Monday, September 29, 2014

Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not

After an unproductive start to the 2014-15 Premier League campaign and a subpar Champions League performance against Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil told the German news agency DPA, "I don't play to prove others wrong, I play for Arsenal."

Many observers, though, do think that Özil has something to prove, needing in particular to display "passion" in the traditional English sporting sense. After all, that's how they would react if they were faced with the pressure associated with elite athletic competition. The expectations tied to a club-record financial outlay would intensify the pressure they'd feel.

Yet Özil does not give the impression that he's under any stress at all. This behavior, infuriating to some fans, is one of the psychological strengths that combines with amazing physical gifts to foster success at the highest level of competition.

There's an entire field of psychological research devoted to identifying the differences between these elite performers and the rest of us. The message from many of these studies is that what we laypeople consider shortcomings might actually be competitive virtues.

Inviting and overcoming stress

Most individuals experience stress from exposure to traumatic or negative events, such as violence, natural disasters, or the death of a loved one. By contrast, elite athletes choose to put themselves in stressful situations partly because they believe the experiences can improve their performances. They see stressful conditions and events as opportunities to grow and hone their competitive edge. (Many of these ideas come from researchers David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar,  "A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions" in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise 13 (2012).)

Handling stress and pressure requires high levels of what psychologists call resilience. Summoning this characteristic, elite athletes prove able to succeed in situations that would paralyze most of us with fear of failure or awe at our surroundings. Fletcher and Sarkar have also learned that world-class sportswomen and -men are adept at using psychological techniques on themselves; as examples, they can easily step outside themselves and visualize their actions, relax, and shut out distractions.

Calling on psychological strengths

These techniques enhance the psychological advantages elite athletes already possess. By nature and by active cultivation, top sports performers have developed highly refined, advantageous psychological characteristics. Those are:
  1. Confidence
  2. Focus, especially on themselves and on process
  3. Perceived social support
  4. Discipline
The first seems obvious and understandable: elite athletes have to believe they will succeed, or they would have never made it to that level. Focus involves stepping outside themselves cognitively, planning and evaluating their own performance. Top athletes are adept at looking at the process, rather than the outcome, and their own roles in that process. (Findings from Natalie Durand-Bush and John Salmela, "The development and maintenance of expert athletic performance: Perceptions of world and Olympic champions," Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 14:3 (2002).)

The third characteristic, perceived social support, is interesting because it casts player entourages in a different light. These cliques surrounding professional athletes strike many of us as weird and parasitic, but the research suggests they can be essential to overcoming stress and achieving top levels of performance.

The last, discipline, points to the ability to set goals and exercise self-control (See Nicholas Holt and John Dunn, "Toward a grounded theory of the psychological competencies and environmental conditions associated with soccer success," Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 16 (2004).) It's subtly different from focus, which seems more process-oriented. Discipline helps athletes ward off distraction and use their emotional energy to positive effect.

Implications for players we love and loathe

Enough egghead mumbo-jumbo.

What does all this mean for the Arsenal and its supporters?

For one thing, we need to stop demanding that Özil and his teammates show they care in the same way that we would. In all likelihood, Özil's on-field demeanor isn't a sign of apathy; it's an expert adaptation to stressful situations that provides him with a competitive advantage.

The alternative is storming around the pitch, looking intense, flirting with losing control--showing the passion the British have long valued. Far from producing an edge, this kind of behavior actually signals a surrender to stress. The most recent example is Wayne Rooney's tirade as his Manchester United team gave up a two-goal lead to Leicester City.

NBC Sports analyst Robbie Mustoe praised Rooney's outburst, and many of us can relate to his behavior because that's how we would react in that situation. But we are not elite athletes whose training and development have made them experts at managing stress and succeeding under incredible scrutiny.

One of the most volatile characters in sport has reflected on his behavior and now sees the advantage in acting differently. Joey Barton, in a fascinating interview with Henry Winter of The Telegraph, credited psychological consultant Steve Black with changing his outlook and performance. He said: "I visualise stuff now. When I get out of the car on a match-day, I walk into this 'bubble of no reaction' that no one gets in, nobody. I don't waste energy arguing with refs or other players...I'm in control now. I'm empowered."

The Costanza Principle: Do The Opposite!

Supporters of the Arsenal should be further encouraged by Özil's descriptions of the club's extremely supportive environment. That's one of the psychological conditions enabling elite performance. Manager Arsène Wenger should also maintain consistency of expectations because that allows top-level athletes to engage in planning, goal-setting, evaluating, and focusing on the process.

As Michael Keshani (@RoamingLibero) points out in his piece "Appreciating Mesut" for Arseblog, the recent shift to a 4-1-4-1 formation may have failed to take advantage of Özil's physical contributions; worse in my analysis, the change may have undermined Özil's need for consistency and thus his ability to capitalize on his psychological strengths.

The major lesson, though, is that we should stop expecting that Arsenal players show emotion as we would. Their success actually depends on not acting like us at all.

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