“Our vision is to develop an early warning system for team crises in professional football”

Darko Jekauc is a full professor at the Institute of Sports and Sports Science at KIT Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and heads the group for health education and sports psychology. He is currently leading a research project to develop a model to better describe the determinants of team crises in professional football. In this interview, he talks about his approach and key challenges.

Darko is standing on a football pitch and has his right leg on a football.

What can football clubs do if the team faces a crisis?

The world of professional football is merciless. When top teams fail to meet expectations, the typical response is to fire the head coach or to bring in new players, or both. Unfortunately, this approach often fails to address the root cause of the problem. Psychological factors can be a significant influence in these situations. A collective crisis in team sports like football is a highly complex psychological phenomenon.

What does science know about team crises?

Compared to individual sports, there is a surprising lack of research on collective crises in professional football teams. From our latest research, which is supported by the TSG Research Lab, we know key determinants and how they can lead to a vicious circle. For example, pressure and fear can affect players differently, leading to conflicts within the team. Some players may become more aggressive, while others may withdraw. This can impact performance and results, hindering team spirit, cohesion and interaction. Modelling team crises presents unique challenges, as we need to consider different factors at both the individual and team level, as well as their interactions. Our research in this area is groundbreaking and sheds light on the complexities of managing team dynamics in professional football.

What is your approach?

The challenge is that there are no linear models or single indicators to describe and measure a team crisis. In our research, we had the unique opportunity to interview a relevant number of players and coaches from German Bundesliga clubs. This data is extremely precious because it provided valuable qualitative insights into top-level football. Our next step is to quantify the findings from our interviews more effectively, possibly by examining parameters such as risk avoidance in passing or tackling on the pitch. This is a methodological challenge, because we have to observ teams and players over time to identify the moment in which a crisis started and to elaborate the differences. This research is still in an early stage. Yet, we have a long-term vision: We want to develop an early warning system for identifying team crises in professional football.

How could that work?

It is a long way to go. But here at KIT, we have an excellent ecosystem of leading researchers from different disciplines working together to pursue this vision. By combining our expertise in qualitative and quantitative methods, as well as utilising cutting-edge advancements in machine learning and predictive data analytics, we are well-equipped to tackle the challenges ahead.

How do you believe your findings could provide immediate benefits for football clubs and associations?

Our research emphasises that mental fitness is highly important, both at the individual and team level. For example, we have observed that especially young players are at risk when they experience a crisis. From my point of view, mental fitness is nearly as crucial as physical fitness and requires consistent training over time. I believe there is significant untapped potential for clubs and associations to invest even more in evidence-based approaches for enhancing players’ mental fitness through regular training sessions.