A topic discussed by Simon Hartley from consulting firm Be World Class is the last area I want to write about in some detail as part of my summaries on SALDN. Hartley talked about ‘controlling the shift in psychological momentum’ in sport and it is an area I found quite important that otherwise wasn’t really discussed at the conference.
Psychology at this event completely look a back seat – and that has been hammered home to me by hearing a presentation today at the Science + Football conference by psychologist Dr Misia Gervis. We probably all remember former England manager Glenn Hoddle’s attitude to the importance of psychology amongst players – he famously hired faith healer Eileen Drewery in the 90s (not exactly the kind of psychological support I would recommend though!). What about the state of psychology in sport today? Truth is I don’t really know but to me it seems to be another area that is kept in the shadows with the focus purely on pre-game mental preparation. Whilst reading this anyone with an interest or education in psychology may well notice a lack of substance and experience in the arguments that follow, but please bear with me!
Hartley used in his presentation the example of Newcastle vs Arsenal in February 2011: a game famous for the incredible comeback of Newcastle to draw the game 4-4 having been 0-4 behind after 26mins. The supporting evidence he used was quite patchy and I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it – for example he mainly drew upon passing volume stats to identify that the momentum shift in the game in Newcastle’s favour actually changed midway through the first half rather than when Diaby was sent off on 50mins with the score at 0-4. But, putting those gripes to one side, there is little doubt in my mind that momentum and psychology did play a big part in the comeback at whatever point of the game it changed. Examples of large swings in performance are well-known, from a tennis player who fights back to win from 2 sets down to Olympian Ben Ainslie who famously trailed his rivals in the London 2012 Olympics but ‘got angry’ and came back to win. The best example (of many) to occur in the past 12 months or so is perhaps Europe’s Ryder Cup victory last year when coming into the last day of play Europe were all but dead and buried, and yet they came back to record the biggest ever comeback win in Ryder Cup history.
What I find most intriguing about the Ryder Cup example is the seemingly contagious effect of a small change in fortune which spreads through both teams and somehow improves one set of players’ decision-making whilst at the same time stifling the other team. Pope & Schweitzer’s 2011 study into golf showed that a golfer putting for par is more likely to be successful than when putting for birdie even if the putt for birdie is of equal difficulty – a fantastic example of the effect of loss aversion on performance. The best players in individual sports have a propensity to reset their emotions and play each point/shot without changing their natural game or being unduly affected by a mistake. Could this expand to a kind of ‘herd’ mentality across a football team that is affected by confidence in the same way as financial markets? That is perhaps where leadership and experience are important in a team.
In my opinion it is certainly enough to explore more research into the psychology of players in a starting line-up to ensure that a team’s overall ‘mental durability’ is sufficient to withstand knocks (or lifts) to confidence. In terms of player recruitment in football, some form of this is likely to be already done to some degree. E.g. background checks on a player’s personality and whether or not they will cope in a pressured environment are already asked. But how can we improve that process? And should we integrate more regular psychological testing/screening into our current squad? Can ‘mental strength’ be accurately measured? Can it be taught, developed or improved? Does it change with age? If a player has a few experiences of winning from a losing position or vice-versa does it affect their future behaviour? These questions aren’t new, and I can imagine a body of data is needed to reach conclusions of any use but surely there is some value in investigation and a certain degree of experimentation. Perhaps it already exists and it’s just that I haven’t seen it!
For me, the home advantage ‘phenomenon’ in sport is an incredible opportunity for psychology to try and shed some further light in a quantifiable way. I am certainly no expert on the topic, but as an analyst I see more potential in reallocating resources towards this field – much in the same way that I am enthusiastic for more investment in pure performance analytics.