Tuesday, 16 February 2010

On the head again, my Sons!

First published in Sons View, 16 January 2010, Dumbarton -v- Stirling Albion

The question it’s difficult not to ask yourself, after two heartening wins at home to leaders Cowdenbeath and then away last week at East Fife in a five-goal thriller, is surely: “Can we make it three in a row against Stirling Albion?” The logical answer is, “it’ll be a hard game, but there’s no reason why not.” However, a sports psychologist will probably tell you that’s the wrong thing to speculate about.

I know, I’ve mentioned ‘fitba shrinks’ a couple of times in this column already. Short of the action on the pitch there’s nothing more fascinating than watching the tricks we allow the Beautiful Game to play on our heads. Well, okay, there’s the endless gossip and speculation at every level of the game, now fed to us by a 24/7 media – but that’s basically the same thing!

One theory says the “three in a row?” thought can be unhelpful, if you’re a player, because it’s nudging you to question yourself rather than to focus on the adjustments, improvements and changes you and your teams-mates can make to help it happen. Depending on your personality type, adding up wins and wondering if they’ll be repeated next time sows the seeds of doubt rather than resolve. Turn it into a target with reward and it might just do the trick, however.

Indeed, if you were developing the fabled ‘a winning mentality’ you’d probably be saying to yourself, “Of course we can win. Now let’s figure out how and make sure we do!” When I was playing I got into far too much self-questioning, and I know for sure it didn’t assist my game. Being rubbish didn’t help much, either.

The other thing you have to watch for is one of those probability misapprehensions we all fall for at some time or other. Leaving aside the possible impact of the law of mechanics, if you toss a coin again and again, each time there’s a 50/50 chance as to whether it will be heads or tails. But if you get three ‘tails’ one after another, it feels ‘natural’ to suspect that somehow there’s less chance that it’ll be tails again next time. Wrong. The overall odds don’t change. They just tend to even up in the long run.

If you’ve ever watched ‘Deal or No Deal’ on the telly you’ll see people getting caught in this trap again and again… and a few others, besides. I’ve had to stop watching that show. Apart from the irritating rituals around it, I find myself wanting to scream “it’s just random numbers!” all the time. But no-one’s listening.

Meanwhile, here’s a quick psychological test you can try on yourself at home. Do you reckon Dumbarton good enough for the Second Division play-offs? Yes, I know, that’s a matter of football judgement. But if we win this afternoon I’ll wager that you’ll be more inclined to believe “we can do it”… and if not, you’re more likely to start doubting again.

That’s because – unless you’re the stoically resolute editor of Sons View, say – the emotional state of most football supporters operates on a constant and rather unstable seesaw. The psychologists say that the stimulation this uncertainty, anxiety and anticipation causes (including regular reward and denial) is one of the things that makes the game so compelling. Yup, football fandom is basically a disease of the psyche. (Just don’t admit it to your family, okay?)

But back to the Sons’ prospects. On the squad and the coaching staff, compared to what we’ve seen elsewhere in this division, I reckon we can exceed initial expectations – which for many of us were 8th or above. Moreover, given our slow start, more recent form has been better than our present position (three points off fourth place with a game in hand) shows. The recovery from the cold snap has also been impressive.

But there’s another factor we haven’t mentioned so far. That’s the tough run of games Sons face in March. At the time of writing, the fixture additions haven’t been announced, but we know what to expect. It’s especially hard on part-time players. Then again, you can build momentum. Just look at what happened in the run-in last term.

One thing’s for sure. A point or three against the Binos at SHS today can only make our aspirations more achievable. ’Mon Sons!

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