30/06/2014 10:48 BST | Updated 27/08/2014 06:59 BST

Character - The Key to Footballing Success

When David Beckham kicked Diego Simeone in the 2002 World Cup quarter finals, the whole of England waved their fists, stamped their feet and shouted "How could he do something so stupid!?" Of course the answer's not really a surprise - a momentary lack of self-control.

What's more surprising perhaps, is that David Beckham, the country's leading midfielder and a role model to thousands of young people at the time, couldn't control his temper when the stakes were so high. Many would argue that England's exit from the competition following that match was a direct result of his sending off.

I was reminded of this incident while watching the current World Cup. Of course I'm talking about Luis Suarez, a man of supreme footballing talent whose career has been marred by on the pitch indiscretion. In biting Georgio Chiellini, yet again Suarez has turned attention away from his majestic footballing skills to the darker side of his character, a clear lack of self-control. By all accounts off the pitch he is a calm character and a family man, but during the heat of competition things change. Thinking of these moments of poor judgement got me wondering. How important are character strengths such as self-control when it comes to winning football matches?

There's lots of evidence to link self-control to health, wealth & freedom (summarised in ReachOut's blog), but what about sporting success?

I did a little digging into disciplinary bookings and team success in the Premiership this season. Now bear in mind that of course, there are many factors that contribute to the success of a team. How talented are their players? How effective are their coaches? However the graph below suggests that self-control does indeed play some part.


What's clear from this graph is that all the teams received on average one or two yellow cards per match which doesn't affect their position. I suppose this is not surprising as some could argue that getting a yellow card is not such a big deal and occasionally is a result of a premeditated action rather than a lack of self-control. But what about getting a red? Surely you wouldn't risk being sent off for a nudge or an elbow, would you? Unless you couldn't help yourself.

The graph shows that in the top two thirds of the Premiership, more games lost correlates directly with red cards received. As mentioned previously, it's clearly not the only factor but it's interesting to consider. Having worked with Arsenal supporters for several years I always take an interest in their progress (or lack of) - and it's interesting to see that they lost just one more game than the top three teams this season, but picked up two more red cards.

Self-control is a funny thing. I think we're all agreed that it's imperative to achievement in life, but incredibly difficult to master. In fact, a group of adults in the education industry, who were asked to place 24 character strengths (defined by the VIA Institute on Character) in order of most to least valuable to their students, ranked self-control 4th (Coursera - Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms). Pretty high. However the VIA Character Strengths Profile showed it was the lowest collective score for that group! So although the adults felt it was the 4th most valuable strength, it was the strength that they had least of. (Take the survey yourself here - it's enlightening!)

So when Tristram Hunt, ReachOut and others argue that character can, and should, be taught in schools, I'm inclined to say let's take it one step further, onto the sports pitches and training grounds of both young people and adults.