Football managers - Who is there to support the managers? A psychologist reflects on survival techniques in a cut-throat world
You only have to read the sports pages or listen to the news to learn of yet another football manager who has got the sack, might get the sack or is in trouble. The world of the professional football manager is one in which danger and uncertainty about the future hover over every match the team plays. It is often a lonely and isolated position, which can leave managers vulnerable to psychological stress.
Here, I review the season I spent working with a professional football manager in my capacity as a sports psychologist. While the manager’s name must remain confidential, I want to make it clear that I have his full permission to write what follows. The journey I embarked upon taught me many important lessons about the culture of football and its impact on the psychological wellbeing of managers. I also learned how a sports psychologist could support a football manager in what is often hostile territory.
Initially, I focused on developing an understanding of the manager’s work environment. I needed to know what demands were being placed upon him and what their impact was. I discovered that football managers are subject to four main sources of pressure that influence their psychological wellbeing:
- the players;
- the club owners;
- the fans;
- the media.
Each of these sources of pressure places different – often conflicting – demands on the manager, all which have to be satisfied. This creates an intensely pressurised working environment.
The overall effect is to create a climate of uncertainty and insecurity for the manager. The elements of this climate that impact most significantly on his psychological wellbeing are as follows:
- lack of personal security;
- fear of public humiliation;
- lack of control over his own destiny (ie the players ultimately decide his fate);
- need to appear strong and in control;
- need for quick fixes;
- culture of non-sharing;
- ego-oriented culture in which everyone is an expert.
These factors need to be fully understood by a sports psychologist if he/she is to work effectively with a football manager. The culture within football expects the manager to be strong and in control at all times, with no place for uncertainty or need for reassurance. Taken in isolation, the above-mentioned factors would be a challenge for anyone, but in combination their effect can be devastating and it is not surprising that managers are prone to stress-related illness.
What became apparent to me during the season was the lack of support available for the manager, who was often working in isolation to solve difficult problems. In theory, the assistant coach and the management were available to work with the manager, but in reality the manager was responsible for every decision. The fact that he then had to justify those decisions to everyone else was an additional source of stress.
A pendulum mindset?
Exploration of the manager’s mindset revealed pendulum-like swings from very negative to very positive which were completely dependent on the outcomes of matches. The following quotes illustrate some of the widely-held beliefs within football that were wholeheartedly embraced by the manager I was working with:
- ‘When you don’t win people don’t believe in you’;
- ‘When you are winning you are never wrong’;
- ‘Players will lose you your job’;
- ‘You live and die by your decisions’;
- ‘I am too soft’;
- ‘Results make you God’.
This mindset indicates a lack of stability and balance. When the team is winning, the sense that the manager can do no wrong creates a false sense of security and a ‘feel good’ factor created that is often short-lived. As soon as the team is losing – or even drawing – his whole coaching methodology is called into question, even though nothing has changed fundamentally from one game to the next. The net effect of this is to leave the manager doubting himself and his approach to many aspects of the game. It is extremely difficult to persist with strategies that you believe to be correct when everyone around you is telling you, either overtly or covertly, that you are not doing a good job. And this growing self-doubt soon impacts on the manager’s relationships with players, with other staff and with the club owners.
While it has been widely accepted that low self-confidence impacts negatively on an athlete’s performance, its effects on the performance of managers have been generally ignored. Furthermore, the consequences are particularly grave for managers: if the team’s results are poor the owners will still own the club, the players will still play for it and the fans will still support it, but the manager will be sacked in an effort to improve the team’s performance. This knife-edge existence leaves managers very vulnerable.
As my season progressed, it became clear that the toughest issues the manager had to contend with occurred away from the pitch. Examples included players trying to adjust to life in a foreign country, players facing retirement, players involved in gross misconduct, marital difficulties and older players intimidating younger ones. While these issues might appear to have nothing directly to do with the players’ ability to play the game, it became clear that the manager’s ability to help his players resolve them did have a direct impact on performance. And it is in these situations that football expertise, knowledge and ability can’t help you even though they might be the reasons why you were given the job.
It was also clear that these situations impacted in different ways for the team and the manager. Your perception of any situation will vary considerably, depending on your role within an organisation. The diagram (right) illustrates a situation in which there were differing beliefs within the team regarding a decision made by the manager. The consequence of this was a shift in the team dynamics, causing rifts and a negative impact on performance. For the coach, the situation generated inner conflict and uncertainty, which led to a lack of self-belief. The result of this was a change in coach behaviour to a more autocratic style.
My role as a sports psychologist was to work with the manager to help him find solutions. However, in order for my work to be effective there were a number of fundamental principles that defined the working relationship:
- First, the confidentiality of the manager had to be assured. The importance of this principle should not be underestimated, given the culture of football. If other people had known about the work it could have been compromised, as could the manager’s position;
- Secondly, it was important that I was not a stakeholder in the club and was there solely for the manager’s benefit;
- Finally, it was important that I was non-judgmental about – indeed unconcerned with – the results. Our agenda was focused on the manager’s response to any given situation, whether on or off the pitch.
These principles were vital to the work we undertook. In his world of constant insecurity and mistrust, if he had ever doubted me, the work would have been over. This trust was hard won, but once established it enabled real progress to be made.
What I learned from my experience was that it is vital to really understand the culture of the game, so that, in a very real sense, you can learn to speak the same language as those who inhabit the football world. Coming from an essentially non-football background, I had to work hard to appreciate the context within which the manager’s job was being undertaken. Sometimes I got it wrong, but through questioning and acknowledging my own limitations I developed my understanding. Ultimately this made me more effective in my role. I discovered that it was good to challenge current practice, but that we had to work through realistic alternatives that would work in football. My role was to support the manager, not solve player problems.
My work with the manager had three key aims:
- To develop more effective inter-personal communication skills;
- To enhance understanding of group dynamics, and how to affect them;
- Personal stress reduction.
As the season progressed, the manager was able to use our sessions to tackle difficult situations he was facing. He was able to discuss openly and freely any concerns or doubts that he was experiencing in relation to the players, the owners or even the fans. Consequently, he was being supported, and given the opportunity to develop strategies to help him manage more effectively.
In summary it is clear to me is that the managers of the future need to develop skills in inter-personal communication and to have an understanding of group dynamics and effective group management. They also need to work to develop personal coping and stress-reduction mechanisms if they are to survive the cut-throat world of football management.
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