Away-day anxiety all in the head
'Win your home games' has long been a favourite saying in football, with the school of thought being that winning in front of your own fans and avoiding defeat on the road will lead you to success. Therefore, we see many teams adopting more defensive tactics and playing a more pragmatic style whenever they are playing away. But given that the practical aspects of the game remain largely unchanged no matter where you play, why would a team alter its tactics when it has to travel? FIFA.com investigates the psychological issues that can affect a side’s performance when on their travels.
An obvious problem for an away team is the crowd, which will largely be backing the hosts as well as trying to negatively impact on the visitors. Not only will the away side miss their home support and the confidence and belief it can provide, their opponents will enjoy a significant boost. Andy Barton, a mental performance coach at The Sporting Mind in England, explained: “When playing away from home a lot of the familiarity is taken away. If you are also faced with the travel, a predominantly hostile crowd and different routines to those that a player experiences at a home match, it can add significantly to the player's stress levels.”
This is a theory backed up by Amanda Owens, an accredited sport psychologist, who believes the crowd play an important part in unsettling an away team. She said: “A team is more likely to lose away from home because of the crowd – the crowd noise and the environment. Some players find taunts from the crowd distracting. Competitive anxiety is reduced over time but some players do have it and it is compounded away from home.”
Barton added: “A loud and large crowd for one team can also have a negative impact on the opposing team. The effect of the crowd will often be heightened at times when teams are either playing very well or very badly. For the team playing well, the joy of the crowd can further lift an already confident team, however, when teams are playing badly, the crowd's negative reaction can also further inhibit their performance.”
Players prefer routine
A change in routine appears to be a key factor too. Away matches require travel, sometimes long distance, with players potentially performing at a venue for the first time. Often clubs will travel the night before an away fixture, meaning an overnight stay is necessary. With air travel usually the quickest and most comfortable option, teams normally choose to fly, and this could be a further stress to any players who do not enjoy flying. All of these changes in routine can contribute to a player losing focus, according to Owens: “Players perform better at home because they are more focused as their routine is not disrupted. Players like routine.”
As these elements build up in a player’s mind, it can cause anxiety and nervousness, which will have a damaging impact on performance. Simple passes can become troublesome and a player can lose all confidence in his ability. This feeling of inadequacy is heightened with each mistake.
Barton said: “Anxiety can have a very bad effect on a player's performance. Players who are anxious tend to focus on their fears rather than their abilities. They will fear missing tackles, mistiming passes and missing shots, which tends to have the effect of making it more likely that they would do so.
“Each player will have an optimum level of stress or excitement at which they will play their best. If they go over this level it starts to have a detrimental effect on their performance and if they are highly stressed or excited it will affect their decision-making and ability to perform skills. For this reason it is rarely of benefit to get a player too psyched up before a match. There is more likely to be a need to calm them down.”
Nerves are a natural product of playing competitive sport, particularly at a high level, and are not always a bad thing, but they must be controlled. “You need nervousness; nerves are good, emotions are good," said Owens. "But you need to control that under pressure."
An issue which permeates players’ minds during any match, home or away, is the need for results. Players want, and are paid, to win and for the reasons discussed, that can be more difficult away from home. This leads to a vicious circle.
Barton said: “If a player thinks too much about results, they can gain a fear of failure, as they start to think about consequences of each action that they take. This means they become unsure about shooting because they might miss or they pull out of a tackle because they fear the opponent might get past them.”
Coach's mentality is vital
A central figure in all of this is the coach, as his mentality and tactics can dictate how his team approaches a match. Many sides adopt more defensive tactics when they play away from home, usually playing less forwards and adding midfielders or defenders. This has a dual effect: it hands the attacking advantage to the home team and sends a negative message to the away side. Barton revealed that belief is vital: “There is also a strong belief issue that affects players. That is the cultural belief that it is harder to play away from home than it is to play at home.
“This impacts on both sides, which means the home side will tend to take confidence from playing at home and the away side will tend to lose confidence. The manager's mindset will have a significant effect on the team's performance. If a manager is lacking confidence it will permeate throughout the team. The very top managers may have different styles and tactics, but the thing that unites them is their undying self-belief. This self-belief is picked up unconsciously by the players predominantly from the manager's body language and how he expresses himself.”
Owens agreed: “It is important to play to a team’s strengths. It is the manager’s responsibility to analyse the opposition. Too many managers are afraid of losing – it’s a classic failure. They are more focused on not losing rather than how they can win.”