Keeping the lid on human frailty

INTERESTING how the words "Richmond" and "the lid on" disappeared from the public spotlight so quickly. It only takes one unscheduled loss. Suddenly the talk was of soft spots, not of emerging strengths. The resignation of seasons past was again to the fore.

Mood swings are a part of football life. And they're given more exposure these days via the joys of seven-day-a-week talkback sports radio. The funny thing is that, even without an emotional connection to the club under the microscope, you can find yourself nodding as you listen to the emotive knee-jerk response of each new week.

My recent favourite of this genre was a contribution from the magnificently passionate and succinct Scot, Jim from Hawthorn. It followed the flogging his beloved Hawks took from the Tigers a few weeks back:

Q. "So what's the issue for the Hawks, Jim?"

A. (With certainty) "The coach!"

Q. "And what's the problem with the coach?"


A. (Certainty mixed with grim resignation) "No plan B."

The Hawthorn midfield had been taken apart by the quick, young Tiger machine, of that there could be no doubt. Was Jim on the money? Well, in fairness to Alastair Clarkson, plan A looked pretty good the following week against North. The Hawks kept getting the ball forward and Lance Franklin booted 13 goals. So it goes.

An analysis of Richmond's situation which appeared in The Age nine days ago caught my eye. Western Australian sports psychologist, Neil McLean, gave some insight into what we might call "Lid Syndrome". McLean is helping the Australian men's hockey team prepare for the Olympic Games and has also worked with both West Coast and Fremantle over the past 20 years. He explained that dealing with the psychological impact of winning was just as important as dealing with defeat.

He suggested that wins should be dissected just as thoroughly as losses, saying: "The ludicrous thing is that you can win by two points and everybody is comfortable with that, and they don't look at the performance as they would if they lost by five points."

When you think of those post-match interviews, it would appear that even coaches aren't immune from "Lid Syndrome". A loss by a kick and the response is: "You just can't make the mistakes we made and expect to win. We butchered the ball at crucial times, turned it over, and that's what you get."

But win by a kick and: "The boys were fantastic. Showed great character. Did the things we've been working at and deserved the reward." It's an emotional game as we know, but it perhaps raises the question as to whether it's not just the players whose heads are turned by stirring victories.

I once had close-up, first-hand experience of elite level "Lid Syndrome". It was back in 1988 when then Australian golf professional, Vaughan Somers, gave me the chance to caddy for him - or, more accurately, to carry his bag - on the European tour for a few months. I was woefully under-qualified and I'm sure I put lead in Vaughan's saddle-bags of greater weight than the bag I carried. But it was a tremendous experience; one for which I'm forever grateful.

Never a big hitter, Vaughan was battling to keep up with the rising generation of the time and the stress was getting to him. This, coupled with a personality that was excitable and loveable, but given to self-punishing lows, made for a roller-coaster ride. A cycle of emotional boom and bust would repeat; often a couple of times an hour.

I kept a diary of the time and this week went back to my record of the second round of the Spanish Open, played at Pedrena (home course of the late Severiano Ballesteros). Having shot 71 on the opening day, Vaughan was solidly placed to make the cut. But Fridays were inevitably stressful. Here's an excerpt:

"Drops his third shot at five when he three putts from 12 feet. Totally lost concentration with second putt and missed from 18 inches. Typically, he birdies seven and eight to get back to plus-2 overall but then he hooks his drive at par-five ninth: into a tree and it stays up there. Lost ball - double bogey! It happened after long delay [on the tee] and joke-telling session. He's got steam coming out his ears by 12th - has virtually given it away - and hits a hole-in-one! Four-iron at 153-metre El Corto' … crowd roars while ball disappears into hole!"

What I didn't record was that Vaughan was so angry even his ace failed to bring a smile. Subsequently, and in keeping with his fortunes, he birdied the 14th but bogeyed the par-five 16th to miss the cut by one. Had the lid stayed on it may have been different.

And this was a team of one participant and one support crew. How much more complex the matter of maintaining balance when the total group is as many as 50 strong, with a support base in excess of 50,000? That's the ''lid'' challenge for each AFL club.