The tragedy of Fernando Torres: Chelsea’s £50m striker has fallen prey to the malaise that every sportsman dreads: a catastrophic and inexplicable loss of form. But why does this happen to top athletes and how can they recover? (John Carlin, 2/17/12, Financial Times)
The mysteries of form may reside in the subconscious but it also appears to be true that the problem is worsened by thinking too much and, as a likely consequence, trying too hard. On this point Stransky, the two American sports psychologists and also a couple of other people I spoke to, in the football and tennis worlds, were all in agreement.
Santiago Solari, a recently retired Argentine international footballer who played for Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, said that all players went through a period when their form declined, though he was quick to point out that in his case it had never occurred on a scale comparable to Fernando Torres. “There are times,” Solari said, “when you feel as if you are an unstoppable phenomenon of nature. There’s a happy convergence of the mental and the physical in your game and your confidence just grows and grows. It all seems so natural. But then you have a bad game, and then another one and you start to get anxious, and you feel each time you go out and play as if you’re walking down a step, with one brick, and then another one, weighing you down. Before you know it you’ve walked down so many steps and the bricks have piled up to such a point that you feel as if you were lying buried under a big building.”
Francis Roig is a coach of Spain’s all-conquering Davis Cup team and also second coach to the no less triumphant Rafa Nadal. Loss of form is an affliction especially common in tennis, Roig said. “It’s tremendous the importance confidence has on your game. It’s tremendous also how a rival can smell that fear in you, how he loses the respect he might once have had for you, beating you when before nine times out of 10 you’d have beaten him. Look at Jim Courier, who was number one in the world for two years – “Big Jim”, they called him – and then one day it all went; he fell to number 60 and never got back. A sort of psychosis possessed him, a desperate need to return to being the player he had been, and he never overcame it.”
Jim Courier ranked number one in the world in 1992 and 1993 – 'and then one day it all went'
What should he have done? “One way to recover your form, though there is no magic cure I am aware of, is not to dwell on the negative aspects of your game, to forget that and focus on the things you’ve always done well in your career going back to childhood.” Roig, a keen football fan, sees Fernando Torres as an extreme case who has succumbed to “a dynamic in which everything you did before effortlessly becomes impossible, and then you try harder, working double as much, but things only get worse.”
“My guess,” said William Wiener of Torres, picking up on Solari’s and Roig’s points, “is that he is overthinking each move, that something in his mental processes is not as relaxed as it once was.” John Murray, who before becoming a sports psychologist was a professional tennis player, also attaches blame to “overthinking” and counsels that for Torres to overcome what he describes as “catastrophic performance anxiety” he must try to play as he did when he was a child, “happily, for fun”. “My hypothesis,” said Murray, who has addressed loss of form problems with leading American sporstmen, “is that his confidence is shattered, that his anxiety is such that the harder he tries, the worse it gets. And he may also be in denial, which is an especially horrible thing when the whole world knows what’s going on. He needs help.”