The Rise of Leicester City: A Psychological Perspective
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5000 to 1. Those were the odds put on lowly Leicester City Football Club at the beginning of this season's Premier League. How does a club go from last place, to first place in just a year? There are many underlying factors that could possibly be playing a part in this Cinderella story, but for the sake of narrowing it down, we will be looking at this through a psychological perspective, i.e., what was going on in the minds of the players, staff, and fans.
I believe we can break this down into four parts: (1) Player value, (2) Claudio Ranieri, (3) Club culture, and (4) Sport science. Let's look at the first one a little more closely:
Leicester City was among the clubs that spent the least amount of money on player acquisition. Compared to the big clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, and Arsenal, the differences were astronomical. For example, two of Leicester's top performers, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were both signed for £1 mil, and £350,000 respectively. Now their market value has grown substantially. So how do low value players like these become top premier league goal scorers, and player of the year? Well, it all starts with their mindset going into the season.
How would you feel if a club bought you for £35 million? You might feel a little bit confident in your abilities yes, but you may also feel a a great deal of pressure as well. After all, the club paid that much money for you to perform day in and day out. No exceptions. Sport has become a business and owners want their players to bring in profit, so that means scoring goals or performing well on a consistent basis. That is a lot of pressure on some players!
But now look at a player who was brought in for much lower than that, like Vardy or Mahrez. No one knows you yet. You aren't a big shot. The only place for you to go is up, and prove your worth. All the players at Leicester had this mentality. They weren't amazingly gifted athletes with the whole world watching their every move. They were simply a group of men who had to work hard to earn their place. And that is exactly what happened. No one had an inflated ego and this helped keep their feet on the ground, and their focus on the job at hand. This of course was also implemented in their minds by Ranieri, who we will dissect next.
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The Italian manager had a lot to do with keeping his players' feet on the ground. Leicester's performance psychologist, Ken way said: "There are two psychologists at the club. One is me and the other is Claudio. The way he has spoken to the players has been exactly the same as when addressing the media. It's all about focusing on the process not the outcome, and some of the lines he uses leave my jaw on the floor." This is exactly the type of mindset any club needs that wants to succeed. Focusing on the process, and not the outcome. The focus was simply on the next match ahead, and not on the future. Ranieri knew that once the team starts focusing on the possibility of winning a title, it would all be lost. Just one game at a time is what he instilled in his players. He kept this up right until the end. Journalists tried really hard to get him to admit he is thinking about the title, but he would always brush it away and focus on the present. It's really all about the short term goals. The first goal was to gain X amount of points, everything else is bonus. Once they reached the first goal, OK now it is time to re-assess and move on to a more challenging goal. One at a time is the game!
"There are two psychologists at the club. One is me and the other is Claudio. "
Furthermore, whatever the manager portrays in public, the players will adapt in private. The manager helped keep their focus on the task at hand, and focus on the only thing they can control; their effort. You can't control if you are going to have a bad day, the weather is horrible, or the opponent is playing great. You can only control how hard you work, and Ranieri made sure his players knew that this was the way they are going have any chance of winning the title.
Creating a winning culture not only includes the players and staff, but the whole organisation as a whole. The owners knew the importance of this. So, they gave out free beer and doughnuts to fans on game days, gave out clappers, and did their utmost to make them feel as if they are as big of a part of the team as the players. This resulted in an atmosphere in the stadium unmatched this season. While other clubs raised their prices, and gave away tickets to the rich, Leicester made sure to make it for the common folk.
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This was also seen in the other back room staff. Just look at that amazing pitch. The grounds-keeper felt as much part of the team as anyone else. The players saw this and felt loved, and felt a sense of responsibility. This resulted in an entire organisation that lived and breathed as one organism, instead of a divided hierarchy as is with most sports clubs nowadays.
All the factors just mentioned could not be possible without the hard work of the back room sport science staff at Leicester. They utilized technology and recovery to the highest standard, and this gave them the edge. Leicester had the least amount of injuries, and the least amount of players used during the season. What is more important, is that Ranieri actually listened to his staff, and planned his team sheet according to what the scientists recommended. Winning teams involve trying to control all the elements you can, and minimizing the ones you cannot.
"It's about empowering the players to make decisions for themselves rather than ruling over them... It helps with the group culture and the fighting spirit."
Performance psychology also played a huge part in developing a winning mindset. Creating an environment where the players are people first, and athletes second is paramount to success. The players feel united with each other by taking the time to enhance their social cohesion, such as smashing eggs on their heads and other team building exercises. In addition, having a sport psychology professional on staff lets the players know they can sometimes talk things out and train not only on the physical as they do in the gym, but also the mental.
All of these things combined created a sense of unity and mental strength that ultimately led Leicester to winning the league. Clubs can learn from this system and have every individual at the club feel as if they are contributing to the big picture. What other factors do you think contributed to their success?