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.

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