It occurred to me earlier, as I was routinely avoiding doing anything of note in work, that I’ve made little use of my university degree. The University of Glasgow, in a move as dumbfounding as a manager signing Kieron Dyer over the years, saw fit to award me an Honours Degree in Psychology. My effort during said learning, and subsequent lack of utilising the knowledge, is a good indication as to why it wasn’t really deserved.

I do still enjoy the subject though, and believe there’s a lot to be said for the knowledge it provides in relation to judging footballers. On and off the field, players are treated less and less as human beings these days. They’re expected to show an unattainable level of perfection in just about everything they do.

With that in mind, I feel the following article can be of use. Psychology is the study of human behaviour, not just a “tell me about your childhood” counselling scenario. Through scientific method and extrapolation, psychologists attempt to explain why we act as we do. Sports psychologists will use various sources to try and help clients or clubs, many of which would seem strange on first reflection. As I’ve explained above, I have an Honours Degree, which in reality gives me enough right to point to some pop psychology and say “I don’t think that’s correct”, full in the knowledge that it’s been over 5 years since I graduated and evidence may now tell us otherwise. This isn’t intended to be in-depth, but to take some well-known psychological phenomena or biological facts and show how they relate to football. You may find some of it a stretch, or think that it’s nonsense, but I’d hope to at least get you thinking in a way you may not have considered before, and I absolutely welcome discussion and feedback.


The first of these I’d like to consider is Diffusion of Responsibility, or the Bystander Effect. This is where people can be seen to walk away or ignore a seemingly serious situation because there’s a number of bystanders, so the feeling of responsibility is lessened. If you saw 5 people walk past a man lying on the street, you’d question whether or not you should do anything. After all, if they think nothing is wrong, why should you?

There’s two aspects to this which are worth considering in footballers. Firstly, the notion that being part of a group can see you look to others for guidance, or even decide that the responsibility for something going wrong isn’t all down to you. In a recent interview, Steve McLaren described the difference between British and Dutch players – he believed that footballers in Holland were more tactically aware and made decisions on the park without too much instruction. From a young age, they’re asked to solve problems they’re given in training and in games on their own, and the coach is there to support when required. In contrast, a lot of British players will simply do as they are told, and rely on the manager to talk them through things. If they’re not playing well, they can simply blame the manager, or tactics, or teammates, because none of that is their responsibility. Footballers everywhere play to win, but that’s not enough. When you see players from certain countries do things on the ball which British players don’t seem capable of any more, it’s largely because they are playing with the confidence and belief that comes from having learned the game in a deeper way than just “this is your job”. There’s not as much panic or loss of composure in many cases because they trust both themselves and their teammates to work things out. They don’t walk past the man on the street or look for someone else to step up, they figure out how to help him.

This is the reason why so many teams magically improve when a manager is sacked. Players have been simply blaming someone else other than themselves for poor performances, and when that excuse is gone, they have to find ways to justify their actions. It’s also the point behind the Tactical Periodisation that Caixinha has mentioned he’s bringing to Rangers. He’s asking the players to work things out rather than need to be told, and it’ll be interesting to see how many can adapt.

The second aspect is a more abstract one, and that’s the ability to understand what someone else is seeing. When you see the other bystanders walking by, you are imagining what they’ve witnessed, and attributing a motive to their actions. If you were unable to do that, you wouldn’t have that hesitation in helping or be influenced by others not doing so. It’s easy to see where that fits in for a footballer – it’s a team game, and your decisions are based hugely upon what your teammates do. This is where an understanding of playing various positions is key. It’s easier to put yourself in the shoes of another if you’ve actually attempted to fulfil their role. Reaction times are quicker when it comes to visualising your next move if you’ve experienced the point of view, made the same mistakes, or such like. There’s a belief that playing together more often will help a team grow, and plenty of evidence would suggest that, but it’s also the case that some players are just less capable of doing this efficiently enough to be an asset. It’s something every manager would look out for in their players.


That leads us into the next consideration, that of Perception. We have a huge amount of understanding of the biology behind how we see and feel things, but the psychology behind it is fascinating. Visual illusions, the way our brain will try to fill in gaps or completely trick us despite the senses providing all the required information, or even just how the brain has to operate when taking in sensory information is all very important when it comes to human behaviour.

And in football, this is a huge reason why zonal marking has become so popular. It’s impossible to focus on two things at once. Our brain can work quickly enough to make you believe that you are, but it’s a physical impossibility. When you’re asked to mark a man at a set piece, you’re asked to watch his run, keep an eye on the movement around you so as not to be blocked off, and know where the ball is going. It’s asking a lot from a physical perspective. In zonal marking, you’re asked to attack the ball if it comes into the space you’re occupying. Mentally, that’s a lot easier to do, and it helps players concentrate on the most important thing – the ball – rather than anything else. It winds me up loads when pundits and ex-players go on about zonal marking, with the best argument they seem to come up with against it being “you know who is responsible” when it doesn’t work. That’s not an argument for anything at all, it’s just assigning blame. Rather than being asked to concentrate on various factors, and being responsible for more than one job, you’re asked to do one thing well.

People will often forget that the link between brain and body is a two-way thing. If you artificially raise your heart rate in a situation where it wouldn’t normally be high, your brain will start to take that as a sign that you should be panicking (hence the Fear after too many Jagerbombs!). You can also be convinced of a touch or taste where it doesn’t exist as your brain tells your relevant nerves and sensors that it’s happened due to being tricked into it through other senses.

So as you may be able to surmise, that’s worth considering every time you criticise a player for diving. Our reactions are such that it takes around 150 to 300 milliseconds to go from the decision to act to the muscle movements required. When it’s said that a player anticipates the foul, there’s a very real chance they feel like they’ve been hit even when no contact is made. They’ve told themselves they’re taking a hit, braced for it or looked to avoid it, and the brain will do the rest. There are some dives which are blatant and genuinely embarrassing, but a lot are now done at speed where it’s pretty much impossible to change from expecting a foul.

So there’s loads more I want to discuss – decision making, social psychology, mental health and confidence – but this article would end up far too long. Due to that, I’ll provide a second part later in the week. The premise behind this is to remind everyone that footballers are limited by biology and psychology as well. They can’t all automatically improve through coaching, or be expected to give everything each time they play, because that’s just not possible. The ability to take responsibility for things happening around you is a learned skill, not something that’s a given. Being able to visualise and predict what’s going to happen takes practice and a hell of a lot of cognition. I’m pretty sure the people I graduated with, or those who taught me during the degree, would be wondering just how I managed to graduate reading this, but even this basic an understanding of human behaviour is enough to help judge the actions and performances of managers and players with a bit more of a reasoned viewpoint.

Anything you’d like to add? Do you think any of the above makes sense? Tweet us @rangersnewsuk with your thoughts!