Sports psychologists are all the rage, and for good reason.
It’s not just in football either. British tennis number one Johanna Konta has risen from 150 in the world to the top 10 in the space of 18 months. She puts much of her meteoric rise down to the work of her late sport psychologist Juan Coto.
Arsenal have stepped up the focus on sports psychology this year, starting to work with Dr Ceri Evans, the man credited with turning the All Blacks into Rugby World Cup winners.
There are really only two types of games we face – ones where everyone expects us to lose, typically to our close rivals both domestically and in Europe, and ones where we are overwhelming favourites. In light of the midweek debacle, it’s the latter I’d like to focus on in this column.
Why do we sometimes struggle as the favourites?
Truth is, being the favourite is something of a no-win situation. If you do collect the maximum points, it’s simply a case of meeting expectations. You’re expected to triumph, so there’s no real upside when you do. Indeed, you’re often criticised instead for the manner of victory. Meanwhile, if you lose then it is a total disaster. This lose-lose scenario cranks up the pressure.
Being the favourite can work out in your favour, and you can psyche out supposed lesser opponents. However, this is only true if you start well. A strong start plays on the insecurities of an opponent who perceive themselves to be weaker, and pervades a feeling of inevitability. But a weak start only serves to embolden them.
Did you know, 75% of athletes prefer to be the underdog? It’s all upside for the underdog; they can relax and let their natural talent pull through.
Some sides can cope with the tag of favourites, but that superiority is often built up over time. Take the Invincibles – the longer the run went on, the more they developed an unshakable confidence in their ability. Meanwhile, opponents became resigned before the game even began.
As Ray Parlour says in Amy Lawrence’s brilliant ‘Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season’: ‘You could sense the nerves in the other team. We always used to say to each other, “They think they’re going to lose already; let’s not disappoint them.”’
Why is it different playing against underdogs?
You only have to think of the atmosphere in the crowd when we’re playing a ‘big’ game. On big European nights against the likes of PSG, Bayern, Barca, the Emirates is bouncing. And when domestic rivals rock up, there’s nervous tension, but also a fantastic atmosphere. That rubs off on the players, even if they weren’t already up for the game.
It’s a bit different when mid-table teams or relegation fodder visit us. The Emirates isn’t quite the library some would have you believe, but neither is it always a cauldron of noise. The atmosphere is definitely slightly sleepier when the result is presumed more secure.
To be clear, there is no excuse for not being up for a game. No, nix, nada.
But whisper it, it’s ok to have to work on that.
Players are human
It’s completely natural (and acceptable) to approach a game you are expected to win, well, expecting to win it. Initially. But you need to have the awareness of that feeling, and to take steps to address it.
We know from bitter experience that failure to do so means a bit less sharpness, a bit less desire. 50:50s suddenly become 75:25s and not in our favour. Fine margins start to go against us, and in the Premier League that’s all it takes to make you lose. While they might not all be equal in terms of consistency, increasingly any team can take points off any other team.
Instead, we need to focus on the things we can control. That’s not the referee, the crowd, or the fact that the opposition goalkeeper will probably have the game of his life. Instead, we need to mentally prepare to deliver maximum energy, movement, and simple old-fashioned hard work. Put in those raw ingredients, remain patient, and you’re much more likely to deliver a solid performance.
If players and manager fail to prepare in this way, however, you end up with the Watford game. We didn’t do the simple things well, we didn’t start the game with the intensity required at the top level. And by the time we realised that, we’d left ourselves too big a mountain to climb. It turns out you can’t expect to score late goals in every single game.
Patience and complacency are uncomfortable bedfellows
Arsenal seem somewhat more prone to these types of mental lapses than some of our rivals. I believe part of that is down to our patient philosophy. How often have we heard Wenger talk about giving the players time to solve the problem? If we defend well and remain patient, so the philosophy goes, then we should eventually break our opponent down.
We’ve often seen this come to fruition when we’ve scored late goals to win games this season – think Burnley (twice), West Brom, Preston, even Ludogorets.
However, other times it can be our biggest weakness. Whenever we get off to a slow start, our focus of patience is a distraction. It takes us a long time to recognise that we’re not actually being patient, instead we are being complacent. We convince ourselves that we’re trying, and if we remain patient we will triumph, rationalising that complacency and giving ourselves a free pass.
Sometimes we get away with it, like the Preston game where we started slowly but woke up when we were still in the game. Other times, like against Watford, we pay for that complacency. By the time we realised that our “patience” was complacency, we were 2-0 down. Another day, we might have got the second goal after half time to spur on a push for a winner, and we would have been papered over the psychological cracks. Instead, we lost ground on our rivals on a matchday when we had an opportunity to close the gap on Chelsea.
It looks like we don’t care. Instead, we failed to prepare appropriately.
Work to do for Dr Evans, then.