Why Some Athletes Crack, and Others Don’t
SOMEHOW, his explanations weren’t enough. In a television interview last week, the French soccer captain, Zinédine Zidane, apologized for head-butting an Italian defender in the World Cup final, but also said he had no regrets, because he was provoked.
His response may have seemed inadequate for an act that was as astonishing as it was repellent, but perhaps there was a simple way to explain why he lost his cool in the face of taunting from the Italian, Marco Materazzi.
In truth, all players have a line that can be crossed, sports consultants and psychologists say — even a player like Zidane, who has long played at the highest levels and whose image is that of a chess player on the field. “There is a threshold for everyone,” said Colleen Hacker, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University who was a psychological consultant to United States women’s soccer team from 1996 to 2004.
The World Cup, played every four years before hundreds of millions of TV viewers, is a high-stress environment even for the most accomplished players.
“You’re talking about something that even these phenomenally experienced athletes haven’t had a lot of exposure to,” said Marc Sagal, managing partner of Winning Mind, a consulting firm, who has worked with World Cup players.
Zidane, of course, had played in the tournament before and led the French team to the championship in 1998. But the particulars of the situation in Berlin last Sunday were ones he had never encountered: it was his last professional match; it was a World Cup final that went into overtime and was assuredly headed to a penalty kick shootout; just before, he had narrowly missed scoring a go-ahead goal.
Zidane was tired and frustrated, and Materazzi’s words — no one is saying precisely what they were, though Zidane said his mother and sister were mentioned — proved too much.
“You’re talking about a situation of absolute intense pressure,” Mr. Sagal said. “And you are talking about a player in particular who is unparalleled in his ability to stay narrowly focused. What you saw was him losing his focus. His strength became his weakness.”
It is unclear how well-prepared Zidane was for the potential mental abuse. But he must have known that taunting was common in elite soccer. “This kind of thing is absolutely predictable,” said Michael L. Sachs, a professor in the kinesiology department at Temple University. “Particularly with a good player like Zidane, you walk into a match knowing you’re going to get that from your competition.”
Consultants first try to help players recognize when they are losing focus if a player is verbally or physically trying to distract them. Athletes can simulate a verbal assault in practice. In Zidane’s case, Mr. Sagal said, “you might instruct one of your players to have an absolute go at him in a training session.”
Another approach, Ms. Hacker said, is to show video clips of actions on the field and retaliatory behavior. “You sit with the athlete and say, ‘What did this get? What did this do?’ ” she said.
The process can be involved. Jay Coakley, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said the Brooklyn Dodgers went to great lengths to prepare Jackie Robinson for the abuse he was likely to receive as the first black player in the major leagues.
“They had long talks about how are you going to endure this, how are you going to handle these kinds of things,” he said. “Jackie Robinson held it together.”
Unfortunately, for his team, Zidane didn’t. Autor: HENRY FOUNTAIN