Jonathon Woodgate speaks Spanish like a Mallorcan and has grown his hair like an Argentinian. He has spent the last fourteen months recovering from an injury he had before moving to Real Madrid. Now, with Real in crisis and Luxumbergo on the verge of dismissal, Woodgate is called in for his first game for the club.
His first significant action is, freakishly, to divert an Athletico Bilbao shot into his own net; a little later he gets booked for a bad tackle and early in the second half he is dismissed after a second yellow card. While Woodgate gets a standing ovation as he leaves the field, the crowd’s ominous rumble of discontent against the rest of the team grows louder. It could be a moment of despair. But no!
Woodgate’s team-mates have sensed injustice, and they draw on some whisper in the breeze of history. It acts as a catalyst. The previously fading ‘King of Spain’, Raul, produces a majestic performance and scores twice. The relieved crowd fold their white hankies, and applaud. And Woodgate has been the medium, if not the message.
As Sports Psychologists Will Tell You…
As sports psychologists will tell you, a sense of injustice has often been the unheralded twelfth player in many tales of sporting greatness. Lurking in the umbra of the collective unconscious, injustice can flare like an inflamed sore as the result of a malicious tackle, a wrongly disallowed goal or, as in this case, a more or less blameless team mate being red carded.
You can’t predict it; it happens. The flames of passion, which may have been doused by a blanket of mediocrity, are rekindled.
Many sporting greats develop, what in sports psychology parlance, is known as ‘the warrior spirit’ from what they perceive as the unfairness of life. Their mental and emotional resilience, forged in childhood, is often born of poverty or, oppression, and borne on mistreatment and grievance.
Their personas are moulded around a core of simmering anger which can make or mar their careers. Thus, they often become obsessive about their desire to succeed.
Being driven by a powerful sense of injustice can be a blessing and a curse. Think Roy Keane and his intolerance of the sloppiness of Ireland’s preparation in the 2002 World Cup. Or Wayne Rooney and his contemptuous applause for referee Kim Milton Nielsen in Villarreal. Or Beckham, who chases wrongs like a lost ball.
The Mirror Of Truth…
Injustice, when unchanelled, becomes rage. Injustice when channelled creates a powerful force. When Scotland play England at sport, it is as if the history of the world has congregated on the playing field just to see justice done, and it rouses the Scots; when a coach reads of an opposing manager making derogatory remarks about him or his team, he pins those comments on the dressing room wall to provoke and to inspire; when a man like Tony Adams can stand before the mirror of truth and see that he has been lying to himself all along, that he is wrong, not wronged, he is step one on the road to recovery
For a driven individual like Rooney, or perfectionists like Beckham, there are ways in which to train the mind to be less reactive to seeming injustice. In training, his teammates should try to distract, harass and rile him, seeking to provoke his anger.
Instead of trying to demonstrate his physical superiority, Rooney will learn that winning the mental battle, confronting his demons, like Roy Keane has shown, offers the warrior the greatest reward. Once the control techniques are developed, he will welcome the provocation and be able to demonstrate his mental strength under pressure.
The Sports Psychology Summary
The modern game, with its bountiful financial rewards, has satisfied the obvious needs of professional footballers, thus satiating their hunger and drive.
However, for the sporting greats, it isn’t about the money; it’s about the desire to be the best, to prove a point, to take the dark out of the night. But be assured, wherever there is sporting injustice, you will find the knight on his wild charger, ready to right a wrong.