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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Sports psychologist looking for UAE champions

Former Chelsea FC sports psychologist Erik Matser hopes to train a new generation of UAE athletes.
Erik Matser worked extensively with Jose Mourinho while at Chelsea. He rates the Portuguese coach as one of the best in the world. AP
Erik Matser worked extensively with Jose Mourinho while at Chelsea. He rates the Portuguese coach as one of the best in the world. AP

Psychologist plans to boost local athletes

Specialist on the lookout for the X-factor – that rare mix of mind and body that makes a winner

DUBAI // Erik Matser knows better than most that success in sport is about brains as much as brawn.

The neuropsychologist believes that with the right physical and mental training, there is no reason the UAE’s athletes cannot compete at the highest level.

Having worked with some of football’s biggest names in his time as psychologist at English Premier League side Chelsea, Mr Matser is now turning his attention to the Emirates and hopes to train a new generation of athletes.

He plans to set up a company here and begin testing athletes within a few weeks, to see if they have what it takes to perform at world-class level. “We need to pinpoint who has the X-factor,” he said.

“If you look at Olympic athletes, they all practice extensively. They all have about the same physical condition, so why is it that the Michael Phelpses win? What makes these people stand out?”

Mr Matser, from the Netherlands, spent more than four years at Cornell University in New York collecting data on boxers, footballers and basketball players.

“The first step was to identify talent,” he said. “We test candidates and we only accept those who score 98 per cent and above. These are the elite. Their mind works differently than most other people.

“Next we nurture that talent and make sure they have the tools they need to achieve their potential.”

But just qualifying is not enough.

“Don’t get me wrong, I fully agree nurturing players and deliberate practice will make a better athlete,” Mr Matser said. “You still have to do all that. But with that some people still don’t meet their potential.

“We began to find certain points that set some athletes apart. They were able to process information at a much faster rate than most people.”

The intense competition at football clubs is perfect for separating the truly great from the very good, he said.

“You need a few years to nurture the talent, so you have to start young. But instead of building a foundation of hundreds of potential players, you pick the best 22 or 33, the cream of the crop, and focus your efforts on them.”

In his four seasons at Chelsea Mr Matser’s job involved consulting with coaches, including Jose Mourinho, on what kind of personalities were in his team, and how to get the best out of them mentally.

“[Jose and I] spoke for hours about my field of work and it was a wonderful interaction from which I learnt a lot,” Mr Matser said.

“To me, he is one of the world’s greatest trainers, the type of coach with a clear vision who still succeeds in creating a group-orientated discipline and context.

“I don’t believe in trainers who try to impose their own system on to a talented group of sportspeople. That type of thing only works in the lower echelons of sport, and not at the world-class level where Chelsea is.”

Mr Matser does not just look at athletes. Since 2009, he has been working with maestro Franco Scala at the Accademia Pianistica Imola in Italy on how he selects and guides master pianists.

“The neurological processes are the same in musicians as they are in athletes,” he said. “I remember when [Chelsea player] Didier Drogba came and asked about classical music. I played some Mozart.

“He listened intently and said if you remove these few note the whole thing unravels. I thought it was an interesting comment and I told Mr Scala about it.

“He said it showed a very deep insight into composition of music, that gifted people have this innate ability to analyse and process different subjects.”

Mr Matser uses this as an example of the importance of allowing talented people from different backgrounds to interact.

“It is integral to the system to allow musicians, athletes and intellectuals to share their experiences. You will be surprised by how much common ground they can find and how well they can interact,” he said.

Mr Matser has already received interest from football clubs in the UAE. His aim is to have a championship-winning side in two to three years, regional champions in three to four years and his dream is to get the UAE to a World Cup.