Mike Rowbottom: Chambers slowly learns danger of alienating the subconscious

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The Independent Football

Years ago, I spent some time sub-editing a fascinating, if inchoate, series of writings by Simon Meyerson, a psychologist who was a member of the Tavistock Institute.

Clearing out a cupboard the other day I came across some of his work in progress and was reminded of the themes he explored, themes that touched upon the basic dynamics of team effort.

One of his more intriguing preoccupations was with what he described as "The Fatal Interview", in which a sportsman or woman scores what is described as an own goal against their chances by boasting about their prowess or the relative weakness of their opponents.

"If a player boasts in a newspaper interview before a game about how many goals he's going to score, this is classified as Two Minus behaviour," Meyerson writes, "because its end result has the effect of not only making the opposition stronger, more determined, but also of creating opposition from the player's own subconscious will.

"For one must remember that the subconscious is another self - even a perverse self - which will upend you for good reason or ill, if it can."

Meyerson goes on to say that, in extreme cases of disrespectfulness or boastfulness, a sportsman can sometimes end up injuring himself "as a consequence of the protesting of his conscience and his subconscious".

Clear so far? Not quite? Well, we're not talking exact science here. But the general thrust of these theories, in my experience, has much to be said for it.

I cannot count the number of times I have listened to football managers thanking vanquished opponents for providing their teams with the required motivation. In what has become a ritual sequence, a newspaper offers a player money - or perhaps just a tempting opportunity - to belittle or decry a player or players on the other side. The article then gets torn out of the paper and stuck on the opponents' dressing-room wall as a reminder of the necessity of winning the match.

Anyone who follows sport has an instinctive feeling for when players or competitors have made this kind of mistake. It is a kind of radar one develops, and even a single phrase or word can register a beep.

In the course of the last year, Britain's European 100 metres champion, Dwain Chambers, has provided a markedly clear demonstration of this unofficial rule.

Before last summer's Commonwealth Games, he heaped pressure upon himself by talking about how he would win. Before the 100m final got under way he flicked a tense salute to all sides of the stadium as his name was announced. And once the gun went, his challenge eradicated itself as he staggered out of contention suffering from muscle cramps. A consequence of his protesting subconscious?

Much was made of how Chambers had put too much pressure on himself and - indirectly at the same time - diminished his opponents. But by the time he took part in this year's indoor season after wintering in the United States, he appeared to have learned nothing.

Unprompted, he affably contended at a press conference in Birmingham that he would run the equivalent of the world record or faster in his first 60m race. He didn't. And he went on to fail to reach the final of the World Indoor Championships. Classic Fatal Interview technique.

Chambers also maintained at Birmingham that he would run 9.65sec for the 100m this season - 0.13sec inside the current world record.

The look on Linford Christie's face when the topic of Chambers' predictions came up was a picture of disapproval. Throughout his career, the former world and Olympic 100m champion made a point of avoiding putting pressure on himself by saying he would win titles or run particular times. "If he runs 9.70 now, it will still look like failure," Christie observed.

Chambers' claim that he will run 9.65 still looks a lofty one, but he appears to have given himself a better subconscious chance of success in recent weeks, adopting a less boastful tone.

After his impressive display in winning the recent World Championship trials, with a time of 10.08 that, given the damp weather and strong headwind, was worth well under 10 seconds in ideal conditions, Chambers adopted a far more reassuring psychological stance.

The world title was talked about as a possible goal, rather than a certainty. And he acknowledged that he had to be ready to put up with numerous disappointments en route to his desired object - or, as he put it, to accept a series of blows in order to have a chance of landing the title punch.

Chambers is now back in harmony with Meyerson's sixth law of Dealing with Pressure: Say Little. Do a Lot.