The Paradox of the Mind and How Football Fans Culturally Expect Success to be Instant

Opinion

The call for instant results has bled into every vein of our lives. Instant coffee, same-day delivery, high speed fibre optic internet connection – the demand for something ‘now’ is everywhere.

Our smartphones have removed the need to wait to book a taxi, find a date, buy tickets for a show, or secure a table for four at the best restaurant in town. On demand television and streaming services bring instant entertainment to our fingertips and eyeballs with the push of a button. YouTube contains the entire history of the human race in video clip form, and is only a click away. But should there be a ten-second advert at the start of the clip, then we are tempted to throw the laptop through the nearest window.

Instantaneous satisfaction seems like a brilliant part of first world life – but because it is everywhere, all of the time – it makes us more impatient and less fulfilled.

In 2015, the internet user data was recorded for over six and half million people worldwide to test how long they would be willing to wait for online videos to load. After 5 seconds of waiting, a quarter of users clicked away. By 10 seconds, over half have abandoned. By 30 seconds, 85% of users have given up. The same research showed that, on average, more than half of viewers won’t watch a 30 second video clip past the halfway mark.

This fully embodies the culture of football fans. A new signing is unveiled and they expect the player to hit the ground running and bag 25 goals in his first season. Anything less and he’s failed. An often used argument is: “he needs time to settle in”. But it doesn’t wash with fans. They argue: these are the highest paid players in the world, playing at the pinnacle of their sport, they should be able to produce instantly.

In 2015, the average tenure of a football manager across the 92 league clubs was 1.23 years. Arsene Wenger is single-handedly keeping this figure above the 1 year threshold. Fans are fully within their rights to express an opinion of a manager’s performance and critique the way a club is led. But this startling figure suggests the expectations of fans are unrealistic. Coupled with this is the sheer ferocity at which clubs will pull the trigger and sack a manager.

Success is expected to be instant. But this is a paradox of the mind. We all agree we want our clubs to be successful – but we should recognise that success is a journey, not a gift or a destination. As explained in a previous article, Elite Football: The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice, it was examined how success comes over time, and grown from effort, input and feedback.

Managers need time to build something, to take advantage of marginal gains, and incrementally journey their teams to success. The very nature of the business football has become has made this more difficult for teams and managers to establish.

For fans, the quick change of a manger can be a placebo. A research project carried out by a Dutch economist, Dr Bas ter Weel, over 18 seasons of the Eredivisie between 1986 and 2004 analysed the form of teams who sacked their manager compared with those who didn’t. His research found teams in both groups went through similar patterns of decline and improvement in results.

Ter Weel also looked at the main leagues in Europe. His conclusion was the same across different countries. Generally, teams who suffered a fall in form were able to bounce back in the short term and maintain their course of long term achievement across a season. Regardless of whether a team sacked their manager, Ter Weel’s research and analysis shows teams will always return to their average line of form.

Fans calling for a manager to be sacked so their team can have a change of fortune is a paradox. So why is this? In their excellent book, ‘The Numbers Game’, David Sally and Chris Anderson refer to a statistical anomaly called ‘regression to the mean’. They write: “In the same way water seeks its own level, numbers and series of numbers will move towards the average, move towards the ordinary.”

A slump in form can be categorised as the extraordinary. After this it will be followed by the ordinary and average, because that is what happens most of the time. In football this phenomenon is seen when a team shows bouncebackability with their on-pitch performance under the guidance of a newly employed manager. Critically, this uplift in form would have happened regardless of the manager’s appointment. Paradoxically for fans and board members, instead of dismissing their manager, paying their contract off, and unsettling players – keeping their manager would statistically see the team’s form return to the average regardless.

Sally and Anderson conclude: “a short term decline in performance is not a good reason to be firing your manager.”

There are of course exceptions where managers have been replaced and quickly led teams to avoiding relegation or win titles. These are extraordinary cases outside the realm of the average.

There are many counter cases. Chelsea being a prime example. They change their manager with regularity but see little improvement in form over the long term. On average, they win the league every few years. If Mourinho stayed at Chelsea, it is not definite they would have won the league the following the year – but they would have eventually restored themselves to their average and been contenders again. The pertinent point here is Conte won the league with Mourinho’s players.

Research shows, like in business, the person leading a football team can make up to a 15% difference to performance. Their influence is actually smaller than we perceive. Also, their influence is far wider reaching the longer they are at the helm. Obviously, it is a case of selection. The best teams attract the best players and managers. It is no surprise players from lower teams who perform well leave to play for top clubs. So over the time the best teams on average will rise and stay at the top.

Overall, research shows the best way to change a team’s fortune on the pitch is to change the culture of how they practice, prepare and learn in the long term. And paradoxically again, this does not always come from the manager selected to lead the team in the short term. With an average tenure of 1.23 years across 92 league teams, managers are clearly not being given the time to implement this culture.

So next time your team have a slump in form – think again about flying that banner over the top of the stadium.