Football loses out in psychology game

Festival of Science: Why Gareth Southgate should never have taken that penalty
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The Independent Online
Gareth Southgate should never have been allowed to take the missed penalty that knocked England out of the European Championship last year.

A psychological profile of the player, unveiled at the British Association yesterday by Dr George Sik, a psychologist, describes a team player who will volunteer for anything but who is temperamentally unsuited to taking penalties.

Dr Sik said he was not allowed to name the player, who filled in a questionnaire as part of a research study. But he left no doubt that it could only have been Southgate.

Asked directly if he was referring to Southgate he said: "There have been three or four players who have missed penalties in major tournaments recently. It was one of those. In fact it was probably the first one you would think of."

He confirmed that the player had volunteered to take the penalty and that it was a last-minute decision.

Dr Sik, from management consultants Saville and Holdsworth, believes football teams could benefit from business techniques such as psychological profiling. He has built up profiles of 60 players concentrating on three clubs, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and Celtic, and interviewed several managers.

Clubs are making increasing use of psychologists and psychiatrists. The Rangers and England player Paul Gascoigne sought counselling following reports that he had beaten his wife, and more recently his international colleague Ian Wright pledged to have counselling for his surplus aggression.

But Dr Sik, who has written two books about football and the mind, said that clubs often enlist such help too late, when a club is in the relegation zone or close to a crucial cup tie. And they often face suspicion and resentment from coaches who feel undermined.

He advocates profiling of every player when they join the club. His 60 subjects had to answer a standard psychometric questionnaire of the kind used by firms for prospective and rising employees.

Players answered about 230 questions concerning how they felt about themselves and others, their attitudes, values and how they would deal with a range of situations. "We found the players covered the whole spectrum of personalities. There was nothing to distinguish them from the other people we profile, apart from being slightly more competitive."

He suggests players chosen to take penalties should never be of a pessimistic cast of mind. Nor should they be the type who would volunteer to take the shot out of a sense of duty.

"Treating everyone in a team in exactly the same way, the old `get your heads down and get stuck in' school of management associated with sergeant majors, is unlikely to get good results in a group comprised of differing individuals all motivated by different things.

"Increasingly, the most successful coaches and managers emerge as those who appreciate individual differences and treat different team members in slightly different ways, aware of when they can afford to be more aggressive, when to throw an arm around an under-confident player and so on."

He said legendary football managers such as Jock Stein, who led Celtic in the 1960s, and Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, were instinctive psychologists with a superb under- standing of motivation.

Stein built up files on his players, their foibles and fears, by talking and drinking with friends and family members. His diminutive winger Jimmy Johnstone loathed flying, and Stein assured him before an important match that he would not have to fly to the second leg overseas. "It worked - Johnstone got a flurry of goals."

Dr Sik said that with clubs spending increasingly gargantuan sums to buy players, it was worth assessing the footballer's long-term motivation. And having done so, it made no sense not to do everything the club could to ensure the stars were as highly motivated as possible.

He believes older players have different motivations to younger ones and are more supportive and team-spirited. They can make a contribution to the motivation of other players, even when injured.