Football is more about psychology than tactics

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This is not a headline that you would expect to see from a website so devotedly focused on tactics and analysis. But as complex and debatable as this may sound, football is more about psychology than tactics. The best coaches are not always the best tacticians. But the best coaches are always the best motivators. The likes of John Herdman, Emma Hayes, Jose Mourinho and even Jurgen Klopp, rarely ever speak about tactics when expatiating about the game. Instead, they pontificate about the psychology of their teams and players, and their attempts to get the best out of their mentality.

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The beautiful game is tactically complex in ways no other sport can match. With 22 players on the pitch at any given time, competing in a 90-minute game on a 100-yard playing area, the game sees more strategic variations and complications than any other. But nevertheless, if a coach cannot bring out the best in the mentality of their players and the social dynamics in place, their teams will never reach full potential.

While a team could find their way to victory in spite of poor tactical planning, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a route to glory in spite of poor psychology. Despite this, the psychological side of football remains a relatively understudied field. While tactics may be rooted in hundreds to thousands of complexities, those facets are ultimately easier to objectively quantify and qualify when observing a football match. Psychology meanwhile finds itself rooted in just as many complications, but becomes far more difficult to subjectively, or even objectively study. Even the players themselves can never fully know what’s going on inside their own heads, and it’s difficult to draw conclusions and boil both qualitative and quantitative psychology research down when measuring indicators of performance. This makes the task of a manager all the more complex, as they have to manage the personalities of twenty-three+ players at any given time, and ensure each and every one of them feels a part of the plan.

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A manager like John Herdman often postulates about “brotherhood” – making his current crop of Canadian national team players feel and behave like a band of brothers. The goal is to make each and every player feel as though they belong to the set-up, and can have a part in helping Canada achieve their dreams of featuring in a World Cup – which they accomplished at the end of March. Julian Nagelsmann meanwhile has long spoken about the importance of “social competence” in management.

“Thirty percent of coaching is tactics. 70% is social competence.”

– Julian Nagelsmann

Essentially, the Bayern Munich manager understands that while he may be regarded as a tactical guru, it is significantly more imperative for him to connect with his players and ensure they all feel like an important part of the project. Ian Holloway, who is credited for taking Blackpool into the Premier League and nearly keeping one of the league’s smallest ever sides in the top flight, speaks at length about this exact notion. While Holloway also excellently understands tactics and eloquently speaks about his tactical planning en route to the Premier League, he also speaks at length about he made a team of non-Premier League level players fully believe that they were Premier League ready.

“You can study tactics all you like but management is about psychology.”

– Ian Holloway

Holloway attempts to understand the deeper-lying characteristics of his players, behind what you may see at first glance. Emma Hayes does the same, frequently having short 1-on-1 conversations with her players on areas of improvement, centered almost entirely around health, wellbeing, and the mind. A manager like Hayes understands that more goes into performance than just the technical and tactical aspects, and makes every endeavour to understand everything about her players that could impact their play.

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Then you have a manager like Jose Mourinho, who often comes to the forefront for the wrong reasons when speaking about player psyche, but can also be a world class motivator himself. He’s overseen some of the best years of some of the game’s biggest stars (from Cristiano Ronaldo to Harry Kane), and centers his team discussions around mentality, togetherness and belief, far more than tactics. You’ll hear the exact same notions take centre stage when listening to Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola speak about the game, or the ways in which Carlo Ancelotti endeavours to involve his players in the decision-making process. Again, this is because football players are nothing without belief. When you turn individual belief into team togetherness, you get the results of managers like John Herdman and Emma Hayes, accomplishing more than expectation with their teams.

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Psychology does however go beyond just belief, confidence and mentality, to decision making processes on a football pitch. Scanning the field, appropriately reading the situation, and putting thought into action becomes the goal of any player in every decision they make. This requires a range of psychological characteristics – including the aforementioned belief and confidence to perform said action. But more than any other body part, the brain is constantly working in overdrive, and each decision must be made within a matter of seconds, all the way to miniscule milliseconds. Despite this, the psychological side of football remains one of the more understudied, under-scrutinized facets of the game. But if you watch any documentary or in-behind-the-scenes look into any pro club, you will see a range of psychological performance problems that managers contend with on a daily basis. The task to get the psyches of twenty-three+ players working in harmony is an arduous one, but when it pays off, the results always follow.

So there it is! Why football is more about psychology than tactics, and why the psychological side of the game deserves more attention. Be sure to check out more of our Sport Psychology related articles, and follow on social media @desmondrhys and @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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