Have Manchester United lost the fear factor? A psychological perspective
It has been well documented the struggles of Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson departed well over a year ago. Many argued that David Moyes did not get a fair crack at the job, spending a significant amount less than new manager Louis Van Gaal, however I argue that it is not the lack of spending that cost United it’s the lack of fear teams now have since Fergie’s departure.
From a psychological perspective the way teams approach any game can largely be split into two distinct ways, challenge or threat. Viewing a task as a challenge means setting approach based goals, for example ‘today we aim to score 3 goals’, in comparison to a threat approach which may entail avoidance based goals such as ‘let’s try not to concede more than 2 goals today’. Since post Ferguson days, teams are seemingly adopting much more of a challenge mind-set against the former champions, opting to play much more expansive and attacking football, something United are not used to. Now compare this to when Sir Alex was at the helm it was a completely different picture. Teams used to fear going to Old Trafford, perhaps just writing it off as a loss before they even arrived. Teams would sit back, play in a negative way, clearly focused on avoidance based goals.
Research in this area has been particularly interesting, especially with the development of the Theory of Challenge or Threat States in Athletes (TCTSA) (Jones, Meijen, McCarthy and Sheffield, 2009). This theory suggests a challenge state consists of high levels of self-efficacy, perceived control and a focus on approach based goals, with threat states consisting of the exact opposite. The theory then goes on to state that an athlete in a challenge state is more likely to have improved decision making, increased engagement, more effective cognitive functioning and increased anaerobic power, all things that are vital in football. The opposite can be said for athletes in a threat state, clearly supporting the shift in approaches of teams that play Manchester United nowadays. However research by Turner, Jones, Sheffield and Cross (2012) led them to propose that the reason athletes adopting challenges states perform better is simply because they have greater ability in a task, therefore making them more likely to respond with a challenge response. Manchester United do not conform with this argument, going from champions of England to not even qualifying for European competitions, all within a year.
However the explanation may be simple, because the TCTSA suggests that demands of a task along with the resources available play a role in determining what approach is adopted. Therefore in the days of Sir Alex, teams would feel the task of beating United was an extremely tough, maybe an impossible feat, therefore leading them to think they did not have the resources to beat the red devils. Fast-forward to the new look United, and teams are now thinking that they have the resources to beat United, therefore placing the task as a challenge rather than a threat. The reverse could be said of United, with a new look team, new manager, unsettled crowd, the players may now be questioning if they have what it takes to beat the teams they brushed aside in the past, placing them into a state of threat.
With big money names such as Di Maria and Falcao joining United this season it will be interesting to see if they can regain their fear factor, or wheather teams will keep adopting a challenge state against them, potentially making their journey back to Europe an incredibly tough task.
References Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., & Cross, S. L. (2012). Cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat states predict competitive performance. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 86, 48-57. Jones, M., Meijen, C., McCarthy, P. J., & Sheffield, D. (2009). A theory of challenge and threat states in athletes. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2(2), 161-180.
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About Scott Hassall
Scott is a Stage 2 Sport and Exercise Psychologist Trainee. He is passionate about making a difference to the lives of the athletes he works with.