With the 2006 FIFA Football World Cup underway, English Institute of Sport psychologist, Roberto Forzoni, concludes our two part series looking at how a rapidly advancing youngster handles their first major tournament. 17 year old Theo Walcott was selected for England without having played a Premiership game for his domestic club Arsenal, yet is now out in Germany with the best in the world…
Q: What benefits does experience and knowledge bring to a sportsman, particularly a footballer, that Theo Walcott would not have?
RF: The obvious benefit of experience is that it’s generally easier to handle a situation once you have experienced it before. Take Liverpool’s fantastic win in the European Cup Final last year against AC Milan. After being 3-0 down they came back to win the game. The benefit of that experience was seen in Saturdays’ FA Cup Final when they were 2-0 down against West Ham and stayed calm and focused to go on and win the game. Theses experiences will also hold AC Milan and West Ham in good stead should they be in similar situations in the future.
Being away from home for an extended period of time, and being involved in a high number of matches with short periods of recovery is also aided by experience. You learn how to deal with the down time, media hype and constant attention?
Q: The England football team recieves substantial media coverage, how can that affect a player leading up to and during a huge tournament?
RF: Professional players at international level are used to the media hype; even more so since the popularity of Sky Sports. Most players will not be affected at all by the media coverage. This could change if one player becomes a ‘target’ for poor media coverage. .
Q: What can happen to someone so young when they play such huge games, i.e. can they rise to the occasion or freeze on the day?
RF: This all depends on the individual player. Some will naturally rise to the occasion, others may freeze. One way to help ensure the former is to introduce the player slowly to the ‘pressure’ situation. Team England are fantastic in this respect and Walcott has international experience with England having already made 17 appearances for National teams at U16, U17 and U19 levels. Arsenal are also doing the right thing by including Walcott in team warm ups before major European Champions League matches. It is the same philosophy experienced boxing coaches might use with novice fighters – keep them out of the ring until they’re ready, but ensure they experience the fight environment
Q: What are the dangers of exposing a young athlete to a major tournament?
RF: Young talented athletes are very vulnerable on a number of fronts and care needs to be taken to ensure that they can continue their sport development despite inevitable media attention, potentially huge financial changes in their lives and possibly too much down time in which distractions may affect their performance and perhaps their lives. Young talented stars may start to lose focus, believing all the hype and consequently easing off their original work commitment. The combination of instant fame, money, time and a lack of experienced guidance can be lethal. At the other extreme, overtraining may occur, whereby