It’s no secret that Landon Donovan and Jürgen Klinsmann did not see eye to eye. A look at sports psychology shows that their differences went deeper than personality, revealing a philosophical divide over what its means to an elite athlete. 


Landon Donovan in his last match for the U.S. Men's National Team, October 2014 (Rob Colonna/Flickr)

Landon Donovan in his last match for the U.S. Men’s National Team, October 2014 (Rob Colonna/Flickr)


As Landon Donovan winds down his career as arguably the best men’s soccer player ever produced on American soil, it is worth reflecting on a curious reality: the two most prominent men in contemporary American soccer, Donovan and Jürgen Klinsmann, don’t seem to like each other very much.

After simmering for years, this tension went to a boil when Klinsmann dropped Donovan from the 2014 US World Cup team, and then started to singe when the US Soccer Federation scheduled a tribute game to Donovan in October. In the run-up to that match, Donovan made clear in an extended interview with Sports Illustrated that he felt Klinsmann hadn’t given him due courtesy in the events around the World Cup and his retirement. In turn, Klinsmann made clear that he didn’t think Donovan had earned much courtesy, suggesting the icon of American soccer hadn’t fulfilled his potential. At the tribute game itself they made the right appearances. But I have a strong suspicion that they could never – and won’t ever – get past an underlying difference that is rarely illustrated so vividly in elite sport: a philosophical disagreement in what it all means.

Differing philosophical perspectives on competitive sport has been on much on my mind since reading what has been termed a seminal article in performance consulting: a 1996 piece by John Corlett titled “Sophistry, Socrates, and Sport Psychology.” Corlett argues that much of the performance-enhancement work in sport psychology resembles the sophist philosophical tradition, where “the value of any opinion or action was testable only in utilitarian terms. If it served the practical and immediate needs of one’s life, it was of value.” The focus of the sophists was on a somewhat blinkered version of achievement, drawing on a “recipe of skills” that is similar to the emphasis on “mental skills” (including goal setting, relaxation, imagery, and self-talk) and “life coaching” used in many contemporary performance settings, including sport.

In this framing, Jürgen Klinsmann is a sophist. This is, after all, a man who in 2012 used US Soccer Federation time and money during one his early training camps for a presentation by a motivational speaker who tried to impress upon players that “whatever your mind can conceive, your heart believe, you can achieve.” The speaker, courageously wearing a parachute-style sweat suit straight from 1982, made his point with “feats of strength” including rolling up a metal frying pan “like a burrito” and ripping phone books with his bare hands. Klinsmann is also famous, both in Germany and in the US, for focusing on “scientific” strength and conditioning training so intense that it leaves virtually no time for any tactical creativity. As former German captain Philip Lahm famously noted about his time playing under Klinsmann: “We practically only practiced fitness.” As per the sophists, this approach attends primarily to the type of practical training seen as serving immediate needs without any attention to “deeply felt beliefs, values, and meanings.”

The problem with the sophist approach, according to Corlett, was that their lack of attention to meaning lent itself to an amoral and mercenary approach to achievement – they were the motivational speakers of classical Greece. In contrast, Corlett offers a Socratic approach premised on the belief “that it is the essence of human nature to seek happiness, and that happiness is achieved when we live a good life (including that part of modern life spent in sport). The challenge put forth by Socrates, therefore, is to know what life’s (and sport’s) real goods are, to recognize them as distinct from illusory ones. When we know what real goods are, we will pursue them, and in doing so, be happy.”

In this framing, Landon Donovan is a budding Socratic. In explaining major decisions over the course of his career, particularly his decision to play in the U.S. rather than in more competitive European leagues (which Klinsmann sees as unequivocally better for talent development), Donovan repeatedly emphasized simply wanting to be “happy.” In his interview with Sports Illustrated, for example, Donovan told soccer writer Grant Wahl: “I understand why people haven’t agreed with some of the decisions that I’ve made. A lot of people probably wouldn’t have chosen the same decisions. But it was never malicious. I was never trying to do anything except make myself happy, so I could enjoy this game that I love to play.” And as an abstract explanation for his decision to retire now, Donovan explains in a recent Grantland video titled “The Finish Line” : “I remember being very young and scoring goals. And twenty or thirty or forty or fifty people on the sideline cheering. And when people would cheer, there was this sense of acceptance inside me. I’ve always carried that with me, and I’ve always just genuinely loved going out and playing. And I promised myself if it ever got to a place where it wasn’t that way, I wouldn’t do it.”

One significant decision in his career, and the most obvious inflection point for his relationship with Klinsmann, was when Donovan took a “sabbatical” from soccer in 2013 – including a trip to Cambodia that read vaguely like a metaphorical trip to Mount Olympus. As an academic, I admit to being a big fan of sabbaticals – I think every profession should offer opportunities to reflect, retool, and renew. Donovan was also clearly burned out after immersing himself in the grind of professional soccer since his mid-teens, and needed the break for his own mental health. But a sophist like Jürgen Klinsmann was decidedly not of a like mind. As Stefan Fatsis noted in an insightful Slate article after Donovan was cut from the World Cup team: “Donovan’s sabbatical must have struck Klinsmann – one of the best strikers of his generation and a World Cup champion for Germany in 1990 – as nothing short of bizarre. . . . That a player in his footballing prime could have been “burned out” and “needed a break” surely signaled a lack of commitment – that being one of Klinsmann’s favorite words.”

I have to admit I was never much of a Donovan fan until he took his sabbatical. I had an impression of him as both the best player U.S. men’s soccer had ever produced, and its first prima donna. In my reading, Donovan had been handed much since his teenage anointment, and that triggered some kind of unreflective meritocracy module in my own mind. But when Donovan had the courage to step out of hegemonic sport culture for a break and then won his way into the U.S. National Team picture by lifting a “B” team to the 2013 Gold Cup championship, I changed my mind. The man had taken the time for Socratic reflection, and his performance soared in tandem with his humanity. But Klinsmann, along with a sport culture largely dependent upon unreflective and single-minded “commitment,” could not abide.

In endorsing a more Socratic version of sport psychology, Corlett promotes “a sport psychology that views a deficiency of knowledge of self as the origin of many problems athletes experience, rather than a deficiency of knowledge of technical, physical, or mental skill.” And while I realize the actual philosophy here may be a bit amateur, I happen to believe much of contemporary sport culture could use a little more Socrates and a little less sophistry. Elite sports is so focused on making athletes incrementally bigger, faster, and stronger, treating players as what John Hoberman has called “Mortal Engines,” that it loses sight of the fact that sport only really matters for its humanistic meaning – part of which is performance and outcome, but a bigger part of which is human experience. This, I believe, is what taking an academic perspective on sport has to offer: a way to deepen and enrich both sport performance and sport experience through offering an analytic lens, based on developed bodies of knowledge, that promote healthy reflection about what it all means. In that vein, while I’ll miss watching Landon Donovan play soccer, I’m heartened by the fact that one of things he wants to do in his retirement is to take some college classes – maybe even study some psychology. I just hope it’s of the Socratic variety.


Andrew Guest teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Portland and is the author of numerous articles on sports psychology and youth development in both North America and Africa. He has written and occasionally writes about sport and the social sciences at Sports & Ideas.