‘Suck It Up’

Erik Lamela is a truly gifted football player, but at the moment he stinks.

This hasn’t always been the case. As a precocious young footballer in Buenos Aires he regularly drew comparisons with compatriot Lionel Messi; as a 17 year-old he broke into the first team of River Plate – the most successful club in a country obsessed with football; and by the age of 19 he had made a big money move to Italian giants Roma, all the while scoring scored a shit-tonne of goals, just like this one:

By the time Lamela made his next move – a mammoth £30m transfer to Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League – something went horribly wrong. Tipped as the man to replace Gareth Bale, he has looked more like Gareth Evans, playing only nine times and scoring just once (against a team from Moldova, mind you).

In his first appearance, as a substitute in the North London derby, he looked positively scared. In his first full start in the Premier League, he missed an easy chance and was caught in possession in his own half, leading to one of the six goals Manchester City put past his side. When critics labeled this particular performance as ‘anonymous’, they were being generous.

So what went wrong with Erik Lamela? How does a player go from superstar to scrubber in a matter of months? Is he injured? No. Has he had trouble adapting to the ‘physicality’ of the English game? Probably, but there is something more to it.

By all accounts, he’s homesick, misses playing in Italy, struggles with the English language, and lacks a solid network of friends and family. Being the only Spanish-speaking player his new club also contributes to his isolation. The club has tried to help by providing additional English lessons and has brought some of his family over to England; however, it seems the damage to the young man’s confidence has already been done.

A teaspoon of concrete: often prescribed for extreme cases of homesickness.
A teaspoon of concrete: oft-prescribed in extreme cases of homesickness.

There’s no doubt that being a professional athlete is stressful. Unless you’re at the very top of the tree and in red-hot form, the job is about as secure as Julia Gillard’s on State of Origin night (i.e. not very safe). All it takes is a couple of bad games and there’s a raft of critics ready to destroy you, and plenty of other players lining up to take your place.

If you’ve just moved to a new club, there’s the added pressure of dealing with expectations, having to learn a new language, adapting to a new culture and meeting new friends, made all the more difficult when you’re still not old enough to rent a car.

Of course, some players take all this pressure in their stride. Luis Suarez moved to England and hasn’t stopped scoring goals, likewise Sergio Agüero. Many others aren’t as lucky. For some, the mental challenge of preserving your confidence, self-esteem and mojo in a foreign environment – while still producing on the field – is too much to handle.

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The scary thing about the Erik Lamela story is that it isn’t rare. He is one of many players who ‘flop’ after an expensive transfer to a new club in a foreign country. And this is what really bugs me. If we acknowledge that Lamela’s experience isn’t uncommon, then why do clubs continue to splash out millions of dollars investing in a player, and then don’t bother spending that little bit extra to ensure the player (and investment) thrives? It’s like buying a Ferarri and forgetting to change the oil.

All clubs aim for a solid return on their investment, especially when the outlay could buy you most of the property on the Point Piper waterfront, but in the macho, cut-throat world of professional (and, let’s face it, amateur) sport, acknowledging a player’s mental health and helping with their emotional wellbeing is seen as either ‘soft’ or way too ‘New Age’ and ‘weird’.

Sadly the all-too-common  remedy for stress, depression or emotional anguish is limited to a three-word phrase: Suck It Up. Needless to say, compassion and empathy are in very short supply, with most clubs more concerned with a player’s medial ligament than his mental health.

Meditation: seen by many as 'new age' and 'weird'
Meditation: seen by many as ‘new age’ and ‘weird’

So what happens when a sports organisation acknowledges the irrefutable connection between what goes on in their players’ heads with what they do on the field, and then actually throws resources at strengthening their players’ mental wellbeing?

Thankfully we have the NFL’s reigning champions, the Seattle Seahawks, to answer that question.

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In 2010 the perennially-trophyless Seahawks hired Pete Carroll, a highly successful college coach with the University of Southern California, but a man with a patchy record in the NFL. Burnt by his previous experiences, Carroll (together with new GM John Schneider) set about fixing the Seahawks performances on the field by overhauling its culture.

They started off by scouting for players with positive attitudes who would buy into a new and more positive team environment. They also traded for players who bought into the new system, and got rid of the ones that didn’t. They started weekly group meditation and yoga sessions. They started feeding the players fruits and vegetables from local organic farms. They started regularly screening players’ blood to look out for indicators of excessive stress. They hired a whole staff to look out for players including a life skills consultant and addiction counselor. They then directed all staff to look out for players showing signs of emotional stress and proactively encourage them to use the support staff.

“All Seahawks players are encouraged to use the support staff the way employees in the business world rely on a human resources department. Depressed? Worried about a loved one? Sick pet? The staff wants to hear about it. And if a player is dragging at practice, a coach will be proactive and ask why — instead of jumping to conclusions and berating him in front of his teammates.”

In short, the Seahawks turned their whole organisation upside-down to prioritise their players’ mental wellbeing. This type of thing goes down well in the liberal hipster utopia of North-Western USA, but for many people what the Seahawks did smacks of New Age bullshit. Some of it may well be, but what is undeniable is the team’s success.

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Not only are the Seahawks acknowledged as having one of the friendliest locker rooms in the NFL, they are winning Super Bowls – having annihilated the Denver Broncos earlier this week.

The Seahawks are one of the exceptions to the rule  in a world where most teams will pay lip service to the concept of mental health by participating in RUOK Day, but won’t put the work in to create an environment where all players feel they are supported, cared for and can thrive (although, on the Australian front, the Sydney Swans’ ‘no dickhead’ policy does spring to mind).

While this softly-softly, lovey-dovey approach may not be for all players, it certainly can work with those who are susceptible to stress and depression. And if it means getting better return on your £30m investment, then perhaps we’ll start seeing more teams ditching the extra shuttle runs in favour of sitting quietly together in a room, focusing on their breath and achieving a higher state of consciousness.

By Ben Shine

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