Human beings have no real use in the world. Were we all to disappear in an instant the earth would slowly rebalance itself. Over time global warming would stop, buildings and cities would be taken over by forest, animals would roam through the terrain of the concrete jungle and no being would be sufficiently sentient to chronicle this.
Over the centuries we have struggled to come to term with our fundamental uselessness, trying to explain our existence and our unique gifts through religion art and philosophy. Bizarrely the more we know about ourselves, the secrets of the atom, genetics, the universe the more we become aware of our insignificance, the more we desperately yearn to know that “we are not alone” in the universe, that we have a purpose, a reason for being.
This yearning manifests in anxiety – about death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness. It pervades every chink of our consciousness, every channel every substrate of our being. It is with us day and night, year in and year out. It pervades every thought, very breath and every action.
We seek to find meaning in all our experiences and all our behaviours. We fight for a cause andwe do our best. Even if we lose “it is the taking part” that counts. We struggle against the odds. Yet, at the end we find ourselves in a cul de sac without meaning.
Without meaning we have no purpose and in this sorry place we find the England football team and English football in general. These young men, in another era would have earned a meagre shilling or would have been sent to fight real battles in the Somme, Normandy and the Western desert.
In our troubled and unpredictable world, it seems people find safety and identity in identification with our young athletes. They embody our sense of belonging, of being part of something meaningful when our material wealth is found out, its shallowness exposed day after day in the manipulations of the Libor rate, the phone hacking scandals and the inconsistencies of our rulers.
We expect so much from our young lions, hope, comfort from the fragility of our dreams and our lost expectations. This is not just about us English, but at this time we, the English suffer. This is why English footballers need help. It is no longer fair to ask them to carry the burden of our hopes and dreams when they are so patently unequipped. After the show, after the failure they retreat to their gilded hideaways to emerge in time for the next big pay packet, protected by the tinted glass of the Ferrari and the Porsche. In a way I do not blame them. Their inheritance of shame is embodied and continued in the series of penalty shoot outs. They carry our tradition heavily on their shoulders. As Gareth Southgate said “our penalty history has an impact on the whole nation”. To true and they are ill equipped to cope.
There can be light at the end of the tunnel. It is important that the new young players such as Jack Wilshire and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain are not sucked into this old way of thinking and laden with the same burdens, expected to be the latest saviours. Just witness Andy Murray, backed by the crowd but burdened by a nation he does not necessarily recognise as his own.
I still believe that the reintroduction of Wayne Rooney, through no fault of his own, disturbed the psychological balance which had been established in the team through the undue focus on him as a saviour, a new Pele. The call for six Jack Wilshires will place an intolerable burden on his young shoulders as we seek a new Saint Christopher to carry us when Rooney has been swept away in a tide of disappointment. As long as we keep looking for saviours for our team and for our national sense of well being we too will be disappointed and will continue to squander the potential of our young men on the football field. It is not war, it is a shame for all of us. Let us start anew while expectations are low. Let us humbly learn from Spain and from the unexpected albeit brief rising of the Italian footballing phoenix.
The task of a psychologist or therapist, someone such as myself is to help these young men find a sense of meaning, to help them throw off the burden we impose on them, to help them find their inner self belief and to manage themselves so that at the key moment they do not overwhelm and collapse in front of the opposing goalkeeper. There are techniques to be taught and attitudes to be explored that can, over time, liberate our young men to play freely without choking. These go beyond the conventional anxiety inventories and psychological skills tests. Each young player would benefit from open dialogue and exploration of their way of viewing the world along with techniques for better coping with anxiety and pressure.
In my own work I have witnessed how young men and people under pressure can make changes in their lives through a simple examination of attitudes and meanings. It is not rocket science but it takes time, sensitivity and dedication. It requires a different discussion for each person in addition to teamwork. With quiet self confidence and ability to “be with” yourself” comes the possibility of enhanced co-operation and sharing with others. It starts within and this is the work that needs to be done.
Gareth Southgate is right when he wonders why such help is made use of in every other sport but football is somehow separate. Now appears to be the time. There is a place for the “Theatre of Dreams” but it is time for our young men to come down back to earth and learn how to manage their own hopes and expectations leaving ours a little behind when they are on the field of play. There is no question that the English football team are as fit and could be as skilled as any other, it is their attitude to themselves that we need to work with.