Mental toughness – the capacity to perform consistently and the high end of a players talent and skill, irrespective of competitive circumstances. There is such a narrow line between sporting success and mental collapse on the field, that the gap can be addressed with training and the correct mindset.
The Dutch psychologist, Geir Jordet, studied the impact of mental toughness – or fragility -in perhaps the most intense psychologically testing event possible in soccer. The penalty shoot-out. His findings are not unexpected, but can be applied to less intense sporting incidents. Firstly, tension mounts as the shoot out progresses, and if the contest is extended because the scores are level after five penalties each, then there is a sharp increase in the levels of stress on a player.
Jordet’s work went a little further, investigating ways in which that stress can be alleviated. Again, his findings were not world shattering, but do reinforce the common sense approach to taking a penalty. He recommends that players decide well in advance where they are going to place their shot, the kind of run up they will do and how hard they will hit the ball – placement or power. They then visualize the ball going into the net.
That activity actually lowers heart rate, reducing the amount of adrenalin pumped through the body allowing muscles and movements to be better controlled.
Rachel Foxwell is another psychologist whose own findings are in line with those of Jordet. She also discovered a correlation between mounting pressure and player confidence. Once again, visualizing the ball entering the net, practising the penalty in the mind before striking it, helps to control that pressure and reinstate player confidence.
Foxwell also highlighted that stress is increased by fear of failure. At the professional level, this can be fear of being publicly castigated in the press, or by the fans or manager. At the amateur level, while the risks might not seem as extreme, that sense of letting down one’s team mates has the potential of being an immensely powerful influence on a players performance.
Paul Dent has worked in other sports to soccer, but sees the elements of mental strength in, say, field hockey as being similar to those of soccer. For him, the key is to develop an in the present mentality. He feels that worrying about the future, or dwelling on the past are both negative influences over which players have little control. Therefore, by concentrating on the present, players can be in the moment, and that immediacy reduces nerves, stress and tension.
Finally, the findings of a non-psychologist are worth considering. Andy Scott is a participant in extreme sports. For him, the preparation he does – mentally and physically – places him in the best position to undertake the challenges he chooses to face in his sporting life. There are some interesting thoughts to be found in the following video clip:
So what does all this mean for the coach? Here are some ideas on maximizing a mentally strong culture in players.
Creating a No Fear Environment for Mental Tougness
In soccer, there is only really one fear, and that is of failure. As a coach, we can challenge and oust this fear. We create an environment where innovation is encouraged, where failure is seen as a vital step towards improvement.
No players deliberately get themselves sent off by deliberately earning a red card; nobody deliberately misses a penalty or loses an opponent allowing him to score. When these events occur, we create the atmosphere whereby they can be used for future improvement.
To do so, we must avoid being critical ourselves, and be completely intolerant of it in our players.
Visualization for Mental Toughness
We can get players in the habit of visualizing events, and using that skill in the hurly burly of a soccer match. Before practices, get players to visualize the outcome. It only takes a few seconds, and practiced regularly, becomes second nature.
Turn the Team into Hammers, not Nails
Hammers are players who see everybody else as nails – in other words, they want to hit them. In the soccer sense, this means hurting opponents with passes, shots and defense. In the offensive sense, hammers want the ball, all the time.
If every player in the team wants the ball, then options for passing increase, goals come from different parts of the pitch, every player is committed to winning the ball back.
But what is the difference between a hammer and a nail? Simply a hammer has greater confidence. And that confidence can be spread to other players through repetition. If we get our players to practise their first touch with ten passes, they may improve a bit. Do it with 100 passes, and they will improve significantly; repeat the exercise every day and first touch becomes second nature. Players become better, improve in confidence and turn into hammers. The same importance of repetition can be applied to all aspects of the game – corners, headers, free kicks, tackles, formation… getting players to understand the value of repetition is a key to success not only in soccer, but in all team sports.
Stress the Four Keys of Mental Toughness…
· Developing a strong self-belief: This is achieved through high expectations, both those we set ourselves, and also those others set for us. Note, setting a high expectation is good. Being critical if we fail to achieve it is not. Better, create the environment where we analyze, then address, the reasons for failing to achieve expectations.
· Staying Motivated: We need to get our players from the point of external motivation towards internal, self-motivation. Yet again, achieving this is not some mystical methodology to which we need to be enlightened. Players who feel good about themselves become more motivated. As coaches, we set the tone that creates that atmosphere.
· Showing a Good Work Ethic: Even at an amateur, or youth level, work ethic is very important. It is all to the good having exceptional skill, but if a player is not prepared to work and improve their value to the team is reduced. They do not become better players, and their approach causes resentment among the rest of the team. An unhappy squad is an unsuccessful one. Those players who have no work ethic are the ones to ditch.
· Having Self-Control: This is an area in which drills can be used. Players who flare up are a problem to a side; they may get themselves sent off, they may make errors because their mind has lost its focus. The coach should use the ten second mantra. ‘Ten deep breaths and walk away.’ Repetition from the coach, and a team ethic that shares this mantra will spread to players who find self-discipline more difficult.
Developing mental strength in a team is not rocket science. Be positive, be encouraging, see failure as step on the road to success. Rarely is mental strength about drills, but establishing and maintaining a state of mind.
Easy to write, harder to achieve but crucial for a team’s success – and enjoyment in their soccer – nevertheless.
If you liked our drill on mental strength, you will love our drill on defensive drills here.
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