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The psychology of winning.

by Don McMahon

As you may know, I am a retired educational psychologist, so I know a bit about psychological evaluation, assessment, interpretation and behaviour management, to name a few items.

The term ¨psychology¨is bandied about far too often by people who have little or no idea about what psychology really is. They confuse it with cognitive functioning (thinking, interpreting, reacting) or with emotional/affective functioning (feelings, perceptions, emotions) or worse still with intellectual and mental aquity (intelligence, smartness,wisdom).

Sports psychology, which is a branch of applied psychology (as compared to research or abnormal psychology) is a valid and well researched discipline. By the old, broadly accepted definition psychology is the study of human and animal behaviour and their consequences. Therefore sports psychology studies and works with athletics and exercise and is applied to professional or amateur endeavours equally.

Tony is right to say that ¨I’ve learned to be cautious about drifting too far into a social science explanation of football,¨ as the sport is a very complex and convoluted competition and cannot easily respond to off the cuff pop psychological explanations as the media tries to do all too often.  They try and tell us what we as fans are thinking, feeling, believing etc when really they don’t have a clue, because they can’t possibly know.

Gord and Dammy want empirical evidence, which basically means psychological and research findings, statistics, published data and techniques supporting issues and interventions for sports management. There is a vast library of such research and I imagine that it exists for Football as well.

Here is the rub;

  1. There are between 20 and 50 factors contributing to a player and team’s efficiency and effectiveness and among them is their psychological stability, personality and well-being, but it is NOT the most significant factor.
  2. Personality characteristics (there are between 16 and 40 well-defined traits psychologists have discovered so far) have a significant impact on how efficient and effective a player or team can be.
  3. Personal mental equilibrium can be very dynamic and can change dramatically from one day to another as can personal affect, mood, confidence, perception, focus and cognitive equilibrium, etc.
  4. Wenger often refers to belief, self-confidence, mental preparedness, team strength, urgency, focus, determination, patience, energy levels, fighting spirit, intensity, maturity, creativity, perseverance, quality, endurance, vulnerability, winning attitude, and enthusiasm when he assess his team’s performances. These are part of the framework that constitutes a team’s psychological balance and profile. However he can never deal with all 25 or so players in every detail.
  5. While psychology is a scientific study, unlike neurology or neuro-psychology, it is not an exact science just yet. Progress has been exponential in the last few decades, especially with recent neurological and anatomical discoveries about how the body-brain (or more properly the neurophysical) connection works.

If any readers want to understand a little about how human psychological homeostasis functions (homoeostasis – in layman’s terms the ideal balance between damaging excess and painful absence) they can think of their everyday experience of mood swings, emotional crises, stressors and stress responses and multiply that by many factors in a professional athlete’s life. When those critical of a player’s performance attribute that to some simplistic explanation like the conviction he doesn’t ¨care¨ or he has ¨lost the plot¨ or he is ¨tired¨ or he is ¨lazy¨ or some other euphemism for the fact that the critique hasn’t the least idea what is happening, it is both counter-productive and insulting.

When professional athletes need psychological support, assistance, guidance and remediation, here are a few things that sports psychologists do to augment that athlete’s performance;

  • Relaxation training to help the person de-stress,
  • Ideation (the forming of ideas and concepts) about success and achieving their goals,
  • Meditation exercises to aid in managing psycho-physiological events,
  • Self-analysis to uncover subconscious and unconscious issues,
  • Hypnosis to augment personal cognitive and creative strengths,
  • Personality assessments to determine an accurate psychological profile,
  • Emotional conditioning to aid in managing phobic tendencies and negativity.

There are many more techniques and tactics that can help an athlete perform at a superior level but as I have already mentioned, this is an incredibly complex area in which new research is handing us new information all the time.


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10 comments to The psychology of winning.

  • Gord

    Thanks? 🙂

    I’m guessing this comes from a previous thread, where someone was looking for how psychology might be used in a sports team? I think I was pulling physiological things out of a hat, which might be correlated against psychological things?

  • Saadman

    I recently read something about this sports psychologist named ceri Evans who worked with the new Zealand rugby team and helped them in winning back to back world cup championships. I read that arsenal is working with him. Do you think this might turn out to be a positive recruitment for us as some people argue that arsenal needs an improvement in mental conditioning to start winning big trophies?

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin

    Talking of psychology in particular for Arsenal football, I think this argy-bargy mode we’ve entered into as a result of Arsenal losing back to back PL game to dropped down to 4th in the table. But this losing frailties can be successfully augmented if Le Prof becomes innovative in making his next Gunners starts and in their playing positions too.

    Le Prof should not continue to hold on to a starting XI Gunners team that’ve gone stale to lose back to back PL game. But he should introduce innovations into his squad. More so in his PL game starters to make them eccentric to hit an unbeaten 21 PL games run to see the Gunners collecting 56 points from the collectible 63 points total to amassed a total of 90 points to win the Premier League title this season.

    Baring any unforeseen injury scares happening to any Gunner before we host the WBA game at the Ems on Boxing Day, my starts and bench in line with this innovations I’ve talked about are as follows:

    Cech
    Paulista Holding Koscielny Gibbs
    Elneny Xhaka
    Bellerin Ozil Perez
    Sanchez.

    Bench:
    Ospina Jenko/Niles Monreal Coquelin Walcott Iwobi Giroud.

    LeCoq/Xhaka axis was responsible for our conceding the offside goal to Sane as the base duo carelessly lost the ball at centre-midfield to Sane to start running towards Cech. Bellerin speed is exhilarating at right wing-back which we all saw yesterday when he took the ball from our half to Man City’s box but couldn’t finish off the running away with the ball he has started. Therefore. I’ll start him at rightwing for our WBA game while I’ll start the better at RB than at CB – Paulista at rightback. I’ll start Gibbs for a change at LB as a punishment for Monreal losing ground to Sterling to score against us and preferred the experienced Perez to start at LW to the inexperienced Iwobi.

  • Fransico

    Yes it is very important when it comes to anything in life really. We really have been done over by the ref in the last game but I still think we dropped our heads

    Poor old Alexis was the only one surging the team forward, even he got fed up at the end.

  • omgarsenal

    Saadman…..I am convinced that any support and advice a sports psychologist can offer to our Gunners is important and will have a positive effect. Wenger is an excellent player manager and knows what the lads need to achieve success so he’ll use every edge he can get.

    Right now the team is reeling from two poor displays but now they have that out of the way they can focus on returning to winning ways. They need counseling less than many of our fickle plastic aaa fanboys do.

  • para

    I personaly have no use for psychology as instinctively i sense something wrong with it’s concepts. Basically it’s the way of reading one’s psyche(mind and behaviour) in order to mainly control it.

    Beyond that, it is applied to various sub-fields including football.

    Still the team is going back to past ways, which i thought we had left behind this season, alas it seems there are still bits of it hanging on to us.

    Personally, i do not innerstand why/how a team can fold in such an important game, especially when they(opposition) have their best players missing unless there is some other reason we know nothing about.

    I still think Arsenal will win PL, i have an idea it’s all about betting. All the bets will be on Chel$ now, then they crash leaving the outsider Arsenal to come through.

    Ok, OK i’m reaching here, but it’s surely possible, especially in this world we live in?

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Thanks , for this very informative article , Don. Truly and duly appreciated.

    I just cannot imagine the personal pain and the anguish that the team and management are undergoing with all the lopsided and unfair hurdles that they have to weekly surmount .

    As a supporter , like others , I too sometimes feel frustrated and helpless . Just think what personal pain that they have to endure . It does not help that they are accused of not trying or too quick in giving up .

    That the EPL is fixed , I have no doubt. That the Arsenal are being targeted, I believe too , but there is no evidence that I could personally furnish. This site has cited many strange going ons , that some may chose to believe is only conspiracy theories .

    FIFA , UIEFA , Sepp Blatter , Michel Platini , the WC being awarded to less than savory countries , the on going Greek tragedy , the list go on. Am I to believe that it is not happening in England ?

    One day the truth will come out , and I believe that we WILL be vindicated . In the meantime , I will remain faithful to the team and manager . Am hoping for a a really happy and productive festive period .

    Up the Gunners !

  • Brickfields Gunners

    An xxxxx man walked into a restaurant in London. As soon as he entered, he noticed an yyyyy guy sitting in the corner.

    So he walked over to the counter, removed his wallet and shouted, “Waiter! I am buying food for everyone in this restaurant, except that yyyyy guy over there!”

    So the waiter collected the money from the man and began serving free food to everyone in the restaurant, except the yyyyy man.

    However,instead of becoming upset, the yyyyy guy simply looked up at the xxxxx man and shouted, “Thank you!”

    That infuriated the man. So once again, the xxxxx man took out his wallet and shouted, “Waiter! This time I am buying bottles of wine and additional food for everyone in this bar, except for that yyyyy guy sitting in the corner over there!”

    So the waiter collected the money from the man and began serving free food and wine to everyone in the bar except the yyyyy guy .

    When the waiter finished serving the food and drinks, once again, instead of becoming angry, the yyyyy guy simply smiled at the xxxxx man and shouted, “Thank you!”

    That made the xxxxx man furious. So he leaned over on the counter and said to the waiter, “What is wrong with that yyyyy guy ? I have bought food and drinks for everyone in this bar except him, but instead of becoming angry, he just sits there and smiles at me and shouts ‘Thank you.’ Is he mad???”

    The waiter smiled at the xxxxx man and said, “No, he is not mad. He is the owner of this restaurant.

    May your enemies work unknowingly in your favour.

  • Liam

    We can spend this season the way we have spent the last 10 seasons…. debating in finer detail the micro-transactional reasons why Arsenal are where they are….. or we can use the duck test, to sumize the current state of the club.Wikipedia – “the duck test” The Duck test is a humorous term for a form of abductive reasoning. This is its usual expression:If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.The test implies that a person can identify an unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics. It is sometimes used to counter abstruse, or even valid, arguments that something is not what it appears to be.In the case of Arsene Wenger – if he looks like a failure, acts like a failure and sounds like a failure…. then he probably is a failure.People can blame the players, the fans, injuries, referees, the weather, the luck of the draw, finances, the board, heck they can blame UFOs for all it matters…..The one constant at Arsenal over the last 10 years is Arsene Wenger and he alone is the reason Arsenal have failed to compete in the Premier League or Europe during that time.Until Arsene Wenger leaves, Arsenal will continue to fall short of what is required to compete. Watching other big clubs and how they replace mediocraty and keep replacing it until they achieve success only serves to highlight just how celebrated failure is at Arsenal.Failure has become so ingrained in the psyche of some fans that they no longer object to it, even going so far as to attack those who do.The mindset of the club from it’s board to it’s manager to it’s players to (some of) it’s fans is rotten…. Arsenal have convinced the world that in sport, failure to compete is acceptable… when the only true purpose of sport is to win!Somehow that sentiment has been lost over the last 10 years and it is likely to stay lost until a new manager arrives…. until then, that lame old duck will continue to quack away…. and Arsenal will continue to be synonymous with failure.

  • Liam, I really quite enjoyed your commentary, as it seems to have been written without any awareness of the approach adopted by this site. A bit like finding a magazine on bee keeping and writing a letter to it and saying “bee keeping is bad” and expecting to have it published.

    In essence “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck” is just another way of saying “the evidence of my own eyes” which of course means the sun moves round the earth, and that a person standing 20 yards away from you is actually one inch tall. That electricity doesn’t exist because it can’t be seen and that gravity is not one of the four fundamental forces of the universe but rather quite untrue because I can’t actually see gravity. All very droll, Thanks for that. Quite gave me a smile.