For half-decent amatuer or semi-professional footballers who play more than once a week, the schedule will usually consist of a mixture of 5 aside, 6 aside, 8 aside and Saturday/Sunday league games. Emotionally - this can be taxing - finding the time to balance your working life, social life and dealing with any earache from the partner about never doing anything special with them during the week.
Even excluding the external factors, the non-professional game in of itself can be mentally draining; Dealing with the constant pressure of trying to stay fit (without a regular medical team attending to your every ache), making sure you don't go off the rails diet wise (despite temptation around you), trying to have the right level of emotional intensity just to remain competitive 2 to 3 games a week and avoid being on the receiving end of banter after a poor game.. it is impossible to therefore escape dips in performance level as your mind and body will feel a disconnect.
Another point that is often overlooked is that football is a team sport. Even when you are personally in the midst of a good performance, depending on your status and role within a side, you might feel under pressure to carry certain players or the team in general - or you might be perceived as the weak link and under great pressure to perform, despite it being a non-professional setting - everyone wants to be admired within their own social or football circle. So as you can see, being an amatuer footballer and being 110% in every game is nigh on impossible... yet we savage professional footballers on the back of a bad run of form, despite them facing greater scrutiny...
David Bentley is a fine example of a professional footballer who eventually walked from the game out of sheer emotional fatigue and a complete disconnect with the beautiful game. He described it as 'being wired up like a stallion racehorse' and feeling like 'you're owned by the football club. You're told where to go, what to do and how to do it. Yes, you get paid well, but money in life's not everything. It's about having the right balance in life.'
The fun of playing had disappeared for Bentley - playing football had became a job for him. Professional football had also become perennial source of anxiety with the young star having to fight battles to break into the first team - just to play a game and fight battles with the media who seemed to mercilessly taunt him and look for a way to perpetuate the image that he was nothing but a flash wannabe Beckham clone.
I was terrified working with these great players, though. I shat myself every day I went into work. I had to put on a cocky, fake act and pretend to be someone else, to get by.
But it wasn't just the struggle of having to fight those battles which took its toll.. it was the sheer relentlessness of it all. Playing 60 games a season and then potentially featuring in international tournaments yet being expected to be totally on the ball and up for it - for each and every game! Surely there would be certain games which a player just wouldn't be able to summon up the passion for? and if so, surely that would have a detrimental effect on their performance?
Bentley, all too aware of this - informed Stuart Pearce of his emotional 'burn-out' before the Under 21 European Championships and concern for the long-term physical ramifications if he was to feature in what was essentially a development tournament and not of any long-term significance. Pearce proceeded to slag him off - comparing his decision to soldiers refusing to fight in Afghanistan.
Bela Guttmann was credited for coining the phrase which has proven to be the curse for many great managers across the history of the game. The truth is that successful players tend to get sick and tired of listening to the same manager - who has become too familiar to players and no longer wields the ability to connect to the players emotionally and elevate them to greater heights by unlocking their inner reserves of desire.
Players may also have become too accustomed to success and increasingly face a mental block... unable to summon an iota of enthusiasm at the thought of winning yet another league title. Training sessions which would have once been played with the intensity of a matchday become casual kickabouts - as the sheer thought of having to run through walls and prepare hard for yet another fixture against a familiar opponent becomes mind-numbingly exhausting.
Pep Guardiola sensed this issue with his Barcelona team... walking away from the most successful club team of all time in its prime, knowing full well he had no more to give ... he felt that the messages he was giving to the players were just not being received in the same way. They still loved him - that was apparent to anyone who watched his historic farewell conference - but they emotionally just couldn't force themselves to respond to his words in the same way...
Manchester City have also suffered with regards to the domestic stage - bored shitless of winning the League title - they know full well that further victories do nothing to enhance their reputation. The only way they can build on their legacy is to secure the Champions League, and perversely with the two year ban hanging over their heads, they had a lot of emotional fuel going into that first leg tie with Real Madrid.
If there was one manager who mastered the art of managing the emotional fatigue side of the game... it was Sir Alex Ferguson. You do not successfully manage the same club for 27 years without knowing people. He was a master psychologist who appreciated the fact that players were human and needed periods of inactivity to remain hungry and sharp. He was one of the first managers to introduce a rotation policy and was adept at utilising squad players to protect his first team players from burnout and ensure there was a freshness about his sides. Furthermore, he stopped taking training sessions so that he could 'distance' himself from the players - whom he feared would be sick of the sight of him if he was in their face each day and didn't want his messages to lose their potency.
"It is difficult to think that when you go through all the emotions and the pace and intensity and atmosphere of a game like Tuesday, you don't lose something," Ferguson explained.
Perhaps the biggest factor behind his long term success however was the way he could tell if certain players were resting on their laurels or the flame within had been completely extinguished... or if they needed competition from a new signing. He did not care for reputation and would ruthlessly rebuild sides. That is what enabled him to avoid the 'third season is fatal' curse.. his teams thus retained that emotional edge, because he ensured there was fresh faces, with a willingness to do the hard yards and an undiminished desire to do well. The likes of Giggs, Scholes and Neville were exceptions and kept for a long period - but they were provided with enough new challenges, new teammates and ample opportunity to replenish their emotional reserves.
How do the modern 'Titans' of tennis keep going? Their levels of desire seem to be as high as ever... do Federer, Nadal and Djokovic know something that the rest of us mere mortals don't? I suspect not, but more that in individual sports you have a lot more control over your schedule and in theory should be better placed to manage emotional fatigue.
Furthermore without being disrespectful, it is simply an easier and less mentally taxing environment than professional football.. you can choose your entourage, the crowds are more gentile, the weather conditions are more favourable and there is simply less media scrutiny. Perversely, having rivals of such ability in the same era, who are of a similar mindset has no doubt served as additional fuel to keep going. Touching on mindset, some people are just innately more competitive than others.. and thus have a higher threshold for feeling emotionally fatigued.
Which begs the question, how on earth have Messi and Ronaldo managed to keep going game after game, being their team's talismans and the World's greatest players. for more than a decade? Playing under a number of managers has undoubtedly helped - although how much motivation they have received from the words of lesser managers they've played under is questionable. They too have had each other to compete with - which has also pushed them to new heights but they're not the first players to have had a direct rival. A key factor perhaps is that they developed in super intense and hyper-professional playing environments... surrounded by individuals who mastered the art of consistency and emotional longevity themselves - players such as Giggs, Scholes, Xavi and Puyol.
Efficiency of effort has also played a significant role...neither player has taken it upon himself to be the 'legs' of the team... but rather the 'finisher' and 'executor' of plays.. a bit like how Tom Brady is still able make clutch players despite being nowhere near his physical prime, he's emotionally still super fresh. Both players have mastered the art of having a high 'bottom level' - playing in first gear, yet able to effect games at the highest level with moments of quality when they need to.
A peculiar example is someone like Ronaldinho who on the face of it seemed to enjoy his football to such an extent that he found professional football fun and stress free.. he literally played the professional game no different to how he would approach a street football match. Due to his relaxed style, in many ways he was quite efficient in terms of energy exertion and yet by 2006 he was washed up emotionally and physically after a mere 2-3 years of prime performances. So what happened?
Put simply, Ronaldinho couldn't handle the rigorous discipline of the professional game.. he found training increasingly laborious, he didn't want to pay attention to what he ate... he was suffering from emotional burnout having won a complete cabinet of medals. There was nothing more for him to prove - at the time, there was no rival who was in his stratosphere. In professional football, fitness is a must, as is being in the right psychological state to compete.. Ronaldinho didn't have either and overnight become a clown rather than the joker in the pack.
The main talking points to take from this article are as follows.. firstly, we are too harsh in our treatment of footballers and sportsmen in general. We should be mindful that in any given game, a player might simply be too mentally fatigued to give 110% and therefore we shouldn't overly criticise players when they're undergoing a slump in form. Be patient and allow them to feel in the zone again.. of course this doesn't apply to every footballer but where one has already proven their class.. it is only normal that there level will drop at some stage. Managers and coaches too need to pay close attention to emotional fatigue as it has a massive effect on performance levels and if completely neglected can lead to falling out of love with the game completely, as we saw in the case of David Bentley.
Secondly for those who want to improve as footballers, developing a base game which you can utilise when you're not feeling at your best is the key to long term success and consistency. Yes at times you will need to take a complete break from playing, but doing so every time you're not feeling 100% will lead to a decline in fitness and earn you the distrust of your manager and colleagues. You have to try to pick and choose games where you will exert more emotional effort than usual and find a way of playing solidly in the games which are of slightly lesser importance.. it is not easy, but it is certainly possible... Ronaldo, Federer, Messi, Jordan, Ferguson... they're the gold standard in mastering emotional fatigue - - use them as inspiration.