John Syer: Sports psychologist whose clients included Tottenham's FA Cup winners of 1981 and 1982

If you know what you are doing then you can do what you want." This was a key axiom for the sportsman and sports psychologist John Syer, who has died of cancer aged 72. It was one which he applied as rigorously to himself as to the sportsmen, athletes and business executives he inspired. Co-founder with Christopher Connolly in 1979 of the successful consultancy Sporting Bodymind, at a time when mental training in sport was still looked down on, the two men's techniques were crucial to, among others, Tottenham Hotspurs' FA Cup winning 1981-82 season, the cyclist Chris Boardman's record-breaking pursuit gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the Dutch hockey team's two golds at the 1996 and 2000 Games. Syer, with his quiet passion, human sympathy and attention to detail, was the perfect person to break down old prejudices and inspire new individual and team confidence.

John Syer, born in 1937, was the oldest of four children. While his childhood was happy, his schooldays at Caterham School were not. He said afterwards that the only good thing about them was learning to play hockey and to play it well – the beginning of a distinguished sporting life. He also met there the son of the influential economist, E.F Schumacher, and the great man was to have a profound effect on Syer's own thinking. It was Schumacher who encouraged him to read Colin Wilson's The Outsider and persuaded him to go to France and study French. While the book became, in a sense, his bible, his time at the Sorbonne and Grenoble University, as well as a spell teaching at a lycée in Oran, was the beginning of his love of languages and in particular his love of French culture.

It also introduced him to another of the passions of his life, volleyball, which he first saw being played on a beach in Algeria. He took this passion with him into the army – he did his National Service in Scotland – and to Edinburgh University, where as an undergraduate he played in the University team, later becoming its coach and the first National Director of the Scottish Volleyball Association. As a friend of his put it, Syer was Scottish volleyball.

When not playing that beautiful game in Edinburgh, he was studying French and Italian and completing an M.Phil in linguistics, while reading widely: Proust, poetry, psychology, philosophy and, to lighten the tone, P.G. Wodehouse. He was also using his languages to act as interpreter at sporting conferences around the world. By the age of 30, Syer was a man of original and unorthodox thinking, unlikely to take the world or its traditions at face value.

In 1976, he took a short journey that changed his life, to the Findhorn Foundation on the Moray Firth. This was a place much concerned, ahead of its time, with the organic relationship between people and nature, and – crucially for Syer – the relationship between the individual and the team. It was here that he changed his spiritual direction, a path that led him into training as a Gestalt therapist at the University of California, and it was here that he met Christopher Connolly, the two men beginning to apply the theories of sports psychology that developed into Sporting Bodymind three years later.

It's hard to imagine, 30 years on, how radical Syer's and Connolly's thinking seemed at the end of the 1970s. Steve Perryman, captain of Tottenham when the two men were first involved with the club, confesses that he had never heard of mental training in sport until they arrived and turned the team from a group of talented individuals into a motivated and communicating force.

One of Perryman's most illuminating anecdotes about their methods describes how each member of the Spurs squad was asked to place the others in geographical proximity, depending on how able he felt to trust, or share with, them. Suddenly, players were forced to confront and explore their feelings as well as tactics, and a completely new way of playing together developed.

Syer's and Connolly's 1984 classic, Sporting Body, Sporting Mind, still in print today with its illuminating journey, through body awareness, concentration, visualisation, competitiveness, analysis and confidence, to the ideal team spirit, remains one of the best books written about the art and practice of sporting preparation. And about how to deal with anxiety: Chris Boardman writes in the preface to the 1992 edition that one of the most important things he learnt from Syer was that it is normal to have fears and that they are overcome by acceptance rather than denial.

Syer and Connolly went on to write other books together, including Think to Win, Team Spirit, and How Teamwork works. Syer's reputation at Tottenham led to invitations from Southampton and Watford football clubs, and to requests for his services outside the realm of sport, including Ford, BP, GCHQ and the Cabinet Office. Phone calls would come into the London office from everyone from the managing director of Jaguar to Arsenal's inspirational manager Arsène Wenger. "Send for Syer" had almost become a mantra for so many high-achieving individuals and organisations and, by now, what he and Connolly had pioneered was taken for granted throughout the worlds of business and sporting management.

In spite of his success, Syer remained a very simple man who valued friendship, convivial meals, long walks, landscape, and swimming in waters of all temperatures, including round-the-year-bathing in Highgate's Men's Pond. Until his illness began two years ago, he continued to play tennis – one of his last pleasures was watching the Federer/Roddick final at this year's Wimbledon – and follow the teams and individuals who meant so much to him. He also put into practice, in his brave fight against cancer, the principles of positive thinking he had taught others. At his funeral in Dorset's highest village, the church was full of the people he'd drawn to him over the last 40 years: footballers, singers, athletes, writers, doctors, therapists, volleyball players, swimmers, and friends from all over the world. A winning team, you might say.

He is survived by his sister, two brothers and their families.

Piers Plowright

John Syer, sportsman and sports psychologist: born Caterham, Surrey 10 March 1937; died London 10 August 2009.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam