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One of the world's top sports psychologists, Rhonda Cohen interviewed on Goal.com 

'Their collective energy can destroy the Goliath' - the psychological problems Real Madrid must overcome in order to beat Barcelona

Cohen provides her expert opinion on why Jose Mourinho's men struggle to meet the challenge of facing the Catalan giants

By Paul Macdonald | Deputy Editor-Goal.com

December 10, Santiago Bernabeu. The first Clasico league match of the season. Real Madrid, top of the table and able to move six points clear of Primera Division champions Barcelona at the summit with a victory, have all the incentive they would ever need to reverse their recent underachievement against their oldest adversaries. 

Many commentators bestowed the contest with an additional emphasis, believing that in a year where the concept of the Clasico became over-familiar to many, this would prove to be a watermark. A changing of the guard. Madrid, a team on the rise, would make tentative steps towards a new order in Spain, and potentially in Europe. The outcome of this encounter would represent the moment when Mourinho made good on his vow to usurp the Catalans.

Thirty seconds in, and it seemed that the observers were being proven unmistakeably correct. Karim Benzema lashed into the roof of the net, setting the scene for a victory that would be remembered as the moment that the pendulum swung back to the capital after resting on the east coast for three long seasons.

We now know, of course, that fate, intention, destiny, designated a different path. Despite their explosive prologue, the denouement revealed Barcelona as the victors once more, and Madrid exposed as pretenders to, rather than vanquishers of, the dominance of Pep Guardiola's side. His Clasico record as a coach now reads played 12, won 8, and lost only once.

On fine margins, football matches can be won and lost. Yet, on that day, Madrid's manner of defeat seemed as grounded in psychological submission than physical and tactical endeavour. Have Los Blancos been stricken with an inferiority complex when facing the European Champions, and does this, above all else, affect their ability to overcome what has proven to be such an immovable obstacle in recent times? 

With the Spanish giants set to meet once again on Wednesday in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final, Rhonda Cohen, a leading sports psychologist and head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University, believes that Madrid's players have reached a mental state where being able to defeat Barcelona is a concept that they struggle to truly believe in.

She states: "It is really difficult with regular adversaries as you develop a brain pattern that is hard to break. It is even a learned helpless. You don't ever think you can win and that negative energy keeps you down."

After Benzema had fired in that blistering opening goal, rather than engage with the momentum that they had formulated, Madrid regressed, allowing Barcelona back into the contest. When Xavi's deflected effort moved the visitors ahead, any positivity that Madrid had retained seemed to diminish. Barca thrived in the tangible change in attitude from the pitch, the bench, and from the stands, and Cohen feels that harmony among all concerned is a necessity in order to reverse the trend.

"The best thing they can do is to switch off the way they perceive their opponents," she continues. "Imagine them as adversaries that can be beaten, imagine them in a way that takes away all the perceived power that they currently hold over them. This is a case of what the players think as a team and as a unit. They need to work together and see their collective energy as destroying their Goliath."

Rhonda Cohen, sports psychologist:

"When others out-psych you as in this case, it knocks your confidence and you also can over-think. You don't ever think you can win, and that negative energy keeps you down. It is always harder not to think about something. [Mourinho must] stay in the present - think about having confidence and moving forward."


And what of Jose Mourinho? The master media manipulator, the most self-assured of individuals, has undergone a marked change in approach to these matches in the past 12 months. During the frenzied 17-day Clasico bubble at the end of last season, the Portuguese pained to paint his side as the victimised party for maximum impact, and he pushed the previously unflappable Guardiola to engage in a expletive rant in response. 

The words of Pep, branding Mourinho the f****ng boss of the press room, stunned the Special One, and since the unsavoury altercation with Tito Vilanova in the Spanish Supercopa in August, he has became more philosophical than confrontational. 

The Copa del Rey is next up, and despite the fact that Madrid lead in the title race and remain capable of winning every competition they are involved in, Mourinho's inherent faith in his team's ability to best Barca seems to have been jolted. A case in point was his lack of reaction to a tactical alteration by his opposite number last December. Guardiola shuffled his pack, shifted Dani Alves into an advanced position, dropped Sergio Busquets deeper, and allowed Cesc Fabregas to maraud forward. 

Substitutions aside, Mourinho failed to counteract these measures, and his team ultimately paid the penalty. A combination of Barcelona's continued success and Guardiola's vitriolic riposte may have suitably shaken Jose's reactionary qualities. Have mind games in this case backfired on him? 

Cohen opines that an over-analysis of what has come before could be a contributory factor. She adds: "When others out-psych you as in this case, it knocks your confidence and you also can over-think. It is always harder not to think about something.

"[Mourinho must] stay in the present - think about having confidence and moving forward."Then, the case of Cristiano is one that Madrid must seek to resolve. Rampant against La Liga's mid-tier sides, he generally cuts a strangely subdued figure when up against Lionel Messi and his companions. Ronaldo is cut from the same boastful mould as his coach, but in the past few weeks a susceptibility to stinging criticism has distracted him, and it originates from two glaring misses in the December derby.

A first-half strike flew wildly off target, then a simple header when his side trailed 2-1 glanced harmlessly wide. These are the chances from which the former Manchester United star has cultivated his reputation, but when facing the Blaugrana, Copa del Rey final aside, he is consistently overshadowed by Messi. The Bernabeu have responded negatively to Ronaldo, arguably for the first time since his arrival in Spain, and with even legendary figure Alfredo Di Stefano apportioning a degree of criticism at the door of the Portuguese, it is understandable that the player has concocted a mental block when taking on Barca. 

Cohen feels his problem is a circular one; in trying so desperately to succeed versus the best there is, his anxiety is proving to be counterproductive.

She concludes: "[Ronaldo must] think of all the times when the fans have been on his side. Keep those thoughts of what it will feel like when everyone returns to support you. 

"We all swim upstream from time to time; [Mourinho] has to encourage him to let it go. Be in the present, every dribble, every ball ,every kick, every pass. Play for the moment."

Madrid's paradox is that their desire to overcome Barcelona, to firstly claim silverware, then create a similarly lasting legacy, is erecting a deep-rooted mental barrier that must be breached. Their five-point domestic advantage means that they have the opportunity to commence the tectonic shift from Catalunya to the capital - but their biggest obstacle may not be their opponents, rather, themselves.




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Doing something scary in a safe environment challenges us ! Rhonda interviewed in the Independent Newspaper 30th August 2011


All the fun of the scare - Science, News - The Independent 30/08/2011 21:39

All the fun of the scare

We can't get enough of frightening films, video games and theatre 'experiences'. But why do we find fear so thrilling? It's all down to our biology, discovers Luke Blackall

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

We live in an increasingly safety-conscious age, yet the opportunity – to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt – to do something every day that scares you has rarely been more available.

We live in an increasingly safety-conscious age, yet the opportunity – to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt – to do something every day that scares you has rarely been more available.

From horror films to theme park rides, we're promised an experience more terrifying, exciting and unsettling than the last. And the industry behind making us terrified is big business: we're being scared not only by Hallowe'en (on which spending grows each year), but also by a new generation of more unsettling Hollywood films and video games.

I scream: the Japanese tradition of 'obake yashiki' creates a sense of dread in its audiences

The Hallowe'en industry was worth £280m to the UK last year, according to retail analysts Planet Retail, and is 20 times bigger than it was 10 years ago. Our obsession with the horror genre means that seven million cinema tickets and two million DVDs have been sold for the Saw franchise in this country alone. Regular instalments of horror games series such as Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead and F.E.A.R. also suggest a market in rude health.

But the latest way for thrill-seekers to scare themselves silly comes from a British theatre company, Punchdrunk, which has created ...and darkness descended, a new work inspired by (and created to promote) the forthcoming PlayStation game Resistance 3.

Those familiar with the group will know that its immersive and experiential work is a world away from the traditional auditorium. Its latest wheeze is a "walk of terror" and draws on the Japanese tradition obake yashiki, a form of haunted house where the public hand over their hard-earned yen to be petrified. Obake yashiki are popular summertime draws, when Japanese Buddhism says that ancient spirits return to earth. They rely less on the Western-style ghouls and monsters to scare their audience, preferring to create instead a slow-burning insidious terror.

 While some believe its closest comparison in Western culture is the ghost train, Punchdrunk's creative director Felix Barrett wants to move our tastes beyond the "laziness" of this fairground fear-fest. "Everything is dictated to you, you're being told exactly where to look at which point," he says.

Punchdrunk is trying build a complex psychological atmosphere of creeping dread, where the audience is forced to walk through the set, rather than being ferried along it, detached, on a train. "You control your own suspense," he says. "If you were to shut your eyes and stop, the action would wait for you."

The narrative of ...and darkness descended, like that of the game, is set in a post-apocalyptic London, where society and order has broken down. It seems particularly appropriate at a time when rioting mobs have been testing society's wider fears and setting off hand-wringing in the chattering classes. And its organisers promise that the experience, which is for adults only, stresses both the psychological and the physical.

"Because of the subject matter and the game mechanic within this, physically it's quite demanding," says Barrett. "You will have to run, you have to wear trainers and you will be expected to get down on your hands and knees."

Brendan Walker, director of the Thrill Laboratory, has studied the physiological and psychological desire to seek thrills and consults for venues including Alton Towers and the London Dungeon. He says that while many of the techniques of scaring audiences are the same as those used by fairground showmen 400 years ago, things have evolved in recent years.

"During a piece a theatre or on a rollercoaster, the designer or the performer has the ability to take the audience on a choreographed journey not just of narrative, but also emotional experience," he says. "But now it's becoming more of a science. If you look at Universal Studios or Disney Imagineers, they have got how you script these things down to an art."

Much of the science of scaring people is to do with how our bodies and minds respond to these frightening or thrilling experiences. We exhibit much the same physical symptoms of arousal whether an activity is pleasurable or horrific. The key to making these experiences thrilling, Walker explains, is moving the audience between emotional extremes and playing upon that transition.

"If you can move people experiencing large amounts of fear to being excited and entertained, that transition point is much larger," he says. "So people get rapid movements between displeasure and pleasure, while they're highly aroused."

The effect on the body is like taking a cocktail of drugs. It causes the release of adrenaline, cortisol and, post-fear, dopamine. "The closest analogy to dopamine is cocaine," says Walker. "It works on the reward centres in the mind and it really reinforces that feeling of 'I really feel alive... I want to do it again.'"

There is also a genetic predisposition to such behaviour. Research has revealed that variations in the D4DR gene mean that some people have a low responsiveness to dopamine, meaning they go to greater extremes for thrills. Many people with addictive personalities also have this trait. And one study from the University of California pointed out that the risk-taking gene variation is more common in migratory populations such as the US or Australia, perhaps because emigration is more likely among risk-takers.

Rhonda Cohen, a psychologist at Middlesex University who specialises in extreme sport and activities, says our personality also dictates whether we choose to seek out these experiences. "Thrill-seeking has been linked to a more outgoing and friendly personality type," she says. "It is an innate predisposition, or rather we are born to be fearful when something is scary as we have an internal survival mechanism. However, what we learn out of these experiences is that we can be brave and face scary situations that we never thought we could do. Doing something scary in a safe environment pushes us out of our comfort zone and challenges us."

Walker also believes it is our domesticated, safe existence which makes us seek exciting diversions. "The thrill rewards the perseverance of life," he says. "It really is to reward things such as evading danger, sating extreme hunger, quenching extreme thirst, having great sex – it's all about surviving and proliferating. In this modern age, we no longer face those dangers, so we no longer feel as truly alive as our ancestors did. So we construct increasingly complex ways – which we call entertainment – to experience these ways of feeling alive."

...and darkness descended, 1-4 September, Waterloo Station Arches, London SE1. To apply for tickets email accesslive@scee.net by noon today. Resistance 3 is out on 9 September


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