Confidence is such a key component of successful performance in sport and a player’s loss of confidence can brutally be laid bare in the professional arena. Footballer Ashley Young appears to be having a crisis of confidence, not helped by his apparent penchant for diving. The reputation of Manchester United’s winger has fallen a great distance in a short space of time at Old Trafford and that’s not accounting for every vertical foot he accumulates with one of those theatrical dives. The former Aston Villa man has gone from being an England regular, whose services Manchester United were willing to pay in the region of £17m for, to public enemy number one after his recent performances. At 28 years of age, Young should be at the peak of his powers but instead of being the tricky winger who set up goals for fun, he is now vilified for his laziness, wastefulness and diving by the ‘keyboard warriors’ on Twitter and fan sites. The ‘simulation’ is one of several problems for a player who, from a psychological perspective, looks shorn of the confidence that marked him out as a star in the making at Watford and Aston Villa a few years ago, and it begs the question, where has it gone wrong?
It is possible that opposition players have ‘worked him out’ but Young’s development surely would have stalled during his four-and-a-half years at Aston Villa if that was the case. However, his career statistics remain remarkably consistent as the 2007/08 season with Villa saw Young score eight goals and assist 17 others, in 2008/09 he came up with eight goals and 10 assists, the 2009/10 season produced nine and 13 respectively, while his final season at Villa saw him score nine and set up 15. His first campaign at United was similarly successful (12 and 13), despite a knee injury, but he has failed to hit such heights since (three and six in 2012/13; 0 and 0 so far this season).
It could be argued that he has been asked to play in a slightly different positions at United, where possession is key, while Villa were always reliant on his pace on the counter-attack. Martin O’Neill, who once labelled Young “world class”, seemed to get the best out the player at Villa by playing him in a free role behind the strikers or using him on the left wing where he could use his ability to cut back on to his right foot to devastating effect. His role raises a key psychological point as Young’s role in his team is no longer clearly defined – at Villa he was the ‘main man’ and he knew exactly what his manager wanted from him, but at United he has become the epitome of a ‘bit-part’ player. Lack of role clarity can be a major psychological issue in team sports and it will be interesting to see how Young and United move forward in this regard.
Once Young achieved his move to United – the most successful club in the Premier League era – it is possible that he had reached his ultimate career goal. In simple terms, he had ‘made it’. This is always a dangerous scenario for an athlete as once that main goal has been achieved it can be difficult to motivate yourself to reach the same levels of quality that had enabled you to regularly reach your performance peak in the first place.
Once he had achieved the big transfer, Young’s initial integration from Villa and into the United set-up may have been a difficult one psychologically as he had to prove himself to his new, better quality teammates. He was no longer a ‘big fish in a small pond’ but rather just another cog in an exceptional United machine that demands excellence from every single player during every single match.
Young’s ability to integrate himself with his teammates was undermined in December 2011 when he suffered an injury that ruled him out until February and similar niggling injuries have remained a constant cause for consternation during his United career. Recovering from injury, both physically and mentally, has attracted a great body of research and it can impact upon even the most experienced professional.
Once Young had recovered from that initial knee injury, he was part of Roy Hodgson’s England squad that went to Euro 2012 and it ended in immense disappointment as he was one of two England players to miss a penalty during their shoot-out defeat to Italy at the quarter-final stage. His role in England’s defeat will no doubt have had a massive impact on his confidence and it could be argued that he is yet to fully recover.
Young has only fleetingly looked like the player he once was at Villa. There is no doubt that the quality is still there but psychologically he looks shorn of the confidence which made it so easy for him to beat opposition defenders. Rather than gracefully gliding past opponents like Christopher Dean in his pomp, he now resembles Bambi on ice. His confidence in his ability appears to have dissipated through a number of possible factors and Young’s decline underlines the numerous variables that can influence an athlete’s performance.
The challenge for United is to restore the confidence of a player who appears to have forgotten what his game was all about. A loss of confidence has effected many other past United signings – Mark Bosnich, Lee Sharpe, Nani and Massimo Taibi to name but a few – and if Young is to avoid befalling the same fate as several of those unfulfilled talents then he needs to rediscover the motivation which earned him a move to Old Trafford in the first place… And maybe cut out the diving.