What goes up must come down: The challenge of maintaining performance in elite football

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“From a psychological and psychosocial standpoint, sometimes the best technique to break a bad run of form is to simply refresh the day-to-day routine.”


At times during a Premier League season, the results of the team can stabilise for a number of games such that a team may maintain a winning run or in more difficult times a team may have to endure a bad run of results in which they consistently lose for a prolonged period. Generally, how quickly a team can change this swing of momentum and salvage their performance from the “tough patch” of results can ultimately determine how successful the team will be in that particular season. The cause of such periods of poor performance are difficult to determine though, and the identification of the potential factors that can contribute to these unwanted outcomes can be key to the development of strategies to break the cycle of bad results. The high number of variables that can determine the outcome of games makes solving such performance problems very difficult.

The potential factors that could explain a team’s run of poor performances include physical (e.g. poor fitness levels, high numbers of injuries), psychological (e.g. motivation to train/play, pressure associated with performing and lifestyle), psychosocial (e.g. difficult within club interpersonal relationships and negative organisational culture) and tactical factors (e.g. wrong team selection and tactics). These factors can work both in isolation, and in combination, to influence performance. The specific effect of any factor may also operate at both an individual player or team level. For example, the under-performance of an individual player can impact both his individual contribution to the team effort as well as the overall performance of the team. Identifying the “level” at which a given factor is operating may therefore be an important consideration in solving the performance puzzle.

Identifying practical solutions to these issues is an important pragmatic response to try and influence these poor runs of form. However, all the factors which are listed above, may not work in isolation but instead can be inter-related and additive as discussed. From a psychological and psychosocial standpoint, sometimes the best technique to break a bad run of form is to simply refresh the day-to-day routine. This may come in the shape of an extended recovery between games, or even extended time off and days away from the training ground, in hope that this will revitalise and reenergise the players. A lot of potential methods to break a rut orientate around the objective of breaking the monotonous cycle and removing the tedious nature of repetitive tasks to try and entice a reaction to attempt to impact the psychological factors that may influence poor performance. From a tactical perspective, management may have to vary their training sessions and periodization to alter the stimuli in order in bring about meaningful performance changes. Managers and coaches may try to bring playfulness and enjoyment back into training sessions to try and improve the atmosphere and attitude within the club. Furthermore, the management or coaching staff may choose to change the team selection or formation to try and find the perfect formula for the group of players they have available. This may involve removing the “bad eggs” whose negativity and bad form may be becoming contagious within the team. The management may also wish to alter the physical training stimulus in order to bring about meaningful performance changes. The coaching staff and sports science department may wish to manipulate the physical loading of the players to see whether an adjustment to their training week may cause noticeable changes. 

Unfortunately, the difficulty of identifying and then actually resurrecting the problem which may be causing the “rut” is an extremely difficult task within elite football, especially with the high pressure and limited time frame in which clubs need to turn performances around. Ultimately, the changes to address poor performance periods are decided by key stakeholders such as the manager or chairman. If the methods mentioned above do not produce a change in fortune or an upturn in results, the subsequent action may be a change of management in order to bring in a fresh face with new, innovative ideas into the club, which is sadly becoming increasingly common as the scrutiny on managers in the Premier League becomes greater and greater.