Psychological correlation between debut and career, or lack of it

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Athletes’ debuts are one of the most discussed topics among sports fans worldwide and a potentially significant factor in an individual’s fate in the sporting world. But are debuts really an indicative forecast of a professional sportsperson’s career? Or is it just the speculation and media pressure that makes them highly anticipated by millions of fans around the globe?

The Mavropanos Example.

Writing my own debut article for Fox Sports Stories, and having watched my compatriot Konstantinos Mavropanos making a great debut for Arsenal in the Old Trafford a few days ago, despite the 2-1 defeat from Manchester United, made me think how debuts can work psychologically for the debutant himself. The view of the aforesaid individual on the topic might be the very reason of the debut’s influence in the debutant’s potential future success.

It is certainly the media and fans commenting on social media etc. that mostly form the public opinion on the debut, but it is the athlete’s point of view that makes or ruins their special day. Being a football fan since I remember myself and a Premier League enthusiast, I have witnessed and commented variously on many football players’ debuts, but never until lately have I put myself in their own shoes.

Mavropanos’ debut though was an occasion that made me think twice on the matter, mainly because of the diametrically opposed approaches of people commenting and blogging on it, in his home country, Greece and in the UK.

Greek people saw the young towering center-back’s first official appearance in Gunners’ colors as a chance to celebrate him, write about his achievements and praise his efforts. On the other side, UK based football fans and media, viewed it as a typical youngster first appearance and put pressure on him and Arsene Wenger before the kick-off, this being, one would say, a normal approach as he was relatively unknown even amongst Arsenal supporters and a huge clash against a historical opponent was about to unfold.

As a consequence, I tried to visualize to whole situation from the player’s point of view, hoping it will help me with deal with my own debut in sports writing, here in Fox Sports Stories.

 

Approaches on debuts.

Two apparently different approaches on debuts, which actually apply to all kinds of first appearances and new beginnings, from starting a derby match in Old Trafford, to taking up a new job, to even successfully implementing some new good habit into one’s life, were the product of my thinking process.

 

The typical, stressful and agonizing approach.

It is almost by default followed by the feeling of obligation to succeed, to live up to expectations, to produce what you are demanded to. Debut in this case is perceived potentially as the factor that makes or ruins someone’s career. Well, actually this happens to be the case in many occasions, with the most typical circumstance being the one of Hermann Rülander, a then 21 year old goalkeeper of Werder Bremen, who conceded 7 goals in his debut against Eintracht Frankfurt in 1981, was substituted, never played for the club again, and was eventually sacked two weeks later.

Probably, this doesn’t have to be the case, and the club’s decision could be described as harsh, as there are numerous other occasions where athletes with pretty bad debuts proceeded to have extremely successful careers. Even Lionel Messi was sent off in his first international cap for Argentina, and Cristiano Ronaldo was left crying in his debut senior campaign for Portugal after losing the Euro 2004 trophy at home to Greece.
Messi being sent off in debut

 

Taking media and fans’ pressure into consideration, having a stressful and rather difficult debut day, is the typical case for most professional athletes who have a chance to shine at a young age.

Does the debut stress have to be accompanied by a below par performance? No, according to AFC Bournemouth sports psychologist Dan Abrahams, who insists that Just as they need to be able to compete when they’re 60-80% fit, it is possible to compete effectively even when you’re not confident” and finishes stating that the most effective ways to do so is self-talking and trying to have control over one’s body language.

 

The motivated, energetic, and positive approach.

Thinking of the debut day, as an accomplishment or milestone, is a self-rewarding approach, which may seem difficult to adopt but has the potential to be a life saver as shown by aforementioned psychologist Dan Abrahams’ example:

“One of my biggest and best case studies was my work with Carlton Cole.

I started to work with Carlton when he was in West Ham’s reserve team – his career was failing until I started working with him at the age of 24, and then 18 months of hard work later he made his debut for England against Spain for Fabio Capello.

We worked hard on his mindset. A perfect example of my technique of using your two controllers would be when Carlton was running on to make his debut for England.

Peter Crouch was coming off the pitch, England were 2-0 down against Spain, and Carlton stood on the sidelines and said although there were a few negatives in there, he kept talking to himself positively – ‘get on my toes, explode onto the pitch, keep moving, keep running, keep working.”

Now, we all know that Carlton went nowhere near to being considered a superstar, but he certainly treated his first England cap positively, no matter what.

Another Englishman who seemed to be enjoying debuts was Spurs legend Jimmy Greaves, who boasted great performances each time he put on a new jersey, and even scored on his first appearance with AC Milan, which was considered his less successful career choice.

 

Debut performance not important after all?

Well, this is may be an overstatement, but it is now profound that there are numerous examples that prove there is no direct correlation between a positive or negative first performance or even a certain attitude adopted and the potential career success of an athlete.

Nevertheless, as in any given situation, a positive stance can always lead to respectively good results if accompanied by the much needed maturity.

Concluding, and returning to Mavropanos, a highly discussed debut may as well mean nothing for the debutant but the chance to enjoy and prove oneself in a higher stage.

The young lad wore his number #27 Arsenal jersey for the Manchester United match, having played only 20 professional football games for Greek side PAS Giannina in a span of 1.5 years, and having played his first league game as a substitute, against FC Veria about a year ago, on 05/04/2017.

Sticking my neck out, I would say that his first game with the Gunners was a milestone rather than a stressful first day at work, and his match stats can verify this as his passing accuracy was as high as 92% (in 37 passes), he won possession 4 times, had 3 interceptions, 1 block and 1 clearance.

What remains to be determined is the possibility of Mavropanos becoming an Arsenal star in the coming years, irrespective of his debut being a satisfying one or not.

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