The psychology of possession

The psychology of possession

ASK ANY PLAYER IN ANY TEAM this question and you’ll get the same answer every time: would you rather have possession of the ball or let the other team have it? The answer in most cases (and I can’t think of any reasonable explanation to the contrary) is of course I would rather my team have the ball if possible.

It is a condition of our game that is set in place at a young age when a child first learns the basics. Ask a young child to dribble to the edge of the box and shoot on goal and he will happily do it. Ask the same child to practice making late runs into the box without a ball and he will tire of it very quickly. Why is this?

It’s a known fact that each player only has possession of the ball for around four minutes during a ninety minute match, so theoretically a player must be used to playing without the ball for the majority of the game. If this is the case it begs the question: why it is less desirable for a team to defend without the ball rather than have it themselves? I believe that ultimately it’s related to the psychology of the human mind – specifically, the psychology of power.

Take a look through history; it will keep telling you one thing – people will fight for freedom. Virtually every war or battle in human history is between two groups of people who are fighting for independence or greater control.

Whether it be the right to vote, an area of disputed land, religion or a greater control over finance, all battles are over who can control their own lives most. Humans by nature want to have control over what they do with their body, where they go and who they want to be with. It comes as no surprise then that, since the ball is the object of the game, ownership of this central figure in the war between the two teams becomes paramount.

It is not so much that either team sees the value in obtaining the ball, rather that either team feels inferior if the other team has it. It is due to a natural human tendency to seek power for oneself and take away power from another. It’s interesting therefore that sometimes the reason for seeking the ball is not with a purpose in mind for its use; rather it can simply be that the action of controlling the ball is the purpose itself.

Take your average Sunday league game. Why must we shout to close down the opposition full-back who has just picked the ball up deep in his own half? What danger does he pose from 80 yards away? Yet most teams still scream at their strikers to close him down and deny him the chance to create. Create? From 80 yards out?

The psychology behind control and domination is quite an interesting topic of discussion. It is rather intriguing when we think about an outnumbered army that has control of a relatively small amount of land fighting against a much more powerful enemy that seeks to capture this land.

Historically, there are many examples where such odds have been overcome by the smaller and disadvantaged army. Perhaps the most famous example is the story of how an outrageously outnumbered Spartan army defeated the greatly more numerous Persian army on a very small piece of land, as depicted, rather inaccurately, by the film 300.

In comparison, we have such recent football examples as the Champions League second leg tie between Barcelona and Chelsea where Fernando Torres scored a memorable goal (not forgetting Ramires’ memorable goal too) as the spirit of the Spartans seemingly helped the boys from London record a remarkable victory outnumbered against a superior enemy. This curious phenomenon happens not often, but on a consistent basis, and can be explained by a concept called psychological ownership.

The peculiar quirk commonly described as psychological ownership is a reflection of how an object or a state of affairs which is seemingly equal and identical in a legal or civil sense may have a disparate moral or emotional state to a particular party due to the perspective of the observation.

In simpler words, the way we perceive an object or event can influence our judgement or perceived value of that object or event, regardless of what we should logically be expected to feel about it. It harks back to the opposition Sunday league player receiving the ball deep in their own half.

To state a simple universal example, most people would not care about a toy teddy bear that is old and ruined, where, by contrast, the adult who has owned this teddy bear since childhood would no doubt have a high perceived value of the object due to emotional attachment. The significance of this perceived value is powerful enough to change the actions of a person, such as maintaining the toy bear where it would otherwise not be cared for. Now imagine the benefits if this power of psychology can be directed into a positive mindset which produces favourable actions in a football team.

Let’s now expand on the phenomena of psychological ownership and examine in closer detail how it actually works in relation to football. To do so I want to focus on three specific points.

The first point is that ownership increases our perceived value. This is a rather simple idea which means that the mere fact of owning something, either tangible or intangible, increases how much we value it due to the emotional connection we develop. We see the effect of this in sport around the whole world, often termed as home field advantage.

The simple fact that a team plays at their home ground means that they have an emotional advantage as they perceive that they have an added responsibility to protect their ownership of their home ground by not allowing their opponents to win.

It also relates to a sense of self identity and group belonging; a powerful peer-led force that is obviously stimulated more playing at one’s own home with their fellow kinship supporting from the stands. While certainly not the only factor, it perhaps is the greatest contributory factor in explaining home field advantage.

The second point states that humans place a higher proportionate focus on avoiding loss rather than on gaining. This is important for the timing of goals scored in a game. If we take an inferior team playing against a stronger one, the scoring of the first goal becomes paramount.

If the inferior team scores first, this second factor comes into play because the inferior team will now have something to lose which is more motivating to avoid – in theory at least – than gaining a goal for the stronger team. This motivation to hold onto a lead makes sense and can be often used to at least partially explain why we see inferior teams managing to defend with absolute determination and doggedness against all odds and sneak a 1-0 victory.

As an added note, scoring the first goal might conceivably increase the belief that the inferior team has a valid right to ownership of the victory, although this is an abstract and less important thought to consider.

Thirdly, the more we work for something, the greater its value. If a team believes that it has put in a huge amount of effort in training, preparation and energy into a season or a match, it is more likely to perform at a higher level due to the increased value of that season or match. This takes a great team culture and belief in the work and more often than not a great leader to inspire this attitude… in most cases the manager.

So what does this all mean? In my opinion, such psychological concepts are of great significance and advantage for young coaches who are advancing their learning and knowledge. It is no secret that coaches have a holistic role to play in managing a team and that managers who are skilful in the art of manipulation can greatly increase the effectiveness of their messages.

An effective coach can shape belief and affect behaviour. It is one thing which I believe to be the single most important factor in being a great coach; the ability to make your players buy into you, your philosophy and methods. Not only that, if you know the reasons why your players have certain responsive traits or behavioural tendencies, you can increase the productivity of your communication.

I do not pretend that I’m an expert in the field of psychology; these are simply my thoughts on the deeper meanings behind the trends in our game. What I hope you will take away from reading this article is an appreciation that people do not often go deeply into questioning.

Sometimes a short and simplistic answer to an interesting question is not enough. Whether exploring these questions or deeper meanings, certainly in football, is worthwhile, is up to you to decide. For myself in any case, I find them quite interesting. Curiosity after all is one of the more beautiful things in life.

By Feras Suwan. Follow @FerasSuwan

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