PAUL MANSELL LOOKS AT THE ROLE PSYCHOLOGY PLAYS IN WOLVES' LACK OF GOALS
There is no getting away from the fact that Wolves tally in the ‘goals for’ column could be improved. In fact, it is probably fair to say that it cost Wolves the chance of qualifying for Europe at the end of the 2021/22 season. Registering only 38 goals from their 38 matches was problematic enough, but this season, the opening seven league games have yielded only three goals and no striker has scored in front of the South Bank in 2022.
Theories abound as to why this is the case. Truth be told, there is not one reason alone to explain Wolves’ impotence in front of goal, and several factors probably combine to influence the problem. Injuries to key forwards (Jimenez and Kalajdzic), individuals’ loss of form (Neto and Hwang), powderpuff short-corners, and Bruno Lage’s insistence on deploying inverted wingers have not helped. Wolves’ approach play up until the final third has looked good in general and possession stats support this. There is a clear emphasis on playing the ball out from the back, and Wolves possess some excellent technicians in midfield. However, as the problem has been evident for many months, it raises the suggestion that psychology is also playing its part.
Considered to be difficult to obtain and easy to lose, it is likely that individually and collectively, confidence will be at a low ebb. Self-confidence is concerned with predictions that an individual makes about their ability to succeed. Players possess both trait levels of self-confidence and confidence that relates to specific situations – this is known as self-efficacy. It seems logical to suggest that when it comes to the specific situation of putting the ball in the back of the net, the self-efficacy of Jimenez and co. will currently be low, and psychologists such as Albert Bandura have constructed theories to explain the factors that influence self-efficacy. In turn, this might help to shed light on why Wolves have a goal-shy attack.
Firstly and considered to be the most important source of self-efficacy, the ‘previous accomplishments’ of individuals can determine how confident a striker feels about converting a chance. When we have a track record of success, we can reflect on this and use it to propel our self-efficacy when we face important situations. Using Wolves as our case study, it is possible to see where the issue lies. Jimenez’s spell before his injury aside, no Wolves attacker has a particularly impressive goal scoring record in their mental lockers that can instil them with self-efficacy. As Wolves’ top-scorer in the 2020/21 season, even the talented Pedro Neto only managed five goals. Additionally, ‘vicarious experiences’ influence self-efficacy. To explain, this means that when we watch other players of a similar level to ourselves experience success, we can use that to help fuel our belief that we can succeed too. For example, if we watch a peer stand up and speak confidently in front of a group, it can make us think that we can also do the same. The complete lack of goals that Wolves are experiencing mean that vicarious experiences cannot be tapped in to, and another source of self-efficacy is lost. In fact, watching others miss chances may have a further negative effect on self-efficacy.
The third facet of self-efficacy is ‘verbal persuasion’. This means that when coaches or significant others show belief in us through using encouragement and feedback, it can instil a greater sense of self-efficacy. The extent to which this is happening can only be speculated, but hopefully the management team and support staff are aware of the benefits of this. Indeed, combined with the visual element of video analysis of successful attempts on goal in training, this is a strategy that you may have seen Arsenal coach Carlos Cuesta use with Alexandre Lacazette in the ‘All or Nothing’ documentary. Finally, ‘physiological and emotional states’ influence self-efficacy. Doubtless, the players will experience elevated heart and breathing rates and feelings of anxiety when a chance is imminent. In itself, these are normal responses. However, when the player interprets these negatively, it is likely to erode self-efficacy and reduce the likelihood of a goal being scored.
So how might low self-efficacy ‘look’ in this specific goalscoring situation? When you make negative predictions of success, this might mean demonstrating avoidance behaviours. Thinking that you won’t score, you don’t bother shooting. You pass to a teammate and avoid the responsibility of shooting yourself. You take an extra touch to set yourself rather than relying on instinct. You snatch at a chance as a result of panic. When you miss a chance, self-efficacy takes a further nosedive and further compounds the problem.
Overall, injuries remain, Bruno Lage has his own tactical ideas, and players will always experience dips in form. However, only one team across the top five leagues in Europe has a lower chance conversation rate than Wolves, and it may be that low self-efficacy is contributing to this problem. Low self-efficacy cannot be solved overnight, but interventions to enhance self-efficacy such as imagery have been shown to be effective in athletes. For the sake of Wolves’ season, let’s hope that their self-efficacy when it comes to scoring goals returns sooner rather than later…
article by paul mansell
Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Staffordshire University.
Paul is an avid sports fan and goes to all the Wolves games home and away sometimes with his two little girls in tow. Paul always has an honest opinion on every Wolves game and will say it as he sees it. Our podcast listeners and YouTube fans often want to know what Paul’s opinion is and love to hear him talk so knowledgeably.
Paul is currently undertaking a PHD and is investigating the psychology of stress in sport.