Dealing with Expectation in Sport
This summer’s football transfer window saw a ‘crazy’ (Benitez, 2017) rise in transfer fees that few pundits could have foreseen. Despite eye watering figures in the 2015/16 season, Paul Pogba’s £89m move back to Man United and Gonzalo Higiuian’s switch from Napoli to Juventus for €90m for example, the transfers completed this year reached completely new heights. A loan deal for 18 year-old Kylian Mbappe, with an option for PSG to make the deal permanent next season for a staggering €180m, capped off a month which also saw Barcelona pay €105m for Ousmane Dembele, and PSG break the world record transfer fee to sign Neymar for €222m. Aside from these huge money signings, a number of British teams also broke their respective record transfer fees bringing in new talent, albeit on a smaller scale. Premier league teams such as Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal forked out more than ever before to bring match winners to their dressing rooms, and Premier League ‘new-boys’ Huddersfield and Brighton and Hove Albion opted to spend big to increase their chances of prolonging their stay in the top flight.
Suggested explanations for the wildly inflated prices now paid for footballers range from the influence of rich new clubs in the Far-East to specific unwarranted high transfer fees that skewed the market. However, the reason for the rise is not something that players, coaches or fans concern themselves with, instead, as soon as pen is put to paper the attention turns to performance on the field.
Neymar and Mbappe currently have 7 combined appearances for PSG and 7 combined goals, which seems to imply that PSG’s investment is paying off. However, throughout footballing history, big money signings all too often end in disappointment for all involved. Andy Carroll’s £35m move from Newcastle to Liverpool is a transfer that falls into that category. At the time, the fee Liverpool paid, made him the most expensive British player ever and the eighth most expensive player ever to play the game. Yet, unfortunately for Liverpool, Carroll’s performances (6 goals in 44 appearances) led many to brand him as wasted money (Daly, 2014). A player who had pressure heaped upon him, and was expected by many to be ‘world class’ for Liverpool (Spearing, 2011), turned out to be average at best and he was soon sold to West Ham United. For some players, the big money signing they have been waiting for their whole careers simply doesn’t end in the fairy tale they dreamed it would, and instead they succumb to the pressure that follows all big signings; the pressure of expectation.
Expectation is consistently addressed by journalists when interviewing new signings and the conversation more often than not ends with the player stating something similar to ‘it doesn’t affect me’ and ‘I just wish to win games at my new club’. Gylfi Sigurdsson gave a textbook example of this after joining Everton this summer for a club record fee of £45m. In response to being asked whether he felt any pressure due to his high price tag, Sigurdsson replied ‘personally it is not up to me how much the club has paid for me. I put the pressure on myself to play well for the team, create and score goals for the club. That’s all I need and that’s the only thing I focus on’. This is seen by many as a good mentality for a player to hold in response to the great expectation that is bestowed upon him, and for as long as players disregard pressure in this way, their club’s fans are happy. However, from time to time a new signings’ performance on the pitch may not always be as polished as the answer they give to journalists regarding the pressure they feel. For example, in the 479 minutes of competitive football that Sigurdsson has played for Everton so far this season, they have drawn two and lost 4 and the goal difference whilst Sigurdsson has been on the field has been 1 goal scored and 14 goals against. These poor results cannot under any circumstances be blamed solely upon the new signing, however, it does beg the question that maybe the pressure of expectation cannot be dismissed quite as easily as players often say it can.
Expectation can affect sportsmen and women in many different ways and can even sometimes lead performers to react in a positive way (Mothes et al, 2017), although often the reaction exhibited is negative (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). One very simple effect that the pressure of expectation can have upon an athlete is to cause that performer to dislike competing and playing their sport altogether (Husbands, 2013). A football player who thinks that when he runs out onto the pitch there will be 35,000 fans expecting him to score lots of goals and perform well, even against talented opposition, will instantly feel dread towards performing, and will play for 90 minutes with a great weight upon their shoulders. It has been shown that any player who attempts to play their sport without enjoying it will ultimately fail to perform well (Merkel, 2013), a phenomenon that Andy Murray arguably fell victim to during his early career.
Athletes that start to feel the pressure of expectation will have already started to imagine a negative outcome that is yet to occur (Cohn, 2017); ‘the manager has bought me for a lot of money and so the fans expect me to perform well but I am going to disappoint them’. In this instance, the player has imagined that they will perform badly before they have even set foot on the field. Despite the great benefits that imagination and mental imagery can have upon sports performance (Smith et al, 2007), it can also create major problems for athletes too. An athlete that focuses upon a preconceived outcome will ignore the reality that they still have control over their performance and the processes that can help them to perform well.
This focus upon the processes that make up good performance is the solution that a sport psychologist should encourage when working with a player suffering from the pressures of expectation. Often players focus upon the outcomes of matches, such as the result, which they have almost no control over, or they get too fixated upon performance goals such as scoring goals. Instead, players should focus upon the simpler processes of their sport which, when attained correctly, will eventually add up to playing well and winning games.
If we refer back to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s quote, it seems to be a perfect answer with a sentiment that any fan would be pleased to hear from their new signing. However, after deeper analysis of the words he uses, he clearly incorrectly fixates upon scoring and creating goals which are both performance goals. Sigurdsson doesn’t have control over whether he scores a goal a game, however, he has complete control over the processes that he completes in order to try and score. If Sigurdsson forgets about scoring and instead focuses upon, for example, making his forward runs as positive as possible or striking his long range efforts as cleanly as he can, then he will be able to feel his performances improving and eventually goals and assists will follow and he will soon forget about the expectation that that his high price tag created.
Too many athletes forget that goals, tries, personal bests and medals are made up of lots of little competencies completed correctly again and again. Once athletes focus upon perfecting these small movements, better performances follow and subsequently better results after that (Schunk & Schwsartz, 1993).
Athletes suffering from the pressure of expectation must work hard to forget about outcomes and focus upon the process. An athlete that is perfecting the processes of their performance is very rarely an athlete that feels the weight of expectation upon them.
*All statistics and records correct at time of writing