Boothroyd, Keane, and 3 Levels of Sport Psychology

At the start of the 06-07 season, I made two predictions that proved completely wrong. According to my crystal ball, Aidy Boothroyd, a manager for the future, would keep Watford up, and Keane, another manager for the future, would prove to have chosen the wrong level of club for his first job and would be struggling.

My views on the Watford situation were based on the fact that Boothroyd had taken over a club deep in playing and financial troubles, and won them promotion in his first season as a manager. Boothroyd was very aware of his newness in the role, and was keen to learn everything he could. Stories abound of his buttonholing this or that experienced and successful coach at this or that event and bleeding them of information. He is, relatively speaking, widely read, his reading also being a source of information and inspiration. He takes a deep interest in what goes on in other sports – he is friendly with Sir Clive Woodward, for instance.

My thinking about Keane was not about whether he’d make a good manager. Keane’s autobiography is famous for really being an autobiography, rather than a book about a footballer. Moreover, it is replete with reflections on the job of football management, and these reflections are a world away from the tabloid stereotypes of the “inspirational leader” kind. Keane was thinking deeply about the role long before he ceased playing. The same can be said for most effective managers. My doubts about Keane were all centred on his choice of first club.

Other than the legendary internal promotions at Liverpool that saw Paisley, Fagin and Dalglish step up to success, practically all of the truly great managers began their career at an utterly minor club, before taking over a never-quite-great-club-in-despair. Think Shankly at Carlisle, Grimsby, and Huddersfield – before taking over at Liverpool when they were very much the city’s second club. Think Clough and Taylor at Hartlepools, before Derby and then (with some odd stops in between) Forest. Think Alex Ferguson at East Stirlingshire, then Aberdeen. Think O’Neill at Wycombe, then Leicester, then Celtic, now (a decision of genius) Villa.

Sunderland and Keane didn’t seem to match this pattern. They weren’t yet humbled enough by events – a club who call their ground the Stadium of Light might be accused of hubris on that account alone. They took the attitude that they “belonged” in the Premiership. If every club that thought that way were in the top league, the season would last for three years.

Nevertheless, whatever my grounds for thinking the way I did, I was wrong and wrong. But the contrasting seasons had by Boothroyd and Keane do reflect something I’ve been thinking lately about sport psychology in this country, and it’s this: in the UK, there are three levels to sport psychology, where there should be only one. Two of those levels simply do not work.

Level One: No Nonsense”.

Level One is the habitat of football journalists, Sky Sports presenters, callers to 6-0-6 and the kind of middle class white-collar professional who thinks that he thinks that footballers are overpaid prima-donnas. Level One’s tools are (a) shouting at people (b) threatening people and (c) Churchillian rhetoric, this to be provided by someone else other than the Level One character who’d be rather hard pushed to come up with it themselves.

Level One is also the home of many managers, not necessarily Premiership ones, who were once players and therefore assume that they are in a unique position to understand the lads. In other words, they think that what worked on themselves will work on everyone, and indeed, that there are things that will “work on people”. The tricks and the tips are out there somewhere, but have to be approved by all right-thinking mockney more-working-class-than-thou blokes.

Level Two: Tips and Tricks.

Level Two is home to those people who think that there might be something to all this psychobabble after all. But because it’s not that prevalent in football, they’ll turn for inspiration to the one area of British lower middle class life where it is central – sales. This is the world of the inspirational poster, the affirmations repeated under the breath, the seminar speaker egging his crowd on to jump, shout and wave their arms in the air. It’s the place where “confidence” is brash and loud, where lessons are learned from Napoleon, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, where you can do something called Achieving Success.

I’ve a dreadful feeling that these characters have their claws in Boothroyd at the moment. At some point, everything he’s taking on board will come together for him, internalized and combined with his own native wit and determination, and then he’ll be free of it. It can’t come soon enough. Levels One and Two are characterized by the same two things: (a) bluster and (b) they don’t actually work.

I wonder if Bill Beswick is in these parts, too. Those reports that he “went beserk” at Middlesborough with posters etc. in the wake of the 2003 Rugby World Cup, if true, make me despair. So does the “Cathedrals” story.

“I was in the Manchester United dressing room one day and told the players the story about three men who were laying bricks.

“Each of them was asked what he was doing. ‘Laying bricks,’ said the first. ‘Earning £10 per hour,’ said the second.

“The third one said. ‘I’m building a cathedral and, one day, I’ll bring my kids back here and tell them that their dad had contributed to this magnificent building.’

Apparently David Beckham, following that talk, went out onto the training pitch, scored an incredible goal and ran off shouting “Cathedral 1 Bricklayers 0.”

I agree that good communications demand that you present your ideas in a way that your audience can understand and connect with, but if the ideas are shallow, banal and irrelevant to begin with… (I like the £10 per hour man – he’ll go far, you mark my words).

The British are all too keen on tips and tricks. My own colleagues, if I can call other hypnotherapists that, tend to be out of this box and enthusiastic at having others climb into it with them. It’s not quite the problem-solving attitude that it seems. The problem has to be solved in a particular way – it mustn’t be intellectual, it mustn’t take long, it mustn’t mention sex and it mustn’t talk posh. And it must make money..

Much British sport psychology still works at this level to some extent, which might deepen the problems of a Boothroyd, someone who is genuinely interested in finding what works and finding how best to apply it. There are still such things as “team building exercises” which, on closer examination, seem to be all about merely chucking a group of people together in the hope that at random they’ll become keen to suppress their own wants and needs in the interests of the group.

Level Three: Real Knowledge. I’m struggling slightly for a good name for this level, but it is meant to encompass both instinctive knowledge, of the Ferguson/Stein/Paisley variety, and learned knowledge from a proper source – Jose Mourinho’s reading list isn’t so well publicized as Boothroyd’s, but it’s at an altogether different level, and is designed to gel with everything else he’s learned over the years.

Some people just know. Ferguson said recently that over the years he’s had to become “more of a psychologist,” but the newspaper stereotyping of him was always largely a work of fiction, and he has been headhunted by corporations outside football who know a genuinely skilled man manager when they see one. He learned from Stein, but didn’t try to become Stein. Peter Taylor learned from Harry Storer, ruining a ’60s Spanish holiday for Storer and his wife in the process, but didn’t try to become Storer. O’Neill, and now Keane, knew Clough, but haven’t tried to manage like him.

And some people can learn. David Moyes has changed his style of management substantially while he has been at Everton. And it wasn’t the result of a sales conference or the visit of a speaker. It was the acknowledgement that people are different, want different things from life, for different reasons, and that this isn’t going to be altered by dressing room discipline: these conflicting views and desires were precisely the material that he would have to work alongside in order to build his team. Everton were fighting relegation every year when he arrived. This year, with a cut-price squad, they qualified for Europe. This might be as good as it gets – the next step up did what it did to Leeds, and the warning signs have now been erected.

There is real information out there in reading form about human beings, their character, temperament and world views, but there’s a job there for someone who wants it: translate it for sport. Possession of it won’t necessarily make you into a good manager, but it could make you into a successful number two.

There’s a dark side to management that lives at level three, which levels one and two wot not of. I don’t think the best managers are especially well-balanced people. Shankly was a lost child away from his job. Busby and Paisley took rather too much pleasure in having other mens’ careers in the palm of their hand, to feed or destroy. Some top current managers enjoy dominating others, bullying them on occasions – for its own sake, not for the benefit of the club or team, whatever they may say. Top football managers are not men who really put family and friends first: Ferguson’s interests outside football are unusual, not shared by Wenger or Mourinho, and he didn’t always have them.

That’s the reality of the situation. Success in football coaching, a brief and fleeting thing at the best of times, is not the animal portrayed on inspirational posters. Top former managers do not have tips or tricks which, if applied to your life, will make it better or more satisfying. Top sportsmen are often the nastiest, most selfish, most cruel, most ruthless, least developed personalities you come across. When you see 2012 being used to “inspire” children, that’s worth reflecting on.

At level 3, you won’t necessarily find yourself working with the finest aspects of what it means to be human. This fact occasionally slips out – perhaps in a comment about how as a manager you can go home most days “feeling filthy” – but on the whole, it’s not something the general sports fan cares to think about too much. It’s nicer, and easier, to imagine sport as the practical application of all the good old English virtues. When Maradona was interviewed by Gary Lineker about his “hand of God” goal, his scorn at English claims to fair play was moot: if Shilton cleared the ball after it had crossed the line for a goal, and the goal wasn’t given because the referee was unsighted, would he complain then?

It’s the same unspoken, unacknowledged, unaccounted for thing that’s in level 2’s sales seminars. Sales people are keen on the idea that they provide a service – helping people to buy the goods and services that will improve their lives in ways that might be obscure to them when just browsing. It’s true in some cases. But that “some” is the exception that proves the rule. Professional selling is often grubby and exploitative. And the latest sales recruitment posters on the London Underground promise a lifestyle of champagne, birds and stretch limos, the plastic success we saw so brilliantly unravelled by Benedictine monks in The Monastery in 2005.

All of which brings me back to Roy Keane and his autobiography. Football, according to Keane, is not the repository of everything that’s good about being British. It’s home to a lot of people who are prone to complain when they are at their most fortunate, who are prone to laziness and sloppiness (both players and managers), liable to abuse their position, rest on their laurels etc. It’s a dark picture, but one that acknowledges part of the truth that much sport psychology completely ignores. (I list two sport psychology books in my reading list, neither of which have anything to say on this subject at all). What Keane’s book didn’t display was his curiosity about people. Accounts of his first year at Sunderland include several of what might at first sight appear to be “team building exercises” – Sunderland players have been taken mountain biking, white water rafting, paintballing and on an army assault course. But Keane explains this in two ways: it’s about variety, keeping people interested and engaged, and it’s about what novel situations reveal in people. British football is in love with its roaring boys, its Terrys and Lampards, but roaring boys have a habit of going very quiet when out of their comfort zone. Stuart Pearce, a “roaring lion” in his playing days, turned out to be a quiet manager, accused by his players of not taking a strong enough stand with them. Take the roaring boy away from his “manor” and see how he gets on seems to be the Keane philosophy.

Boothroyd’s season was not about him failing psychologically as a manager – it was about injuries to his strikers, lack of funds, the sale of Ashley Young. He, and they, will be back, that’s certain. By then, what he’s learning now with so much enthusiasm and open-mindedness will be his own knowledge, and he’ll be applying it in his way. He’ll be a level three manager, no longer a level two. Keane seems to have used his long thinking time as a player well, better than he gave us reason to believe. His first season in the Premiership will be fascinating. Of course, it’ll all be reported in terms of his being a protegee of Ferguson and Clough, so Sunderland’s games with United and Villa will be unusually tiresomely written-up. I predict a Reading-style season, and a narrow, silently-fortuitous, failure to qualify for Europe.

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5 responses to “Boothroyd, Keane, and 3 Levels of Sport Psychology

  1. Apologies for ignoring the point of your post, and instead focusing on a trivial aspect, but I have always been intrigued by the “Stadium of Light” naming, thinking that was Benfica. And assuming Wikipedia is right, Benfica’s ground is named such only because that is the name of the area, and Sunderland’s ground is so called because it is named after a Miner’s helmet lamp. I never knew any of that.

  2. They do indeed claim that the name commemorates the mine on whose site the stadium’s built. Apparently the mine had signs at the exits reading “Into the Light.” I can’t help feeling that there were more obvious names that might have been chosen, ones that sound less “coincidentally” like Benfica and less like total bombast, that would pay the miners more honour, if that was their real purpose. I note in evidence that their new training ground is called The Academy of Light. Well, if a rock band can get away with calling themselves “Europe” or “America”, I suppose… but it’s gruesomely tasteless all the same.

  3. I think Boothroyd is a fantastic manager. His team didn’t stay up because his players weren’t good enough and his tactics were limited by their limitations.
    Keane was always going to do well at Sunderland. The Irish investors want it to be the Irish team in the Premership and will spend the necessary money. Keane has a formidable reputation as a player and hardman which he can use to his advantage for a while. He also does things wholeheatedly.

  4. This keeps reminding me of something I’ve read in the literature about company management, but I can’t remember where – or indeed if I’m just having a fit of bogus deja vu simply because it makes such good sense as a taxonomy of management styles. I keep wanting to say that something similar is in “On The Psychology of Military Incompetence” by Norman Dixon, but I don’t think he has a three-type structure like that.

    Of course if you ever carry out the old linear regression of a team’s league position versus the gross amount spent on players that year, the closeness of fit of the relationship is incredible – the last time I saw this done, there were precisely four outliers over a huge length of time; Derby County, Forest, Paisley-era Liverpool and Leeds (the last one being a negative outlier).

  5. Comfort yourself that in your hopelessly inaccurate Keane and Boothroyd predictions you are in good company. Or, at least, my company.

    Keane’s achievement in turning around a side that had lost its first five games is astonishing.

    Boothroyd, on the other hand… what did we (oh look, a clue to my loyalties) get out of this season? Some money, certainly, but otherwise in terms of tactics and personnel I’m not sure. Squad depth perhaps.

    I’m looking forward to next season – hey, I might even be able to get in to see a game. With two of the three relegated teams promoted and the third in the play-off final, there’s hope for us all.