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Psychological demands of squad rotation

Increasingly in professional sport teams are looking to put together larger squads of players in an attempt to maintain higher levels of performance over the duration of long competitive seasons, often whilst competing in a number of tournaments. But, while there is a strong rationale for this from a physical perspective, it is questionable as to whether the psychological connotations have been fully considered.

For example last night Manchester City Football club (the current English premier league champions) were beaten in the English league cup by an Aston Villa team who were expected to be brushed aside relatively easily. Manchester City made a complete change of the playing personnel from the previous game (all eleven players). While the replacement players were also of a very high quality they were not able to function as effectively as a team, and were ultimately out played by a spirited Aston Villa team. So, while on paper still being much the stronger team, why was it that the Manchester City team under performed so significantly? One of the rationales behind squad rotation is to rest some players whilst giving playing opportunities to others. But should we really expect eleven players who have not been playing competitively together to gel and perform well instantly? It can be argued that a settled team selection can enhance the understanding of the players of how their teammates are going to perform. This only really develops to this degree by playing in competitive games. You can practice together on the training pitch but the environment is not the same. Also, it could be argued that their could be increased pressure on this ‘second string’ XI. This could be seen as their opportunity to impress the manager and to put themselves in the shop window. This in turn can lead individual players to try to demonstrate what they can do, rather than what the team can do. Also, the need to impress can further heighten the importance to the player and potentially further hamper their efforts to perform most effectively.

The dilemma for coaches and managers is clear to see. Do you take the risk and rotate some players out of the team and potentially disrupt the effective functioning of the team. Or keep the team together but run the risk of players getting injured, burnt out or suspended? Also by keeping the team relatively consistent other players in the squad can miss out on playing and as a result can become disgruntled and disruptive.

So, is it better to maintain a settled side or to keep everyone involved and fresh? This issue is also starting to become an important topic for discussion in International cricket. There is a general acceptance that International players are involved in too many matches and series but what is the best approach to reduce this? Bowlers in particular have a heavy physical workload in games and can suffer if not afforded sufficient rest. The issue here though is more about the perceptions of the paying public. In cricket the fans expect to see the best team, so does this leave room for squad rotation? This is a difficult one and a decision that can’t be made just on performance criteria alone.

So does changing the personnel have a psychological effect? Well when teams are suffering from poor performance the coach will make changes to try and change the momentum of the team, so it is not unreasonable to assume that rotating the personnel can equally have an effect on team output and team functioning. So returning to the Manchester City and Aston Villa game, maybe the psychological effect was stronger in the opposing team. Sensing a chance due to the change in personnel for Manchester City, Aston Villa might have just increased their effort levels. Which, coupled with the slow start for the home team (City) just happen to set the tempo for the night where the team who should have lost, if looking at it on paper, had a fighting chance.

So, football managers need to not engage in wholesale change lightly, and consider the potential outcomes of these changes. Who would be a football manager? Mind you, the pay isn’t too bad!

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