sport psychologists.

"It getting better," she said. "But we still have a long way to go."

Author: Andreas Ziemons (jen)
Editor: Rob Turner