An expert’s view: Belief is key if Norwich City are to end their troubled travels
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Conquering the fear of playing away from home could well be crucial to Chris Hughton’s long-term future as manager of Norwich City – but it will not be easy.
Arguments against psychologists in sport have long since subsided and England manager Roy Hodgson has already revealed that Dr Steve Peters, a top sports psychiatrist, will be helping England at this summer’s World Cup.
Mottos such as “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” are now common place around the training centres of professional sports teams and City are no different.
The Canaries return to the home comforts of Carrow Road for their crunch Premier League clash with fellow strugglers West Brom on Saturday.
But should they continue their good form and beat the Baggies, will the City players regress to the terrible form seen once again in the 3-0 defeat at Swansea on Saturday?
Dr Simon Hampton, lecturer in psychology at the University of East Anglia, says the answer to that question is simple; yes, unless the City players can change their thinking.
“Professional sport is now played in the head,” said Dr Hampton, who follows the fortunes of the Canaries closely. “Sports psychology is about performance under pressure.
“Why do footballers miss penalties? Why do pro golfers slice a tee shot? Why does a pro tennis player ever make a double fault, the one shot they have total control over.
“It goes back to the facilitation effect. If you believe that you can’t do it, that becomes part of mythical thought and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
If that is the case for Hughton’s side, then they are very much fulfilling their prophecies.
Their home turf is a place where confidence has rapidly returned side since the turn of the year, where they have built a six-game unbeaten league run.
Just one goal has been conceded in those games, as City have rebuilt their fortress on the banks of the River Wensum.
Away from home however, it has been little short of disastrous.
Only Cardiff have picked up fewer points on the road, seven to City’s eight, as the Canaries have constantly seemed to lose confidence once outside of Norfolk.
Two wins and two draws from 16 away games, scoring 11 goals and conceding 39, has seen City’s travelling supports reach the end of their tether.
“There could be various explanations for it,” Dr Hampton said of perceived home advantage in sport. “One of the very earliest findings of the facilitation effect was that when someone is under scrutiny and is aware they are being scrutinised, if they are good at something, their performance is good, but if they are not good at something then it gets worse.
“The old example is giving kids a fishing reel and asking them to reel it in, which is very simple, but if you knock their confidence before and then watch them do it then their performance is inhibited, so the mythical almost becomes a reality.
“Way back when modern sports were in their infancy, Norwich travelling to West London was difficult, more like it would be now for Norwich players travelling to Munich, because of the homogenisation of transport and the creation of television, so that thinking is in the bloodstream of sport across the world.
“What happens psychologically is that they anticipate they will perform well at home and they anticipate performing badly away from home, so the myth becomes the reality.”
Dr Hampton points out that this is certainly not just the case for football either, highlighting that tennis, rugby, baseball, American football and even boxing show clear trends of home advantage.
So how can the cycle be broken? What can City do to try and carry some Carrow Road spirit with them on their travels?
“It is about getting people to think differently,” Dr Hampton adds. “It is not as easy as A, B, C, but the psychological way is to get someone to stop thinking in the way that causes them a problem.
“I don’t know what goes on in professional sports dressing rooms or the discussions between managers and players in football but if an alien were to come down, they would think there are two different games going on, regardless of the rules and regulations.
“If you ask players about the effect of the crowd and almost the regulation answer is that they don’t hear it when they are playing.
“When you are driving a car, if something comes into the left of your vision, you stop hearing the radio instantly and it’s the same for players when they are tending to the game, not just if they are ball watching.
“They say they hear the crowd after but not during the crucial moments because their concentration is really high at that moment.
“If you look at the idea of referees showing home bias as well, that is very robust, and you start to see how robust the thinking of home advantage is.”
Do you agree that City’s troubles away from home are psychological? Or do you believe they can be fixed through traditional changes in tactics and personnel? Write to Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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