My little lad turned to me after the final whistle on Saturday and asked in genuine sincerity:
Are we ever going to win Dad?
He’s 8. When his older sister asked him about the game later that evening, I just sat and observed. His final sentence was so innocently spoken, with that naïve incorruptibility that can only come from a young child.
Yeah. We’re a bunch of losers and maybe we always will be.
After that bleak and depressing, albeit childish prophecy, it prompted a train of thought within me about our year long search for a home win and all the negativity that surrounds the club beyond that. If we are just losers, how do we break that cycle? Can it even be broken once a certain threshold of ‘failure acceptability’ is passed?
I feel for Chris Coleman. It seems his mission is to become one of football’s great alchemists. He must take our various, yet brittle footballing minerals and create something golden from rusty and frail materials. But as my old man used to say about the ghosts of Sunderland’s past, “you can’t turn crap into gold.” In part at least, is this what we’ve expected from numerous managers and is that not one of the culminating reasons we are in this mess? This is now Coleman’s puzzle to solve.
Every manager’s job is difficult, even when the foundation for success is laid.
As long as multi-layered squads of individuals are involved, each with different personalities and motivations, managing a group of players is never going to be a cake walk. But the most difficult challenge any incoming coach or manager can face is when they are put in charge of not just an under-performing team, for seasoned stalwarts such as Neil Warnock and Allardyce embrace that challenge.
The hardest test comes when a manager arrives to coach a team drenched in the thick oil of surrender. A team entwined in decline, a team who collectively and individually have a history of failure and losing. Coleman is in this position now, but I admire his excitable energy and refusal to be disheartened. He’s new to Sunderland and not scarred by the heavy chains of annual misery like us, the addicted sufferers of a long association with the club.
Unless our current club policy on administration, transfers, finances and outlook changes then Coleman must rely on his inner ability to perform a footballing miracle. He must turn a team of consistent losers into a team of consistent winners.
How does he do it? Can he do it?
To answer my own little boy’s question on whether we are doomed to wallow in this dreary shell of sporting greyness, I’ve researched various coaching consultants, sporting psychology mentors and successful coaches from football, rugby, the NFL and the NBA to see if I could understand more about the ‘losing mentality.’ I keep hearing that Moyes, Grayson and now Coleman should be getting more out of these players based on perceived ability. So if the problem is not in their feet, surely it is in their heads. Or maybe both.
What I found is that when people are joined together in an intense and highly competitive team environment, their interactions form what is called a ‘collective mentality’ which then forms an identifiable team personality.
How would you honestly describe our team’s personality right now?
I’d hardly say ‘happy go lucky’ or adventurous. Sunderland AFC’s collective mentality from ownership down has created an institutional personality that waves the white flag way more than it charges into battle.
This part blows my mind - research shows that within groups where collective mentality is created, expectations of shared behaviours are formed and these expectations are so strong that anyone new entering into that group will subconsciously conform to those expectations in order to fit in. This is why winners are attracted to Manchester United or City and losers are…. well… I think we Sunderland fans know where they congregate.
When the collective mentality is a poor one, all research shows that it's difficult to turn around and it's actually not as easy as replacing a manager or one or two bad apple players - which is what we’ve done on a cycle for years. The root of this losing mentality is far deeper than that. There are shared techniques used by sports psychologists and coaching consultants that encourage the coaches they work with to face the challenge of reversing an endemic culture of uninspiring failure.
The first step is to break down the team - not break it up, but break it down.
Managers who wish to restore a failing team where losing is part of the very fabric of the team personality, need to dilute the influence within the team and replace it with their influence as a leader. In losing systems there are still strong, but negative personalities that are comfortable with this losing mentality and subconsciously will do what they can to hold on to it because it’s a badge they’ve worn for so long that they can’t remove it. Therefore they must be removed from the scenario if they can’t or won’t be changed. How many managers have Cattermole and O’Shea seen off now (or, in some cases, chased off)? They and others are a negative band aid that must be ripped off.
Secondly, high expectations. Harvard Business School produced a well-respected study on the impact that a leader's expectations have on team performance. The evidence is clear that the higher the expectation of the leader the higher the level of performance.
BUT - the best football managers raise expectations everywhere and not just the team's core duties of playing a game on a large area of quilted grass. They improve the entire work environment and no area is too small. Each and every improvement just sends a message that standards are being raised and this will slowly impact the collective mentality and raise standards in all areas of the team’s work.
But a manager needs time and character to do this. We know Coleman has the character, but will he be given the time to do what is necessary across the board?
I think Ellis Short’s short-termism in his approach to hiring and firing managers has been a catalyst to our collective mentality of failure. His constant rewarding for and our subsequent celebrating of narrowly avoiding relegation has shrunken expectations lower than a snake’s belly, and Coleman must be given time and support to change this around.
Thirdly, every team needs a vision.
Coleman must ask himself truthfully ‘where do I want this team to be?’
Once he expresses his vision, sports psychologist’s research shows that if the teams instant reaction to the new vision is hesitation and a level of discomfort then Coleman is on the right track. Coleman will soon work out who is willing to improve and who isn’t. Who will push themselves and who won’t and then he can do something positive about it.
Coaching Consultant, Mark Wager explains:
I've always described leadership as the ability to install power and belief in people in order for them to reach levels they never felt were imaginable. This is the type of leadership poor teams need.
Fourthly, research has shown another key element to changing a losing team’s collective mentality and its common in football - bringing in new blood.
This is where I believe we need to change our current financial policy. Bringing in new blood is crucial to a losing team and one of the most interesting aspects of changing a losing mentality that seems impossible to shake. Some sports consultants and coaches argue this can be the most significant stage if a manager has the resources that are necessary.
Research shows that a team’s mentality doesn't change if you replace 50% of the squad - if its only done simply to move bodies in and bodies out and hope something better happens. Sadly the core shared mentality still remains.
BUT if done correctly and in conjunction with the other key components of reversing a losing mindset, such as sharing a vision, having high expectations and diluting the negativity, then sports phycologists believe bringing in just 20% new blood can change the team’s outlook - as long as that 20% are the kind of positive characters that adopt new behaviours and culture.
This is where Short and Bain come in.
Our current policy of player recruitment is awful and merely perpetuates that collective negative mentality. No wonder managers don’t seem to have an impact. We sign players no-one else wants, players with a long track record of injuries, those past their prime and those who never had one and why? Because they’re cheap and we need bodies to actually submit a squad and to exist as a footballing entity. No manager has had time to build a winning psychology, so the same cycle of mediocre player rotation goes on and on with no plan, vision or effort to change the atmosphere of failure. If they’re cheap, available, then they’re in.
Everything else is done on sheer hope. To give Coleman a chance to genuinely change the core of the club, release some funds to bring in that 20% of tremendous characters that will help us change this mentality around. If not, I fear he won’t despite the amount of positives Coleman brings to the table as an individual.
Sunderland AFC are where sport psychologists call the "tipping point." Sound familiar, Sunderland fans?
Whenever new ideas are introduced everyone on the team falls somewhere on the scale.
Some players will be innovators - creative leaders.
Some are early adopters - able to catch onto the vision straight away and go for it.
However, there those at the back who are referred to as the laggards, who will only change when they are forced to or not change at all.
My guess is that we have far too many laggards.
The key for recruitment is not only to ensure that any new blood are going to be early adopters of the desired new behaviours but they’re also innovators in terms of their approach to work and have personal qualities that the other team members admire.
In this way there will be greater influence on the team and the "tipping point" is reversed much faster. Losing mentalities like ours are not easy to overcome.
Like Allardyce, Advocaat and others have shown in the past, you can temporarily halt it, but while the core of the squad maintains a collective mentality of mediocrity and failure, then as has been shown, losing will always come back to bite you on the ass.
And without a vision, shared ambitions and lacklustre recruitment that appears random and blind we will not break this mentality. Coleman or no Coleman - as good as he is. Give him the tools Ellis and he will succeed. Don’t and he won’t.