Before Leeds United’s game against Arsenal earlier this month, manager Jesse Marsch showed his team a quote from Mahatma Gandhi about having belief. But the influence of a man who famously said “there is no path to peace; peace is the path” wasn’t quite enough to prevent Luke Ayling from sliding two-footed through Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli 27 minutes into the game. Nor was it enough to stop Dan James from putting in a rash challenge on Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic a few days later — a tackle that brought Leeds a red card in the opening 30 minutes for a second game running.
“We have to be aggressive against the ball,” said the Leeds manager after the Chelsea game. “Sometimes we’ve been a little too aggressive and that’s cost us. Certainly, the table has something to do with it — and everything to do with our situation right now.”
Their “situation” is a battle against relegation. The same situation Everton have also found themselves in this season. And it’s at Goodison where the red mist has also descended in recent weeks — both Jarrad Bronthwaite and Salomon Rondon getting sent off in a narrow 2-3 defeat to Brentford (though the red card for 19-year-old Brentwaite was arguably more down to inexperience than anything else). Those dismissals took Frank Lampard’s side to the top of the red card standings for this season with six.
Throw in a red card for Arsenal’s Rob Holding during a tense north London derby with both teams battling for a place in the top four, and it seems that one of the toughest tasks for teams embroiled in a fight (either for prizes or for survival) at this stage of the season is the ability to keep 11 players on the pitch.
“As humans, we’ve not evolved very much,” says sports psychologist Michael Caulfield, who has spent more than a decade working in professional football, as well as a number of other sports including cricket, darts and dressage. “The world around us has got quicker — as has football — but we’re still pretty primeval creatures, driven by very simple things.”
He explains that the red cards we see in high-pressure games at this stage of the season come down to their natural “threat response”. The same response that might urge us to grab a heavy object in reaction to hearing someone breaking into our house. “At the moment their position as champions or maybe qualifying for the Champions League or even worse, relegation, are the threats. And they send the brain into utter haywire” says Caulfield. “You can prepare for it, you talk about it and do all the work around it but then when that tackle comes in or there’s a reaction from the crowd it sends the brain into that fight mode again.
“Footballers are highly-aroused creatures and to control practice that takes an extraordinary amount of discipline, understanding and really recognising the threat, which the human being doesn’t cope with very well under those conditions.”
Caulfield recalls a trip to New York where he met a neuroscientist who told him something that has remained with him ever since. “She said, ‘Once you’re in this threat state, which is war, basically — the war is the game of football. At the end of that threat, it takes roughly 20 minutes for the brain to come back to any form of regulated thinking’.”
The crowd plays a huge role in amplifying that threat, adds Caulfield, pointing out that this week marks the first anniversary of fans being allowed back into matches (albeit in limited numbers initially). Some 8,000 were allowed back into Stamford Bridge when Chelsea took on Leicester last May — a game between two sides battling for a place in the top four. The home side were leading 2-1 with the final whistle looming when Ricardo Pereira caught former Leicester team-mate Ben Chilwell with a late tackle. The touch paper was lit. Players, substitutes and coaches all became involved in a mass altercation on the touchline. “When there were no crowds the same intensity wasn’t there” says Caulfield. “Without that threat response, without that stress, the game’s not so stressful.
“As many a coach and player have told me, the fun of winning went out the window (without crowds) but so did the pain of defeat because there was no feedback. Now the game has extraordinary feedback again. Now we’ve got these baying crowds 20 feet away from the action urging us on to fight, to tackle, to stand your ground. At Elland Road and Goodison — to name just two — it’s old-fashioned, gladiator stuff.”
Is there anything that can be done to help players manage these heightened emotions then? Because at a stage of the season that highlights just how fine the margins can be in football, keeping your best players on the pitch for as long as possible is surely the low-hanging fruit of making sure the margins fall in your favour.
“What’s best for the players is to go back to process,” says performance coach and psychologist Jamil Qureshi, who has worked with three Premier League teams as well as F1 drivers, England cricketers and two world No 1-ranked golfers. “Sometimes in these derbies or relegation battles, the emotional response is triggered by how significant the outcome is.”
Qureshi says that when a golfer is putting, it often helps them not to think about the implication of making or missing that putt, but instead to think about the process: what do they need to do to hole the ball? In football, he believes the same focus can help players to avoid making the rash decisions that can often come when they get caught up in the importance of a particular game.
“A manager giving a team talk will deliver a generic talk on performance. I think it is better to talk about process, pattern of play — to talk about what the team is in control of. Some managers I’ve worked with have done that very well. If you go back to process and think about the consistency of what you’re going to put into the game, no matter what, it’s probably better than hyping everyone up into the significance of it.”
Qureshi worked with Sam Allardyce at Blackburn Rovers and explains that the manager’s team talks would have two main focuses: the first one would be motivational, and the second would be to talk about the plan, where he might use a whiteboard to list three important things for them to remember.
“Because his motivational piece would be generic, there would be someone like myself or the assistant manager, physio or head of science, who would then have a wander round a few of the key players. So he’d talk generally around motivation, I’d then walk over to Jason Roberts and know that he will need something completely different to Stephen Warnock, or whoever. Because everyone is different. Some players might need the thermostat turned up in regard to pressure, some might need it turned down.”
For most players though, when it comes to games with so much importance attached to them, Qureshi says the key is to understand the power of choice. “The type of technique I would employ is E+R=O. The Event + the Reaction = the Outcome. The event could be: referees make poor decisions, or someone will do something you think is unfair or the opposition will change their pattern of play or strategy and you weren’t expecting it. It’s all sorts of things that push and pull us in different ways on a daily basis.
“But how we react and respond to them — how we choose to respond to them — determines the outcome. The events are things that are outside of our control. How we respond to them, either in a split second or with thinking time, then determines what the outcome will be.”
When Andy Flower was coaching the England cricket team during their successful Ashes series in 2009, Qureshi says one of the things the Zimbabwean worked on was allowing his players to understand this power of choice: “You can choose shot selection, how to perform. It’s not dependent on circumstance, situation or opposition. It’s quite a powerful thing when people start to realise that. Shortcutting that moment when they go into an intuitive or instinctive reaction which might not generate the best outcome is really important.”
Whatever tools and tips a sports psychologist might pass on though (and it’s worth noting that neither Leeds United or Everton currently employs one in-house — though some players do opt to work with one privately), Caulfield says it can all be undone by the “pure and utter theater” of what occurs in the dugout on a match day.
“With all the coaches I’ve worked with I’ve said, ‘We’ve got to be careful how we are in the dugout because if we’re not giving the right messages — if we’re showing a threat response in the dugout, that will spread to the players quicker than COVID. Everyone talks about showing passion but sometimes that reaches the players and they get sent off because they’re almost replicating your passion if you’re behaving foolishly in the dugout.”
Caulfield’s approach to working with players and helping them prepare for high tension games is highly individualised. “I’ve yet to meet two players the same and I don’t think I ever will,” he says. “You have to know the group and which messages to give collectively and which to also just discuss — that can be done over breakfast. And that’s when you can start dropping in the ideas and the tools so that people are prepared if and when it comes along.
“But it isn’t easy. As Roy Hodgson said when he left Crystal Palace: ‘They’re not magnets on a tactics board’. Sometimes there is just a switch which sends you over the edge.”
It’s also worth asking if, for some players, that switch is integral to their performance. “If you look at someone like Wayne Rooney” says Qureshi, “people said he’d be a better player if he contained his anger. The other argument you might have is that if you are teaching or allowing people to control their emotion or have choice over their emotion, does it make them a worse player in the long run?
“Rooney or whoever else might get sent off a couple of times a year. They may be hot-headed. But over the course of a season, that allows them to win games as well. There’s a difference between those significant games — FA Cup finals or six-pointers at the bottom of the table — and how someone performs over the course of the season. Sometimes those things that allow people to fail in a moment allow them to succeed in the long term.”
There are some players, says Qureshi, for whom no amount of preparation or tools will be enough to mitigate their risk of picking up a red card when the heat rises. “I think some players are just wired to play in a particular way. So it doesn’t matter what you do. The lesson for football clubs is that the difference between finishing halfway up the table and being relegated is nothing; it’s the game you should’ve lost but you drew, then the next week you win because you’ve got a bit of momentum and confidence. It’s a tackle or two tackles or one or two goals which ultimately enable relegation to become almost mid-table.
“So do you need to change everyone in a football team? No, you need one or two people to perform a little bit better than they would have done to enable you to finish three or four places higher. So yes, there are people who are hard-wired. And there are also people who can think about their performance and think about their choices differently and therefore might stay on the pitch longer in one or two games, which allows you to win or draw and therefore be the difference between a good season and a bad one.”
It’s a game of risk, then. If your hard-wired players are also the ones who give you the best chance of winning a game, what do you do?
“There will be many a theorist who will be explaining why it happens and what you should do about it” says Caulfield of the red-card risk in high-pressure games. “But so few have been in that cauldron where you’ve got 60,000 people screaming at you to have a go or dive in or defend your team-mate or do something to show you care and that you’re trying.
“I’ve worked in everything from dressage to darts and Badminton horse trials to chess. And through it all, football is the most illogical, irrational and emotional of them all. Nothing comes close to it.”
(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)