HOW THE PLAYERS’ PSYCHOLOGICAL STATE AFFECTS THEIR PERFORMANCE….
By Don MacMahon
Anyone who has watched football, regardless of the level (perhaps with the exception of very young players) will realise that a team that is losing a match by more than one goal seems to find it an almost insurmountable obstacle in their efforts to get back into the match.
As well, we can all attest to the effects a serious injury to an important player can have on the team’s psychological equilibrium. But what exactly goes through the mind and psyche of professional players before, during and after a match and what effects do the various playing conditions exercise on their ability to perform?
I am NOT a sports psychologist (which is a very rigourous discipline and not for the faint-hearted) but I do have both coaching, officiating and playing experience at a respectable level and after almost 45 years of watching football at all levels, I have some ideas on the matter.
Lets break the analysis into three separate but interconnected phases. Pre-match preparation (mental), in-match attitude and psychology and after-match recuperation.
Most professional players will start preparing themselves mentally a day or so before the game is due to kick off.
Why so far ahead? Because their sense of comfort, confidence and balance may be fragile or at least unstable due to their last results or prior experience with their opponents.
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That is why a player will start ¨psyching¨himself up well before they actually take the field. That is one reason why the players universally ask the fans to cheer and vocally support them regardless of what happened before. This is particularly true of away matches where real AFC supporters and Gooners are renowned for being the 12th man, so to speak.
There are many questions flitting through the player’s mind before the kick-off. They already know whether they’ll be starting or not, or on the beach as Walter and Tony like to say. So their concerns might centre around the officiating they can expect (definitely a preoccupation in Arsenal’s case) , the likelihood of getting injured (again a major concern for any Gunner) and/or what they will do if they don’t play as they expect, but actually have a hard day at the office.
Keep in mind that there is NO player in the world who will say to hell with it….I don’t care whether I play well or not as long as I get paid. Any idiot who believes that should move to the US bible belt where anything is believable provided a pastor says it.
Sports psychologists tell us that players need to do at least two things while preparing for a match; follow a routine they enjoy and that comforts or settles them and visualize success rather than failure. That is a key reason why being booed by your pseudo supporters is particularly malicious and pernicious to their mental strength.
In every sport, starting out on the right foot is crucial for any player dealing with the nervousness and stress of a professional game. If a player bottles his first touch or makes a mistake right after entering the field, he will find it difficult to concentrate and may want to try too hard to recuperate his confidence. This can lead to more serious errors.
On top of that if he is booed by the fans, he’ll need a strong character and quiet spirit to overcome that punishment as well.
It is no surprise that many players won’t go to clubs whose fans are known for their negativity and pseudo-support. Players expect and need unconditional approval (as we all do) and will, when cheered on despite a poor start, usually perform ahead of the curve. Players play for themselves first, their teammates second, their manager after that and then their supporters.
That doesn’t mean that the fans are second best, since the passion and desire to win that a player displays is generated by a complicated combination of ALL these motivators and at any one time the player can be thinking of the fans ahead of all else.
Statistical research in sports medicine has shown that a team that is down or discouraged at the break will find it very hard to generate enough energy and overcome their mental and physical fatigue in the second half. Therefore, rather than just criticizing AFC for starting poorly (a criticism they too often merit), the true supporter should laud their team for coming back against mighty odds and thankfully our fans usually do. They should also admire Wenger for his ability to work against the odds all too often.
Depending on the outcome and the team’s current league status, a draw can seem like a defeat and a defeat can seem like a fatal blow. Players will de-stress after the match in many ways but one sure way they usually won’t is to listen to the media and internet chatter.
The manager will usually review the game with the players the next day or so and may even meet with individuals who need encouragement and support after a particularly hard game.
The player, whose stress and hormonal levels will be extremely high after a 90+ minute match will need to de-stress in the comfort of his home or with friends and/or family. Gone are the days where a player went for a ¨few¨ pints after the game and sometimes before the next game as well. Stricter player regimes (owing much to Wenger’s innovative philosophy) have significantly improved players overall fitness, preparedness and longevity in the Game.
A great player will analyze his and the team’s performance on his own but also depend on the manager to highlight things he saw but the player might have missed. If the player has a slight niggle, he will see to it that it is treated. Gone are the days where a niggle was ignored and a ¨stiff upper lip¨ was lauded as being truly manly and British (most nationalities towed this line). This attention to detail and preservation of a homogenous playing state is a crucial comfort to modern athletes and serves to stabilize their psychological state both before, during and after the match.
This is but a brief overview of some factors that affect the modern athlete in Football and other sports as well. There isn’t enough room on UA to deal with the complexities of a player’s full psychological life but this is a cursory attempt to introduce UA readers to this complex issue. The physical and psychological demands placed on professional athletes are enormous and while they are paid handsomely to perform, they share the same human frailties and needs as any of us do so our appreciation of this fact should caution our attitudes towards these men and women.