Science of football: Human connection and its relation to performance with Tefu Mashamaite Part 1

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Kicking Kinetics
Sport Scientist Dr Khatija Bahdur and Tefu Mashamaite discuss the importance of developing the right kind of relationships for success

The goal of all teams is to consistently bring out the best in their players but footballers are not Islands, they do not exist alone. So, do relationships and interactions within football affect performance?

To get more insight into the matter I spoke with Tefu Mashamaite. According to 'Masha', developing the right kind of relationships is vital.

"The success of a team sport is more dependent on the cohesion of the sum individuals in the team than just individual brilliance, and yes, it’s very important that proper relationships and interactions are forged between various footballing stakeholders. As the adage goes, the team is only as good as its weakest link, one can argue that the strength of the chain depends mainly on the relationship i.e trust, reliability, coachability," he said. 

The coach/player relationship has been given a lot of attention recently with numerous people analyzing relationships such as the Mourinho/Pogba one or closer to home Mosimane/Lebese.

In this regard, there are often different factors; the perception of both the coach and the player and the actual scenario. A coach may believe he is being undermined by a player but the same situation from the player's perspective might be very different.

In modern football, there is often an eluding to player power, after all, players tend to have the big market value, commercialization opportunity and they carry the power of celebrity which for all its downfalls can be very lucrative.

Mashamaite acknowledges that it is "common in team-sport that once the coach has lost a dressing room then s(he) is as good as gone."

Tefu Mashamaite, former Kaizer Chiefs player

But this does not take away from the mutual directionality of the relationship.

"Players need a good and healthy relationship with the coach because it reinforces a sense of belief and alleviates all unnecessary stresses. A sense of belonging builds self-confidence and a confident team can overcome any obstacle. Therefore, as a player, knowing that a coach has your back whether win, lose or draw, gives one more energy to fight."

And in such situations, it's important for coaches to remember that players are not the same; what might motivate some players can break down the others. Some players do not deal well with public criticism and in some cases, players may feel that the team dynamic is much like the situation in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: 'All players are equal but some are more equal than others' with ideas of favouritisms often impacting not only the player/coach relationship but the team dynamic.

In some cases, players might feel they are not playing because of coach bias or off-field issues. So, how can player perceptions be managed?

"Perceptions gain traction in an environment where there is no communication and trust. It is therefore important for a coach to divide her/his attention properly amongst those that play regularly and those who don’t; firstly to alleviate any possibility of divisions and secondly, to strengthen team cohesion because sometimes injuries/suspensions and other circumstances can happen that will force the coach to draw upon the services of those who may have been deemed less important."

As much as the internal team environment is important, players don't function just within that world. Fans are key stakeholders, often believing they should have a say on player transfers, coach appointments and other things related to the running of the club. Fans are decidedly important to ensure the sport remains a professional industry. And when the going is good, the fans can be the 12th man. But does that loyalty remain when the tides turn?

We often see coaches like Diego Simeone play up the fans, a conductor leading the orchestra to lift his team when things are not going as planned.

Do we see the same in the PSL or are fans here quick to turn on a player at the first mistake or sometimes even when he is forced into an error?

As Masha pointed out, PSL fans are notorious for their substitution signals, and the booing of their own players.

"South African fans have been very notorious with their treatment of the players of their favourite teams. The substitution signals and booing is very much a fabric of the PSL and this despicable behaviour tarnishes not only the image of our football but the confidence of the players as well."

And therein lies the problem. Anyone who has ever lost their confidence, before a test, when speaking to their crush, in any work or social situation should be able to relate to how losing confidence is likely to decrease the likelihood of a positive result. Any sports psychologist will talk about the importance of confidence and having the confidence and the willingness to make mistakes.

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A few years ago, I did research on decisions and executions of players in matches and fear was an important factor. If players are scared to make mistakes, they won't push themselves to try the extraordinary and might be more likely to always pick the safe pass or "hide" during the match.

This fear is made worse by the fact that a single mistake could lead to everyone turning on you. And boos have in the past translated to vandalism and violence, which has to affect the players feeling of safety.

"In a sport where numbers count, you can’t have one of your own turning against you," he said.

However, Masha believes behaviour at football stadiums is just a reflection of society.

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"The behaviour is much deeper than football, it’s borne out of an environment that resorts to violence most often to solve problems and also the culture of entitlement that plague every layer of our society," added Mashamaite.  

A single player being targeted doesn’t only affect that player but influences the full team dynamic.

"The booing and substitution signals affect the team negatively because football is a game of emotions and once a team has a player subjected to this emotional violence then it’s a disadvantage, it’s like playing with one less player," said Mashamaite. 

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