We hear a lot about mental toughness in soccer these days. Rightly so, because the finest skills in the world are of little use if a player lacks the resilience to produce them under pressure. Further, the ability to show fortitude in sport is often reflected by a toughness in everyday life which can help players, young and old, to overcome adversity and deal with problems in their social lives and working experiences.
Somebody with mental toughness is usually a happier person than one who folds under pressure – and little is more important than happiness.
But, just as the defense might spend some time training alone, developing and honing skills relevant to their position, does a player’s mental strength need to change depending on where they play? While there are certain mental traits which apply across a team, just as there are some physical ones, it is true that different positions make different demands on a player’s mental fortitude.
Surely, the most isolated and pressured position on the pitch. A goalkeeper needs to show considerable levels of concentration. A keeper might spend ten minutes without touching the ball, but then be required to make a touch and go decision whether to rush out to clear a ball or stay on his line. Loss of focus can lead to a fractional, but crucial, delay in decision making which in turn leads to a goal being conceded.
There is no player on the pitch more vulnerable to a mistake than the goalie. Consider the current (at the time of writing) European champions, Liverpool. They will not be holders of this trophy next season, so nor will they retain the world club championship they presently proudly display. The reason is that they lost in a last 16 Champions League tie against those masters of defensive football, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. And it was their reserve keeper, Adrian, who was at fault. Given a simple back pass, under no pressure, he took his eye off the ball, mishit it and handed progress to his opponents.
Every keeper makes mistakes; this frequently leads to goals. A goalkeeper needs to hold the confidence in their ability to overcome such disappointment. Failure to maintain that confidence means hesitation in decision making, and the likelihood of conceding more goals.
Finally, a mistake by a keeper is never hidden in the way it may well be in another player. Further, while a midfielder will need to get straight back into the action, the nature of goalkeeping means there is an opportunity to dwell on errors. Thus, a keeper must be able to live in the now, and not think forward to the probable defeat to which they have contributed, nor the error they have made.
Defenders must share some of the mental strength of goalkeepers. A mistake by them may also lead to a goal. Mistakes occur more regularly when players are physically tired.
Defenders run more than goalkeepers, and mistakes they make are more damaging than those by players who perform further forward. Thus, for the defense, concentration is the key mental skill they require.
Defense remains unglamorous, although this is changing. Attacking players still generally cost much more on the professional transfer markets. Yet, plenty of top coaches will argue that without a solid defense, winning trophies is very, very hard. Therefore, a defender must hold high self-esteem, to recognise their value to the team even when it might not be as recognised as that of, say, a star striker.
Midfielders run the most, generally, of any player. They need extreme physical fitness to be able to maintain necessary concentration as they tire. An effective midfielder must see themselves as a part of a team. That is true of all players, of course, but especially of midfielders. Strikers need a touch of selfishness, or they will never shoot; defenders need that sense of self-worth that allows them to stand up to the opposition in the knowledge that glory will rarely come their way. But midfielders are link players; they bring into play all parts of a team. They support their teammates, perhaps with a crucial tackle that stops a dribble before it starts, or in a selfless run which creates space for a striker to score.
In the best teams, every player recognizes the importance of collaboration. But midfielders need this attribute more than anybody else.
The women or men up front must have self-belief. That belief needs to be strong. Often it should verge on the edge of arrogance. Keepers and defenders make mistakes, but mostly they get it right. Strikers will miss chances more than they score. Yet that ability to believe that next time their attempt will go in must be there at all times.
A striker who lacks confidence in themselves will not score many goals. Strikers are also in the position where they can receive most criticism. At the higher levels of the game this can include fans, who always believe that they could have scored the chance which has just sailed wide. At any level it comes from teammates. When a keeper makes an error, players recognise that the position is tough, and mistakes happen. When a striker misses it is because of their selfishness, (apart from, perhaps, the easiest chance of all, a penalty). Strikers need the mental strength to shake off such criticism.
It is hard being a sub. There is an inevitable sense of not being quite good enough, which can damage self-esteem and then self-confidence. When the chance comes to play, there is an inevitable wish to make an impact, to impress the coach, which can lead to mental pressure and poor decisions. Subs, and even those who do not make the bench, must understand their role in a squad, recognise the value they bring to the team through their role in training, or in what they can do when brought on.
A brief word on youth subs. Coaches who only wish to win (rather than develop their squad) really have no place in youth soccer. Instead, we want coaches who value every player, and seek to improve every player. Winning then comes as a natural by-product. The best coaches vary who they play on the bench, and rotate substitutes throughout a game. That encourages young players to value themselves more and helps them to build self-esteem.
Last, but not least, is the coach. The one who perhaps needs the greatest mental strength. The coach (especially, but not exclusively, when working with young players) is the one who keeps their emotions under control. Who praises and encourages when he wants to moan and criticise; who stays positive when she wishes to bury her head in the turf; who stays calm when they want to scream – with pleasure or anger.
The best coaches are the ones who recognize the game is about their players, not themselves.
If you liked this book, you’ll like our book on Soccer Mental Toughness.