Why anger in sport has a bad reputation

Anger has a bad reputation, but it is a fundamental part of who we are. Without it there would be no sport. It underlines our need to compete, accomplish and succeed.

If managed, contained and expressed positively, anger can drive us to great things. Just look at the remarkable achievements of Jody Cundy and Oscar Pistorious – two sporting warriors, who are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. As both expressed their moments of sheer anguish, the world looked on in shock, but no one could help but be moved.

Anger is being played out during every day during these Paralympics. It is a key component that fuels sportsmen and women across the finishing line. The sign of anger as a “problem” is when the behaviour is out of proportion to the event. In anger we often relive our past or experience our fear of the future. When an athlete becomes angry, this can either lead to brilliance or a lack of performance. By changing our attitude to anger, by accepting the part of ourselves that is angry, we can change the view of ourselves.

The task of a psychotherapist, like myself, is to help young men like Cundy and Pistorious to throw off the burden we impose on them and find their inner self belief for coping with anxiety and pressure and ultimately to perform better. We cannot rid ourselves of anger but we can change our relationship to it and, just like these incredible athletes, use it for good.


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Jody Cundy: A True Warrior

My heart goes out to Jody Cundy. I don’t know if he broke the rules, if he made a mistake, if the officials were fair or not. But in that cry: “You can’t do this, I’ve worked all my life for this, they are ruining my life, they are ruining my life,” I feel moved to my very core. He is a warrior.

His anger is an expression of sheer anguish, the loss of masculine power, loss of the possibility of creating meaning for himself. Maybe at that moment of despair he was again that little boy of three who lost his leg and made a silent bargain with himself to find a way to survive and flourish. Paulo Coelho (The Aleph) says: “I’m not in the past, I’m in the present. I am the little boy I was then. I will always be that little boy, I am reliving that time”.

When we experience trauma as a child we find a way to survive, a new way to create a sense of who we are. Each of us seeks and creates meaning in our life. It is through the creation of meaning that we give ourselves and our lives a shape. It is through meaning that we can make sense of our existence. Perhaps the little Jody decided he had to be a warrior and that in this way he would give his life meaning.

These meanings we choose are sometimes obvious and more often obscured. They can easily be mistaken for truths. This can lead to great achievements. It can also lead to anger, hurt, fear and a sense of failure. For a top athlete the danger is that their meaning in life is based solely on success, only by being “better than others” can they be worth something and fill their emotional tank.

Jody Cundy said: “I want to ride.” We all ride along life’s road and along the way we experience uncertainty, bumps and surprises, this is part of being human. Jody “fell out of the gate”. Professional sport is a knife-edge, an emotional roller coaster for those involved. The power of the warrior is ultimately fragile and dependent on the actions of others. Borg, Woods, Barca, the British Empire, even Usain Bolt – all eventually fade and are overtaken.

The idea that you have to be the best to define who you are, to give your life meaning is precarious, unstable, it is a transitory moment of balance. Later – or sooner mostly – the excitement of success shifts to the fear and shame of “failure”. With this comes a diminution of our sense of who we are.

There is no fixed point at which we “find ourselves”. If we allow it, we will continue to evolve and as we do so our world, our universe expands and evolves. This is scary and exciting.

In the end only children believe they are capable of everything. As we grow older we eventually find that always trying to be better than others leads to a sorry place. By referencing against others we may win in the short term but in the end we will grow old, infirm and someone else will take over.

There is a different path. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido said in 1942: “The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”

In this is embodied the idea that “I will be the best I can be” independent of anyone else. It is also redolent of Jung’s warrior archetype, which offers us the possibility of finding our “mature” manliness, a manliness devoid of bullying, cowardice, sadism and masochism, a manliness which we experience within ourselves and are relatively at peace.

Ueshiba said: “failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.” In life as in Aikido as in all sport as in therapy it is only from the experience of discomfort that we can progress and grow who we are – the only way is through.

I hope for Jody Cundy that in the trauma of this loss he can find the path of a true warrior.


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Brevik massacre: An attack on us all

I don’t know a lot about Anders Brevik. But what I do know is enough to send a cold shiver down my spine. In writing this blog, I normally try to give a professional slant on important world events, but this one feels personal because Utoya Island was an attack on everything we hold dear. Those children were our kids, our hopes, our future and our aspirations.

How could he do it? Brevik shakes my unshakeable belief that somewhere inside each of us is our common humanity. Thus, “If only he had help earlier, if only someone had noticed, if only someone had loved him” and so on. I have to believe this otherwise I have to accept the some people are simply beyond help.

I would rather take the focus away from Brevik and ask how we as a society should react to such horrors. I find healing in the remarks of the Norwegian Prime Minister: “Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity”.

A society in shock, anger and trauma may be tempted into a knee-jerk response, more security, stricter laws and a erosion of liberties. This is a convenient bandwagon for the intolerant and enemies of the open society. Going down this road implies that we are at fault, if society was (ironically) more like the one Brevik seeks – intolerant, controlled, racially pure – all would be fine.

There is no return from the path of vengeance and in revenge we become like those we seek to punish and control. This applies on an individual level and for societies as a whole. The muscle of openness, caring, mutual respect and appreciation is a subtle one. The muscle of restriction, punishment and vengeance diminishes who we are. It takes strength to be “open”, to hold on to values that are strong but necessarily diffuse, which represent a way of being rather than a rigid code of behaviour. They are never so severely challenged as on Utoya Island, 9/11 and the London bombings.  At these times we ask ourselves the most difficult questions about our individual and collective values and we are tested.

We have to find a way of shouting from the rooftops that the way of openness, co-existence and appreciation of difference is the only way forward. Please read Tom Chivers brilliant article in the Daily Express (Aug 25th 2012) which explores this in depth. He quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.

In our giving up of liberty and political freedoms the bombers and the Breviks get their reward and inch closer to achieving their aims. An open, accepting society is not rigid, it is not fearful of difference but embraces it as part of being human. It is from fear that we demonise those we do not understand and we find our identity in reacting against.

Maybe the key to Brevik is not that he ignored his humanity but that he did not even know it was there? The lesson for the rest of us is to hold on to our humanity at all costs in all its manifestations – anger, fear, shame, hurt, joy and happiness. These experiences are part of the makeup of each of us, in different proportions at different times. They make us who we are. I welcome that with all the challenges it brings and reject the simplicity of rejecting the parts of us and of life that we find difficult and scary to accept.


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KP – Pantomime villain or attention seeker?

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.


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Chinese Olympians versus Team GB


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The Great British Olympic Spirit


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Usain Bolt Going For Olympic Gold



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Pleasing our Parents through Sporting Success

Tom Daley dives in memory of his father. Gemma Gibbons weeps with joy mouthing “I love you mum” to the mother she lost in 2004 from leukemia.  Andy Murray has his mum Judy at court side as does Serena Williams with her dad Richard. Victoria Pendleton only took up cycling to please her father whose own cycling ambitions were never realised.

These and many others are the truly moving stories of the Olympics. They illustrate how each of us throughout our lives carry our parenting and our upbringing with us, how we play this out in our sporting lives and in our relationships.

We often model ourselves in relation to our parents, we may not form an individual identity separate from them, unconsciously seeking their approval and to be like them or liked by them.

Tom Daley movingly described himself as “the oil” in his sick father’s lamp. Understandably his identity is tied up with his father and his need to reaffirm the relationship through sporting success.

We may seek to please them, Victoria Pendleton is thought to have been trying to please – mainly her coaches – throughout her career.  Lewis Hamilton famously fired his father Anthony as his manager. This may have been his means at this time of creating a separate identity from his father. Arguably he has not yet regained the form of his earlier career.

When we keep ourselves overly close to our parents or their image it is difficult to find our “real self”, an image based on reality in the present, a sense of who we truly are in our own uniqueness in this world.

This takes time, age and experience and there is a rite of passage. This involves the ability to separate and create ourselves as individuals separate from our parents.

The intensity and emotion of witnessing young athletes playing this out in public in front of billions of people is moving and extraordinary. Yet while saluting their courage, I fear that by defining themselves and seeking any kind of resolution through their sporting achievement they may experience disappointment.

The challenge is to recognise that each of us is a separate and distinct person capable of dealing with the slings and arrows of daily life, that as important as sport may be it is only one part of who we are. They are more than their chosen sport, more than their hopes, expectations and accomplishments.

One day their sporting careers will be over and they will all develop a sense of who they are, independent of their parents, a real self that will sustain them and carry them forward through many more years of life.

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The River of Anger from Stratford to Aleppo

Anger is universal. Without anger we are not alive. It is a powerful river running through all our lives.  It can be a force for good and achievement while also driving terrible deeds and behaviours.

Today, both types of anger are being played out in the news – at the Olympics and in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Before the athlete comes the person. Before you are a soldier you are a person.  You play out your anger in your sporting career. You play out your anger in your fight against oppression. You play out your anger in the vindication of love for your parents. You play out anger in your oppression and slaughter of the innocents.

Anger can support us or it can undermine us.  It is the nuclear fuel that can power us to great things or that can cause disaster.

Yesterday Victoria Pendleton admitted that they were “overwhelmed” by their eagerness and excitement. This described the experience of overwhelming anger, the anger that drives us to great achievements but that if not managed leads to “tilt” or overwhelm.

Sometimes an event which stimulates anger drives us to greater achievement. Michael Phelps has always used the anger of defeat “to fuel” his success. He did it again yesterday. Ben Ainslie who has some history of anger incidents accused Jonas Hogh-Christensen of ganging up against him claiming: “He doesn’t want to make me angry”.

Andy Murray at Wimbledon used Ivan Lendl’s stillness to help him control his own anger. John McEnroe famously used anger to take a break and to fire himself up. Bjorn Borg contained his anger and focused to such a degree you would not have known he experienced feeling at all. Gemma Gibbons is driven by anger and sadness at the loss of her mother.

Tragically, while one group of young people have the opportunity to channel and play out their anger in a constructive, entertaining and life affirming way, another group are kept off the front pages and are lower in our awareness. I refer to the conflict in Syria, the most violent stage of the Arab Spring so far.

Over 20,000 men, woman and children have died. The alleged massacres by both sides are a sign of nuclear anger that has gone into meltdown. Anger out of control gets in the way of relationship, of diplomacy and humanity. Koffi Annan has resigned, this is “mission impossible”.

Anger has a bad name, a bad reputation if you will, but it is a key part of our humanity and in denying it we create shame and even more anger. Let us not judge anger itself by the terrible behaviours which are driven by it. Let us understand it as a sign of who we are, a symptom of something that we may think is wrong, something we need to pay attention to.

Anger managed, contained and expressed in other ways can drive us to great things. By changing our attitude to anger, by accepting the part of ourselves that is angry, we can change the view of ourselves. We cannot rid ourselves of anger but we can change our relationship to it.

Nelson Mandela, more than anyone else in modern life embodied the focus of anger on justice, freedom and forgiveness. He famously said: “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”.

To live our life to the full we must embrace the force and vitality of anger.  Our challenge and opportunity is to accept it, to engage with it and only through this can we be fully in charge of ourselves.

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Tom Daley is undoubtedly reeling this week. On Monday he received a volley of abusive tweets after he came fourth in the men’s synchronised 10m platform diving.

Twitter is an extraordinary phenomenon through which we are able to bare our soul, our most private thoughts and communicate directly with those we envy and admire.

‘Hate tweets’ speak more about the sender than about the receiver and have consequences both for the targets of the tweets and increasingly for the sender as we see in the cases of Tom Daley and Rio Ferdinand this week.

These tweets simply reveal what was already there now available through a form of immediate communication where unpleasant and inappropriate thoughts are made instantly public.

All that has changed is that now we are able to invest our hopes and dreams in those more fortunate or famous than ourselves via a very public platform. This is sadly becoming commonplace.

Everyone is aware of the immediacy of a tweet and at times we reach anxiously for the delete button when we realise that what we have written is not appropriate.

Twitter allows us to reveal who we really are to the world and this is not always pleasant such as Rio Ferdinand’s recent “choc” retweet which he now allegedly regrets and will be sanctioned for.

In this action we find out about an aspect of Rio which otherwise might remain hidden from public view. In contrast, we can only remark on Ashley Cole’s wisdom in not responding.  Some younger Team GB members have announced their withdrawal from the online world during the Games and this is sensible in my opinion.

I do not believe the offensive tweets will have had too much effect on Tom Daley or that he will have taken them personally. However, high-level performance is so highly tuned that tiny changes can throw an athlete off balance.

Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian writes of Tom Daley: “I met him shortly after his father died and what astonished me was the equanimity with which he dealt with the loss of dad, mate and mentor”.  To “hold” equanimity takes effort and adjustment.  It was noted that just before their disastrous fourth dive, the camera picked out Prime Minister David Cameron in the crowd. This could have been enough to disturb the diver’s concentration.

Tom Daley has been able at some level to “hold himself together” since the death of his father. The Olympics has given him a goal, a lifeline the possibility of a sense of meaning in this terrible loss. It is through his anger and energy that it is his desire to make a statement to himself, the world and his father.

This type of anger fuels achievement and drives us to great things.  Yet I fear for him, his success at the Olympics may be so tied up with his relationship to his father and the need to make a meaningful statement that this may sow the seeds of a very difficult time for him afterwards – if he does well – or not. He carries all this as well as the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders.

Post Olympics with no immediate goal I imagine it will be much tougher to hold the “equanimity” and it is likely that the huge emotions he must be holding will surface. The drive to meaning may be overtaken by the feelings which will inevitably surface in a post-Olympics less structured period of his life.

Though Tom’s career was forged with his father Rob sitting poolside he has performed well recently, notably in the World Series at the European Championships in May. Tom and diving partner Pete were undoubtedly medals hopefuls going into the Olympics and they have had to face huge disappointment.

It will be a huge effort for Tom Daley to hold and contain the intensity of his feelings and his hopes  – his anger, grief and sadness and to now refocus himself physically and spiritually. He dives in the individual event on August 11, 2012. This will be both his next challenge and his opportunity. I wish him well.

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Sprinter Usain Bolt carries with him an enormous weight of expectation.  He carries his own expectations, those of his family and his country, and those of the outside world. But he also faces the possible annihilation of a “self” which he has built up over a decade.

These factors can all interact to create an underlying anxiety or “mood” based on fear of the loss of self and identity – and therefore lead to a dependence on success.  This form of anxiety is not often addressed directly in professional sports.

There are two types of sporting anxiety: “performance anxiety” which we experience immediately before the race and “mood”, an anxiety which underlies our everyday life.

Much attention is paid to performance anxiety, to tension and stress in sporting competition. It is well-known that in the space of a ten-second race you can experience many negative thoughts which can create resistance and cause the athlete to tense up. Through relaxation and other common techniques the athlete can reduce performance anxiety and improve his or her chance of success. If the body is seen as a system or an engine, than over-arousal and excessive energy-output leads to a lessening efficiency and overheating. Reducing perfomance anxiety is therefore a mechanical way of increasing efficiency.

Bolt’s technique is not the best, particularly at the start, but he appears to have mastered performance anxiety. He seems able to focus on the task rather than on the man next to him. In controlling this anxiety his muscles stay loose and relaxed.   In his own words: “in last ten metres you are not going to catch me.”

Traditional sports psychology focuses on performance anxiety and tends to underestimate the layer which we call “mood”. This is the underlying anxiety and apprehension that an athlete – or any human for that matter – carries with them on a daily basis.  We face this form anxiety in all our activities.  By ignoring it in the training and preparation of athletes, we risk overlooking this broader aspect of the athlete’s life and experience which can affect his performance in professional competition.

In the 2011 World Championships Bolt made a false start.  There had been doubts about his fitness and his attitude to the race,  and he appeared quieter and more introverted. His attitude was different: we saw none of the characteristic striding around and interacting with the audience. The “mood” he brought to the race was different – quite likely a reflection of issues from off the track as well as doubts about his fitness. In this situation his usual methods for dealing with performance anxiety were not effective, he was overwhelmed by “mood” and unable to manage himself in the normal way – hence the false start.

Performance anxiety can be seen as the product of physiological arousal and negative thoughts. By focusing on this alone we miss the importance of “mood”. By attempting to eliminate anxiety in aid of better performance we may attempt to eliminate the “normal” anxiety which we all experience and which is associated with personal growth. Suppression of “normal” anxiety takes effort and pressure, and this too affects performance.

In the race on Sunday Bolt is faced with his greatest fear: the possibility of being overtaken by Yohan Blake.  Their coach keeps them apart in training, and in practice Blake tries to beat Bolt to gain a psychological edge.

Bolt faces not only expectation but the possible loss of the “sense of self” which he has developed around his racing success. This is a fear which cannot be quantified or managed through traditional sports MST (mental skills training). Bolt’s dependence on success is ultimately fragile and must end eventually. Many sports men and women when faced with this prospect go into a state of mental collapse – a career ending when they are not yet formed as a human being. Such is the underlying anxiety that it could be likened to facing an early death.

When Bolt lines up on the track on Sunday he is facing not only the other competitors. He is facing possible annihilation of a “self” he has built up over a decade. Can he be in the world without complete dependence on material  success? With less fear he will find greater calm and relaxation. If Bolt can get in touch with this deep layer of his being, he will almost certainly win.


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PC HARWOOD – His Anger was a Tragedy for Ian Tomlinson

Simon Harwood ‘s history is an example of uncontained and unrestrained anger. This could have been spotted many years ago. In policing much more even than in sport containment and self-management is essential to the job. In sport the consequence is relatively minor – losing a game, a match and we move on. For a policeman/woman the challenge is much greater, anger and stress can regularly lead to tangible physical danger. This was a terrible and avoidable tragedy.

The sign of anger as a “problem” is when the behaviour is out of proportion to the event. The first signs for Simon Harwood appear to be the road rage incident in 2000. There have been many alleged incidents since.

I believe that if early on the Metropolitan Police had referred Harwood to an Anger specialist then many of these incidents could have been avoided. He could have had help both with his own anger and in dealing with stressful situations.

There is little information about Harwood’s past but I suspect that somewhere we would find the key to his behaviour. Extreme angry behaviour of this kind is generally  an indicator of something not “feeling right” at a deep level inside an individual.

Professional intervention could have saved Tomlinson and could still help Harwood. We carry our unresolved historic anger with us and when it is emerges the brunt is usually born by others.

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