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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.




'Fernando Torres speaks about Liverpool - is he stuck in the past?' Sports psychologist Rhonda Cohen analyses the reasons behind goal droughts

Sport Psychologist comments on Torres's goal droughtGoal.com

16 Mar 2011 08:10:00

By Amar Singh

"I move into the penalty area and it's me alone with the goalkeeper. For every metre I get close to the goal and goalkeeper, the goal gets smaller and smaller and the goalkeeper gets bigger and bigger. And I shoot wide, or over the bar."

This was the damaging scenario built up in the head of a leading European striker going through a major goal drought in the late 1980s. The forlorn forward had gone to see Dr Willi Railo, the Norwegian psychologist who worked for many years with Sven-Goran Eriksson. 

Railo, who has mentally coached strikers all over Europe including a spell with the England team during Eriksson's tenure, described this as a 'typical example of how the brain can become badly programmed, preventing the player from making the most of his ability'.

Football always seems to have at least one high profile player at any given time who looks like he can't hit the backside of a cow with a banjo.

On Wednesday, Fernando Torres was set to start his sixth game since joining Chelsea for a record fee of £50 million. The Spaniard is yet to get off the mark for his new club. Despite getting into good goal-scoring positions, Torres has often snatched at chances, scuffed his shots or delayed shooting, allowing his opponents to smother the ball at the crucial moment. 

However, the misfiring ex-Liverpool striker could be rested and dropped to the bench, his manager Carlo Ancelotti revealed this week, meaning the wait could go on.

Has he developed the kind of mental block that Railo's subject had formed or can all his troubles in front of goal be put down to settling into a new club and the fall-out from a long period of injury woes?

Hands up if you need a goal | Fernando Torres is yet to open his account for Chelsea

Rhonda Cohen, a leading sports psychologist and head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University, believes Torres needs to start thinking positively - and in the present.

"Torres does seem to have had a problem settling in to Chelsea and his remarks recently suggesting that he would welcome a Jose Mourinho return to Chelsea make it sound like he is projecting his anger onto the manager. Being new and unsettled as well as angry can cause distraction," Cohen says.

"In addition he has the competitive pressure due to being bought for such a high salary. Torres needs to manage his stress. He has to focus on each move, each shot and stop feeling or over-thinking the pressure."

She adds: "Torres speaks about the identity he felt at Liverpool. This raises the point of whether he is playing in the present or stuck in the past. He needs to be in the here and now. Some team building with Chelsea to make him feel at home, relax and play in the moment will help him start to deliver the goal scoring results that he is capable of."

Torres is not the only big name striker in Europe currently struggling to hit the proverbial barn door.
"Torres speaks about Liverpool - is he stuck in the past? He needs to be in the here and now" Sports pyschologist Rhonda Cohen

In Italy, AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic had gone five weeks without finding the back of the net before being handed a three-match ban for his petulant sending off against Bari at the weekend.

He had cut a frustrated figure in the match and reports have suggested that he is not dealing well with the weight of criticism levelled at him for AC Milan's failure to score in 180 minutes against Tottenham.

Whilst Dutch forward Klaas Jan Huntelaar has not scored for his club Schalke since November - but incredibly has banged in 10 goals in his last six international matches for the Netherlands.

Performance psychologist Chris Walton says Huntelaar's contrasting form could be down to him feeling more motivated to play for his national team.

Walton says: "Perhaps Huntelaar enjoys the international buzz more, or the players that he's with. It must be a motivation thing. The vice-versa is Wayne Rooney at the last World Cup. Although you could never say that he is not motivated, you could tell he was not as happy and content as when he plays with Manchester United with the daddy/God-like figure of Sir Alex Ferguson supporting him."

He adds: "Whenever a player is not performing like they know they can and if they are physically fit and healthy then it can only be a couple of things. Firstly, the team dynamics don't fit for them which can include many things; players, club rules, management, coaching styles. Secondly, their inner game is off. They have lost belief in themselves, they dont feel motivated and doubt themselves."

Maradona and the 
power of motivation

In his book, The Inner Game - Improving Performance, Sven Goran-Eriksson recalls the 1987-88 season when he was Fiorentina coach and his team met Napoli away in the Cup - and won the game:

"Diego Maradona mostly loafed around on the field but after the match he came up to me and said 'Congratulations on the win mister, but on Sunday you will be dancing to a different tune.' We met Napoli again four days later - this time in the league. We weren't given a chance. Napoli won 4-0 and Maradona was brilliant throughout the match. That just shows what motivation can do. Maradona was simply incredibly motivated in the league match but not in the cup match."
The list of well-known strikers to have suffered goal droughts in recent years is almost endless. In the UK we have all seen the likes of Jermain DefoePeter Crouch and Robbie Keane go on agonisingly bad runs whilst on the continent Diego ForlanLukas PodolskiDaniel Guiza and Amauri - who infamously could not score for one year at Juventus - have all endured spells when the ball simply didn't want to obey them.

But this is far from a new phenomenon caused by the over-burdening of expectation on the game's modern day football star. Even one of the most prolific goal-scorers of all time, Gerd Mueller, who netted an astonishing 14 times in two World Cups, suffered from lean spells at his club Bayern Munich, during their most successful period in the mid 1970s.

His former coach Udo Lattek recalls: "Mueller had periods where he didnt score for seven games - or more. I've asked him always: 'What's up?' His reply? 'I'm thinking about how to net the ball in.' I always said to him: 'Don't think about it - just do it - just score.'"

Lattek's successor dealt differently with a Mueller mini-drought in the the 1975-76 season. Instead of telling him to stop thinking he tried to get him thinking positively once more.

"Cramer showed Mueller his most beautiful goals on video, to give him more self confidence in the penalty area," says Goal.com Germany's Francois Ducheteau.

"He named this 'visualisation' - and it helped, Mueller scored and scored and scored again after this and Bayern won the Europa Cup and World Cup for clubs." 

Whether Torres can open his Chelsea account against Copenhagen on Wednesday night remains to be seen. Indeed, he may not even be given the chance and an evening spent stewing on the bench may not help him get his Chelsea career up and running. 

According to Walton, he is showing the classic signs of a footballer suffering a crisis of confidence.

"His belief and identity in himself as being a top goal scorer may have been rocked by the move, new team mates, new location, new training programmes and this maybe stopping him get in the zone on the pitch," he adds.

What would not being in the zone on the pitch look like? 
"Don't think about it - just do it - just score"

Udo Lattek to Gerd Mueller
"Well being one metre behind getting in the right position, not connecting mentally and intuitively with his team-mates during play, having a doubting inner voice when shooting at goal and so on.. I think this is what we've seen from Torres so far."

But the beauty of football - and a ray of light for the Chelsea fans that rushed out to put that replica Torres shirt on on February 1 - is that one goal can change it all: "If Torres blasts a couple of crackers in against Copenhagen then all of a sudden his belief will be reinstalled and he will be able to enter the zone again.

"Being in the zone would be feeling like you have all the time in the world on the ball, the goal seems massive and the goalkeeper seems small -  a sense of timelessness." 

It was that sense that he was operating one step ahead of every player ahead of him, which helped make Fernando Torres a sharp-shooting idol at Liverpool and the world's most expensive striker.

If Chelsea - and Roman Abramovich - are to see that Torres again, then evidence certainly suggests that there is a battle to be won in the mind as much as on the pitch.