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The psychology index: how the way players feel influences how they play

By Tony Attwood

In my little piece on the 36 passes that led to the second Arsenal goal on Tuesday I tentatively mentioned the psychological factors involved in making a good team become great, and then greater still.

“Tentatively mentioned” because psychological factors are the exact antithesis of the “evidence of my own eyes” approach, and the vision that you are only as good as your last game, and I wasn’t in the mood to face a load of abuse yesterday.

And that’s the point: players and supporters have emotions and feelings that go up and down, and although one can say that a good professional paid a fortune to kick a ball each week ought to be above being influenced by what happens inside his head, it simply doesn’t happen.  As many psychologists would fully agree, it is not the issue of the world itself, but how the individual feels about the world that makes all the difference.

Anyway, the notion of adding a tentative psychological factor rating to the club after each match didn’t get howled down with derisive laughter.   That surprised me a little because over the past nine years and 6762 published articles, plus around a quarter of a million published comments, and an even bigger number not published, I’ve learned to be cautious about drifting too far into a social science explanation of football.

But, because this element of football has fascinated me for a long time, I want to try and take it a little further.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of why a player might do well at one club and not another.  Why a player of great merit and ability flops on moving, while another who has been moderately invisible suddenly flourishes.  Why a highly talented team can suddenly put on a poor show.

Indeed why some teams seem to implode while others manage to keep being what journalists used to call “there or there about” – maybe not winning, but still in contention.  And why a bunch of untalented thugs can bamboozle referees into thinking that they are playing the game as it should be played and get away with it week after week.

Sometimes we can see the explanation in physical matters.  For example, Leicester’s key tactic of shirt pulling in defence in order to break up attacks and hoof the ball up the field to Vardy has been undone by the latest change to referee instructions.  But other times it can be purely about the way the players feel.   There is no doubt in my mind that for years Stoke City players have entered the fray thinking that no matter what, they can get away with it.  And they have done.  Quite an achievement in fact.

Much comes down to how well the club is set up to manage the inside of the heads of their players – and come to that their manager.  If Mr Wenger had told Bergkamp, when he wanted the players to fly off to a European match to, “get over it” and had ordered him onto the plane, it would, I suspect, have led to a decline in Dennis’ form, and an earlier departure from the club.  He, as an individual, needed handling in a particular way.

When I wrote the series on Arsenal in the 70s for the Arsenal History Society website what struck me was that Bertie Mee had only one psychological approach: a cross between a gym master and a sergeant major.  It worked at first because it was such a contrast with that of the endlessly flapping and uncertain Billy Wright, but as the victories of 1970 and 1971 faded, Bertie Mee had no alternative approach.  He could take a bunch of under achievers and make them overachieve, but not take a group who had overachieved but now were slipping, and re-motivate them to climb the peak once more.

Of course we can say that Mee bought the wrong players – but then no manager gets it right all the time.  What he absolutely failed to do was renew the players determination and energy.  They felt they had done it all and deserved recognition.  His response was to be remote and treat them like schoolkids.  Hence we moved from being runners’ up to 10th, then 16th and then 17th in the league in four seasons – and to be seriously flirting with relegation – until at last Mee left.

I thought of this when hearing the PSG president, Nasser al-Khelaïfi, speaking after the Tuesday night games.  He said, “First place had been our target.  We were first before this match. Now we are so disappointed with this game, the result, and also the quality of our own performance. We had so many chances, and made two errors at the back. So we lost two points, and with it first place.   Sure, we’ve qualified, but we would normally expect to win this game. I was expecting more of the players. All we can do is put it behind us, try and forget about it and hope they react. But I have confidence in my players, and in my coach.”

And maybe they will bounce back.  But PSG had just lost 3-0 in the previous league match and that final sentence about confidence in the players and coach doesn’t have the ring of a man bristling with the confidence and support he is proclaiming.

So this is what I am thinking about with what I might now call the Psychological Index.  Not measuring just the number of points gained, but also the feeling within the club.

Take Manchester City at the moment.  In the last 14 games in all competitions they have won four, lost four and drawn six.  Not exactly confidence boosting.  Last month the results were quite good: three wins two draws, and they might have thought they had shaken off October’s bad feelings (one win, two draws, three defeats in all competitions).

But in the end they came second in the Champs League table, six points behind the winner.  Then they heard that they could face fresh sanctions from Uefa after crowd trouble erupted during their game on Tuesday night – seemingly caused in part by poor segregation (although of course I wasn’t there so can’t really say).   They might only get a trifling fine which the owner can pay out of the small change in his pocket, but it is annoying.

And the wonderfully named Control, Ethics and Disciplinary division at Uefa might decide this is the moment to look again at booing the Champions League anthem.

It adds to the edginess within the club.  That can be used to create an “us against the world” mentality, or it can be left to fester.  Which the management does will have an impact on what happens next.

Yet despite it being such a central factor it is rare that journalists write about psychology;  perhaps they think it is too complex a subject for their readers.  Or maybe it is not manly enough.  And yet Ian Wright covered the issue very well in his autobiography, recognising the dangers of not handling the issue well, and being particularly critical of the PFA for not helping individual players more.

But still when journalists do touch on the topic, they tend to trivialise it in such an awful way that you can actually end up wishing they went back into their little box and focused on the pitch.

Yahoo did a piece after the Man U / Arsenal game concluding that, “The chance for Arsenal was to knock United out of their last remaining confidence, and out of the title race, psychologically if not mathematically. It was a chance to embrace real progress. As ever, they missed their chance, and merely strengthened the trend: they remain too Arsenal to succeed.”

The problem with that paragraph is that it is all too simplistic.  Man U’s confidence did take a knock and Arsenal’s confidence took far less of a knock, because, in my view, neither set of players would have seen the game on its own.  Arsenal were doing their “survive November” stint, and got a point playing poorly.  Man U were in desperate need of being able to show they could take on and beat an Arsenal side have their November dip, and didn’t.

The article did make a decent point – noting that Piers Morgan can be “At one point over the moon and lording it over defeated rivals on Twitter, and the next match he claims the sky is caving in, demanding the sacking of Arsene Wenger. The everyday fan has something of that in them, too. Arsenal are either going to finally turn the corner, or they are stuck in a rut in definitely, a sickening sarcastic self-parody.”

And yet that’s what the everyday Yahoo journalist does in that article taking a perceived long term failure of the squad and then suggesting it is representative of a total long term psychological mood.  But it was also possible to see the result of the Man U game as a positive – playing badly but still getting a draw and so feeling good about things.

It’s a complex topic, and needs a lot of analysis, and above all if you are going to talk psychology, you need a broader picture and less simplistic thinking.  Not something that most journalists are geared up to deliver.

Tales from Untold 

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Referee Appointments and Results Matchweek #12 complete with video evidence

The Rise and Rise of Eddie NKetiah

36 consecutive passes leading up to the second goal and the feelgood factor rises

CL Basel – Arsenal1-4 : A Lucas hattrick and top of the group!

Basel v Arsenal: the teams, the stats, the preview

Ref Review : Arsenal – Bournemouth

We all know November is Arsenal’s worst month. But what about December?

It looks like the squad is growing

Attending a football match doesn’t make them experts anymore than standing in a garage makes them mechanics.

4 comments to The psychology index: how the way players feel influences how they play

  • Dammy

    Back to Psychology eh?

    I am sure there is a place for Social Science in Sports and I would like to be able to believe in a measure of it’s impact. My younger brother is a United supporter and in the last couple of years has added “morale” as an excuse for below par performance. I disagree with such sentiments. There is nothing like empirically backed facts. They play better with a recognised holding CM, not because of a dip in team spirit or “morale.”

    I like “Motivation” if it can be measured or not- if a player or team is sufficiently motivated, they will achieve results. Djokovic accomplished a goal of holding all 4 tennis slams and his form took an astonishing spiral. Rosberg recently retired from F1 having reached his careers peak (Yes I watch other sports). Spuds capitulated shambolically on the final day of last season after making the CL but aware they would not win a maiden PL. All lost motivation.

    As much as I like motivation and want to accept other unquantifiable social factors, I will continue to prefer empirical stats which never tell the whole story of a match but establishes a pattern over a longer time. Rio (who I now dislike along with all the other “experts” for hire in sports studios these days- who all enjoy an Arsenal bashing) recently said the top 2 central defenders in the league were Koscielny and Alderweireld. A quick check on Squawka’s comparison tool shows he is 4th behind Van Dijk and Vertonghen, probably due to injury but nevertheless 4th.

    Perhaps some social scientist (or you) will some day publish a dissertation that will herald widely accepted measures of social factors in sport but until then, it is all opinions whether widely accepted or derided.

  • Gord

    Proof, eh?

    A person can throw science at some of this, and perhaps teams do. You will never see the data.

    We can measure a person’s core body temperature and the composition of the outbreath. We can look for surficial water and salts on the skin. With a sensitive microphone (or some optical techniques), we can measure heart rate. We may be able to use more or less intrusive means of measuring response time to stimuli (the old hitting the knee with a hammer thing). We can do blood (urine, …) tests.

    I suspect many of those measurements could be correlated with psychological/social variables. Those psychological/social variables are probably the only data you would ever see in the medja.

    So, you are stuck with determining how much you trust the psycho-babble, because you will not be given access to real data.

    Your comment about “motivation”, made me think about the motivation of holding a loaded gun to someone as a means of motivating them.

    It probably works for some tasks, but not for all. And it works differently in different people.

  • Robido

    Players often talk of confidence and form. Even at the lowly levels I have played my own experience is that when things go well the more difficult things get easier. Conversely when things don’t go so well it’s easy to slip into a negative spiral that stifles everything. “Trying harder” doesn’t always help and can make things worse.

    It was an interesting article – if there wasn’t a physocological element everything would be so much more predictable.

  • OlegYch

    this is ignored all too often
    thanks for the article, Tony