Soccer

Jack: Over-professionalism piling pressure on players

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Kristian Jack
2/12/2014 12:07:29 AM
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I have been a very proud parent this week.

As someone who grew up idolizing many sports I was absolutely thrilled when my daughter came home from school and told me her class spent part of their lunch watching the Winter Olympics in the library.

"Look daddy there is that girl skier I watched today," she said pointing at our television.

The skier in question hadn't won gold but she'd won a spot on national television and, while enjoying her moment in the spotlight, had a huge smile for the camera. An enormous smile for a finish outside the medals.

This lady had captured my daughter's attention. Her happiness, so it turned out, had been infectious.

I had noticed the smile immediately. I had spent my day watching hours of Premier League football and on a day where few goals were scored, even fewer smiles showed up.

In fact, aside from celebrating the rare goals, none of the players smiled at all.

It made me wonder; isn't anyone having any fun anymore?

This had come to my attention watching Manchester United's recent draw with Fulham at Old Trafford. United conceded early, spent much of the next hour camped in their opponents half, scored a goal with 12 minutes left, didn't celebrate, rushed back to restart, then scored a goal again which finally allowed everyone to smile. And laugh. And, in the case of manager David Moyes, act like they'd won the Champions League. It had all seemed a bit forced and then the smiles were well and truly wiped off their faces when Darren Bent netted a dramatic 94th minute equalizer.

A few Fulham players smiled at the final whistle, others hugged each other and clapped their fans as they headed down the tunnel, no doubt turning their attention to their next match coming four days later.

Welcome to Premier League football in 2014. Every team is either racing after something or trying to run away from something and while they are doing it, very few are stopping to smell the roses on the way.

For some, having a plethora of teams challenge for the title, European spots, and against relegation, is seen as parity and a wonderful way for the league to have many important matches.

The problem, however, are the intense demands that come with chasing 1st, 4th or 17th, for example, and they are undoubtedly weighing the players down.

We are not supposed to feel sorry for a professional footballer. They earn tremendous amounts of money and for that they are supposed to be looked upon differently.

However, whilst watching hours of Premier League football this month, I keep coming back to my original question - Is anyone having fun anymore?

Professional sports have never been as professional. No stone is unturned and athletes are given the best of everything, but is this making them better and, just as important, are they enjoying themselves?

Premier League footballers have their every move looked at, both on and off the playing field. How they train, eat, sleep, socialize, cross, pass, shoot, run, you name it, the club is looking at it. We are told it is to ensure every player is getting what they need so their employers can get the best out of them but you only have to watch Manchester United this season to know that they are not getting the best out of their players.

We live in a world where every player in a game we have just watched can be analyzed in many different ways. By this rule, we can debate the merits of Tom Cleverley in midfield, the decision to play Juan Mata wide or Ashley Young at all, for example.

Trained eyes can tell you how well they played. Stats available on your smart phone can tell you where they passed the ball and to whom seconds after it happens. Some statistics, if used correctly, can tell a story of how a player performed.

Yet, the one thing no one will ever find a way to solve is the inability to know what is happening inside a player's mind. Manchester United players this season look like the shirt is very heavy on them. They look like a team featuring players who have some serious doubts in their minds. These doubts could be anything from concerns about their form, whether their manager is good enough, or if their wife and kids are happy. Some of their teammates will not even know the real issues in their mind so the media and fans have no chance at knowing.

And there is a very good chance that we will never know most of the issues.

"The time to speak about many things will come," said striker Javier Hernandez on his Instagram account this week. It is a cryptic message and time will tell what he reveals, but if and when he does so, he will be in the minority.

The Premier League right now is full of players going through mental battles. Yes, they have tremendous talent with a football and show you a strong side of them when they are on the field but what of the other times?

A lot of things can happen in 6,410 hours - the amount of time between the start and end of a Premier League season. Only 57 of these are spent playing 38 games of Premier League football, less than nine per cent of the time.

Yet, it is this time that many of us use when analyzing these individuals. It is, of course, the time we get to know them as we welcome them inside our living rooms, but for over 91 per cent of the time, these individuals are left to be as vulnerable as you or I and we'd be foolish to not think what happens during this time doesn't have a substantial impact on what they do when playing. They are over analyzed and monitored by their clubs who hire men, who usually lose their job within two years, to get the best out of them as soon as possible. The pressure from that manager leaks to the players and leaves many to do things they wouldn't normally do. This is an example of insecurities being created by the sport's culture. Clubs demand success, managers demand players to play at a high level and players are told they must deliver when the pressure is on. They are bombarded with information about their style and how they can be better but some are drowning in modern day over-professionalism and are losing their love for the sport.

Last November I watched closely a battle between England and Australia in cricket and was left puzzled by the poor performances of a particularly England player who consistently seemed to play poorly.

That player, Jonathan Trott, would go on to leave the tour and return home with a stress related illness. He was one of the minority who got help and, because he walked away from the series, allowed the public to see what demons he was battling in his personal life.

Trott's case is the extreme and it would be wrong to assume many professional footballers have gone through something similar but it would naive to deny it completely.

When we study the less than nine per cent of visual evidence we have on these players it is clear that many are not enjoying themselves enough. Manchester United have no chance at winning the league but instead of the club adopting a 'we are in a transition phase where we are experimenting to evaluate what we need to know to get better' approach, the club is starting every match like it needs to win it and the enormous pressure placed on its players means they are not expressing themselves. How much better would they be if they were told to just forget the league table and have fun?

Southampton have no such demands and have shown this season what a club can do when they are free to express themselves. Sure, they too could smile more but if a league table existed for content and happiness they would be at the top.

Anyone who doesn't think this leads to success should talk to the current Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

"My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional," Scolari once said. "Thirty to forty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy."

Anyone who watches Neymar often would say Scolari has so far accomplished that goal.

Neymar would make a great Olympian; a true global superstar who plays with a smile.

Too bad too many in the Premier League take it too seriously. Another win for modern day over-professionalism.

Thankfully it isn't creeping into our children's schools during Sochi 2014.

David Moyes (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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