Miles Kington: The White Queen principle could transform English football

Hope is the hot air balloon that takes sports fans up to Cloud Nine. When the inevitable happens, the descent can be extremely painful
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The Independent Online

Continuing our occasional series People with very unusual jobs indeed:

No 134: A sports therapist who specialises in the trauma of defeat

This summer, the football World Cup takes place in Germany. The top footballing nations of the world will assemble in Europe and battle each other until one is crowned champion. Everyone in England thinks that it could be England at last. This time, we have a really good chance of beating the rest of the world.

"As we did four years ago, and the time before that, and the time before that... When will we ever learn?"

The speaker is Dr Arthur Salvesen, a therapist who specialises in sports-related grief and depression. He brings comfort to athletes who have been sidelined by injuries. He deals with teams knocked out of competitions unexpectedly early. He even handles performers who have been traumatised by failing drug tests. But this year, AD 2006, he is wading into territory never before tackled by sports therapists. He is offering comfort before it happens.

"That's right," he grins. "I am here to talk people through the shock and horror of England being knocked out of the World Cup. Sports fans live on Cloud Nine. Cloud cuckoo land. They have to. If it were not for hope, they would not bother to turn up to watch the match. Hope is the hot air balloon which takes them up to Cloud Nine. But when the inevitable happens, and hope turns to fantasy, and the team loses, then the descent from Cloud Nine without a balloon or a parachute can be extremely painful. Coming down to earth with a bump is more than a figure of speech. It's a... it's a..."

Dr Arthur Salvesen is not often at a loss for words. Nor is he now.

"It's an accurate description of what happens, psychologically, to a supporter when his team loses. He is damaged for days thereafter. Perhaps for ever. Now, sports supporters are not the kind of people who normally seek therapy. Pride would prevent it. Misery is their normal medicine. But with something as big as the World Cup, it might well appeal to him to get therapy before the disaster occurs. And that is what I am offering."

You mean, you are going to offer treatment for a defeat before it has actually happened?

"Exactly," beams Dr Salvesen, who seems an unusually cheerful character. "In many ways it is easier to prepare a person for defeat than to pick up the pieces afterwards. For one thing, the defeat has not yet actually happened, and deep down the person thinks it never will, so for me to plant a small seed of doubt is kinder than to mend the broken bones afterwards."

But surely if you bring the sports supporter down to earth first, it will totally deflate him? Will he not lose all joy in the event before it even happens?

"Not at all. Do you remember the character in the Alice books who could see the future? The White Queen, I think it was. At one point she started wailing and crying for no apparent reason, and when Alice asked why, she said it was she was about to prick herself on her brooch. And as she tries to rearrange her shawl, the brooch comes open and she hurts herself. But she does not react. Alice asks her why she is not screaming with pain. Oh, says the Queen, I have done all that already - what is the point of doing it all again? Well, I act on the White Queen principle. Get people to feel the pain first, so when it really happens they will feel nothing."

But will it not be possible to anaesthetise people so successfully that if the impossible happens, and England win the trophy, they will feel no joy, being so ready for defeat?

"Absolutely not," chortles Dr Salvesen. "For one thing, I do not tamper with the joy mechanism, only the despair mechanism. You can still have euphoria even when dysphoria is eliminated. For another thing, England will not win. Let's get real, guys."

As I leave, feeling thoughtful, I see Dr Salvesen's first patient of the day ushered into his waiting room for pre-World Cup depression therapy. I have never seen him in the flesh, but I cannot help thinking he looks uncannily like Sven-Goran Eriksson.