News   |    April 7th, 2022


In today’s professional sporting competitions, we regularly see clubs and athletes spending large amounts of time and money on the latest equipment, therapy, healthcare, training methods and any other perceived competitive advantages possible. Technology and science are continually improving our knowledge and approaches, so that we can constantly enhance performance. As non-professionals, we are often naïve to the lengths athletes must go to in order to achieve peak performance. We take for granted the incredible technology used, and often forget that only 64 years ago, sports, for example football, was played and trained by athletes using much simpler exercises and methods.

Psychology, a common scientific subject nowadays was not on anyone’s agenda back in 1958, and sport psychology was most certainly unheard of. That was until a Brazilian psychologist, Joao Carvalhaes, pioneered the movement of coupling psychology with the sporting environment to improve athletes’ performances.

Carvalhaes joined São Paulo in 1957, leaving a job training referees for the city’s football federation. The club’s interest was piqued by the psychology laboratory he had founded, the likes of which would not be seen in Europe until AC Milan’s ‘Mind Room’ of the late 1980s. The lab housed 10 tests examining cognitive functions such as stereoscopic vision (depth perception). Carvalhaes used the tests to help highlight the skills trainee referees needed to hone before qualifying to officiate professional matches. Through setting thresholds for each monitored variable, Carvalhaes could rate the candidates on their capabilities.

São Paulo won the Campeonato Paulista in 1957, the team’s first state championship since 1953, where Carvalhaes was heralded for his role in a selection decision that proved to be the key to victory. This was down to the replacement of regular midfielder Ademar with fellow playmaker Sarara, who then shone in a crunch match with Corinthian. This decision, was based on Joao’s concerns about Ademar’s state of mind. Following this Joao was selected to be part of the Brazil National team’s technical committee a year later.

Joao conducted a 50-minute exam for each players’ arithmetic ability and vocabulary, with the intention of assigning an ‘intelligence rating’. Those deemed less capable were asked to take an ‘Army Beta’ test involving exercises such as completing half-drawn pictures and tracing paths through two-dimensional mazes. Following more tests, legendary footballer Pele recalls his encounter with Carvalhaes; “About me he concluded that I should not be selected: ‘Pelé is obviously infantile. He lacks the necessary fighting spirit.’ He also advised against Garrincha, who was not seen as responsible enough. “Fortunately for me and for Garrincha, Vicente Feola (Brazil’s manager) was always guided by his instincts, and he just nodded gravely at the psychologist, saying: ‘You may be right. The thing is you don’t know anything about football. If Pelé’s knee is ready, he plays.'”

Despite some controversial research and opinions, Joao did gain increased media attention particularly in Europe and Sports Illustrated. His philosophy has also been regarded as the foundation for Dr Bruno Demichelis, AC Milan’s venerated former sport scientist, a leading practitioner whose work was instrumental to AC Milan’s success in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Carvalhaes returned to Sao Paulo after the 1958 World Cup, implementing more exciting new techniques such as individual counselling alongside further cognitive tests. Following his passing in 1976, decades later we still find ourselves in the early stages of bringing the worlds of psychology and sports together. Ultimately there will be differences in opinions between psychologists and the coaches, yet one thing is for sure, through successfully implementing sports psychology it has a chance of providing benefits to performance.

With a passion for sports psychology myself, I find it fascinating how we must embrace new ideas and methods to improve an athlete’s mental state alongside their physical capabilities. Without one, the other is made redundant. It is important to understand the history behind modern techniques and where they began, however controversial they may be. I believe football, and sports as a whole, has a lot to thank Joao Carvalhaes for.

Alfie Bobbins - Integral Sports Management.

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