I have always found football to be an outlet. Always. In my darkest days, I have still found pleasure in, if nothing else, delivering a perfectly weighted through ball. I have spent weeks at a time looking forward to the meditative clear-mindedness I only experienced lacing up my boots. I have felt the burden of constant anxiety instantly dissipate, taking a bouncing ball in stride and turning to look for a teammate making a run behind the line. No matter what has come and gone in my life: relationships, jobs, friendships – football has been a constant for me. Even in a year-long losing streak.
We started a five-a-side team with measured optimism. We had a few really handy players, a few, like me, that were middle-of-the-road, and a few that would last a game or two then go silent in the group chat, or would prove themselves to be way off the pace.
We were not up to scratch from the off, playing against groups of guys stronger, faster, and more clinical than us, who had clearly been playing together for years. In our first season we picked up two wins by forfeit, were pushed up the table by some latecomers to the team, and somehow made the semi-finals.
We started brightly but were getting soundly beaten by half-time and it was clear the heads had dropped, mine included. As captain, I gave a team-talk which equated to “enjoy kicking the ball about for the next few minutes, lads, because this is the end of the road for us”. We were battered.
I quickly learned that just because I found football to be my outlet, there to lean on when not much else was, that did not necessarily mean all my teammates felt the same way. As our losing streak dragged on, it became difficult to even field a team, as those not so invested became less enthused with the prospect of turning up to cop another drubbing. I began to dread returning home after a game to face the “did you win?” questions, and have to deliver yet another defeated “not this week.”
Whether you like it or not, it is hard to deny that psychology plays a massive part in football, and that of a 5-a-side team is a prime example. While we set our team up as a social venture and something to do on Tuesday nights, we had guys used to winning, and intent on winning more. Adversely, we had a few lads not used to the fast-paced physicality of 5-a-side, who tended to go into their shells and panic with the ball. The result of this was that we found ourselves stuck in a long losing streak we just couldn’t snap.
Psychologists believe breaking a losing streak is often done through one of two means:
1. By complete happenstance – the opposition is off-colour and doesn’t click, allowing the team on a losing streak to grow in confidence as the game wears on and to hold out for a win.
2. Through the introduction of a new stimulus, be that a new coach, player or system. This can help a team “snap out of it” and gain a fresh, winning, perspective.
Our losing streak snapped through a little of both. Like all 5-a-side teams, we improved drastically the moment we had a permanent and capable goalkeeper. Some player turnovers made us stronger on the pitch, and we became a team capable of pushing opponents all the way. Our ten-goal hammerings had been reduced to one, two and three-goal deficits.
By the time we faced the league leaders we had played close to three full winless seasons. They had lost just once and at the time of our game we were riddled with injuries – our best player and strongest voice on the pitch sat and watched from the sidelines.
Like a relegation-threatened team 1-0 up at the Emirates, we sat deep and clung to a narrow lead. The league leaders peppered our goal and began to turn on each other with each skied shot or sloppy touch. A scuffed effort bobbed safely into our goalkeeper’s hands with six seconds to go and us clinging to a 3-2 lead. We stopped the clock on our losing streak at 322 calendar days and just as it had been for me countless times before, football was there.
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