Chris Coleman admits he’s beginning to feel the strain of being a Premiership manager and that the job is affecting his health: “It is all stress, nerves and anxiety. It is the same for every manager. I’ve been speaking with Sammy Allardyce and David Moyes and they all say their blood pressure is up and they’ve all been suffering from lack of sleep.”
Football management is, without any doubt, a tremendously stressful occupation. The manager has to cope with constant demands from above and below – starting with the board of directors, the obscenely wealthy but mysterious new club owner who’s just landed from the Middle East, the Arctic, Florida or Siberia; not to forget his not too often incredibly loyal playing and coaching staff. If he somehow survives, there are the media around a corner, telling him on Friday he’s the best man in the business, but writing on Sunday that he’s a dreadfully crap tactician and an equally bad psychologist.
This is how we come to psychology, or to be more specific, to psychotherapy.
Some experts would suggest to the top managers a “keep it simple” technique: identify and write down the problem and then look at ways of coping with it. If you get stressed over the idea of going upstairs to have a drink with the board, keep a diary, writing down which of the new club kit designs you prefer or which incidents make you agitated. One psychologist gave Gerard Houllier some straight advice: ”If you feel palpitations during a game, breathe deeply and take some practical exercises…”. We all know what happened then: Gerard recovered after 11 hours of open heart surgery but left Liverpool and the Premiership for good, supposedly on the advice of his psychologist.
This is the age of the internet. For those managers who are reluctant or have no time to spend talking about their problems with mental health professionals, there are alternative methods of conducting psychotherapy in cyberspace: counselling via e-mail or through real time-chat. Here are a few examples of a reasonable exchange, looking like a therapy session, with an interactive psychotherapy program known as Eliza.
Eliza: Hello, I am Eliza. Please tell me your problem.
Mourinho: I’m having trouble at work. Everything is going wrong.
E: You seem quite positive.
M: I might lose my job. I have to do better.
E: Why do you need to tell me that you might lose your job?
M: It’s important for me to do well but I have doubts about myself.
E: I’m not sure I understand you fully. Is your having doubts about yourself why you came to me?
M: I have to do well. I don’t want to disappoint our supporters, directors, my club owner, my wife and children.
E: Can you elaborate on that?
M: I know the club owner and my wife will be angry if I fail.
E: Do you think it likely you will fail?
M: I already lost two games in a row.
E: Is that so bad?
M: I definitely tried as hard as I could.
E: That’s quite interesting.
M: So I don’t know why I failed.
E: Don’t you really know why you failed.
M: You sound like my father.
E: Tell me about your family.
M: My parents always expected too much of me. It made me angry.
E: Your parents expected too much of you?
M: They wanted me to be an engineer or a doctor.
E: That’s interesting.
M: Do you think it was right for them to expect so much?
E: We are discussing you, not me.
Not ideal but not too bad too for a computerised therapist. A dash of confrontation, a few good reflections and even some genetic work could well help the manager under stress to feel a bit better, more relaxed and positive. At least, he spoke with somebody prepared to listen without asking unnecessary or stupid questions.
But Eliza often screws up. This is why some researches didn’t intend it as serious psychotherapy, but rather as an experiment in artificial intelligence. Here’s an example of how wrong Eliza and the top division football manager can go:
Eliza: How do you do. Tell me your problem.
Mourinho: I am failing in my season project.
E: Your season project. That’s interesting.
M: Are you going to help me?
E: Why you are interested in whether I am going to help you or not?
M: Why else would I be talking to you?
E: Why do you ask?
M: Why do you always answer my question with a question?
E: Why do you always say your question with a question?
M: You are not making any sense.
E: Is that the real reason?
M: Because you’re just a dumb computer.
E: Do computers worry you?
M: I hate computers. And I think I hate you.
E: Why do you mention computers?
M: I’m leaving. I can’t stand any more.
E: Is it because you’re leaving that you came to me?
M: You really are a stupid shit!
E: My, my, such language!
E: Does that have anything to do with the fact that your season project failed?
M: Before I go, I’m pulling your plug!
E: Why do you need to tell me before you go you’re pulling my plug!
Why did this therapy session go wrong? Many were quick to point out Eliza’s deficiencies as a clinician. Others thought that the managers were attempting a serious conversation with Eliza, but felt frustrated and misunderstood because of her ineptitude. She simply did not appear warm and empathetic. The manager wanted more concrete advice from Eliza, but experienced “her” as confused, unemotional and non-directive. He tended to think of Eliza as a “female” (because of the program’s name), more humanlike and sympathetic, but found it as “just a computer”.
The manager under stress could hardly have been feeling better after this sort of therapy session, but imagine if Eliza had a personality like a human, with some users’ introductions held in memory and edited into “her” answers:
Eliza: I’m not sure about anything today. I lost all the important matches this season and I’m losing control of things.
Mourinho: Tell me more.E: One of my patients committed suicide. Another stripped in front of me. Another is crazier than a loon. And to top it all off, my wife left me for the cyber-love rat club chairman.