Conscious uncoupling

When Patrick Hoban finally popped up to grab his first goal against Carlisle on Saturday the bloke next to me turned around and said ‘He didn’t have time to think about that one’.

He was right, everything about it forced Hoban to draw from his instincts. Sure, he had to make a conscious effort to move to the front post but from there on he didn’t have time to think. The pace and height of the cross and the fact he was at the near post meant that all he could do was make contact and guide it somewhere towards the top corner; which was the only place the ball was going to go in.

It wasn’t lucky, he just didn’t have to think about whether to pass or shoot, or to put the ball left, right or down the middle. Everything had to be done in his sub-conscious; a deep seated learnt behaviour which helped him score a hat full of goals in Ireland. It’s the proverbial ball going in off the backside of a striker; not something he is able to think about, he just does it.

Hoban must have been starting to wonder what he had to do to score, strikers never claim to be affected but this sort of thing, but it must have been nagging away. Football is a callous business, if you don’t perform, you’re out of a job. With each chance another doubt sneaks into your head; then you start to over-think; trying to consciously do the right things when all you really should be doing is letting it flow.

Hoban isn’t the only one who has arrived at the club to find themselves struggling to do the things they’ve done naturally all their lives. Do we, as a club, have something about us that drags players off form?

Perhaps, we’re one of a tiny number of teams who have managed to enjoy both success at the top of the English game and demotion from the league altogether. Only Luton and Wimbledon can say something similar and both of them will argue there were mitigating factors in their failings. For us, failure seems to have been almost wholly self inflicted through our own complacency.

We’re unusual in that there are people in the crowd who have seen us win a major trophy at Wembley and lose to Tonbridge Angels (or whatever you might consider our ‘low’ to have been in the last decade). Amongst us walks people looking for a sign that we’re about to head off back towards the top of the game and those who are looking for signs another pending disaster.

There is a theory that America suffers far greater social tension than other countries because it promotes the full breadth of what is possible in life. Self-made multi-millionaires from poor backgrounds – like rappers and sportsmen – are celebrated as living the American Dream, even if the reality is that for almost everyone living in a ghetto in the US, that’s exactly where they will stay for their whole lives. That sense of failure that most people experience, and perhaps the sense of being deprived or cheated out of their birthright, drives social tension and unrest.

In a class-based system there is ‘comfort’ that you are amongst your own and a degree of certainty about where your future lies. Although you might want more money and opportunities in life, the angst resulting from not being able to achieve it is far worse. It’s part of life’s moral maze as to which is more right; a restrictive system which has the benefit of certainty, or the open system in which most are likely to feel the pain of failure.

So, we are neither a superpower where success is a Champions League win and a failure is an FA Cup win, nor are we a no ranking lower league stalwart whose purpose in life is to provide little more than a mild diversion in life. Because we have experienced the breadth of what is possible, are we like America, ridden with above average amounts of angst?

If we have a culture prone to angst then perhaps, this could affect new players in a way they might not elsewhere. When players are beginning to suffer angst, that’s when doubt creeps in and the subconscious skills and abilities are forced into the conscious mind. If players have to consciously think how to play, then they are far less likely to be able to perform. It may be something deep in our DNA.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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