An England cricket supporter recently described Kevin Pietersen as a ‘pantomime villain’. I suspect the comment wasn’t meant as a compliment, but, from a psychological point of view, that might just be the way KP likes it.
Earlier this week he was booed onto the field, then jeered off it, when he was bowled for a golden duck when representing his Hampshire county side. He will have been furious with his performance, but the hostility appears to be self-generated.
It is alleged that text messages he sent to South African players caused rupture in the England dressing room. The truth should not be speculated upon, but one thing is obvious, his absence from the team during the latest test match has been notable.
Pietersen is one of a growing number of players who have shunned their home countries to play test cricket for England. When he first appeared before a South African crowd there was open hostility. But KP also attracts hostility in his new home nation with accusations he is an arrogant man. I often wonder about this word arrogance, the need to “show how good you are” and wonder about what internal experience drives this. It doesn’t seem like a comfortable, stable or peaceful place.
He has not shied away from speaking his mind, even when his comments have drawn exasperation and annoyance from his contemporaries. In speaking out it is possible that we are expressing a need and making a statement about who we are, a way of being, whatever the content of our words.
KP does not appear to be one to wither in the face of criticism – in fact it seems to spur him on. This may seem curious but our physiological response to criticism can be two-fold. Some of us may collapse into ourselves, seize up and stop functioning. In this response we are completely porous in that we swallow the criticism whole. We are unable to differentiate what is useful or true and what is intended to hurt. We take the criticism personally and turn our anger in on ourselves, triggering our shame – “I am a problem” rather than “there is a problem”
Think of a newborn child with no teeth and who is unable to differentiate what is nourishing and what is harmful. It swallows everything whole. For some of us this continues into adult life and we are unable to sort out what is worth swallowing and what is harmful.
The same infant eventually grows teeth, these form a barrier, a boundary with the outside world and the child learns that they are able to discriminate and make choices about what to take in. This metaphor applies to all of us, when we take things personally we take everything in without discriminating. This triggers our anger and our shame. If we could stop taking things personally our anger would decrease by at least 50%.
Conversely there are those, it seems that Pietersen is one whose response to criticism is literally to “swell up” to make himself bigger, louder and more powerful. This type of person functions by defining themselves “against”, thus, to a point, they need criticism to react against and feel strong. Unfortunately this life strategy is hard to manage and certainly difficult to control.
The only form of defence is “offence”. This uses a lot of our energy and spiritual resources and will often spill over into behaviour on and off the field that goes beyond the bounds of what is acceptable.
There is also the supposed desire of some sportsmen for “unpopularity”. Seems bizarre but it is a way of getting attention, of defining oneself. The school bully, the troublemaker, the disobedient one, these strategies have a payoff – attention.
KP may identify himself in some of the cases I have described. He may be aware of his limits and how to manage them in a way that is more supportive to himself. These skills and understandings can be learned and if he can acknowledge these, they will be much easier to contain.
I hope he remains a cricketing force to be reckoned with.