Football psychology

You’ll like this.  The difference between success and failure in football can be minute – you need every edge you can get. And when you think about it, so much of football is in the mind. We talk about teams playing with confidence: that’s a mental state. We talk about players looking nervous, or not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, or playing tentatively, or showing complacency.  All issues of the mind.  It’s a big, big deal, but one that football seems to have been slow to respond to.

Anyway, I’ve been reading football pyschologist Dan Abrahams‘ thoughts about the game on Twitter for quite a while, and found myself wishing he’d been around when I was young. It makes so much sense!

I asked Dan a few questions and  he was good enough to answer them below.

What impact can the crowd have on players, both positive and negative?

I’ve spoken with players about this and it appears by and large they do hear things chanted or shouted from the stands (especially during a break in play.) How it affects a player largely depends on his or her perception at the time which in turn is determined by several factors including personality, past experiences, hardiness, and coach and team support.
My strong advice to fans is to always support your team. The ‘dig a player out’ philosophy rarely works because the player isn’t receiving solutions to a specific problem. He’s just being chanted at about how poorly he’s playing. This is more likely to diminish his confidence, distract him from the game and subsequently affect his awareness, anticipation and movement.
Many fans who support Premiership or Championship clubs point to the enormous sums of money professional players make and that they should be entitled to vent their anger in the player’s direction. But this attitude ignores the fact that footballers’ have the same brain as everyone else. If the fan was chanted at in a negative way in his workplace I’m unsure the quality of his performance would improve.

It seems to me that football is a game of momentum. How can players change a game’s momentum?

I need a whole book to answer this one. From a football psychology perspective you must plan to deal with momentum before playing. Specifically preparing the strategies you are going to use to deal with momentum both for and against. Examples of cognitive strategies I’ve used with players include deliberately keeping focus in the present moment, positive and confident self-talk no matter what, and verbal cues related to sticking to role and responsibilities. Behavioural strategies include visual cues, deliberately playing with fun and freedom, maintaining positive body language and being more vocal.

Roy Hodgson seemed to be very good about not getting too up after a win, nor too down after a defeat. How easy is this to accomplish and what steps can teams take to stay on an even keel?

Footballers must remind themselves that they are competing and not supporting. It matters little what your job or discipline is, whether you are a trader, in the army, a sportsman or a surgeon, when you are performing the intellectual part of the brain must dominate and take control of the emotional part. Of course emotions play a significant role in high performance but they must be managed.

This is especially true post match when emotions can be high. Footballers can be particularly guilty of becoming slaves to emotions post match. Win and they are so high that they don’t find time to objectively analyse their game. Lose and they are so low that they don’t objectively analyse their game. As a football psychology consultant you try to help players remain even keeled by helping them manage their day to day focus. An underlying philosophy of maintaining emotional balance on a day to day basis is helping players become absorbed in the process of learning and improving rather than having an overwhelming focus on outcome. Essentially the winning should take care of itself.

These days we don’t seem to talk about players being in and out of form so much. Do you think there is such a thing as form, and if so, how much of this is mental and (therefore) how much is manageable?

The brain never switches off and is constantly connecting, re-connecting and reconfiguring meaning the human nervous system tends to be inconsistent. It’s impossible (and possibly unwanted) for us to think, feel and behave in the exact same ways everyday. Add to that the complexity of movement and the build up of small injuries, then form is a very real thing and is both a psychological and a physiological phenomenon. As a football psychology consultant you are always promoting the idea of building success seeking habits into a footballer’s day to day training and preparation. Doing the same great habits everyday gives a footballer a chance to manage his form and subsequently his game. On top of this a big part of my job is to help a footballer speak to himself in a confident, positive and adaptive manner everyday. To retain form he must manage how he speaks to himself pre and post training and while he’s resting. His thoughts mediate his feelings and subsequently his performances.

‘The zone’, in which a very deep concentration is achieved and a very pure instinct takes over.  The ball seems to be massive, the game is played in slow motion.  Do professional footballers routinely find themselves in ‘the zone’?  If not, can you work with them to get into this state?  (Is this even a good idea: do you need an aggression that does not necessarily fit with a relaxed state?)

I doubt many footballers find themselves ‘routinely’ in ‘the zone.’ From experience this tends to happen accidentally. To my mind the best chance an athlete has of slipping into ‘the zone’ is if he repeats the success seeking habits I talked about in the previous question. Executing these Monday to Friday then committing to a mental and physical pre-match routine on Saturday gives him a chance to high perform.
Relaxation is a quality associated with the zone but not to the detriment of physical output. An alert mindset and a relaxed body is probably the most appropriate way of putting it. A relaxed body can be congruent with a high physical output. I can have a relaxed body AND be first to the ball.

I know you’ve talked about forwards not being afraid to miss. The trouble is, this is how they’re judged.  How easy is it for forwards to think like this?

With great difficulty. But the more they put scoring on a pedestal the more stress they create. I say this to them all the time “You want to score..you have to score. But we know this. This is no **** Sherlock. That’s never going to change. But to give yourself the best chance of scoring you have to focus on the things you have to do to score.” Strikers have to stop worrying about scoring and start focusing on the skills that help them to score such as the runs they make, their movement, losing their marker, positioning, taking shots, quality strikes etc. Obsess about the process not about the outcome. That will take care of itself. It all comes down to the ability the person has to control their day to day focus. Do they focus on the misses they’ve had and the coach and team mates who constantly tell them he has to score? Or do they switch their focus onto the skills that will help them score 30 plus goals a season?

How do you work with players who are outside the team? Reserve goalkeepers can spend months without playing!  It must be very hard for them to feel that they’re not wasting their time.  

By helping them attain a mastery mindset. A mastery mindset is when an athlete is absorbed in improving his skills. This is his or her primary aim…to improve, to develop, to get better, to be the very best. Competing (and preparing to compete) happens as well but the performances take care of themselves. When a footballer becomes obsessed with improving he gives himself the best chance to have the best career he can possibly have. That might be Premiership football, it might be non league football…but it’s the best he can achieve.

Of all the sports populations I work with footballers are very guilty of being emotionally caught up in playing. You can’t blame them…its the culture of football, of playing matches every week. And playing in the team is out of their control. The idea of being unconcerned by playing and simply striving to improve everyday is largely alien to them…and requires enormous persuasion on my part a lot of the time.

For much more on football pychology and a free e-book on the subject, visit Dan’s website.

Dan’s also on Twitter @danabrahams77

10 thoughts on “Football psychology

  1. All very interesting but couldn’t you have asked him about why Fulham have such a miserable away record?? I’m assuming our poor away form is a mental thing, something that gets trapped in a player’s head that makes them perform worse away from home. Bit like England never winning penalty shoot outs or performing well in competitions..its all in the mind. I’d like to hear this guy’s thoughts on that..

      1. (I did try to steer away from specific questions as Dan is working and building a career in football so it didn’t seem fair to go into specifics)

  2. send him Fulhams way! Some of the players look like they need a few lessons in mental mindset etc. Reading some of their tweets they don’t strike me as a particularly intelligent bunch…

  3. Really interesting post. As you say, the mental side of football is rarely focused upon, yet it really controls how good a player can be – motivation, emotional stability, intelligence on the pitch etc.

    I wonder how many premier league clubs have a full time psychologist on staff?

  4. The battle between relaxation and concentration is interesting. Baseball is a game played at a leisurely pace for up to three and 1/2 hours. For that reason, a professional baseball player must be able to relax as he plays or he’ll wipe himself out in 30 minutes. Having said that, the speed of a good pitcher’s fastball and the ability he possesses to disguise his breaking pitches is such that a batter must first recognize and then react to a pitch in less than one second. Absolute concentration is required here, as it is for defensive players when “a play is on.” The best I’ve seen the skill required to relax until hyperconcentration is required is — naturally enough — “relaxed concentration.” It seems to me that a goalkeeper must be able to master this skill in order to survive and thrive.

    As for the crowd’s reaction, I remember when Eddie Johnson was, for the second time, trying to find himself in Fulham’s squad, and was called on as a substitute at Upton Park. We had a fairly large and vocal contingent for that match, and I was saddened to hear his name announced to a loud chorus of lusty booing. I was not in the slightest bit surprised to see him — just a few minutes later — muff an opportunity to win the match. The idea that today’s athletes are rich enough to allow them to be insensitive to barracking is ludicrous, but very widespread. Thanks for the thoughtful article — a continuing hallmark of CCN.

  5. Pingback: Psychology | FSS

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