Bill Beswick: You should always adopt the fighter mentality

A back-room figure from Steve McClaren's difficult England reign, the psychologist tells Ian Herbert he is now battling to revive British basketball

His time as psychologist to Steve McClaren's England national football team was accompanied by the kind of cynicism which remains so rife in a game being dragged towards modernity, but there are some very significant former Manchester United footballers who will tell you that Bill Beswick had an impact when working at that club.

Roy Keane – not an individual to dispense airs and graces – ascribes to Beswick an undefinable part in improving his mindset, while Gary Neville turned to him during his only prolonged period of self-doubt, when his form collapsed for six months in 2000 after his disastrous second game in United's controversial World Club Championship appearance, against the Brazilian club Vasco da Gama. (Or "Fiasco da Gama", as Paul Scholes described it in the typically wry text Neville got from him after the game.)

And then there is the story of how David Beckham and Co were once sitting in the dressing-room at United's Carrington training centre when Beswick walked in and told them all the story of three men who were laying bricks. Each was asked what he was doing. "Laying bricks," answered the first. "Earning £10 per hour," replied the second. The third, driven by a grander vision, said: "I'm building a cathedral and, one day, I'll bring my kids back here and tell them that their dad contributed to this magnificent building." Beckham was inspired. He promptly scored a 30-yard gem out on the training pitch and ran off in celebration, shouting "Cathedral 1, Bricklayers 0".

That was before McClaren left his role as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant for England and Beswick followed him, ultimately suffering some collateral damage. But the psychologist's favoured mantra about choosing a "fighter mentality" over a "victim mentality" has never been more relevant than in his return now to the international arena as performance psychologist to British Basketball, whose men's team opened their EuroBasket 2013 campaign in dramatic fashion on Wednesday with a 75-71 overtime victory against Israel in Slovenia.

The squad, however, is a shadow of the one which, at its high point, agonisingly lost 79-78 to Spain in the London Olympics last year. Their recent 100-46 defeat to the same nation, in Zaragoza, exposed the consequences of losing the big NBA stars, Luol Deng and Joel Freeland, who have had to bow to pressure from their American paymasters and step away. GB have already done well to win a game in Slovenia – last night they were due to play France – yet may need to finish in the top five to qualify for next year's World Championships, which many believe is the requirement for UK Sport to extend the one year of funding they have been persuaded to give British Basketball, having initially removed it altogether.

The man leading them through this challenge, newly appointed Californian coach Joe Prunty, is a hugely valued individual in the States, where he has been a career assistant – a Steve McClaren of the scene, you might say – before this first head-coach role. The appointment of Beswick, returning to the sport where he had a long playing and coaching career including a period as head coach to the England men's team, follows a review of the Olympic performance which concluded that the British teams needed a stronger mental environment and relationships.

It will be self-belief he will be working on among his players, a half dozen of whom are free agents. "That belief comes from defeating anxiety and facing the challenge," he told The Independent, in a rare interview. "Challenges can breed a fighter mentality or a victim mentality. I'm constantly reminding them why they should always adopt a fighter mentality. Young men forget that under the pressure of circumstances. The challenge is very severe in European basketball. The challenge may seem enormous. But my work is to make sure you respond to it and are not overcome by it. Be as good in the last five minutes as in the first five."

The great managers, like Sir Alex Ferguson, help cocoon players from expectation and prevent them being swamped, Beswick said. "They enable players to focus on their own performance [because] all you can control as a player is you." This point is integral to the philosophy of Dr Steve Peters, who is working with Liverpool and also to Prunty, whose belief in the importance of "emotional control" encouraged Beswick to take up this task, after five years working in Dutch football at FC Twente, where he also followed McClaren. "Prunty's outlook is that you are bigger than any game and bigger than the result. What might even be a humiliation to the press is only a defeat which the team can learn from."

Beswick, whose reluctance to talk football may stem from a bruising experience in the England limelight, believes that those members of Roy Hodgson's squad who pull on an England shirt after limited appearances in a Premier League stuffed with foreigners are facing a major challenge. "They are conditioned to a set role with their club so it is like asking a player to change position," he says. But Britain's task in Slovenia is far greater.

Bill Beswick is Performance Psychologist for the Standard Life GB men's basketball team who begin their EuroBasket 2013 campaign on 4th September 2013. For more information visit: www.gbbasketball.com

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