Sunderland

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It’s only the second Saturday of the new Championship season and at the Stadium of Light the long suffering locals are expressing their dissatisfaction. Sunderland have experienced a home reverse to Plymouth and Niall Quinn, if he didn’t know it already, is appreciating the daunting challenges which face him. The phone ins are hot with anxiety. What do the sports psychologists think?

What are the problems confronting a manager trying to breathe life into a sleeping giant and how can he deal with them? With every so called ‘big club’, be it Sunderland, Derby County or Wolverhampton Wanderers, which has fallen on hard times, there lingers a high level of expectation. This may be based on the club’s history and past achievements, which are etched into the hearts and souls of long-standing fans, and have become embedded in the culture, passed on through generations

Unrealistic Expectations…
Those glory days are an enduring source of pride for the people and the city, against which the teams are always measured and, invariably, fall short. Thus, unrealistic expectations are created; those being that, whilst the fans continue to offer the football club their faith and loyalty, the club will give them, in return, an emotional sustenance.

Which is fine. but what if the team or individuals fail to match up to these expectations? With many of the sleeping giants, we can witness a continued cycle of behavour which promotes failure rather than success.

A new chairman is appointed, or own owner found, promising an injection of funds. A new manager is appointed and more promises are made: hopes are raised again, optimism is rife, this time it will be different. Different players are brought in. However, if things don’t quickly improve, fans begin to look for scapegoats, and fragile confidence erodes.

The Cycle Of Failure…
So, we start a cycle of potential failure. Players become frightened of trying anything new, they are afraid of making a mistake. They struggle to think clearly under pressure, so they take the wrong options. Nobody wants to take personal responsibility. Last minute goals are conceded. The fans’ disappointment is heartfelt but does nothing to rebuild confidence. Losing becomes a habit; the board reacts; the manager is fired. And the whole process begins again.

So, what can a management team do to prevent this negative cycle? One of the tools used by sports psychologists in integrating a new player into the football club is the induction programme. When a new player arrives at a football club, they will be shown around the new stadium, the best housing estates and surrounding countryside, the schools, shops and night life. All the attractions that make day to day living pleasant for him and his family. This will give him a feel for the area. But it doesn’t introduce him into the intrinsic values of the football club.

The Orientation…
A thorough orientation is essential to appreciate, understand and absorb the culture of the club. This integration is achieved with an awareness of the club’s values, which are found in its rich traditions, the eminent players, the trophy cabinet, the classic matches and the fond memories and traditional stories of the supporters.

The new recruits should be taken through a specific programme that helps them to understand the meaning it gives to the lives of the community and the part the players could have in enriching this story.

A thorough and meaningful induction will ensure each player is inculcated into the club’s deeper psyche and, more importantly, when they cross the white line, they will do so having assimilated some of the passion, pride and eternal hopes the fans feel.

This will add to their performance, as they will be more committed to the cause, giving something back to the fans who, in turn, will feed off the evident desire. This commitment will be shown in their bite in the tackle, the willingness to chase down lost causes, the demanding of extra from their teammates and the willingness to take personal responsibility. Thus, in sports psychology parlance, a virtuous circle is created.

The Sports Psychology Summary…
Without this process, it simply becomes another football club on the slow train to obscurity. Niall Quinn may not be the best manager in the world, but he can ensure that all who wear the famous red and white stripes do so with passion and fearlessness, offering a realistic but hopeful view to the distant horizon, that ensures the unflagging diehards will forgive their mistakes.

Yesterday we were great, today we could be great, tomorrow we will be great again. For, Quinn and all the rest, the essence is now, but an understanding of who they used to be might lead them to a positive tomorrow.