Everton in the Psychologist’s Chair: a Season Preview

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By @nataliebargery

The season is nearly upon us following an eventful summer; the World Cup was brilliant, Chewy Luis inevitably manufactured a move to foreign shores and Evertonian’s have been desperately grasping on to any transfer rumour that rears its dubious head (even those suggested by TalkSport-we really must have been desperate.) Thoughts now turn away from the thrills and spills of our quadrennial international treat to our ‘bread and butter’, the Premier league.

This season we have the added addition of a Europa League (EL)campaign that many believe, to continue the food analogies; will be the coffee one in a bag of Revels! Martinez faces a tough task as he tries to better his debut season, players are returning with a point to prove and some are looking to continue their excellent form from last season. 2014/15 could be a pivotal season for the blues but there are many psychological challenges ahead.

The World Cup

Luckily for Everton only six members of last season’s squad played in the World Cup, although that figure has increased with the signing of Besic. The lack of World Cup action for the majority of the squad could prove important come the end of the season as tired bodies and minds can affect the run in. However, it is possible that the early season will also be affected by a World Cup hangover for our international stars who had varying success in Brazil. Any underperforming World Cup players are unlikely to be doing so because they are tired as they have just had a break and the effects of a shortened summer on their bodies – this is more likely set in around Christmas. In truth, the hangover will more likely be for psychological reasons.   

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Our England trio of Baines, Jags and Barkley had the most disappointing summer. The question is can they ‘floosh’ (to coin a Martinez-ism) it out of their system quickly? All three players will have dreamed of playing in a World Cup since childhood. However, for Baines and Jagielka that may have been their only chance to shine in one. So, the disappointment of getting knocked out at the group stage and without a win could understandably be a difficult pill to swallow.

Baines omission from the 2010 squad, which left a bitter taste in the mouth, will have certainly increased his desire to succeed at the 2014 tournament. Barkley on the other hand will have more World Cups and the zeal of youth will probably leave the 20-year-old unaffected by any disappointment  from the experience.

However, both Baines and Jags spoke of the ‘gut-wrenching’ disappointment they felt immediately after England’s exclusion but a holiday with the family and returning home to the Everton lads can do wonders. At least we hope it can.

Players invest a lot of time, emotional and physical energy into preparing for a World cup. Some will move to a new club hundreds of miles away from their home 6 months before the tournament, resulting in massive upheaval for their family, purely to stand a better chance of getting into their countries squad. So, there are a lot of stressful costs. To then leave the tournament unsuccessfully after such a large investment is a huge disappointment. This can lead to an excess of anxiety and stress which can result in burnout.

Burnout is not simply lacking energy but a problem that causes withdrawal and a lack of interest in your job. However, both Baines and Jags will benefit from the support they will have received from the ultra-positive Bobby and the tight knit squad we have at Everton. Social support helps individuals threatened with burnout greatly. Nevertheless, Baines and Jagielka are both strong characters who I’m sure will not feel the effects of burnout at the start of the season.

Kevin Mirallas had an inconsistent tournament. A super sub appearance led to him starting the next game and an insipid performance followed resulting in him being dropped. Inconsistency has been a problem during the Belgian’s two seasons with us. He is regularly a top performer in big matches, particularly derby matches, but can easily slide back to mediocrity the next week. It is very difficult to pinpoint why a player lacks consistency. It can be down to lack of focus, needing a set pre-match routine or a player can struggle to psych themselves up enough for certain matches or that can become so psyched up they become tense. Mirallas appears to find it easier to play well in bigger matches which suggests he struggles to get himself fired up for the seemingly lesser matches. However, surely every game in Belgium’s World Cup run was a big game to Kev, so it doesn’t explain his non-existent performances in the games he started.

Inconsistency is difficult to manage as it can be so hard to discover the root cause of it. It seems unlikely that a player with a gold Bentley, flashy dress sense and seemingly unerring self-belief could in fact lack self-confidence. However, that could all be a façade. Alternatively, Kev may find it difficult to focus during certain matches and to sustain focus for more than one or two games per week. This may spell trouble for his chances of performing well in and around the EL. However, it is frustratingly difficult to truly understand why and I’m sure Martinez has been working to help Mirallas find more consistency. However, his World Cup has probably not affected him greatly for good or bad as his inconsistency will probably continue regardless, although we hope not.

One Everton player who did suffer at the hands of the World cup was Bryan Oviedo. As if, missing out due to a broken leg wasn’t bad enough, but to have to watch your teammates defy the predictions of every football fan and pundit and reach the quarter finals must have been difficult. Of course, part of him would have been thrilled at his countries exploits but the frustration of missing out on such a huge achievement will more than likely have been his overriding emotion. Sadly for Oviedo, he has to wait to begin playing again for Everton which will only increase his disappointment and frustration as he spends his time in Finch Farm’s physio room. 

Finally, Tim Howard returns an American hero. His confidence should be sky high. The only problem for Howard next season may be feeling the additional pressure of knowing that a man of the match performance might be followed by another awkward phone call from Barack Obama!

Returning from Injury

It is not only World cup stars who face potential challenges in the coming season.

Darron Gibson and Arouna Kone will be like ‘two new signings’ when or if they get fully fit and they will be needed with the EL in mind. We know Gibson is a good player and but for his injury record may well have nailed down a place in the blues midfield under Martinez. However, Gibson has had to watch Gareth Barry dominate in the holding midfield role and had little opportunity before injury struck to impress. Consequently, Gibbo has had to sit and watch as the new manager analyses his squad and decides who he needs and who is surplus to requirements which will have led to an uncertain 2013/14 season.

Arouna Kone was struck by injury last season too, but has the opposite problem to Gibson in that Martinez is fully convinced of his capabilities whilst fans are not so certain with the striker having had little chance to prove his worth to the supporters. An interview earlier this summer shows Kone is very aware of the need to impress:

‘It’s all about working hard so the fans can see the best of Arouna Kone. The season coming for me is where I have to prove my worth and I am ready to take on that challenge.’

This is a very positive statement and he may well be ready for the challenge or he could be a bit too aware of the need to impress, increasing the pressure on him. 

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Both players experienced a season of turmoil and both had a choice as to how they responded. Common psychological consequences of injury include exaggerating the severity of the injury, personalising the injury; which includes doing a Balotelli and asking ‘Why always me?’, thinking of others who never fully recovered from injury and telling themselves they are no use to the team because they are injured. These thoughts will obviously have very negative consequences for the player but a good medical team and the opportunity to still feel part of the squad will help to diminish these thoughts.

Although both players are approaching a return to full fitness they still have psychological demons to face. Players often become very aware of the time and effort that has been invested in them and doubt themselves as they approach their return. Furthermore, they face the possibility of failure as they return to fitness, which can trigger anxiety. To reduce these issues players need to focus on the quality of their rehabilitation, recognise they are ready to return and remember their desire to play football. Alternatively, players can attempt to take a more positive approach and view their time away as a motivation which increases their desire to succeed on their return. This can be difficult for players during a long injury and in truth players will have positive and negative days during their lay-off. The key for Gibson and Kone now is to grasp the opportunity when they return and not become too bogged down with who they need to impress.

Cup Psychology 

Many of the issues players face can be diminished by their manager. It may be uncertainty over your role in the team or the need to bounce back after a soul-destroying World Cup. I don’t think it is too wide of the mark to suggest Roberto is one of the best in the league when it comes to these situations. His participative leadership style along with his innate positivity mean he can discuss problems with players and get them bouncing into training even if they have just been told they have to sit through videos of Michael Owen commentaries! Yet, Martinez’ undying positivity may face a stern test this season as he attempts to better a record points total and hopefully trump it by winning a trophy. We know how vital a cup triumph is to Evertonians but we always seem to falter just when it is looking likely. We can forget the League Cup – there seems to be a Benfica style curse hanging over us with that one – but an FA cup or dare I say it, a EL victory would be huge for the club.

A player and manager’s psychology must alter depending on whether the forthcoming fixture is a league or cup match. You only get one go at a cup match. Choosing the wrong tactics, prepare incorrectly or if any other minute detail goes wrong and you could be out. This brings an added pressure and motivation to perform. Our litany of hard luck stories in recent years adds even more pressure in this respect. Roberto has the experience of winning a major trophy with Wigan but they were underdogs in a number of matches during their cup run. However, he now has to deal with the weight of expectation. Last season saw the usual league cup disappointment at the hands of a dodgy Fulham side and a quarter final FA cup defeat at the Emirates. Although, the 4-1 score line flattered Arsenal and THAT Ross Barkley miss could have changed the final result dramatically, we still came up short.

It appears our players have frozen or choked in the past under the pressure to perform in one-off cup games. Choking is a symptom of anxiety when a player focuses too much on executing a skill rather than just letting it flow and as a result they begin to overthink something that should be natural to them.

Anxiety is a natural consequence of the need to perform in an important match. Viewing anxiety in this way can diminish any negative effects. However, interpreting anxiety as unwanted will more than likely disturb a player’s performance. Brazil froze so much during their World cup semi-final thrashing at the hands of Germany that they could have been chipped into ice cubes and served in every Caipirinha in Belo Horizonte that night. There was a large pre- World Cup focus amongst Brazil’s squad on staying calm and being at ease, hoowever they were then met with the stress and pressure of a country expecting great things. They were not prepared to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ or accept stress as natural and a petrol for performance. So, rather than avoiding stress, players should be encouraged to face stressful situations and learn how to deal with them. For example, the rest of the Brazil team should have been prepared to feel the stress of seeing David Luiz tearing round the pitch out of position and learnt to accept it! We do not know what sort of emphasis was put on our players build-up before cup games but potentially a stress-free approach may have not have served them too well. Although with Royston Drenthe around, prior to the FA cup semi-final in 2012, a stress-free build up was definitely not possible.         

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The Europa League (The coffee one)

In contrast, we are also embarking on a cup campaign with a mini-league and two-legged ties in the latter stages. Combined with the challenges of playing Thursday and Sunday regularly, the EL provides a number of psychological tests. Many managers believe it has been a hindrance and has caused their side’s downfall in recent years. Extra matches for squads who may not always be prepared for European football and the lack of recuperation time between matches has meant team’s league form has potentially suffered. Indeed, there are many fans who may have wished that we hadn’t qualified for the EL. It will undoubtedly put a strain on our resources but I believe the right attitude can get you the right results. When we were regularly in Europe’s second competition a few years ago we approached it with a positive attitude. We wanted to be in it and  went on an unbeaten run in the league and UEFA cup between the 25th October and 20th December, the dates of the first and last UEFA cup group games. It appears the extra matches helped us build up momentum and we couldn’t stop performing well and winning.

This time around we will certainly continue with the positive mind-set under Martinez. Roberto has been quite bullish about our participation stating ‘whoever complains about playing in the Europa league hasn’t got a real love for the game’. This is great to hear and the fact that he won’t ‘accept that it (the Europa league) is going to affect our league campaign’ is even better.

The opportunity to gain momentum will once again be there. However, momentum is not always positive and as much as winning can become a habit so can losing. This is where a high number of games in a short time can be a problem. Research has argued as to whether momentum is real or illusionary but even if it is an illusion it is still very powerful. No one can predict or stimulate momentum. Instead, it appears to be a moment or period of time when everything comes together to reach its optimum levels for performance, such as skill level, motivation, anxiety levels and the crowd. This can happen in the opposite direction and everything comes together to provoke poor performance for negative momentum also. The confidence positive momentum brings then feeds to every member of the team stimulating continuous high performance levels. The ingredients are all there for Everton to succeed – we just have to wait and see if we can be as consistent as we were last season.  

The Transfer Window

The increased number of matches has demanded we add to our squad. To date, the additions of Gareth Barry, Muhamed (Messi in my back pocket) Besic, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Atsu, subject to a medical, after losing Deulofeu and Traore have left us with the same numbers we had last season.

However, the boost the whole club has received from the signing of Rom alone accounts for two or three signings! I believe, in recent seasons our summer transfer activity had a massive impact on our early season form. Our results dramatically improved when there was positivity surrounding the signings of, for example, Andy Johnson and Kevin Mirallas. However, we also had long barren summers with signings totalling little money which often led to poor starts. The negativity surrounding the club had a massive impact on the performances and I feel, contributed heavily towards our lack-lustre starts. Fortunately, Lukaku has ensured that will not be a problem this season.

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 New signings increase competition for places and so, usually increase motivation. Luckily, we don’t have any prima donna’s who spit their dummy out if they see a bit of competition so friendly rivalry will more than likely be the overriding attitude in the current squad.

Moreover, we do not appear to be suffering from the usual pre-season attempts of newspapers to sell our best players. Martinez felt that the question marks over Baines and Fellaini last season made it difficult for us in the first three games of the season and this is understandable as the threat of losing key players affects the whole team. Players care about the future of the team they play for and about if their mate is leaving. So it is bound to distract everyone not just the player at the centre of the transfer. However, Barkley and Coleman’s new contracts mean the only player the papers can tout around is McCarthy. Although, I don’t want to jinx anything, it seems very unlikely that we would sell the man who made such an impact during his debut season for us. Consequently, the window should only provide positives between now and deadline day, although we are Everton, so you never know.

The season ahead promises much – ignoring our pre-season form entirely –  but there are challenges ahead. We need key players to perform and as few injuries as possible would help. Consistency will be vital to our success again this season, however, that is difficult to maintain in a season with potentially 50+ matches. Martinez’ capacity to keep players motivated through difficult patches or physically draining periods will be vital and represent a stern test of his capabilities.

Let’s just hope we are all munching on a bag of Polish Revels in Warsaw in May, even the coffee ones!

Thanks for reading

@nataliebargery

 

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