Category Archives: Blog

Scotland vs England – it might be called a ‘friendly’….

Do ‘friendly’ international football matches have any value? Of course they have different values to different parties; administrators may view the visit of a high profile nation as an important revenue stream. To managers, they are an opportunity to get squads together, to try out players and systems, a notch up from a squad session but ten down from an actual competitive encounter. To the players and the fans, the context matters. For a young player to be included in their first squad, it is the realisation of dream, no matter who the opposition are. By the time they have accumulated ten or so caps, the gloss of the friendly has worn off. In a season of 50 plus games it is often difficult not to see it as one that doesn’t matter much. Fan behaviour is easily quantified – bums on seats. Friendly’s that matter have to mean something. Coming so close after a bitter and divisive Referendum campaign the Scotland vs England ‘friendly’ means a great deal – to the Scots.
Psychologically the two teams are in very different places approaching the encounter. The only real success for the England team in the recent World Cup came off the field. For the first time since 1966, the public relations around the FA successfully managed expectations. In every interview and press release, the message was clear – this is a young, inexperienced team, building for the future, expect little. Little was expected and little was delivered. That little was delivered is in large measure due to the systemic problems in the top tier of football in England; problems which most people at the heart of the game south of the border recognise but are unwilling or unable to resolve. Despite the hype, the Premiership is fit for only one purpose; the continued prosperity of the Premiership. It will never, in its current form support the development of a consistently successful England team. The manager knows this and so do the players.
Scotland approach the upcoming game in a very different frame of mind. The appointment of Gordon Strachan as manager in 2013 was a bold move. There were fears that Strachan’s close connections to Celtic would render him unacceptable to the other half of Glasgow. This proved not to be the case as performances and results improved. Most recently Scotland have stretched the World Cup winners in Germany, losing narrowly, drawn against Poland and beaten Georgia. The team are level on points in the European qualification table with Germany. As we all know, football is a results business, but even in this environment, there is little equivocation. Scotland are playing excellent football. The players appear to be responding to their manager in a way which Roy Hodgson, his England counterpart must envy.
So what part does the international manager play in the performance of a team at this level? The answer is complex and is nuanced by the questions – who is the manager and what is the team. I’m not a ‘fly on the wall’ but I suspect that Strachan’s influence on his players is greater the Hodgson’s influence is on his. What is my rationale for this assertion? The most basic ingredient in the development of a successful team, whether in football or in selling computers is communication. Effective communication is grounded in three factors, trust, honesty and respect. Both managers are articulate and intelligent; both have commendable but not outstanding records in management. In fact Hodgson’s is probably more impressive. What Strachan has over Hodgson is the insight into the player’s mindset which comes not just from having lived and breathed it, but also thought deeply about how the manager’s behaviour impacts on the players in their squad. England have tried to go down the same route in the past, appointing Glen Hoddle and Kevin Keegan to the top job. Both had success, but ultimately failed because one of the three basic ingredients was compromised. Hodgson, shares more with Sir Alf Ramsey than Hoddle or Keegan. But whilst Ramsey had Moore, Charlton and Hurst as genuinely World Class players to work with, the premiership doesn’t produce players like that anymore, or if it does, they have first been developed in Spain, Germany or Italy and are not English.
And so back to Celtic Park on the 18th November; the latest chapter in the Scotland vs England saga. Scotland will relish the opportunity to make a comment, the players and management will say all the right things in the lead up to the game – there is no place for politics in football. No-one will believe them as ‘God Save the Queen’ is booed by 60,000 fans. England will play tentatively, their premiership stars will be harried and pressured and commentators will speak of their collective lack of confidence. Scotland will fail to convert their chances and somehow England will steal a win…and international ‘friendlies’ have no value at all…unless you or your team win.

This ‘sows ear’ of a blog entry was transformed into a silk purse by editor Steven Vass and appeared on “The Conversation” website – Thanks Steven – much appreciated.

There is only one pencil in the class….

It feels really churlish criticising the small army of volunteer coaches that turn out every weekend to introduce our kids to sport. But I’m going to…
Every weekend I run past a local park early on Saturday morning. Between September and May, my run takes me close to the pitches where the local junior football club train. Every week, about 50 kids between 5years old and about 11 are out playing. I recognise the coaches, they are the local Dads: Giving up a valuable part of their weekend for the benefit of the local kids. This particular weekend I stopped to watch for a few minutes. On every pitch, the set up was basically the same. A rectangle of cones, with a goal at either end. After about 10 minutes of warming up with individual skills – basically relay races. The kids went straight into a game, 5vs 5, 6 vs 6 etc. I watched for a while. There were several kids who didn’t touch the ball once. The majority of the games were the typical 10 kids within 2 metres of the ball swarm. The coaches weren’t coaching, on each pitch, one was refereeing and if there was a second, they were shouting encouragement. What a waste! You cannot fault the enthusiasm of either the coaches or the kids. They were running around, enjoying the game but in terms of actually learning anything or developing any skill it was like the old one pencil in the school. Imagine dropping your child off at school for day one of P1, to be told that there is only one pencil in the class and that the children will have to take it turns to use it. I suspect that parents would be really upset by this! But this is exactly what happens when the coaches dedicate the whole of a session to playing games. There is one ball. And no-one really develops any skill at all. Football clubs are not short of balls, or cones or any of the paraphernalia of coaching. What they really lack is skilled coaches who know that every young player needs a ball at their feet for as much of the session as possible. The ABC’s of football are the first touch, the short pass, movement into space and communication, games are probably the worst way to teach these. I k now the reposte that this blog will meet – the kids ‘like’ playing game. No doubt, but why play a game for 75% of the available time. They run around week after week making the same mistakes and never developing the skills that will make their playing more fun. You can play 2 v 1 games and 2 v 2 games, these will make the youngsters fitter and more skilful. Minimal skill is required to run around behind a group holding a whistle. To be a good coach you need to plan, and to review. We are asking a lot but I think we should.

Are we really going to heckle a 13 year old diver? or Mo Farah? or will it just be some anonymous Netball player?

daily mail

It appears that the Daily Mail believe that Commonwealth Games athletes are ill-prepared and naive. And that spectators are ill-mannered and willing to have their responses manipulated by politicians. Neither is true.

Commonwealth Games athletes spend hours preparing physically, technical, tactically and mentally to perform. Part of that preparation will be anticipating the crowd’s response. The Scottish sporting public is vociferous, but also well-mannered and fair. Politicians who attempt to hijack sport for their own ends usually fail. Margaret Thatcher found this out in 1980, Alex Salmond should remember the back tracking he was forced into when he raised the saltire behind Andy Murray in 2012. Sport does not exist in a political vacuum, but if we can choose, we should keep the two as far apart as possible.

So if we do choose to heckle an English athlete, to be logically consistent we must not discriminate, it must be anyone and everyone. From a 13 year old diver in her first games to Mo Farah, the finest track runner we have ever seen in a GB vest, or Sir Bradley Wiggins, the first British rider to win the Tour de France. It must be anyone in an English vest.

If its not just anti-English rhetoric but about the referendum in general, before opening our mouth we must determine the political stance of every Australian, Canadian, Nigerian etc and make sure that we welcome them too!

There is an easy solution. Just raise the roof for every Scottish athlete. They deserve it – this is their day!

So what can an audience do for performance?

1. Under what circumstances can a crowd get in to an athlete’s head?

Audience effects in sport are difficult to research because studies cannot create the impact of real audiences in the laboratory. As a result we rely on some very old theories to explain the possible effects of audiences on sporting performance.

The first study of audience effects was done in the 1890’s and it showed that the presence of an audience generally made people perform a skill better. This is called social facilitation. Later studies suggested that it was a little more complex. When a Zajonc (1965) and Cottrell (1972) found that when a crowd was seen as evaluative, i.e making a judgement about performance, this leads the performer to experience a feeling of apprehension and threat. This leads to increased physiological arousal, i.e increased heart rate etc. Under these conditions there is a tendency to produce the dominant response. The dominant response should be the best learned and most appropriate. So if a task is well-learned, increased arousal will lead to a better performance. If is not well-learned, performance will be undermined.

Finally getting to the question, the key to understanding if a crowd will ‘get into an athlete’s head’ is determined by the extent to which the athlete perceives a personalised threat. It is not just the team they play for, it is something unambiguously personal to the performer. This is the reason negative posts on social media can be so damaging.

2. Can a crowd affect professional and amateur athletes the same?

The mere presence of an audience has the potential to have an impact on performance. But only if there is a perception on the part of the performer that there is a threat. Amateurs, presumably earlier in the process of learning skills are more likely not to have the correct skill as the dominant one. Therefore will be less resistant to a crowd.

I would expect a professional performer, who has been thorough in their preparation to be affected less by crowds.

3. Is it important to have any kind of energy from the crowd then?

There is a considerable body of evidence (primarily from North American sport) support the idea of home advantage. Several mechanism have been proposed, crowd size and density appear to be important. Impacting not just the home team but also decision making in officials. The other side of the coin is that travel, lack of familiarity and a hostile crowd, make away performers perform less well.

There is a downside however. There is some evidence of home-disadvantage. Where increased perception of threat leads to drop in performance. There is a little research on this suggesting that at critical points in performance, home players are more prone to choking.

4. Are there any less explosive sports where even positive energy can be distracting?

Increased physiological arousal improves explosive whole body skills but tends to undermine fine motor skills. So sports which involve speed and power may be facilitated by increased arousal, whilst those involving accuracy may be undermined. However, it should be noted that most sports involve a mixture, for example, a long jumper may run faster, but this could lead to a loss of accuracy on the take-off board.

Most performers work very hard to determine their ‘ideal’ psychological state and replicate this in training.

5. What techniques can athletes use to stop crowds getting into their head?

Experienced performers who routinely play in a hostile environment recognise that it is a part of the performance experience. They learn that the opposing team’s crowd’s chants and banter are part of the environment. There is nothing they can do to stop it, so they learn to ‘filter’ it out. They also recognise that if they do respond, the chants will probably get louder and the comments more personal.

Less experienced performers may find it more difficult to play in such an environment because their attention is being taken up by things which are not task relevant, i.e the noise, the chants etc. The skill is to develop a ‘filter’ to screen out all the material which is irrelevant, crowd noise etc and just stick with what is relevant. Any performer who is aiming to compete in an environment which is potentially hostile MUST prepare for what they are expecting.

If you are travelling as part of a team, a good way of supporting the less experienced and therefore the more likely to feel threatened performers is to make sure that we move as a team. Groups go onto or off a pitch or court as a unit, not as ones or twos.

In training you can easily recreate crowd noise, but more useful is to simulate things which are targeted and personalised i.e to inoculate the performer against things which are probably worse than they will actually receive. For example, e.g in tennis, have a group of players trying to put you off by commenting about personal characteristics whilst you are serving.

Putting skills under this kind of pressure in training helps develop routines of dealing with distraction in hostile environment. These usually involve attention to task relevant cues, cue words and relaxation.

Some, very confident performers and teams like to provoke a crowd and feel that it benefits their performance. This is a risky strategy, as if they fail, there will be even more hostility coming their way.

6. Is routine important before the event?

Routine is a very important part of preparation for performance. Many performers will use music as part of the warm-up routine and will not hear crowd noise because they have their MP3 players on.
They have tried and tested methods of preparation, which start hours, possibly days before the competition. If they are well prepared, they will have a comprehensive plan a – of physical warm –up, technical warm-up and mental warm-up, and also a plan b – where they will have been through a whole series of ‘what – ifs?’ Expecting the unexpected is part of comprehensive prep.

Tying all this together for the Commonwealth Games context.

The origin of this story being athletes seeking support in anticipation of a hostile environment. My advice would be;

  • Switch off all social media.
  •  If you do experience hostility recognise that it is pantomime – it’s not about you, don’t allow it to become personal, because it isn’t.
  •  In the last few training sessions do some simulations of hostile crowds. Practice your response. If your do feel threatened practice using the increased energy to enhance performance.
  •  Keep to your routine – it is tried and tested.
  • Mentally rehearse positively responding to chants or comments, either by ignoring them or smiling and letting them go.
  •  You have performed in hostile environments before – do what worked; keep your MP3 on, stick close to team mates and coaches, maintain a performance focus.
  • Remember the best response is to win

Football has a chance to bite back….

Philosophical debates around the nature and purpose of sport can be traced back to the works of Plato (Four Cardinal Virtues; courage, justice, temperance and prudence) and Aristotle (who developed the cardinal virtues further into the notion of Phronesis (practical wisdom) and Kalos (aesthetic beauty). These ideas were given prominence in the Victorian educationalist movement, responsible for formalising and codifying many of the forms of sport we recognise today. This is typified by the view propounded by Matthew Arnold – Headmaster of Rugby School , that sport had a unique character building role in the intellectual and moral development of (specifically) young men. This view became known as the ‘Muscular Christian’ function of sport. If we scroll forward to the twenty first century: The socio-cultural position of sport has changed. The global media-commodification of top-level sport has given it a unique cultural, social and political (and possibly religious) platform. Modern sport appears to be more concerned with money and hype, greed, violence, vindictiveness and schadenfreude are thrown in for good measure.


bite2 Is there incontravertable evidence?

FIFA, the world govening body for Football has been presented with a golden opportunity to adopt the highest of high moral positions about how the game should be played. I have no doubt that it will not.

Luis Suarez is a sublimely skilled footballer. His ruthless finishing transforms teams from the moderate to the genuinely threatening. But he has a fatal flaw – it appears, that when he is frustrated, by good, strong but fair opponents, or placed in high pressure situations, he bites opponents.
I listened to a radio phone-in about Suarez this morning. The callers fell into two groups – those who felt he should receive a long ban and Liverpool fans. The Liverpool fans felt that his unheralded charity work should be used in mitagation for his on-field behaviour. They are deluded. Luis Suarez may be the nicest, most warm-hearted individual off the pitch. But on it, he is a danger to himself and others. He should not play again, EVER.
That a player is a different character on the pitch from off it is not a unique observation. The literature describes ‘game reasoning’ where players’ moral reasoning changes dramatically once they cross the whitewash. Players who display very high levels of moral reasoning off the pitch often regress to ‘right is what I can get away with’ or ‘he did it to me, so I did it back’ type of morality – much lower level reasoning. There is a specific problem of determining intention in relation to aggressive behaviour. Match officials have to determine the fine line between legitimate force to win a challenge, which may be mistimed or clumsy and the intention to inflict harm. The line can be difficult to determine with foot, shoulder or elbow – but teeth…!

There must be due process, evidence reviewed and Suarez given an opportunity to defend himself. On the evidence to date Suarez ‘s behaviour appears to be a pathology akin to a personality disorder. There are many people across the world in-patients in secure mental health units because of their unpredictably violent behaviour. They are there to guarantee the safety of themselves and the random people they may meet. This appears to be Suarez’s third offence. Allowing him a further opportunity to bite a fellow professional (read these words again) is wilfully irresponsible.
I have some sympathy for the Liverpool fans on the radio. Suarez was largely responsible for their best season in years. He is the club’s biggest assest on and off the pitch. They rightly argued that if Liverpool view his behaviour as misconduct and sell him, there will be a queue of Europe’s best clubs looking to buy him. This is why any ban has to be world-wide and permanent.

There are two other points I need to make;

I have an 7 year old son. This is the first world cup he has followed. He has been thrilled with the brilliance of Messi, Robben and Neymar. Yesterday he and all his friends were talking about Suarez.  This is bad for football. Players often complain that that they should not be role models. This is poor understanding. You don’t choose to become a role model, you are chosen without your consent. But once you are one you have a responsibility. What you do matters.

Players are looking for a competitive advantage. Who wants to mark Suarez? Chiellini is a world class defender and he was doing an excellent job of marking Suarez out of the game. The threat of being bitten was probably not on his mind – it will now be on the mind of every future opponent. This gives Suarez an illegitimate advantage.

FIFA can ban Suarez, internationally and domestically for an indefinite period. Unfortunately FIFA’s own moral garden is far from in-order. I strongly suspect that money will talk louder than the greater moral good. Suarez will be back playing probably not in either England or Italy within six months. And shortly after there will be another incident.




Accepting and Embracing Fear

I watch in awe; the elite downhill Mountain Biker, the extreme rock climber, the world class equestrian eventer, the trampolinist, fearlessly executing their skills. Fear is everywhere, in sport and in everyday life. I recall walking into the lecture theatre to deliver my first ever lecture. It felt like I was ascending to the executioner’s block. Despite what the actions of the ‘elite’ suggest – no-one is immune to fear. What experience teaches us is specifically what we should fear and what we should not.
Sport performance provokes fear for four reasons – firstly it involves a performance, we have to do something – this something may have consequences if we make a mistake, we could hurt ourselves, physically or psychologically. Secondly the performance is public and that public will make a judgement on the basis of what they see – or so we allow ourselves to believe. Thirdly, the performance matters to us, we have much invested in the outcome. We have worked hard and spent hard earned cash to get the outcome we are striving for. We want to be seen as winners, to have yielded a return on our investment. Finally, there are specific details of every activity which will provoke fear – the fear of ‘hitting the wall’ in a marathon, the fear of marking a big, fast and skilful opponent, the fear of being outsmarted by student’s question.
What experience teaches us is specifically what we should fear and what we should not (I’ve stopped fearing being outsmarted by tricky questions – I just say i don’t know). The mind creates fear and therefore fear is subject to its control. The mastery of the elite is not in being immune to fear it is being terrified but able to turn fear into productive and useful action.
Fear allows us to tap a source of vast energy, but first we need to overcome the physical and mental paralysis it provokes. Our psyches have a distinct preference for control – we are happiest when we are operating within a zone of challenge matched by our skills. In this region we feel ‘in control’ of both our actions and emotions. But, in order to grow more skilful we need to accept more challenge – harder opponents, tougher routines, faster speeds and thereby give up control. We need to grow comfortable with giving up some control, trust that skills and preparation will allow accurate and efficient management of the seeming chaos and uncertainty that follows. Embrace the lack of control and focus on applying skills and preparation to the situation in that moment.

To ride or climb through fear is a profound challenge to skills and motivation. It is a ‘plane door’ moment. The novice parachutist knows only too well, to be a solo parachutist you have to open the door and jump. That is what all the preparation has been about. How do you ride or climb or bounce through the fear – you ground yourself in your skill – you go back to the very basics – ‘I am in balance’, ‘this is my target’, ‘aim for my take off point’ – all the time you are thinking about the task you are punching through the panic. If you are scared, take a small bite, successfully swallowing one small bite will encourage you to take another.
Often these ‘plane door’ moments turn into ‘is that all it was’ once you have successfully executed. This reinforces the fact that you are more skilled than you give yourself credit. It also shows you how important it is review what you do regularly.
When mind management fails and our desire for control of every aspect is not satisfied it creates an environment where fear runs unchecked. The downward spiral into panic is uncontrolled, irrational and unproductive. Panic blocks useful, productive and task relevant thought. In all performance domains panic undermines the smooth executions of skills, in extreme sport panic has the potential to kill you.
We can learn a great deal from the martial arts when it comes to managing fear. At heart all martial arts are really about the ‘conquest’ of fear. The non-contact arts such as Tai Chi teach us how to relax the body physically whilst the contact forms show that the slow development of skills develops competence and their accurate deployment builds confidence. Working with experienced teachers and fellow students who have the power to really physically hurt you if you are not fully focussed reinforces the critical importance of focus on the task. A key ingredient in many sports where it is very easy to ‘switch off’.

So I come back to the beginning – experience teaches us what to fear and what not to fear. If we fear something, it is tempting to avoid it. Instead we should apply our intellect and imagination to finding the parts of what we fear that we can control and preparing for them. (I always write down the hard questions students ask me – they will be asked again). Become more comfortable with less than 100% control. For example, we can’t control the thoughts and actions of others. We can only influence them with our own word and actions. Where there is less than 100% control, learn to manage thinking to task relevant, positive and active thinking.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is advised to do six impossible things before breakfast. Great advice, but I’d add, at least one things has to make your frightened!

Marketing sport and exercise science at Edinburgh Napier University

Sport science and exercise science are often bracketed together. In fact sport science differs from exercise science in aims and emphasis in several key respects. Sport science uses our understanding of the physical, technical and mental factors limiting human performance to design intervention to enhance performance. Currently, despite huge progress in the past two decades, the book of what we know is far smaller than the book of what we don’t. More on this later.

In contrast, exercise science is concerned with the role exercise and physical activity in maintaining public health. Three decades of epidemiological research clearly indicate that on a personal level being physically active to an extent that maintains a moderate level of aerobic fitness is one of the most important preventative health behaviours. Indeed there is clear evidence that despite the on-going alarms about an obesity epidemic, low fitness presents more challenges to health than a high BMI. The problem is that low fitness and high BMI usually occur together. The challenge, on a community and national level is to design polices which make physical activity the norm. These policies touch not only health policy but also, town planning, transport and education. Sport scientists and exercise scientists share a common root but the branches take them in very different directions.

At Edinburgh Napier University we are concerned with both sport science and exercise science. Our ethos is grounded on the integration of theory into practice. The scientific process of observation, description, and explanation is not complete until we use these explanations to design and deliver interventions that make a difference; in sport performance or in public health.

We often break the sport science down into different elements, the physiology, the biomechanics and the psychology. This is an expedient but not helpful division. The interesting things, the things that make a difference in sport performance do not recognise these distinctions. The fatigued body moves differently, the anxious performer executes skills less efficiently. Everything is by definition multidisciplinary. That is how we teach our students.

At the highest level, sport is hard-nosed, ruthless and unsentimental, it is all about winning. In the past many sport scientists have made the error of offering services that ‘will help you win’. This is an impossible position and one we should rightly be sceptical of. Sport is too complex for such simplification. A performer may perform better than they ever performed before but still lose. A much used and much more useful epithet is that ‘winning is the science of perfect preparation’. This resonates much more strongly with the sport scientist. Using the scientific knowledge, the applied sport scientist designs, delivers and monitors the performer doing the unglamorous, hard training which provides the backbone of performance. The research is clear, it takes 10,000 hours, roughly ten years of hard, committed training to become an expert in a psycho-motor skill. This requires motivation day in day out, dealing with set backs and injury; all the occupational hazards of the elite performer. Perfect preparation translates to no aspect of performance being ignored and no potential marginal gain overlooked. Everything matters.

In all sports there is a gulf between the professional, elite performer and even the serious and committed amateur. In some sports this simply boils down to the time available to the professional to train and physically prepare. The sport scientist has the potential impact on the amateur performer to ensure that the training time available is used as effectively as possible. This knowledge allows the performer and the coach to maximise return on time and effort and ensure the biggest ‘bang’ for the available ‘buck’.

The Masters / PG Cert. programme in Sport Performance Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University is designed to give sport science graduates the opportunity to make a difference, either in sport research or sport performance support. It is flexible in that it can cater for the specialist in any discipline or prepare the generalist for a role in a multidisciplinary team. We offer the core learning experiences required to develop the knowledge and skills which will enable you to make a difference. You will be working with nationally recognised leading applied sport scientists. You will be using state of art equipment, in purpose built facilities. The focus throughout the programme is learning by doing; and by doing you are making a difference to the performance of high performance athletes. If you are aiming to gain BASES accreditation, supervision is available. If you see your future in applied sport science – what’s stopping you – Edinburgh Napier has the course for you – it’s the starting line, we’ll prepare you for the race.

Looking for Marginal Gains – where none exist – probably!

The new shirts have caused considerable debate.


It is the contemporary approach to applied sport performance science to identify and accumulate marginal gains. The converse of this is to identify and eliminate the very small things which can undermine performance.

In a week when the Winter Olympics finished, all the English club teams struggled in European competition, the England cricket team to the field once more minus Kevin Pietersen and a football manager assaulted a player during a game, it seems perverse that the biggest story is about the colour of Scotland’s new away strip!

It is a question I’ve been asked on more than one occasion; can the colour of the team’s kit
influence the way a team performs? Can it have an impact on whether they win or lose?
My view is that here we are talking about a factor which is at the margin of the margins. There has been a little bit of mainstream psychology research looking at the impact of environmental colour on mood, emotion and behaviour. However most of this research is of a poor quality due to lack of strong theoretical foundation and poor methodology. Much of the existing work has been concerned with environmental colour in the
workplace, testing the idea that certain colours can determine different moods and different emotions, leading to calmness, clarity of thought and creativity. Interpreting the results is a challenge as the research is correlational, making cause and effect difficult to determine.


The colour of sports kit has also received a small amount of research attention. In a study conducted by psychologists from the University of Münster in Germany. The team found in the sport of Tae Kwon Do, referees tend to assign more points to competitors
dressed in red kit when they fought opponents dressed in blue. In this study the researchers manipulated the video images so the same athletes were presented to expert referees in both blue and red. Competitors in red kit appeared to be advantaged by referees in their split-second decisions.
The new Scotland away strip has been described by some commentators as ‘rhubarb and custard’ in colour, others describe it as resembling a trifle. There are horizontal stripes of red/pink and yellow on a white background. It probably does the first job required by a football shirt. There is sufficient colour and contrast for it to be sufficiently distinctive to enable team mates to rapidly spot each other on the field of play; this was the problem with Manchester United’s grey away strip which was changed during a game because players argued that they couldn’t find each other on the textured backgrounds of a full
stadium. The second purpose of a shirt is to evoke positive emotion, in both players and fans – a shirt can be a powerful symbol. A new shirt always has a challenge in this respect. It has no history, it lacks association with powerful memories. If this is the shirt that Scotland win in Germany or Poland wearing, during the Euro 2016 campaign, then all will change. The players and fans may begin view it in a different way. The iconic blue shirt will always be associated in the minds of fans with Wembley 1967 and the heady days of Sounness, Dalglish and co in the 1970’s and 80’s – it evokes a nationalistic passion in a way that pink is unlikley to match.


 The new shirt will need to be associated with some great victories to win over the fans.

I suspect that the new away strip will have a relatively short lifespan in exactly
the same way as Scottish Rugby’s experiment with orange shirts was hurriedly dropped.
The research, as it stands, on colour and sport performance is sparse and difficult to interpret. In terms of face validity it appears that red has an advantage, but the most successful rugby team in the world plays in black, the most successful nation at Soccer’s World cup plays in yellow, until very recently the most dominant cricket teams all played in white! If there is a performance enhancement margin, it is tiny  and perhaps
we ought to look in other places first.
The ‘Naked Sport Psychologist’ is a guest on BBC Scotland’s Fred Macauley show on Tuesday 4th April – discussing the new Scotland Away Kit.

Applying Psychology to Coaching – clinic question 1.

Applying Sport Psychology to Coaching
‘Clinic’ Question – I have an athlete who is absolutely brilliant in practice but I think underperforms in actual games – what can I do?
The ‘Naked’ Sport Psychologist answers;
This is a very common scenario. But before we begin we do need to consider the accuracy of the observation. Is the athlete really brilliant in practice? Does everyone around them relax a little in practice sessions and thereby give the impression that this player, who trains to their maximum, looks better. In other words, what is leading me to the impression that this player appears to be underperforming in actual competition.
Once the coach has engaged in this reflection and concluded that the performer is not fulfilling their potential in actual performance we need to explore why this is;
Is it physical? Are they not fully recovered from training sessions?
Is it technical? Do key skills breakdown under the stress of competition? If so which skills and when do they break down?
Is it tactical? Is the player making poor decisions or taking wrong options under pressure?
The interesting thing about all of these are that the solutions lie at the discipline boundaries between conditioning (physiology), skill training (biomechanics) and psychology.
The clearer the answer the coach gets, the more effective any change to coaching will be. One of the cardinal rules of coaching is that practice should translate as closely to performance as possible. Coaching the skills that breakdown under pressure in practice should have an impact on performance.
Performers are human beings, we like to do things we are good at. If I know I have a particular weakness in certain areas of skill, I don’t want that shown up when I practice. This really is the art of coaching, ‘selling’ an area of weakness as potentially an area of greatest gain. As a coach you need to help a performer see, work on and eliminate the things that are holding them back.
Finally, one of the main reasons performers appear to perform less well in competition than in practice is because they get overly nervous. We often forget that sport involves a public performance, which will be evaluated, that has consequences and that the outcome is uncertain. All of these are factors in the underperformance mix. A skilful coach will address each of these with the player. It is easy for the performer to disappear into their own heads, if they make a mistake early on. By simulating the pressure of competition in training, strategies for dealing with pressure and nerves can also be practiced.

Human beings are complex – this answer may not fit every individual – if have an issue like this and would like to follow it up. Please get in touch.

Playing those mindgames…

When we think of sport, we think mainly of the physical contest, one performer’s physical attributes pitched against another, but often the physically stronger, faster and more powerful do not prevail. We may also think about the skills and techniques – but again we may not be able to predict the outcome. The reason for this is that we have not factored in the mind games – in all their guises.

Once the contest begins, all talking ends, actions speak louder than words. The problem is that between these short periods of action there are long periods of inaction, which the skillful use to their advantage and those with less skill can be completely undermined by.

In the past few weeks we have seen Jose Mourinho give a masterclass in this; he has branded another team as playing 19th century football, he has described another team’s opponents as being the weakest the club has fielded in 16 years and has described one of the most widely respected managers in world football as a specialist in failure. What is he doing….?

The answer has been around for about 2000 years! Sun Tzu wrote a military text book which is still being referred to today. Clearly Jose Mourinho and others who successful engage in mindgames have an intuitive feel for its contents. Sun Tzu considered warfare as a necessary evil. Despite what George Orwell believed sport is not war minus the bullets. It is more subtle, but many of the principles cross over. Distilling the principles down, Sun Tzu argues that all warfare is deception, when we are able to attack we must seem unable, we must make the enemy believe we are far away when we are close, when we are close we must make them believe we are far away. Deception is the key. Sound familiar?

Mind games are designed to plant distracting, frustrating, and angering thoughts into opponents who then chose to divert time, energy and resources into dealing with them. Sport has some excellent examples of these. The interchange between Alex Fergusson and Kevin Keegan in 1996, which resulted in Newcastle United’s title aspirations collapsing is perhaps the most notable.

Jose Mourihno has perhaps replaced Sir Alex as the most regular and skilful contributor to the archive of sporting mindgames. But we are seeing it more and more often and in a huge variety of sports. Who would have imagined that the Men’s Curling final at the Winter Olympics would have a sub-text of bullying and intimidation. Boxing trash talk is getting trashier and more clearly instrumental – the more we appear to hate each other, the more tickets we sell.

As a psychologist working with athletes preparing for elite level performance, what can I do to help?

Routinely I speak with athletes about how to prepare for competition – the competition is actually very easy to prepare for, train hard and recreate game like situations. Usually it is the periods in between that are the challenge. The excitement, the fear, the worry, the inner critical voice all thrive in the silence before the contest. That is 100% normal, it becomes an issue when the mind games played by others are amplifying the voice. Resilience means being wise enough to spot the deceptions and the mind games – to filter out the BS and to focus 100% on yourself and what you are doing. Building resilience can take time but it does depend on actively recognising the games that others are playing and having strategies for coping. Always remember: all warfare is deception.

We need to speak about Kevin…

Over the past couple of days most of the media outlets have been running a story about the sacking of England cricketer Kevin Pietersen. As is often the case there is much speculation but very little depth of analysis.  As a cricketer Pietersen divides opinion. Some view him as one of the few genuinely world-class players currently in the England setup while others view him as divisive maverick who is simply unmanageable. 

I don’t know Kevin Pietersen, I met him once briefly when he first arrived at Nottinghamshire. I don’t have privileged access to the England dressing room. But I do know about teams and how they work. 

Just for a moment let’s factor the personalities out of the story and look at how teams work – or often don’t. All teams, at work and in sport, function on some common basic dynamics – the most basic of all is the relationships between individuals. Teams work when one-to-one relationships work – note – people don’t have to be friends but they do have to be capable of contributing to the completion of a task or function. When one-to-one relationships fail – teams underachieve. So what is the glue that holds these working relationships together – this is what management consultants earn their fees developing – it boils down to three basic principles – trust, honesty and respect. In a wonderful little book by Patrick Lecioni, these are expanded upon to give some hints about where the problems in the England team lie. Teams underperform due to an absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. Does this sound familiar? Yes – just about every workplace has work to do on these – England Cricket is no different. 

Looking at these factors contributing to the cohesion and productivity of the team. It is clear that the glue holding the team together is effective communication. I suspect that over this winter we have seen the England Cricket team reach a tipping point – one too many breaches of trust, honest and respect have prompted action. After a lot of failure to communicate effectively we have gone to the sacking option. How could this have been managed better? Back to Lecioni’s principles – one to one relationships work best where there is a willingness to enter the ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’ – and discuss honestly what is going on. This is not a row or a fist fight – this is facing up to some objective realities about why things are happening. 

Pietersen is a highly gifted cricketer, he should be in the England team, but not at the expense of a team ethos. High performing teams are full of big egos and strong opinions – it takes a willingness to enter the zone of uncomfortable debate to get the best out of these teams. This is why teams of seemingly lesser individuals often outperform the ‘all – stars’. This is the synergy that effective leaders can create. So perhaps the problem isn’t Kevin, perhaps deficiencies lie elsewhere. 


The Naked Sport Psychologist – February 2014