Monday, 10 March 2014

When it suits...

In the week that the English football team openly announced that they would be employing a sport psychologist for this summer's World Cup, I thought I would write about something that I picked up on during this weekend's FA cup tie between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic.

Before I get into my observation, I'd like to briefly give my opinion on the aforementioned appointment. Sport psychology, particularly in football, is still, in my opinion, hugely undervalued and underused. It is refreshing to hear Roy Hodgson and Steven Gerrard talk candidly about the influence that a sport psychologist has had and will have, both individually and collectively. With regards to the much discussed penalty kicks, a sport psychologist can armour players with the knowledge and skills to reduce anxiety and enhance their chance of finding the net - few would argue that the team would benefit from this type of support. I hope that this raises the profile of sport psychology and results in a wider use in football and in sport in general, from grass roots to elite level.

Now, back to the article. Did anyone else notice Manchester City manager, Manuel Pellegrini's, attire during Sunday's shock defeat at home to Championship side Wigan? I can't claim to have seen all of Manchester City's matches this season, however whenever I have, the manager has been very sharply dressed in a suit on the sidelines. So what was he wearing against the lower league Wigan on Sunday? That's right, a hoodie. Now before you double take, this is really not a fashion article. The purpose of this article is to highlight the impact that small, trivial, thoughtless things can have on the psychology of athletes.

"I think we played the worst first half we have played in my time here". Who better to judge than the manager himself? Now, as a top class manager, Manuel will this week be trying to figure out why this happened now - what was different? To do this he must be aware of patterns in terms of his and the squad's regular approach to matches and highlight any changes, conscious or unconscious, to his approach. In my opinion, the manager's change in attire and the resulting performance, particularly in the first half, are no coincidence. Now I am not saying for one second that this is why Manchester City are out of the cup, but what I am saying is that this was a contributing factor in their shock exit. Put yourself in the players' shoes: you see the manager every weekend in a suit, looking confident, authoritative and classy. You get used to this approach, which conveys professionalism and sound preparation, and City's results and performances this season have been very consistent and very positive. You then go into a match against a lower league side, who you are widely expected to beat by all, and your manager has changed his preparation. He swaps two-piece for track and 45 minutes later he is dealing with the worst first half performance of his reign.

For me, being an elite coach is about striving to find successful formulas and recipes for success. In my opinion, Manuel Pellegrini appears to have already discovered this formula during his short reign and it was serving him well. He decided to alter one tiny, insignificant aspect of his preparation and the result was disastrous. The manager would likely not have wasted one thought on this, however swapping a suit jacket for a hoodie could convey a relaxed attitude and could be construed as an arrogance and a lackadaisical approach to this match. It could say that this match doesn't require or deserve the standard approach and could be construed as a lack of professionalism and respect. Football players are human too and some of the Manchester City starters would have picked up on this subtle change, which may have affected their individual motivation and confidence levels. This can spread like wildfire throughout a team and before you know it, you cannot achieve that intensity, desire and collective confidence required to perform at your best. Preparation in sport is incredibly important, and a consistent preparation is even more so. Are you doing everything you can to prepare in the same way for each performance? Are you aware of subtle, trivial aspects that others may notice? Find a formula and stick to it as much as possible, not just when it suits. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

From Men to Moyes

The current goings on at Manchester United are at the tip of every football enthusiast's tongue at the moment; everyone has a respective opinion. As I write this, they are sitting in 7th place, 14 points behind the leaders with 16 games remaining. This, for many, is incomprehensible after United's period of dominance during the Sir Alex Ferguson era and I include myself in this. We are all so used to them being title contenders that their current predicament has become a huge issue, and for those of a red persuasion anyway, a huge concern, especially after winning the title only 8 months ago with the same group of players. Now I am certainly not claiming to have the answers or solutions to this problem and this article only aims to examine the psychology behind possible reasons for this season's demise.

Hypothesis 1: The Sir Alex Ferguson Effect

It would take a brave person to argue that Sir Alex Ferguson is not the best football manager Britain has ever seen after witnessing his dominance over 26 years at Old Trafford. As a 'man-manager' and a psychologist, he is undoubtedly one of the best as time and time again he got the very best out of people. He was also a master at creating teams with individuals who often had sizeable ego's and the phrase 'Fergie Time' was coined due to the amount of last minute equalisers and winners his teams scored. This was no coincidence, in my opinion - Sir Alex knew what he was doing! His departure in May has coincided with a slump in form and a malaise at Old Trafford and again, in my opinion, this is no coincidence. I imagine that the group of players felt, and continue to feel, a huge loss when he - the man many have called a 'father figure' - retired. He made players feel confident, comfortable, secure, part of something big. He gave them a purpose, he knew them as players and as people and he knew exactly how to motivate each individual to get every last ounce out of them. He made the great players crave his attention and he told his weaker players how great they were because he knew they might let him down. For 26 years, he was Manchester United and a loss like that cannot go unnoticed. Putting it very simply, people in general don't like change and there couldn't have been a bigger change at Manchester United during the summer. Usually when a manager leaves a football club, it is under a negative circumstance where players, staff and chief executives are desperate for change to end a poor run. However, this situation is completely the opposite - the only person connected with Manchester United who wanted a change was Sir Alex Ferguson.

Hypothesis 2: From Men to Moyes

So in comes David Moyes from Everton, who many, including Sir Alex himself, saw as the natural successor. Many saw him as the man to take over from the mantle of 38 trophies in 26 years, even though he had not won a piece of silverware after 11 years at Everton. The players, still reeling from the sudden loss of Sir Alex, must have picked up on this fact and they could not possibly trust this new man as they did their old gaffer. What is a relationship without trust? Motivation and confidence is reduced, anxiety increased and good performances are difficult to produce under these conditions. Then, when Moyes actually has his feet under the desk, he is completely different from his hugely trusted and incredibly successful predecessor. Training is different, tactics are different, his communication style is different, his leadership skills are different, his motivational climate is different, his confidence- and team-building techniques are different. Everything's different. Without mutual trust, respect, commitment and confidence how can a leader expect to succeed? As a distant on-looker, there seems to be elements of frustration between coach and athletes at the moment, best displayed by Moyes' body language and post-match interview after their shock penalty defeat to Sunderland. The same players who gave everything for Ferguson seem reluctant to do the same for Moyes and we have never seen a Manchester United side make so many fundamental mistakes.

Hypothesis 3: Timing is Everything

Who's to say that psychology is actually the answer here? Could it be that Moyes has inherited a squad which has peaked with several players now past their best all at the same time? Did Sir Alex know this and decide to leave the required rebuilding job to his successor? There is certainly an argument that the vast majority of United's players this season have simply not been good enough and are performing significantly differently to how they did last season. Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra now look too old for the Premier League while Cleverley, Rafael, Fellaini, Smalling, Nani and Young suddenly don't look anywhere near good enough to wear the red jersey. The previously mentioned penalty shoot out portrayed a great degree of stress across the faces of Welbeck, Jones, Januzaj and Rafael, with only Darren Fletcher scoring and looking as though he was believing he would score. Moyes does need new players, there's no doubt about that, however there must be a niggle or two in the back of his mind wondering why he can't get these players to perform like Sir Alex did only a matter of months ago. A good manager gets the best out of what he's got, in my opinion and this particular has a reigning Championship winning squad at his disposal.

These are of course just a few of my own thoughts about the current situation at Old Trafford and the issues may be far more simple or far more complex than those that I have raised. The answer is more than likely a combination of all three and more due to the complex nature of the transition that Manchester United are dealing with. Moyes will be given time, he has a six-year contract, however he will want to prove to the players, the fans and himself soon that he has what it takes to follow British football's greatest ever manager. A top four finish would be a good start.