Does the name Ken Way mean anything to you?
How about Dan Abrahams?
Or Paul McVeigh? OK, we know that one; a fondly remembered City player (for me, his name will always conjure up that header in the play-off semi-final against Wolves). These days, though, he’s in the same business as the other two. He’s a sports psychologist.
There’s probably still some scepticism about psychologists in sport; we know that physical conditioning must be important for our players, but mental conditioning?
Being sceptical is to underestimate the stresses involved in modern professional football. Personally, I thought those stresses would get to Leicester in the title run-in last season. Instead, Leicester sailed through while it was Spurs who suffered a mental disintegration.
That’s where Ken Way comes in. He’s the sports psychologist (and they have no problems acknowledging they have one) at Leicester. Though a modest and self-effacing man, he played a key role in making sure that the expectations of many –including me – would be confounded and that Leicester would keep their nerve and focus under the most extreme pressure.
Essentially, that’s what a sports psychologist does. We all know of ‘mind games’, especially between managers: their aim is to disturb the focus and equilibrium of the opponent, just as a good striker drags opposition defenders into areas they don’t want to be in.
A mentally fragile manager such as Kevin Keegan, or arguably at times Wenger, can be thrown off focus. And if it works once, you can be sure it’ll be tried again.
The aim of sports psychology is to keep the players’ (and managers if need be) minds clear and concentrated. It may sound simple, but in the whirlwind of top-level football it’s far from straightforward. There are naturally grounded and confident individuals in the game – Timm Klose strikes me as an example – but many aren’t.
(Speaking of which, isn’t it nice to see Neil Warnock back in the game? I’m only sorry Cardiff have already made their visit to Carrow Road and we won’t have the fun of watching him on the touchline.)
Asked about his role, Ken Way makes a telling observation: there are two psychologists at the club, himself and Claudio Ranieri. While having a dedicated sports psychologist may be a good investment for a club, much of the motivation – or otherwise – clearly comes from the manager.
Some managers excel at that side of their job – and some REALLY excel. I’ve always been interested in the difference between a Mourinho (who achieves spectacular success but doesn’t seem able to sustain it) and a Ferguson (who can maintain success through several generations of players). I guess it’s part of the difference between a very good – even a Special – manager and a great one.
Closer to home, Alex Neil is clearly the central motivating figure at Carrow Road. Judging by interviews from the City players, comments from his old colleagues at Hamilton and other snippets, Alex seems to have some of key ingredients for successful management of people.
He appears to know, for instance, that one size doesn’t fit all. His words to Sebastien Bassong to bring him back into the fold in 2015 were very different from those he uses with the Murphy twins.
As far as I can see, even players out of the starting XI feel (for the most part) that he deals with them honestly and fairly. That’s quite an achievement.
In a wider picture, the mind is a truly astonishing thing. Hopefully you’ll indulge me finishing this piece with a bit of out-loud reflection on it.
The brain’s function depends on synapses, connections between neurons. In an infant’s brain, up to 2 million synapses are formed – not in total, but every second. The sheer complexity helps to explain a lot, including why we haven’t got very far in developing artificial intelligence.
Yes, a robot can do some impressive things: make tea, play chess, clean rooms and climb mountains. But it’s not the same robot. Most are single-function machines, a million miles from the creatures of science fiction which threaten our existence.
In future robots will perform a range of services for us, some of them eye-popping. They still won’t respond like humans, though. It’ll be a long time before you’ll want to take one to the pub or the match (unless your current companions are really poor).
More interestingly, perhaps, will we ever be able to read each others’ minds? I remember at work when we considered the coming of videophones. Well, my facial expressions and hand gestures to colleagues when on the phone to certain clients would have to be curtailed, for a start.
And more generally? If women could look into men’s minds, I suspect they’d find confirmation of all their best and worst expectations – but might find it’s a more complex mix than they imagined. Hence the variety of choices and behaviour we see.
As to the other way round, I’ll leave that to our female readers to offer insight….
Hopefully not too mind-boggling.