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Football | Sports Psychology
Is the manager to blame?

When a football team experiences a bad run, doesn’t win matches nor obtains the results its supporters expect, the first one to be pointed at is the coach. If it doesn’t overcome the crisis in the short term, the collective pressure can trigger an immediate dismissal like Ernesto Valverde’s in Barça or Pablo Machín’s in Espanyol.

But, is it all the manager’s fault? Do they use sports psychology to improve the team’s dynamic? What is the margin of reaction that clubs have? We have talked about these and more with Vicenç Raluy, a sports psychologist.

The team is in a crisis, they don’t obtain results, lack of scoring, the dynamic is negative, and it seems that they are not capable of turning the situation around. Is it the coach’s fault?

The coach is the main responsible for the performance of a football team, but it is not always the culprit. In fact, it happens in all sports, but it is particularly evident in football because there is a lot of money involved and It is easier and cheaper to change the coach instead of the football players.

Despite everything, it is true that the team ends up adopting the nature and mood of the manager, his leadership style.

Is this the reason why Barça’s bad results were attributed to the Valverde’s relaxed personality, lacking outburst?

At least this is what it could be inferred. However, there might be a huge difference between what it is really happening inside the club and what it is told. The role of the board and the dynamics of the ego and power among the players should also be considered.

There are valuable players that have the power to dismiss a manager and destabilize an entire club…

No president would like to be responsible for losing a Messi, for example. The power that some players have comes from the president of the club himself or from the board.

Then, how can a coach mange and make his voice heard in a group full of egos if he is not given the trust or authority from above? There are young and self-centred players who, when they detect that they can do whatever they like to favour their own desires, they do it.

The fact that they have reached the highest level one can dream of in football, does not mean that they take it seriously or that they are well-behaved and hard worker players. Some try to sneak and work as little as possible, some party when they shouldn’t… We are all aware of the bad relationship between Samuel Eto’o and Pep Guardiola which ended with the player leaving Barça.

Guardiola himself explained that, to protect an emerging Messi and prevent him from losing direction, Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o needed to be excluded from the squad, as they were players that didn’t share the daily work, sacrifice and commitment culture that Guardiola wanted in the dressing-room.

Guardiola was unconditionally supported by the board. Joan Laporta and Txiki Begiristain gave him this power despite, back then, Guardiola was not known as a manager. They gave him the authority to set his rules and it worked.  

Did Valverde lose his authority and the board’s support?

I think that Ernesto Valverde progressively lost his authority as a coach. But, most likely, it wasn’t due to his apathy, on the contrary he got his bridges burned, he ended up not having any tools and just survived day after day.

And Pablo Machín in the Espanyol?

I think that Machin didn’t have time. Moreover, he had the focus on the outcome instead of focusing on the improvement that the team needed.

When things are not working, a coach needs to improve the way of playing, the team’s plan. And then, results will follow. But if you get obsessed with obtaining certain results and you don’t tell players how to do it, you will only get stressed players, because the outcome doesn’t depend on them. It is the way of playing that depends on them.

How many games are lost despite having played a good match? And how many games are won despite having played badly? We can’t control the outcome, but we can control the style of playing, the concentration, the team’s mood…

On the contrary, Abelardo arrived at the Espanyol talking about the ‘challenge’ instead of the ‘problem’. And this is a more constructive approach, it means that he is more focused on finding solutions. It is not a guarantee of success, but it is a beginning.

But the manager of a first division team is not alone! He has a technical staff among which there is a sports psychologist, right?

Yes, it should be like this. But often the psychologist is the club’s psychologist not only for the team and the staff and, often, it is not given the importance it has.

For instance, in the Barça, Luis Enrique had a sports psychologist, Joaquín Valdés, who worked for all the team, even though Luis Enrique always said it was for him. This way he would keep pressure off the players and win the press over of headlines like “certain player has visited the club’s psychologist”.

Joaquín Valdés was at every training session, game, etc. And his job was to observe the communication among players, the coach, the dynamic of the group, etc. And he did so from a psychological point of view. Luis Enrique explains it in the documentary “Los hombres de Lucho”

“In life, having the head in its place, being emotionally stable, being mentally healthy is basic. Now, mind you mention a psychologist in football”. [...] “I want him to be on the pitch, I want him to see the players’ reactions, our reactions, to watch how I manage the stressful moments, which are a lot in this job…”

Luis Enrique’s approach seems appropriate…

It is well planned, in fact, Luis Enrique takes with him Joaquín Valdés everywhere he goes. But, in the end, who decides whether to listen or not to the sports psychologist is the coach…

Football is getting more and more scientific and there are more personnel calculating and analysing data, statistics and variables to help the team improve. But it is on the manager to listen to these specialists.

Before being dismissed, Pablo Machín said: “Nor a psychologist, guru, hypnotist nor the best coach in the world can change the dynamic overnight. The best is to change it with a goal, even an unfair one”. What do you think?

Either he is a coach with an old fashioned idea of what football is, who doesn’t trust all this scientific part and thinks that he can control everything on his own or, he didn’t’ want the press to focus on this issue and he said so to protect the team.

In any case, he didn’t place sports psychologists in high regard as he put them on the same level as gurus or hypnotists…

Certainly not. Neither the club’s psychologist in the Espanyol.

Why is there such great reticence about admitting that footballers also need the help of a psychologist?

There are lots of coaches that think that is part of their job. Thus, admitting that they are being helped in something that they consider it is a fundamental part of their job is like admitting that they are not good leaders. Or they simply still have an old vision of football.

There are also coaches who know how to surround themselves with the best physical trainers, nutritionists, coaching staff and psychologists, but they hide it, either to protect the team or because they want to be the only ones to get the credit.

How do all these sudden changes of managers, sometimes in the middle of the season, affect the team?

Changing coaches in the middle of a season has a great impact on the team. This is not the best scenario, but it shakes the team so hard that everyone needs to pull their socks up. Even the laziest player needs to start working because, at least, he needs to be in the market at the end of the season.

There might also be an increase in the levels of stress which might cause injuries, thus, stress levels must be monitored.


Other articles that might interest you:
5 psychological keys to get back in the game
How do emotions influence sport performance?
Toña Is, la exseleccionadora nacional que ha roto todas las barreras


Photo: CC Flickr