Should we condemn or support Luis Suarez following his alleged biting of an opponent?

Luis_Suarez_bites_I_723602aWhen I witnessed Suarez appearing to sink his teeth into an opponent I was horrified, like all of us, filled with shock and utter disgust. My disappointment and outrage deepened as soon as I realised this was a serial offender. The question arises as to ‘what should happen to this flawed genius’? Do we condemn him or do we support him? Answer: As a professional psychologist it is obvious to me that we need to sanction him whilst also giving him unconditional psychological support and help.

On the surface the argument for condemning Suarez is clear. The world has not been shy in becoming Suarez’s judge, jury and executioner.

From hours of TV courage on trying to understand why he has such destructive behaviour to online spoofs portraying him as famed characters such as Hannibal Lecter to Dracula. The frenzy of online jokes turns Suarez into Jaws or pictured with an anti biting dog collar – a ‘cone of shame’. Furthermore, there have been football stickers illustrating Suarez in the Silence of the Lambs restraint muzzle as well as ones converting him into a handy bottle opener. Business has also exploited this sad situation with a number of High Street fast food restaurants creating instant adverts. One has images of chicken and chips whilst tweeting Suarez, asking him to get his teeth into something really tasty! Even Evander Holyfield, a former heavyweight world champion boxer, who had part of his ear bitten by Mike Tyson in 1997 tweeted “I guess any part of the body is up for eating”. So how has FIFA the world football governing body responded?

FIFA have immediately charged Suarez for appearing to bite Giorgio Chiellini, who at the time, furiously pulled aside his shirt to show the official, Marco Rodriguez where he claimed he had been bitten. Consequently, the FIFA’s Executive Committee has a serious case for disciplinary commission to preside over. FIFA has announced that punishment will be made before Uruguay’s last 16 match with Colombia. There have been those that have called for the heaviest punishment possible ranging from a two-year ban to a lifetime ban for his vile, deplorable and unacceptable behaviour. The fact that Suarez is a serial offender makes matters worse. This is the third time his rage has resulted in him biting someone. Suarez had a 7 game ban for biting PSV Eindoven’s Otman Bakkal while playing for Ajax. Similarly, he received a 10 game ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic in April last year. In addition to this he has also been banned for 8 games for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrica Evra in a Premier League match at Anfield in 2011. Clearly he has a serious problem and the press, TV and social media have all had their say.

However this is not the whole story. Below the surface, this is a young man that needs unconditional support in trying to establish a greater understanding of why he chooses to act in such a self–destructive way. There is a high degree of complexity in trying to unravel what is going on with Suarez but the following in-depth question needs to be asked:

What are the deep underlying mental health factors that cause him to repeatedly react in this way?

Clearly, I would need to spend time with him gathering vital data on his reaction to such a question. For example, I would be collecting data ranging from changes in facial expressions to monitoring his reactions to questions about other people. Such immediate data would determine my next course of questions and actions. In the absence of this discussion with Suarez, I can only go on my years of experience working with world-class athletes, across a range of professional sports, to give an insight into why Suarez would behave in this way. In my experience there are a number of critical factors interacting and interweaving with each other that could explain Suarez actions.

The first of these is his background. Last year, we saw Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool Manager, explain with a high degree of emotion why he wanted to help and support his player. He describes Suarez coming from a background of simply needing to survive. In his discussion you get the distinct impression that Suarez grew up where violence was perceived as a necessary act in order to survive. If this assumption is true it may shed light into his deviant on-pitch behaviour. Perhaps growing up he has learnt that instant rage and finding a way to deliver violence was the best way to survive this tough environment. As a result, maybe football was the only thing that gave him hope of escaping and building a better life.

So here we have a young man coming out of a hostile environment to make it as a footballer on the world stage. The second critical factor is the culture of professional football, which engenders a ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Therefore when you combine this factor with the previous one, a potential picture can be painted which shows how Suarez may have developed a deep association between the notion of survival (his background) and winning at all costs (the football culture). That is, perhaps Suarez has unhealthily developed a link between his childhood ‘survival at all costs’ and professional football’s ‘win at all costs’. Here my assumption is “if I don’t score and win for my team and Country then I’m a failure”. This suggests that his self-esteem is inextricably linked to scoring goals and winning. If he scores and wins his self-esteem is intact, if he doesn’t score or win his self-esteem is totally eroded. This leaves him playing on the edge of violence using all the negative emotions of fear, anger and aggression to do something special in the game. He might be simply acting out his survival instincts like in his childhood days. In the past, it might have been a life or death situation where as today it’s about scoring goals to prevent his self esteem ebbing away.

This then triggers another critical factor, the match context. It was the 79th minute of play and the score was 0-0 and Uruguay needed to beat Italy to progress to the last 16 of the World Cup. Italy had outplayed Uruguay in the first half and perhaps for Suarez his anger and frustration were building to a tipping point – blind to what was about to happen. He was the star player, expected to do something special, and it was not going his way! This may have led him into a state where catastrophic levels of fear and stress began to eat away at his fragile self-esteem. Such a dark place may have been an instant trigger for him to resort-to-type (or his learnt response over many years) and administer a well-trodden path of lashing out, in the way of a bite, to the perceived threat. The critical point here is helping the elite performer understand how his EGO was processing the perceived threat.

The EGO attempts to process the psychological battle between what is hidden internally and what is going on externally. The data here reveals a mismatch between his expectation as the best player in the team in delivering a performance and the reality that the match, at that time, was not going his way. These two positions created a conflict for Suarez, as the contradiction was too immense to reconcile. On the surface, Suarez may have been battling the need to win, whilst below the surface hidden from his consciousness, perhaps he was fearful of losing the love and approval of significant others.

This would have happened at millisecond speed and my guess is the following hidden assumptions would have been processed:

• “I’m the best player and we are meant to be winning” and/or

• “I’m the best player and I’m not delivering for my team or country”and/or

• “I’m the best player and I will be ignored if we don’t win”

The remedy for Suarez is simple and complex at the same time. In my clinic, I take time with similar high performers in order to stop, look and listen to what they tell themselves, especially under pressure. Taking the time to care and support another human being through their situation is simple. The complex part is helping them gain an understanding of why fear of potential rejection or humiliation by others means they automatically choose negative emotions like frustration and anger.

In my clinic, I work through a self-correction process, called withoutEGO®, that aims at exploring how an individual’s EGO (or self interest) leads to destructive or counterproductive behaviour. This is a process of digging deeper to understand what an individual needs from others. It embraces their moral code and values, whilst also examining their true purpose in life from a withoutEGO® (or selflessness) perspective. This might involve deeply understanding their view on what life is about for them? Whether it is being a role model in their specific arena to becoming an ambassador for a much bigger cause, the purpose to their life ‘beyond themselves’ needs to be clear.

This is not an easy journey of self-discovery and the withoutEGO® framework takes the high performer through five stages in order to process their fear and stressors whilst minimising the impact of their EGO. It takes willingness and commitment to see the truth underlying how one thinks and behaves. Here choices are examined and each client gets a chance to look in the mirror and unravel where they sit on the continuum of self-interest to selflessness. I can only hope that Suarez gets the help and support he needs so that he can align his attitude, behaviour and values in order to protect his self esteem. In doing so, he can enhance his degree of freedom and fun in the most pressurised of situations like a World Cup Final, when it counts the most. In this way, he can be rehabilitated and become a true global ambassador of integrity, authenticity and learning through self-discovery.

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