Luis Suarez might be banned from all football for four months, but it will take him longer than that to learn to curb the impulses that drive him to bite other players.
That’s the view of psychologist Dr. Leah Lagos, who has over a decade's experience in working with professional and Olympic athletes whose performances have been affected by their difficulties in controlling their emotions.
On Thursday, Suarez was banned until the end of October by FIFA after he was shown on camera biting the shoulder of Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini toward the end of their World Cup match.
It was the third such incident of the Liverpool forward’s professional career, a factor that may have played into FIFA's decision to award him the joint-longest ban it has ever handed down.
However, it remains possible that Suarez could transgress once again upon his return to professional football if he does not seek meaningful treatment for his behaviour.
“Suarez can learn to stop biting opponents, but it will not be a quick or easy process,” Dr. Lagos told Bleacher Report. “Although biting is common in early childhood, biting in adults is rare. It may be an indication of a more serious problem with impulsiveness and anger management.
“These issues can be improved in less than six months of therapy and biofeedback, but it will take a longer amount of time and practice to change these behaviours permanently.”
Suarez has received bans after all three of his previous biting incidents, only to re-offend in similar fashion at some point after serving his suspension. Dr. Lagos believes Suarez needs to treat his emotional struggles like he would learning a new skill on the training ground, devoting time and energy to perfecting some coping mechanisms.
Dr. Lagos notes: “Learning to regulate emotions under pressure is a difficult skill and a talent that most athletes have to learn. People generally don't understand how hard it is.
“The deterrents are likely not working because this athlete lacks autonomic control over how his body reacts to stress. I've worked with athletes that experience specific emotions, such as anger or frustration, and the intensity of emotions can even displace blood flow to the brain and impact the brain's ability to control impulses.
“When Suarez bites his opponents, he is not thinking about his behaviours. The emotions bypass conscious thinking and activate a 'flight or fight' state in his body.”
FIFA, in announcing their decision to ban Suarez, made it clear that part of the reason for the length of the suspension was that the offence took place at the World Cup, the biggest footballing stage of all.
Yet that might be the exact same reason why Suarez acted as he did in the first place. Late in a scoreless game that Uruguay had to win in order to avoid going out of the World Cup, the frustration and anger he felt was magnified by the pressure of the situation to create a disastrous reaction.
“I have not met with or worked with Suarez, so I am reluctant to make assumptions about his character,” Dr. Lagos says. “As a general rule, however, putting a player like Suarez who has known issues with impulse control into a supercharged context like the World Cup is inviting challenge.
“It's the situation, including the high intensity and stakes, that cause increases in adrenaline and leads to an amped up physiological state in the body.”
Suarez’s ban excludes him from all football-related activities, meaning he cannot even enter Liverpool’s training centre for its duration (unless that aspect of the punishment is reduced on appeal). That will limit his ability to work with the club’s in-house psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters, who has gained notoriety in recent months for his work with the likes of Steven Gerrard and the England squad.
Working with Dr. Peters may help Suarez, but he needs to do even more than that if he wants to resolve his issues.
“He's not beyond hope, but he needs more than just anger management therapy,” Dr. Lagos says. “Suarez needs a system for training his body to calm down under pressure.
“My experience in working with this type of athlete is that they respond best to a combination of biofeedback, which helps them gain control over their body's physiological response to stress, and cognitive behavioural therapy to teach specific techniques for emotional regulation.
“It is important to be able to identify the signs that the body is becoming over-aroused, understand the triggers that may lead to this level of extreme arousal and learn specific strategies to learn and cope with them.”
How would that work in practice? Dr. Lagos has worked with Olympic, collegiate and professional athletes on similar issues before.
“We develop a plan before the athlete goes into their tournament, match, etc. for how they are going to deal with feelings of frustration, disappointment—or even elation,” she says. “Every athlete must have a plan for regulating their emotions during competition in order to perform effectively under pressure.
"We examine potential trigger points—what situations may evoke negative responses. We identify signs that the athlete may be over-aroused and discuss what to do if this happens.
"In addition, the biofeedback training enables athletes a science-based, systematic method for increasing the body's ability to respond effectively during pressure moments.
“By gaining control over how the heart responds under pressure, the athlete gains control over how the body, including the mind and muscles, respond as well.”
The length of Suarez's ban is all anyone is talking about at the moment, but it could be the treatment he receives during its duration that defines whether or not he returns a reformed man.