It’s late October and Arsenal’s stuttering premiership challenge is about to be resurrected as Robert Pires steps up to take his second penalty of the game against Manchester City.
It is now the stuff of history that he tried to pass the ball to Henry, and failed. The comment it excited ranged, predictably, from amusement to outrage, but how, it was not asked, could a player as experienced as Pires, a World Cup winner, lose, by his own admission, his nerve at the last second.
After all, this was not a spontaneous act, it had been pre-planned, on the suggestion of team mate, Thierry Henry. Why they didn’t do it on the first penalty is not clear – perhaps they thought they’d wait until the game appeared to be safe, but it offers an insight into Pires’s state of mind.
He could not have been certain of success in this innovative move, his mind could not have been clear, he has admitted being edgy about it, and it wasn’t his plan, he was trying to implement that of a colleague, so he may not have thought it through fully.
On the other hand, he may have psyched himself up to fail. In this sense it would be an act of what is known in sports psychology parlance as self sabotage.
Self sabotage is a means by which a person can absolve themselves of accountability. This is failure without personal responsibility, the means by which we can blame others for what goes wrong. Golfers have a mantra, a metaphor, ‘trust your swing’ which, when it encompasses all aspects of the physical and mental game, leads to success, to victory.
Many other sports persons have suffered from the golfing equivalent of the ‘yips’ when the physical cannot respond to the mental. In footballers we see it when a striker is running through on goal with only the ‘keeper to beat.
Those who have embraced failure will find ways to miss, to allow the goalie to make the save, while those who will not entertain self-doubt, never miss. Do any such players at your club come to mind?
‘What if we should fail?’ asks Macbeth of his wife, when they plan to murder king Duncan. ‘We fail!’ she answers obliquely. But for her it is not an option, for him, he sees the possibility and, within it, the seeds of his ultimate downfall are sown.
Many football coaches find it almost impossible to deal with failure, for their fallibilities are played out in front of them each week. So they resort to blaming officials for bad decisions, and pray in aid other coaches and commentators, most of whom have comfortably reached their level of incompetence, some of whom have never been found out.
The Sports Psychology Summary…
If Robert Pires had been able to share Thierry Henry’s vision, then it was likely that their little ploy would have succeeded, but he and the rest of his team seem to have been unable to overcome the ‘self sabotage’ hurdle on previous occasions, mostly notably when their unbeaten run was halted against Manchester United.
Like all top class individuals and teams they have to confront the fear of failure regularly; the best learn how to harness it, it becomes the means by which they validate themselves.