The mind of great players
What separates the best from the rest?
In our last article we looked at the Goalimpact Ageing Curve. It shows why and how age has a major impact on performance. The Curve allows us to estimate how a player is likely to develop on average. However, we also recognised that there will be some players who will exceed the average prediction. While Goalimpact is reason agnostic and does not attempt to answer why a player is good, we recognise that specific descriptive statistics can help explain why a player might outperform forecast. Haaland is a good example: Simply because of his unique psychological makeup - basically, his obsessive desire to become the best - he is going to be better than we've predicted. In this article we will have a closer look at the psyche as an important factor in football performance. Using the model of the Big Five personality traits, which is both practical and statistically sound, we will try to analyse the following questions:
How can we describe personality? How does it relate to performance? And is there the 'ideal' player?
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What is a person?
"What is a person?" has been a topic of debate throughout history. Different cultures, religions and philosophies have had different models for the definition and understanding of the concept of a person. For the greek persona meant “the mask through which one speaks (in public). So what is that mask that we show? Can we analyze it? In recent years, the Big Five test has been a widely used tool for the assessment of personality and human behavior. The theory has its origins in the statistical analysis of patterns in human language.
The main idea behind the OCEAN model is that a person - that is, his or her attitudes, values, perceptions, behaviour and basic character (his or her way of being) - can be comprehensively described by language. Why so?
Language enables us to categorise the world and thus to understand it. The process of categorization is, in principle, unrestricted to any subject and has therefore also been used to describe human beings, especially since the social environment (from an evolutionary point of view) is the most relevant for human beings. Therefore, collecting all the adjectives that describe human beings (4500 in English at first) and studying how people describe themselves and others (using factor analysis) makes it possible to group these descriptions. The result is a set of universal traits that are at the core of these adjectives. These traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (which is why the test is sometimes referred to as the OCEAN model). They relate to the following attitudes, motivations and behaviours:
Openness refers to a person's willingness to experience new things and new perspectives.
Conscientiousness refers to the level of responsibility and self-discipline a person has.
Extraversion refers to how sociable and outgoing a person feels
Agreeableness refers to a person's level of friendliness and willingness to cooperate.
Neuroticism refers to a person's emotional stability and susceptibility to stress.
The test is typically administered through self-report questionnaires. The individual is asked to rate their agreement with a series of statements designed to measure each of the five dimensions. (Examples: "I like being around people" or "I often have many new ideas"). The results therefore appear on a relative rather than an absolute scale. This is because personality is a complex, multifaceted construct that cannot be reduced to a single absolute value. It is always a comparative measure that exists along a continuum. Traits and their public representation can therefore be plotted on distributions. The results can be seen in the graph below from a large, broad socio-economic online study of over 1 million people. (Note: Due to a selection bias towards younger people, the study is not representative).
If you want to test yourself, you can go here for free.
Although such a linguistic approach to personality is often criticised, recent neuroscience has begun to confirm the underlying characteristics of the Big Five by investigating the basic emotional modules (in the limbic systems) that drive human perception. Pankseep's affective neuroscience theory proposes that these primary brain emotional systems are associated with specific behaviours and physiological responses. He categorises these underlying emotional systems into: seeking, anger, fear, panic, grief, lust, play and care. Each of these modules has a specific functions associated with certain behaviours and emotions. However, the degree to which they are activated varies from person to person. Thus, both the Big Five and Pankseep's theory suggest that there are universal dimensions of personality, or substructures, that shape how we perceive ourselves.
(It's worth noting that there are some differences between the Big Five model and Pankseep's theory. For example, the Big Five focuses more on individual differences and traits, while Pankseep's theory focuses more on the underlying neural mechanisms of emotions).
One of our partners that has a combination of both approaches is Neuro4Sports. You can visit them here.
How the traits come together to form an individual
Taken together, the Big Five personality traits interact in complex ways to shape an individual's personality. The combination of these traits ultimately creates a unique individual.
For example, a person who scores high on both Extraversion and Agreeableness may be outgoing and sociable, but also highly focused on maintaining positive relationships and avoiding conflict. Conversely, an individual who scores high on Extraversion and low on Agreeableness may be outgoing and sociable, but also more independent and assertive. Openness to experience, another trait, can also influence others. For example, a person who scores high on openness and low on conscientiousness may be highly creative and open to new ideas, but less focused on achieving goals and more disorganised.
Are traits set in stone?
The Big Five personality traits are thought to be relatively stable throughout an individual's life, but they are not set in stone and can change with experience over time.
For example, some studies have shown that people who have experienced significant life events, such as trauma, can increase their neuroticism. However, exposure therapy, mindfulness practices and other forms of personal development can also reduce emotional instability over time. It's also worth noting that some environmental factors, such as poverty or abuse, can also impact personality development and change, especially early in life when the substructures are not yet fully formed. Perhaps such personality changes can occur through epigenetics, which refers to the way environmental factors can affect the expression of genes and thus affect behavior and cognition.
So traits are not set in stone. People have certain trait proclivities and tendencies, but many behavioural approaches can be shifted to a slight but not insignificant degree.
In a sense, nurture always meets nature.
Personality in Football
Let's look at these traits particularly through a football lens.
Players with high levels of open-mindedness are likely to do best when they have a lot of stimulation and freedom on the pitch. They may struggle to concentrate if the task is too repetitive or structured. They may seek fantasy to replace this boredom. Players who score high on the Openness trait are often referred to as 'free spirits', as they are often good at spotting patterns and breaking them up in creative ways. An example is Thomas Muller. As we have argued here, he might have struggled under Niko Kovac, who prefers rigid & disciplined structures.
However, as openness is also a risk-taking trait, attacking players may perform better with an open mind. On the other hand, center-backs and goalkeepers may pay too high a price for a risky style of play.
Players who are likely to be highly open:
The trait of conscientiousness in the Big Five personality test is analogous to Jiminy the Cricket in Pinocchio. It is the inner voice that guides and reminds you to do the right thing. People who score low on this trait, like psychopaths, lack this inner moral voice, which Freud identified as the superego. Conscientiousness includes not only ethics but also discipline and hard work. In the context of football, players high in conscientiousness are typically disciplined, never afraid to put in the extra effort. They are known for their discipline, diligence and sense of responsibility, and have a strong work ethic. This trait therefore correlates best with competitive sports and other professions. (In fact, the best predictors of career success are a combination of high conscientiousness and IQ. Basically, being smart and hard-working. However, conscientiousness seems to be the more robust of the two factors).
Examples of conscientious footballers include:
Extraversion in the Big Five measures how social a person is. It is the opposite of introversion. It describes how much a person enjoys interacting with others. High extraversion scorers are typically outgoing, sociable and enjoy being around people. They are often good networkers. Positive emotions are also associated with this trait. In fact, there seems to be no difference between feeling happy and feeling extroverted (+ low neuroticism).
It is therefore possible that extroverted players are better able to cope with stress and to maintain a positive attitude even in difficult situations. Extroverted players enjoy interacting with others. They may be more likely to form strong bonds with their teammates. Thus there is likely a selection pressure for extroversion in football.
Examples for extroverted players :
Agreeableness describes how much people value harmony. People who score high on agreeableness tend to focus more on maintaining positive relationships and avoiding conflict. People who score low on agreeableness tend to be more independent and assertive. They may have a preference for their own goals and opinions over the opinions of others.
Assertiveness (low agreeableness) can be beneficial for players in leadership roles in the context of sport. For example, Michael Jordan was often called a "tyrant" because of his demanding nature. However, this trait helped him to become a successful leader. But, conflicts can arise as players compete for the top position in the hierarchy if a team has several players with strong leadership qualities. In addition, a player who scores too low on Agreeableness may prioritise his own victory over the team's success. This can be detrimental to the team's performance. (This could be particularly damaging if they also score low on Conscientiousness).
Players low in Agreeableness:
Neurotic people are usually more anxious. They are less confident and often display anxiety when confronted with unpleasant stimuli. Neurotic people also have a proclivity towards self-criticism and pessimism thus often experience depressive states. Fundamentally the trait neuroticism translates into one inability to cope with stressors or better the level of activation to experience unpleasant stress mediated probably via cortisol. It is equivalent to what people call emotional stability or resilience.
Therefore in football, a highly competitive endeavor, a selection criterion for less neurotic people is probable. Furthermore, sports are shown to reduce and tilt neurotic patterns into more calm minds. Yet, unfortunately also, the pressure of the industry, depression is still a taboo topic n the football industry, and only a few players have openly talked about it. But overall, football players should be relatively low in Neuroticism.
Players, high in trait neuroticism:
Is there an ideal Player?
After an analysis of traits in the context of football, one might ask: "What is the perfect player? This question is a bit tricky. I think there are actually two distinct definitions of perfect.
The first question is like this: Which type of personality do the best players display? What do, say, Haaland and Cristiano Ronaldo have in common?
All the evidence points to conscientiousness and the ability to remain calm over a long period of time in a high-pressure sport as the critical personality factors. The best predictor of success, although not guaranteed, is a strong desire and ethic to be the best. For success in sport, therefore, conscientiousness is probably a non-negotiable. There is more flexibility in football when it comes to the other four traits. But we can be confident that the greatest player will be quite open, slightly unpleasant (otherwise they might get distracted from their own career path) and relatively extroverted. Hence the best players in the game could have a similar psychological set-up like shown in the radar graph above.
In terms of Goalimpact prediction, these players will probably do better than our initial expectations. A qualitative example for an extreme conscientious player is shown in the graph below. Understanding the mind of a player thus can give context and nuance to the average prediction obtained from the Goalimpact analysis.
The second definition of the "ideal" player is more concerned with: "What is ideal for team success?
This question is more complex. There is no single answer. Football is a team sport. Cooperation is therefore extremely important. However, human social cooperation is complex. Different people co-operate with each other to different degrees. Some people cooperate very well and create a lot of synergy. Others cooperate to their detriment. The type of player personality that will fit into a particular squad is therefore impossible to predict. Therefore a balance of psychological dispositions within a team can lead to better performance, as each individual can bring their strengths to bear. Having too many players with the same mental make-up can lead to conflict and a lack of diversity in decision making. So the best player for one team may actually hurt another team. There is no fixed ideal.
The ideal is always team-dependent.
The selection of players who will be a good fit for your team is thus, in my opinion, more an art than a science. It's an intuitive and creative act. It's hard to grasp using the scientific method (although there may be clues). Nevertheless, psychometrics is definitely a valuable tool in scouting and can help improve decision-making, especially when combined with Goalimpact Prediction.
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Thanks for reading The Goalimpact Letters - Science & Psychology in Football! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.