Team mentality at risk
Aston Villa have lost 9 points from winning positions. This isn’t just harming Aston Villa’s promotion prospects, it is harming the team’s mentality.
It is not losing per se that is unsettling but the way in which games are lost
I am going to suggest something controversial. The problem will continue if the wrong questions are asked. Actually more than that – the obsession with holding onto the lead, the ‘why we can’t see out games’ preoccupation, is perpetuating the problem. Aston Villa need to change the focus so that it is not about keeping the lead for 45 minutes but taking confidence from scoring so they can continue to play attacking football rather than being cowed by the scoreboard. Because they have turned a positive into a negative. I will explain.
The Villa team currently have a mentality which I call ‘protecting the lead mentality’. Their focus on keeping the lead affects the energy and the way they play. They are turning a positive into a negative : but this is born from insecurity.
The Aston Villa mentality has been fragile for the last five seasons. From the body language in the warm up to the “heads going down” after conceding goals, their poor mentality has been catastrophic and consistent.
With the huge changes in the squad and league , it came as a surprise that this mental vulnerability reappeared so quickly. But it only needs a few triggers to cement negative thinking and the cycle returns. Losing from winning positions and losing in the closing stages of the game are the negative triggers which can result in long term loss of confidence if the thinking remains unchanged.
Why losing from winning positions costs more than just losing
Frustrations and disappointment of the supporters aside, losing from winning positions is more harmful mentally. This is because it takes more from the confidence bank. Conversely, winning from losing positions adds substantially to the mental confidence bank. Comparing the mentality of Leicester City at the start of last season to Aston Villa this season demonstrates how this works.
How Leicester City acquired the mentality of champions
Leicester City’s winning mentality was formed very early on last season. (as described in my article http://www.jtperformancecoaching.co.uk/news/2016/5/9/fearless-foxes-how-they-won-the-mental-battle-to-become-champions)
Leicester weren’t just winning games, they were winning from losing positions – more than any team in the League. By September, Leicester had claimed 10 points from losing positions: this was a League record.
Aston Villa are doing the opposite. They have lost 9 points from winning positions.
It gets worse as not only are Aston Villa losing from winning positions, they are also conceding last minute goals. They have conceded on the 86th, 87th, 88th minute and have lost 5 games in the last ten.
Again, Leicester were doing the opposite. They were winning from late goals. Through this, they gained the belief that they could go ahead from any score at any time. 15 of their last 17 goals came in the second half and some of these in inury time.
The mental cost to Aston Villa
If the mental toughness gained from winning in the face of adversity sows the seeds of champions mentality, then what of the mentality of teams like Aston Villa who repeatedly lose from winning positions? Quite simply, it eats away at confidence faster than any other game situation. The confidence which should come from being in the lead is cancelled by negativity because “we know what is going to happen next because we always concede”.
Also, losing in the final minutes can annoy the supporters more, because the disappointment is greater.
The increase in anxiety also affects the way the team plays tactically but more of this later.
The bogey time and negative anchors
When teams regularly concede late on, the final ten minutes can become “bogey time”. In sports psychology we would call this a negative anchor. When we repeatedly get negative results from a time or set of circumstances, we can respond to the past failures rather than the current by becoming more nervous and less courageous.
This anxiety is also felt by the fans, which changes the atmosphere and has a knock on effect on the players.
Why going into the lead can be turned into a negative
As well as negative anchors and reliving past failures, going into the lead can consciously and subconsciously affect the way players perform.
When players’ confidence is fragile, they become more risk averse. It goes back to the self preservation instinct to look out for threats and danger. This is heightened when we are feeling nervous. It interferes with the optimum performance state (known by sportsmen as ‘the zone’) because the mind and body can’t relax. We are on the alert for the fight/freeze or flee response. Instead of staying in the moment and trusting ability, negative thoughts creep in like ‘what if I pass forward and we lose the ball and they score’
Viewing the lead in the wrong way
When fragile confidence teams go into the lead they view the lead in an unhelpful way. The lead is “something to be held onto” They see the lead as something to be lost rather than an asset to propel the team forward. If you try and cling onto something frenetically, it puts the brain into overdrive with signals of danger.
The reality is there is nothing to lose as until the whistle blows you have nothing and that goal can’t be taken away from you.
Viewing the lead in the right way
Aston Villa players can be taught to reframe the emotions and responses they have when they take the lead. This can be done quickly and effectively. I have done this many times with clients who have experienced this and who have similar negative emotions when competing against inferior players. The similarity occurs because in both scenarios the mind is turns a positive into a negative. There is the same unfounded fear of ‘loss’/
Preparation and solutions
The players can reduce the anxiety by mentally rehearsing the final ten minutes (or including this in visualisation practice) They should also have a clear mental and physical strategy so that the mind does not go into ‘ last 10 minute panic mode’ Familiarity is the enemy of insecurity and anxiety.
Protecting the Lead is adversely affecting the way they play
I am not advocating the Kevin Keegan “you score three we will score four” football philosophy. Of course there is a time and place for closing the opposition out. The skill is in knowing at what point do you change from the offensive to the defensive. It should be a tactical response later on in the game rather than the focus for the whole of the second half. Aston Villa have played some splendid attacking football in the first half but then as soon as they take the lead their style changes dramatically and they become ultra defensive and too cautious.
When you make “holding onto a lead” the team’s raison d’etre for long periods the pressure is raised. Why? Because defending is more stressful than attacking (backed up vociferously by the defenders I have coached I hasten to add) There is more mental energy used on anticipating and defending an attack then there is going on the attack.
Defending is also physically more tiring as you are chasing and covering more ground.
The defenders lot is worsened further by the crowd being less forgiving for goals conceded than they are on missed chances (especially in the last minutes)
Fearless minds produce fearless tactics
Leicester’s fearless mentality was reflected in their style of play. As one commentator said “Leicester deserve to be where they are as when they get in front they keep driving forward, they don’t sit backand when they go behind they keep driving forward”.
Again, when you look at Aston Villa they do the opposite. Bright and attacking play in the first half is blighted by second half defensive, fearful attempts to retain that elusive lead. They choose the cautious option rather than pressing forward and scoring a few more. With three twenty goals a season strikers on the books this is a curious tactic and I can only assume that it is borne out of insecurity.
Last season Leicester resisted the ‘protect the lead’ mentality. Their game against Man City saw them ramp up the pressure after their first goal to then score another two.
The answer to the Aston Villa mentality
After the Brentford game, (when Aston Villa lost again from a winning position) manager Roberto de Matteo said “It looks like there is a barrier we need to break…..when we are getting into a lead we are not managing to see it out ….Last ten minutes are nervous because of that”.
I am not sure whether focus on breaking imagined barriers is going to help confidence. Does the emphasis on “seeing out a lead” and “holding onto a lead” increase anxiety or decrease it. I would ban these terms from the dressing room and work on a strategy to be practised until they are living and breathing it in their sleep. This to be reinforced with visualisation and thought replacement practice. The ‘holding onto a lead’ barrier which Roberto de Matteo talks of should be replaced with positive confidence anchors which take hold when the team score and work to push them onto even better attacking, fluent and confident play. (unless the lead is taken in the final ten minutes)
Sports people perform best when they are playing in the moment. To get into the zone, the trance like, no worries, automatic, fully confident state, you need to be in the present. This means there is no room for looking into the future (the what if that goes wrong) or lamenting on the past (last time I did that this happened) Paying too much attention to holding onto a lead makes it more difficult to stay in the present and it is another reason why the focus must be widened and less intense.
And Finally, Be careful what you say or how you say it
Many factors contribute to building up negative images and responses. One of these is the use of negative language and coaches must understand the emotional impact it has if they are to get the best out of their team. Problems should be described in language suggesting they are temporary and can be quickly corrected. I will leave you with this question. How different does it feel to be told “you will get the results when you take the following steps” rather than “you won’t win until you remove that barrier”. Time has run out – I will talk more about winning language next time !!!
Jenny Truman LLB Hons