In the wake of the Luiz Suarez biting incident at the World Cup, Steven Sylvester was asked into the Sky News studio to give his views on what drove him to act in such a destructive manner. Interview conducted by Jeremy Thompson.
JT (Jeremy Thompson): “What makes some one behave like this on a pitch? Let’s get the thoughts of Steven Sylvester who is a sport psychologist who works with footballers and joins us from our central London studios. Mr Sylvester, a curious case and seemingly not the first time Mr Suarez has set about an opponent like this on the field of play. What goes through your mind when you hear about such things”?
SS (Steven Sylvester): “Well an enormous level of stress, a catastrophic level of stress. This has clearly led Suarez to destructive levels of behaviour because of the enormity of what he’s in. The World Cup, having an adrenaline rush, having to get his team through, being the star player and trying to have the performance on the one hand with his background on the other hand. The whole mix just led to that level of counterproductive behaviour”.
JT: “But a lot of sportspeople would probably express than tension and stress in some way or another, lashing out with hands or kicking an opponent or whatever, or verbally abusing them but the use of teeth to bite an opponent seems pretty feral doesn’t it?”
SS: “Yeah absolutely. We heard Brendan Rodgers his Liverpool Manager speak about his background and the fact he needed to survive. So this is someone who has grown up where perhaps having destructive behaviour, showing your anger, violence and rage is normal”.
JT: “But everyone talks about him being a nice decent lad, a family man, light and relatively retiring off the field, what leads to these changes? This metamorphosis from off the park and then onto the park. How is that explained?”
SS “Well I think you’ve got to look at the culture of football. We have a game that the world is watching and the win at all costs perspective that the players play with means that winning is the only thing. So they push and push and push to the edge and that means that they have no room for losing so they have to win. When you get to that point of emotional burden where winning is your only option, you have no alternative to seek other things to do in order to win. Now if you look at the context for this match, it was in the 79th minute and it was nil nil and the teams were looking like Uruguay were going out. There was an absolute need from Suarez to showcase his skill. He’s the best player in the team, the one that’s going to take the country into the next round. All of a sudden it’s nil nil in the 79th minute and he’s reacting to all the built up frustration.
I’m not condoning his behaviour because it’s obviously wrong, but in terms of understanding why someone at that level would make and create that level of reaction is important because he needs to understand that reaction. In my clinic, I deal with a lot of high performing sports people where their confidence and their self-esteem gets eroded by the nature of the game and it’s millisecond speed. It flickers in and that battle, that war mentality comes in and the rage button is hit and here we see episodes of destructive behaviour like this”.
JT: “But he’s the one person to have done something like this amongst the several hundreds of players involved in the World Cup, so it’s hard to imagine that there’s just one of them that reacts in such a way, presumably he needs some kind of treatment doesn’t he?”
SS: “You know, this might anger a lot of people because he’s a serial offender. We tend to have little patience for people that serially offend so for the population at large, we want actions, we want sanctions and we want some form of penalty imposed on him which is right but whilst that’s happening we also need to look below the surface at his profile and what makes him mix his background with his need to win and the need to get his team to the finals that leads to this level of destruction.
In my clinic we work with a lot of elite athletes to help try and walk them through what they’re avoiding. What do they need to listen to about their background? What is their normal pattern of behaviour under stress? How can they make better choices when the intensity of high performing sport pushes them into wanting to achieve more and go beyond the realms of normality?”
JT: “On a personal note, you’re a big Liverpool fan. I want to know how you’re going to deal with this, would you still want him in your side?”
SS “Well yeah it’s a difficult one. I’d still want him in my side if he could get the support and help and he could make a statement regardless of what FIFA does, I think the Uruguayan Federation should come out and make a statement that’s truthful and transparent about what’s really happened here. So the world can see that this is a man who is sorry for his actions because we can’t have our children watching such destructive behaviour. He needs to be a role model for Liverpool. I mean, it saddened me with the racism incident with Evra and you know he needs the support to understand the importance of his ambassadorial role in the game of football because the world is watching.
What we need to do as professional psychologists is to get round him and find a way for him to really look in the mirror, listen to his responses under stress, work out where they’re from so that he can link them all up and find a better solution so that he can self-correct when he’s under the intensity of the microscope and trying to produce the result that the club or country want. So from my point of view, and in answer to your question – Yes, if he can get help and therapy and he can be open and willing to commit to change, because he’s done it three times now and every time it’s been at a critical moment in the context of the match situation so what’s stopping him doing it in the future and then there’s kids watching this. The World Cup has been a magnificent showcase for the world and everybody’s enjoyed it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m deeply saddened that he’s made this choice under this level of stress”.
JT: “Mr Sylvester, Thank you very much indeed, it sounds like you need to volunteer your services to Liverpool Football Club they’ve got a job on their hands there. Thank you very much”.
SS: “Oh I’d love to, thank you very much”.