Psychology and Football: Part 1

As discussed at the end of part 1 (above), I’ll be considering how social psychology, mental health and decision making all have an influence on footballers and managers. I’ll highlight some of the arguments made by fans which are pretty common but don’t seem to marry up with any sort of expected human behaviour, and wrap it all up with a summation of what to take from this.


First up this time around, it’s decision making, or more specifically, what the research around that tells us. There’s a huge amount of factors involved in the decision-making process, such as genetics, perceived risk levels, chemical influences in the brain, consequences (imagined or real) and even just blind luck.

When you think of decision making in football, it tends to be about what a player does on the park and their “footballing brain”. That’s all very subjective, of course, but what I’d like to look at is off-field decision making, particularly as it’s judged by many fans. At the moment, a lot of Rangers fans have discussed the prospect of signing Kenny McLean from Aberdeen this summer. As he’s out of contract at the end of the coming season, there’s a lot of suggestions that we should just wait to sign him on a pre-contract basis in January, and that he should sit tight. We had the now-infamous Scott Allan saga where similar was proposed. There are huge elements of risk and uncertainty attached to such a move.
When we’re making decisions where the outcomes are either unknown or have the potential to bring negative consequences, we tend to look at best-case and worst-case and weigh them accordingly. From the perspective of a footballer, where a career is short and you can’t just rely upon yourself to make the most of it, those can look very different. In a year, a player can lose a lot – injuries are always a worry. If he’s faced with the prospect of instant reward against uncertainty in the future, why wouldn’t he take the risk-averse option? Suggesting that he can’t be a real Rangers man because he wasn’t willing to wait is nonsense. Footballers don’t have that luxury, and if the club wants them enough to get them now, they should do what’s required.
If Kenny McLean is faced with the choice of waiting to sign for us for a year or a move down South for an instant boost to his finances, it would be foolish to choose the former. Even more illogical would be the idea that he should be criticised for taking the route of least risk. This is one aspect where some fans seem to have a real disconnect with the reality of professional football.
Something I’d still describe as an off-field decision is team selection. I know it’s the very basis of what happens on the pitch, but the choice is made well before the game starts, and it’s based upon the sort of decision making described earlier. Fans tend to have their own views and don’t really look at the decisions made by a manager from any other standpoint. If the exciting winger is left out for the more defensive-minded midfielder, many get annoyed without considering why a manager has done that.
Consider the risk attached to being a manager at a club with high demands. A few bad results can see you lose your job. At some clubs, even just boring performances can have you under pressure even though you’re winning. The team selection, made with so many unknowns and risks, is something most managers will look to simplify. Which players will give them consistency? Who can they rely upon to do their job even if they’re not playing well? Managers can’t be prone to giving in to fan demands in this respect because no set of fans will ever say “well, we demanded he be given a game and he was awful – our bad!”.
Football should be about entertainment, but we’ve made it more serious than that. A manager can pick the right team and still lose a game. As they’re judged upon results more than anything else, they can’t be expected to risk a lot. Giving the shot-shy, young striker a run of games to improve is all great in theory, but it can’t be an expectation or something a manager should be criticised for not doing.


As applies to any team game, footballers are part of a group, and in many ways, the group itself is a living entity which makes decisions and reacts to events. Sharing a common identity and interacting with each other on a daily basis is the very definition of that. Rangers are currently signing a number of players, and we’re now back to bringing in players from different cultures and countries. Caixinha has to ensure that the group dynamic already at the club is able to adapt to the new players that are coming and that the new squad can build their own without being held back by previous dynamics. Our wholesale changes in such a short time are justified not only by the need for better players but, by the requirement to make something new in terms of squad identity.
It’s strange just how much success can bring people together, though. I was part of a school team that won the Cameronian Cup, basically the Glasgow Schools Cup. I never played very often for that team, as I wasn’t good enough to do so, and I didn’t really get along with a lot of the squad in terms of character at that time. They certainly never rated me at all, which was all understandable. And yet from the moment, we won that cup, and anytime I meet any of those lads now, there’s a bond that’s been formed that brings some good memories and enjoyment. We’ve obviously all went our separate ways in life, but I remember those guys far more fondly than I would have were we not part of that squad.
Successful squads tend to be kept together for a long time at bigger clubs, even past the point when many believe they need to be refreshed. You’ll often see good players brought in to try and improve them further, yet struggle to make an impact as they don’t find a way to gel with the existing group. We also often find that players who have came from a team which was doing well, and they’ve played particularly strongly, struggle to replicate the form elsewhere. A large part of that is down to how the squad helped everyone to do well before, and now that it’s been broken up, the factor which made them more than the sum of their parts is gone.
Fans should consider the influence of group dynamics on footballers at all times. We tend to judge players in a very individualistic way despite the obvious team nature of the game. What made a player good elsewhere may not be something that can be replicated when they move, and that’s often why managers won’t make big changes to successful squads even if they’ve struggled for a time. Rather than judging just how a player is doing individually, we should look at how they’re performing for the team. Maurice Edu could often have games where he looked poor, but there was no doubt we played better as a team when he was involved.


And to the crux of the piece, the reason I wrote all of this in truth. This is where I think everyone involved in football is treated the least like normal people, and there are loads of reasons for that. Let’s consider a scenario to highlight this:
You’re the number 9 for Huddersfield. You’ve spent days building up to the playoff final, a game you’re reminded every day is worth £170m to your club. Your team hasn’t been in the top division in years, and the fans are beyond excited at the prospect. The club could be given a boost with the money that comes from promotion which would enhance their long-term prospects beyond anything they’ve ever seen.
It’s 89 minutes into a tight game, at 0-0. You’re through on goal, but you take a heavy touch. The keeper has an arm out, and you know you could buy the penalty. It would win you the game, and all the rewards that come with it. The fans are expectant, but you also know that your every move is being watched in super slow motion by millions. You’ll be judged no matter what you do, with personal consequences on top of everything else. You’d be classed a cheat, negatively viewed by many, even some of your own fans.
Should you take the dive?
And should we expect the player to be affected by the consequences of either choice?
Fans would almost demand that a player sacrifices personal integrity to keep them happy and win games. They put huge pressure on managers, directors, and players to perform. Football is far too important these days to allow for mistakes, it would seem. There’s no time for someone to feel low, depressed or suffer from mental health issues.
Despite all the magical moments he provided us, Paul Gascoigne was taken advantage of at Rangers. Even without the knowledge we have now, it was obvious Gazza needed help, but we let him continue to hurt himself physically and mentally so he could win us games of football. There’s been a huge number of players that this has happened to over the years, and I’d imagine every club has their share of experience with that. However, the numbers of footballers who are given help in a way that’s public are very low, and that’s not helping us move in the correct direction. I’m not advocating the disclosure of personal details, but a better understanding of the numbers of footballers struggling in any way with mental health issues would help educate fans in a huge way.
The statistics suggest that one in four people will suffer from a mental health issue each week. If you use simple numbers and imagine that each squad in the Scottish Premiership has 25 players, you’d have 300 footballers in the league. Around 75 of those would be expected to suffer from some sort of mental health issue each week if the stats are close to correct. Would you expect a fan to know those numbers are normal?
If a footballer or manager is seemingly fed up or going off the rails, the very last thing that’s considered is a mental health issue, when it should be the first. We’ve let the pursuit of winning games to keep us as fans in good spirits overtake the human considerations of what a player faces, of the pressure involved, of the toll being in the public eye takes. Even taking into account everything I’ve discussed in the two parts of this article, the sheer limitations, and motivations behind human behaviour, this is the biggest consequence of our lack of understanding. We need to be better educated and change our mindset with regards to how football affects everyone involved because we as fans are responsible for all of that. We’ve made the game impossible to take lightly now. We have players making more money in a week than some countries would require to solve hunger. It’s no longer a game.
It’s easy to expect a lot from footballers as they’re pretty much treated as superhuman now. The things that limit us aren’t expected to apply, but they clearly do. No one can be expected to avoid mental health issues because they’re rich. We can’t ask footballers to do things that aren’t in the sphere of possibility, such as performing to their best at all times. As supporters, we should remember the support part and be aware of just how much we can help them as human beings as well as performers. Clubs should be expected to have psychologists on hand to help support in various ways, not only with counseling but also with research into biological knowledge and ways to understand and overcome limitations. Nothing moves football in a certain direction more than the fans, and if we are able to take our experiences and knowledge, and to learn on top of that, we can make the game a safer, more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?
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