FRIGHTENED TO PLAY AT HOME - the psychology for teams like Aston Villa

Why does the home advantage turn into a home nightmare for teams struggling at the bottom of the table?  The answer is fear.  This article examines  the ways to overcome this.

This week, Remi Guarde, Manager of Aston Villa said that his players would prefer to play away than play at home.  Sam Allerdyce echoed the same sentiment for his Sunderland team.

The home advantage is a unique and little understood influence on the outcome in sport yet it’s impact is considerable. The home advantage equates to half a goal per game in every season.  But closer analysis suggests that the advantage only favours the confident  teams rather than the struggling teams.

Here is the home win percentage for the top five  teams from 2013

1.   Arsenal 70%  home win

2.    Chelsea 90%  hone win      

3.   3Man City 100%,   home win                  

4.    4Liverpool 90%    home win         

5.    Everton 60%    home win

Compare this with Aston Villa’s stats when it was at the bottom of the table at the same time.

Aston villa’s home wins were ranked at 19th (20% home win) whilst their away wins ranked at an impressive 6th in the table.  (40% awaywin)    

The reasons for the home advantage

1 Referee Decisions Favour the Home Team due to crowd pressure

There is convincing evidence that Referees decisions’ are influenced by hostile crowd noise by unconsciously seeking to avoid potential crowd displeasure.  They absorb the emotion of the crowd.  

This is due to unconscious impulses rather than consciously driven bias.   When you have 35 thousand supporters shouting “you don’t know what you are doing” it is not surprising that the Ref unconsciously moves away from displeasing the home crowd.

2 Testosterone Increases in the Home Players : The advantage of home territory

When animals defend their home territory against intruders, this causes  an increase in aggression and testosterone levels.

A similar effect has been seen in football with the testosterone levels being significantly higher in home games than away games.  Goal keepers, the last line of defence, have particularly strong testosterone changes when playing against away teams compared with playing away.   This can have profound cognitive effects such as motivation and physiological effects such as heightened reaction time.  

If coaches can use motivational techniques to boost testosterone before home game, particularly on a team building basis this would heighten the pre-existing testosterone advantage that playing on your own territory produces.   

3 The Home Crowd’s Intimidation of the Away Team

When you have masses of fans trying to put you off it can be highly distracting.  (Prem League study)  It is important for the home side that the crowd make the ground a fortress and the worst thing that can happen is the home crowd turn on their own players.  It is important for the club to encourage vocal support every way they can.

4 The Players absolute belief in the home advantage

The overall theme from the research and data in this area is that players really believe in the home advantage to the point that they don’t expect to win when they play away.

With this strong belief, the players will enter the game in a more positive state of mind which is the optimum state to perform in.    Whilst there are real reasons for the home advantage, these are being reinforced by the beliefs of the players and those around them. The home advantage becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy.     

For the teams that are racking up more home losses it is a very different story.   The belief in the home advantage disappears completely and is replaced with the home jinx and dread particularly where the team have experienced the wrath of the supporters. 

5 Tactics

There is no firm evidence to link tactics to home advantage per se. 

But whilst tactics employed at home may not have a practical influence on the outcome, they do have a psychological effect on the players.

The draw for most home teams to play a more attacking style of football, as one player said  “ the home team comes at the away team during the first twenty minutes” and this puts them into a more upbeat and confident mood as opposed to the more negative association that the defensive style brings.

6  Practical Matters – Travel – Hotels – Familiar Surroundings

Research shows the impact of travel with the comfort of luxury travel and hotels has minimal impact even though it is fatiguing and disrupts familiar routines.

Similarly, no empirical evidence has been found to suggest this contributes to the home advantage.

 

The positive and negative impact of the home crowd

The home crowd’s positive effect may not be as significant as formerly thought with research producing contradictory conclusions. What is clear though is that the crowd factor can be doubl- edged: It can uplift and motivate but it can also cause extreme anxiety.

Because with the idea of the  home advantage comes the expectation of a win from the coaches and most importantly, supporters. This can translate into pressure on the home team to win.   

Research shows that a supportive audience can also have a negative effect.  The desire of the team to please the supporters and the responsibility they feel, can be as stressfulas the random abusive chants from the opposition supporters encounter when playing away.  

 

How pressure translates into playing style

When players lack confidence they will play it safe, become more defensive, risk averse and hide and withdraw from the game. How often do we see players passing back or to the side rather than commit to a more risky but productive pass. Players don’t look for the space on throw ins, make too hasty a pass back because they just don’t want the ball.  When strikers are lacking confidence we see them pass the ball rather than take the responsibility of shooting.

 Aston Villa players have been criticised heavily this season for not getting the basics right and for their defensive style of play at Villa Park in particular.   Is it  possible that the players are not playing to their best capabilities because they are “over thinking” and not trusting their natural ability?.   When players get into a negative state their attention shifts and they over think their game and lose trust in their natural ability and muscle memory.

Should win games – great expectations

Where a game is against inferior or comparable opposition, the fear factor is higher because the shame in losing is greater.  This explains why there is more anxiety surrounding the “must win” and “expected to win” games than the “you will never beat x “ type games where you are the underdog.   A manager would be better off never labelling games as “Must Wins”  It serves no purpose at all.

 

When the home crowd withdraws their support

When players have experienced the anger of their home fans they become frightened to make mistakes and play more defensively. (don’t get me going on Louis Van Gaal’s little black book!)   The more this happens, the more likely it is that the players will connect playing at home with negative emotions.   The home advantage belief will be replaced with the memory of pain and humiliation that playing at home represents

It is far, far worse  to be shouted at by your own fans than the away fans.  

So just as the home crowd aid the confident team they can also harm the prospects of the struggling home team considerably.  When a team is booed off at the final whistle, what memories of playing at home does that create? It is easy to see how the negative beliefs surrounding playing at home are formed.

 It is not just the loss of points that hurts but the damage to the relationship with the fans that repeated home losses brings with it. 

If teams can win away from home with the same players, then with the added home advantage, they should be winning on their own turf.  It is my belief that it comes down to the mental strength and the confidence of the players.

 

Why teams lose confidence

There are many factors which can cause a team to lose its confidence, from losing a key player through injury to going on a run of bad results and adverse crowd and press reactions.  

As Aston Villa are currently fielding a lot of French players new to the premier league then the mental frailty that Reme Guarde speaks of is understandable.  They will be helped by having experienced players around them who are leaders and good role models. Micah Richards is an excellent leader currently but the team need more. 

 

How to Sort out the Confidence and Belief Issues

When teams like Aston Villa have considerably more success away, the players’ belief in the home advantage will at some stage disappear.  Not only will this be an advantage lost, but the fear of playing at home will become a handicap that is difficult to remove.

In order for Aston Villa to improve their home form they need to work on the players’ mental side of the game.   Focus should be directed foremost to removing the negative beliefs attached to playing at home.   There are techniques to help with this which I have used to great success. 

In addition, replicating  pressure situationsin trainingand mentalrehearsal will help to prepare the players and increase their  confidence.   Some foreign clubs pipe loud jeering noises over the loud speakers in training to anaesthetise the players against distressing crowd noises. 

 

Testosterone .   The territorial aspect discussed above which produces this should be used to motivate and enhance the spirit of the team. Team bonding is imperative with such a high proportion of Villa players who are new to the premier league. 

More leaders on the pitch   I would advocate having more than one leader figure on the pitch.     Sir Clive Woodward did for this for the English rugby sideIt would help the less experienced players to have a nominated leader for the attack , midfield and defence. 

 

How past players have coped with fear

Lets have a look at how stars of the past have harnessed the energy generated by fear.  As Roy Keane said  in the Keane –v- Vierra interview

   “A lot of my preparation would be fear, fear of losing, fear of letting people down, fear of letting my neighbourhood down, fear of letting my family down.  Fear played a big part in my sporting career.”   

 Roy Keane used his fear to drive him to be a winner.     Fear can be your biggest enemy or your greatest motivator.   There is a fine line dividing the two.  Fear is a biological response.  You cannot banish it completely but you can learn how to harness it to your advantage.   It is time for the Villa players to decide which it will be for them.

 

Jenny Truman LLB (hons)

Performance Coach

 

References and Research 

Richard PollardHome Advantage in Football: A Current Review of an Unsolved Puzzle

Wolfson S Wakelin D, Lewis MFootball supporters perception of their role in the home advantage J Sports Sci2005 :23;365-74

Waters A, Lovell G An Examination of the Homefield Advantage in a Professional English Soccer Team from a Psychological Standpoint   Football Studies 2002 ;5 46-59

Neave S, Wolfson S:Testosterone, Territorality and the Home Advantage Physiol Behaviour 2003 267

Neville A, Balmer N, Williams A.  The Influence of crowd noise and experience upon refereeing decisions in football  Psychology Sport Exerc2002 .3.261-72

Wallace H,  Baumeister R , Vohs K Audience Support and Choking under pressure : A home disadvantage ?

Hassmen P Bloomstrand E (1995) Mood state relationships and soccer team performanceThe Sports Psychologist

Aagnew GA & Carrpm, A>V>  (1994)  Crowd effects and the home advantage.  International Journal of Sports Psychology

Keane V Vierra : Best of Enemies      BBC4