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.