Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Psychology of Defending a Title

"Defending a title is much more difficult than winning one". One of the great cliches in sport. We hear it from pundits, commentators and column writers each time a team or individual embark on a journey to mirror a success from the previous season but they rarely explain their logic. This article does not aim to defend or attack this common belief but instead discuss the psychology surrounding this pursuit.

Anyone who is or has been involved in sport will appreciate the role of self-confidence in a successful performance; it's one of the key ingredients. The research tells us that there are four main building blocks for developing confidence, with previous experience/success being arguably the most important. There's nothing like doing well the last time for developing confidence. In the case of an athlete or team defending a title, they have experienced the ultimate success during the last occasion that they competed in the respective competition. As a result, you would expect that the winners would experience a heightened confidence level second time round. Logic would dictate that previous winners + increased self-confidence levels = an even more likely chance of winning the competition again. Yet apparently, more often than not, this logical outcome doesnt come to fruition. So why not?

Well let's look at the other side of the coin. It is often said that there is a fine line between confidence and over-confidence, could these increased levels result in a touch of arrogance and, consequently, complacency in the preparation for and during the competition? Pressure too may have a fundamental role. The athlete or team will now be favourite to win the competition and there will be a level of expectation, both internally and externally, to do so. Increased anxiety levels can significantly reduce performance levels, making it difficult to recapture previous winning form. Also, motivation may be significantly affected by an initial win. Having achieved a goal, it may be difficult to maintain identical levels of desire to replicate the achievement. Its human nature.

The idea to write this article came from Andy Murray's shock quarter final exit at the US Open, a tournament he won the previous year. To me, he seemed almost relieved to be out of the competition and admitted that he felt different as defending champion. From what I have heard and read, it seems as though the previous success and his career defining Wimbledon win affected his motivation to train for the US open, which affected his normally meticulous preparation and consequently reduced his self-confidence and increased anxiety to a point where he could not play his best tennis.

A huge amount of research would need to be conducted to either reinforce or dismiss this cliche. It is clear that a number of factors are involved here, however perhaps the most influential factor is one that separates all of us. Personality.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The psychological perspective of the summer Transfer Window

For the entire day last Tuesday, Sky Sports News' Jim White lay motionless in a dark room, signalling the end of yet another chaotic transfer window and 'Deadline Day'. A substantial amount of business was completed during the final moments of the 2 month-long window by some of the largest clubs in football and although there were times where I was almost as excited as the Scottish presenter, I spent the majority of the final hours pondering the psychology of this much talked about transfer free-for-all.

This summer, more than any other that I can remember, saw a number of professionals within the sport comment on the transfer window and the vast majority suggested that they were an unnecessary evil. Their biggest gripe was that if there was to be a transfer window, this should be closed before the first league game of the season is played. I am not sure that the fans would share these opinions, judging by the amount that were outside Premier League stadiums, desperate for an incredibly expensive car or helicopter to appear, right up to the 11pm deadline. As a sport performance consultant, concerned with both optimal performance and well-being in athletes, my allegiances lie with the managers and coaches on this one and I would like to explain why.

First of all, let's look at the manager or head coach's side of things. Almost as soon as the final whistle is blown in the final game of the season, the future of his squad is plunged into uncertainty and this is a feeling he must endure for the entire summer. Pre-season is a time for building and developing and this must be incredibly difficult to do under these conditions. I can't imagine the number of phone calls they must receive on a daily basis about player x, y and z from chief executives, scouts and those pesky agents. Managers, while already under significant pressure trying to build a successful squad for the coming season, must also prepare for the very real possibility that key players could be taken from his grasp with minutes of the deadline remaining and no time to source replacements.  Hence why we often see managers appearing stressed and anxious during the summer months. I also agree heavily with some opinions that suggest having this window open during the initial fixtures of the season significantly damages the integrity of the league. Transfer requests, failed bids and public interest ultimately make the opening league games a non-event and there is almost an anticipation to get the transfer window out of the way so that the season can begin in proper. Transfers will always occur but surely part of the purpose of having such windows is to minimise disruption during competition?

From a player's perspective too, a transfer window must be a real nuisance. People, athletes included, are motivated by a need for security in addition to feelings of belonging and worth. Including the winter window, for approximately a quarter of the year, footballers are deprived of these fundamental needs. As we are constantly reminded these days, every footballer has a price and so no one is safe. The uncertainty around their futures must be distracting and disruptive for even the most consummate professional. People tend to forget that footballers are also people who have families, responsibilities and everyday problems too and this uncertainty can result in greater consequences than the surface issue of playing for one club or another would suggest. Would the chairman cash in on me?  Should I uproot my family again? Am I naive not to take the opportunity of an increased salary? I am happy here and don't want to leave. These must be examples of just a few of the thoughts that the majority of footballers must experience throughout a transfer window;  they are only human. This type of thinking, where the outcome is unknown and uncontrollable, leads to doubts and ultimately anxiety. Anxiety is associated with low self-confidence and feelings of depression, which are detrimental to both well-being and performance. In the build up to, and during, an important season both player and manager require optimal performances and this is unlikely with the amount of uncertainty during this time of the year. Would you want to coach players low on confidence, lacking motivation and entertaining interest from other clubs when you are under significant pressure to get results? Me neither.

I am sure some will read this and say "footballers and football managers get paid mega bucks so they can deal with it" and offer no sympathy. What I would say is to try and walk in their boots first, or compare the situation to your own line of work and the thoughts and feelings you would experience under the same uncertainty. Highly paid or not, professional footballers are people doing a job like all of us and are motivated by the same fundamental needs as all of mankind. Transfers will always be part and parcel of the sport and that is a good thing. All I recommend is that transfer windows close before the competitive season begins, to protect both the integrity of professional football and the well-being of those who are fortunate enough to work within it.