Was Mourinho right to publicly humiliate Luke Shaw? Top sports psychologist looks into Man Utd man's mind

Luke Shaw Manchester United
A leading sports psychologist looks into the left back's struggles and says mental resilience is the difference between a good player and a great one


Jose Mourinho is far from the first manager to question Luke Shaw’s hunger for hard work but the Portuguese’s sustained attempts to coax a performance from his player with public proclamations have attracted much attention during 2016-17.

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The full-back will play no further part in Manchester United’s season after picking up a foot injury which looks likely to also rule him out of the beginning of the next campaign, but his manager’s reaction to the injury against Swansea was just the latest in a string of tirades.

“I think Luke Shaw’s must be a big injury because to leave the pitch after 10 minutes I am expecting a very big injury,” the United boss said after the match, but given some of his reviews of Shaw’s performances and commitment prior to that such a dig came as a surprise to nobody.

Whether doubting his mental attitude, blasting that he wasn’t brave enough, saying he must work better or claiming to have supplied the brains behind one of Shaw’s better performances, Mourinho has made a habit of using press conferences and TV interviews to make it clear in public that he is far from happy with what the former Southampton man is delivering.

Previous managers have drawn attention to flaws in Shaw’s make-up. At Southampton, both Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino spoke of a need to work with the player to iron out problems.

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“We had to spend a lot of time looking after Luke because he was very young and there were the off-field things that go with that,” said Adkins. “We had to put a special group together just to develop his all-round lifestyle and give him an opportunity to deal with the situations that arose.”

After succeeding Adkins, Pochettino added: “Luke is still learning how to be an experienced player and it is taking him time to mature. He is growing, maturing and needs to develop psychologically, mentally and tactically.”

Mauricio Pochettino Luke Shaw

Louis van Gaal would later criticise Shaw’s fitness after he became a £30 million player at the age of 18 by joining United in the summer of 2014, but it was Pochettino’s comment about the need for him to develop psychologically which is brought to mind most by the young England star’s current struggles under Mourinho.

Motivational psychologist Paul Boross has worked extensively in sports psychology, often being brought in by clubs to work closely with players, and he tells Goal that it is important that a manager knows the psychology of a player before employing extreme methods of motivation.

“If you listen to what former players said about Sir Alex Ferguson, I think Gary Neville said he would call you into his office and tell you that he wasn’t going to play you in a match and you’d leave feeling good about it. That was the most remarkable thing, he could make you feel good when he dropped you,” Paul explains.

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“That is what a true psychologist does, he manages to make you even more motivated to play or motivated to never be dropped again.

“The problem with calling somebody out in the public arena is you’d better know the psychology of the person you’re dealing with very well before you take to embarrassing them in public. Obviously Mourinho knows his job so I’m not going to do the same thing to him as he’s doing to a player in the sense of calling him out, but maybe he knows the players he’s talking about so well and feels he needs to make a big statement to get them to focus and concentrate more.

“If you are doing it repeatedly and constantly without knowing the animal you’re dealing with, I think it’s dangerous territory.”

Jose Mourinho Luke Shaw Manchester United Sunderland 09042017

Paul, known as The Pitch Doctor for his ability to provide confidence-boosting techniques to people in multiple walks of life, adds that there is a thin dividing line between cleverly motivating a player and destroying their confidence.

“Absolutely, and everybody psychologically goes through peaks and troughs so what you said one day to that player might not work six months later. We all go through bouts where we are more confident, less confident, resilient, less resilient, and so you can’t just go ‘OK, that’s a player who I can always call out in the press’ because they may not be in that place.

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“Some people need an arm round the shoulder, some people need a kick up the arse, but circumstance could need you to change your practice. The whole thing about being a good psychologist is understanding where that person is at the time. There’s a saying in psychology that the meaning of your communication is the response you get, and that’s very important.

“It goes for pretty much any profession, so if a manager calls me in to work with a certain player or a team I cannot go back to a manager and say ‘The player that you gave me was really stupid. I said all the right things, and they didn’t understand.’ I’m the only one in that situation who can be stupid because I didn’t communicate my message in the right way. The responsibility is always on the person giving the message, not the one receiving the message.”

Paul Boross quote

In Shaw’s case, he has plenty of time to go on and become one of England’s great left-backs. And Paul says there is a key ingredient which serves all footballers – and all people – well.

“Mental resilience is the real measure of greatness. Everyone is going to receive criticism at some point, it’s how you deal with it. Mental resilience is the difference between a good player and a great player. If you have one bad game and you suddenly believe that you are only going to play badly, that means you have a lack of resilience.

“What makes a great player in any sport is that ability to focus at the appropriate time. Everything around you is a distraction, the agent trying to fix a deal, the press that has ultimately killed careers. How many players can you mention, even just at United, who had that promise as a young player but ultimately got distracted?

“If you are not giving players a solid belief system, they are not going to shine. At United, Fergie used to talk about the difference between being a United player and not being a United player was that ability to focus and have that mental resilience. The American car manufacturer Henry Ford said ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.’”

Things do not look particularly bright for Shaw right now. He will be forced out of football for a number of months, and by the time he returns there is a good chance United might have added to their full-back stocks in the summer market meaning he will not only have to win his manager’s faith back but will also have added competition.

But lesser players than Shaw have been through trying times and come out of the other side to become true greats. And the message is that if he has the mental resilience to succeed, and is well supported by those around him, then he still could go on to fulfil his enormous potential.

Paul Boross is The Pitch Doctor, Team Psychologist of the Sky TV show School of Hard Knocks. See www.thepitchdoctor.tv