On Sunday night two football managers (Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel) watched their teams play at the Chelsea v Tottenham game – lost some emotional control and had a bust up. They both received Red Cards.
I rarely comment publicly on the psychology of football because a female commenting on football gets you all sorts of grief that I just don’t have the energy to deal with, but this felt like a fascinating example of how we judge leadership.
I went on BBC Radio Five Live to chat about it – as did lots of callers. There felt like a pretty even split between those who thought it was exciting and part of the passion of football and those who thought it was childish and that leaders should model emotional control. I’m with them.
What do we want in leaders at top level football? I researched this for The 10 Pillars of Success and found successful teams have lots of autonomy (a choice and a voice) and so leaders need to support this.
With autonomy athletes’ motivation and wellbeing increase, performance improves, players feel better able to take risks, have greater loyalty and are less likely to leave. If you give players autonomy your job as a leader becomes role modelling great behaviour for them to want to follow. If their behaviour is poor then athletes will be less likely to listen to them or turn to them for advice. And if them can’t control their emotions will an athlete understand that they need to control theirs?
This matters because the biggest issue I work with in young football players is losing emotional control on the pitch. When you lose emotional control it is because your threat system has been triggered. When the threat system is triggered your physiology changes: heart and breathing rates rise, tummy feels nauseous, muscles tighten and you lose peripheral vision. Performance falls, others don’t like playing with you and you feel dreadful. For very very short periods of time research suggests anger gets us going and can help focus attention – but then we have a come down where we don’t do so well. It is better to avoid the anger where possible.
Wider than individual premiership players, what does losing emotional control when you are in a professional (or any) capacity teach junior players, parents and coaches – that it is ok to behave this way? That if things don’t go our way, or someone winds us up we can throw all our toys out of the pram and spit out the dummy? Absolutely not – society needs athletes and supporters who are respectful and able to handle difficult feelings. We need to model this from the very top.
The best athletes learn to handle their emotions in a way that helps them perform better – and leaders should too.