The NSCAA continues their successful book series "The Best of Soccer Journal" with this new highly anticipated entry in the instructional soccer book field. The book explores the Craft and Art of Coaching. The best coaches in the US describe how they get it done on the field. In addition, this book explores the 'Last Frontier' - the mental side of the game. Successful players and coaches must train the mind as well as the body to succeed and master the game!
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The Best of Soccer Journal: The Art of Coaching
Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd.
This book has been very carefully prepared, but no responsibility is taken for the correctness of the information it contains. Neither the author nor the publisher can assume liability for any damages or injuries resulting from information contained in this book.
The following two articles deal with new teaching methodologies.
I was fortunate enough to have Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer send me to a coaching symposium in London the weekend of the Champions League Final. The event took place at Bacon College, which has a working partnership with the Fulham Football Club. The main presenter was Michel Bruyninckx, trainer/coach of the Royal Belgium Football Federation who has caught the attention of many coaches in Europe based on his curriculum of “brain centered learning in soccer.”
Former England International Chris Waddle sees a real need for the FA to re-examine the coaching methods used in English soccer because players in England have little flair, movement, or confidence in their game. The lack of success internationally for England could be a direct result of following traditional training and not keeping up with newer accelerated methods to train youths. Bruyninckx may be just what English soccer needs and what American soccer should examine very closely as new training curriculums are presented to coaches, parents and players alike. With his methods endorsed by ex-Belgian National coaches Paul van Himst and Robert Waseige, Bruyninckx estimates 25 % of the 100 or so players he has coached have gone on to play with top professional clubs or national teams. It is pioneering work; better still it has broad applications across many sports besides soccer.
Bruyninckx began his presentation with a quote from Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita: “We see with our brains not with our eyes.”
Bruyninckx feels we can make better players in a neural way in order to optimize rhythm, timing and space. In watching Barcelona against Manchester United, they are a clear reflection of what the outcome could be if those areas are emphasized.
In addition, Bruyninckx sees the need for young players to control emotion and show respect to teammates, opponents, referees and the game. Again, look to how the Barcelona players conduct themselves on the field and off.
Slaven Bili, the National Team Coach for Croatia, has stated, “systems are dying, and it’s about the movement of ten players.” Bruyninckx’s training involves constant movement and concentration.
He also believes in the strength of a strong social network in order to lower physical aggression during matches, stimulate cultural integration and improve school performance.
Dr. Marc Comerford of Australia is a proponent of the strength of the pelvic area in preventing future problems and persistent injuries for soccer players. Bruyninckx thinks that one reason for the lack of pelvic strength is due to not developing players to be strong with both feet, which keeps the pelvis in the correct position and utilizes both sides of the body. Without strength in the pelvic area, injuries develop in numerous areas of the body. Prevention of recurring injuries in players should be a major concern. Bruyninckx points out that over half of all the World Cup players in 2002 and 2006 took anti-inflammatory medication during matches. All of his training sessions utilize skill and comfort. Players are told that tackling is a last resort to win the ball. Often times warm-up exercises with the ball are done without soccer shoes. Bruyninckx showed that the FIFA 11 was found to be a cause of pelvic issues and is now in the process of changing.
Spatial awareness and vision is impeded if coaches do not develop training utilizing peripheral training but continue to use central sight training. This vision can only be achieved when technique is introduced in small groups and the spatial organization of the exercise is based on external focusing. Success of a training session is based on cognitive readiness, spatial reasoning, temporal processing, skill acquisition in a soccer context and developing perceptual awareness and skills. Also players will learn with greater speed and precision if reinforcement and encouragement is constantly administered. Bruyninckx shares the idea that competent players need 500,000 touches on the ball per year, but he is not a proponent of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule because it leads to false expectations.
For a training session to be effective and for the brain to retain the information, the session should peak curiosity, increase motivation, provide interest and be fun. Bruyninckx says, “the environment plays a larger role than genetics when developing players.” Emotions shape the brain and help store information. In fact, Bruyninckx feels strongly that you can change lifelong behaviors and patterns even with professional players. He practices what he preaches because in addition to soccer, he works with elderly stroke victims in recovering stability and memory. Brain plasticity makes for lifelong learning for everyone.
The other issue that he feels strongly about is the weeding of players born in the last half of the year. How can we as coaches deprive players of quality training because of the time of year he or she was born, especially at early ages?
His research shows that synchronized tasks in training harmonize both team and individual learning. The four pillars of training should be emotion, attention, concentration and motivation. His exercises often include double tasking with a strong external focus on what an individual may be doing and leading to a final result. All his exercises start in a simple way but lead to differential learning where players are challenged to find optimal solutions. He believes in variable repetitions as opposed to repetitions in the same manner. This may include utilizing different sized balls in an exercise, counting or posing questions as the exercise takes place. In each exercise there should be continuous synchronization in an attempt to reduce perceptual time.
He feels strongly that through Ballritmics you can improve coordination, agility, confidence and the strength in all parts of the weaker foot. You can see Ballritmics in action by searching “Michel Bruyninckx” or “Ballritmics” on the Internet.
Bruyninckx’s training information is in complete agreement with leading educators in the world, who are attempting to improve education worldwide by compressing the time it takes to teach and learn the basics of a curriculum through the use of learner centered principles and practices. His goal is to creatively engage players’ multiple learning systems, resulting in faster, deeper, and more proficient learning, which is the same as newer education curriculum models worldwide.
We make connections with both sides of the brain during physical activity, where we crisscross the right and left side of our bodies. Motor stimulation directly impacts brain development and academic achievement for all ages. We can absorb more information faster if it is presented in a way that interests the learner. Positive emotions in a relaxed, alert state improve both learning and motivation. Threats impair any growth within the brain.
Internal rewards (e.g., a sense of pride and satisfaction with one’s accomplishments) work better than external ones (e.g., candy, money, special privileges … trophies?). Brain research tells us that we are we are naturally motivated by curiosity and novelty, meaningful activities, and successes (Jensen 1998, 65).
As learners, we take in more information visually than through any of our other senses. Our brains actually perceive information in images. Muscle memory helps us recall certain skills; it also helps us recall information associated with certain actions. When children, from birth to about age ten, engage in physical activity, it stimulates the growth of neurological pathways in the brain needed for learning.
I will be corresponding with Michel Bruyninckx in the future and plan to have him show coaches in Pennsylvania the numerous exercises he now utilizes with different player ability levels in his training. Hopefully, our Region and US Soccer will have an interest in exploring the successful methods he employs. His training methods should not be ignored. It may offer our country the opportunity to produce consistent, confident, well-rounded players and coaches in the near future.
Visualization is a powerful tool for optimizing athletic performance. While most coaches know this, few are able to speak to the myriad benefits of proper visualization. If you are a coach looking to guide your team through visualizations, a clear understanding of the “why” will help them buy in to the exercise. Here, we share our top 5 reasons to visualize.
Quite simply, visualizing success helps build confidence. If you visualize success in your training or racing, you subconsciously improve your belief in your abilities. This has a profound impact on your performance. We all compete according to how we see ourselves, and when you know you can do something you dig deep in the energy reserves, you bring the required focus, you do what you need to do to get it done. Changing how you see yourself changes your performance.
Here is a quick exercise to illustrate: Take a moment and write down your Top 7 moments—in your personal life, sports, your career. Think of seven times you were at the top of your “game.” Write them down. Then take a deep breath, close your eyes and replay all seven of those instances in your mind.
Did you do it? If you did, I bet you feel more confident in your abilities and sure of your enormous potential. Visualization is powerful stuff; it is simple, but it brings out your best.
Managing emotions is one of the most important aspects to mental training — staying calm under pressure, reacting appropriately to adversity, getting hyped for competition, ignoring unhelpful emotions in the heat of the moment. These are all critical parts of our performance. Even the Navy SEALs have begun to train in visualization techniques to control their emotional reactions in life and death situations. While athletes generally do not face life and death experiences, anxiety, stress and the fear response can creep in and become a huge barrier to peak performance. If this begins to happen, visualization is one of the best tools available.
Some things to try: When you feel nervous or anxious, focus on your breathing and imagine yourself being calm and confident. If you’re feeling fatigued, see yourself as powerful and courageous to pump yourself up. You’ll be amazed at how your body follows your changed mindset. Sometimes we forget how connected our body and mind are and how much control we really do possess.
You can also practice working through stress or discomfort ahead of time so you are more prepared for that emotion when it happens in real life. If you have a particular situation that causes you stress, visualize yourself in that situation, feeling all those negative emotions. Imagine all the causes and sources for this unproductive emotion, then slowly imagine all of them morphing into positive emotions like courage and confidence. When you mentally rehearse controlling your emotions, you’ll be ready for them in real life.
Again, your body very willingly follows your mindset. Change your mind and everything else will change with it.
Visualization can improve your skill development. Simply visualizing your sports skills (with no physical practice) will cause your brain to trigger the same muscle patterns as if you were actually performing the skill. Neuromuscular science is proving that visualization can actually affect your nervous system in the same way the actual movement does by exciting the same muscle patterns. But you don’t get tired!
A study done at the University of Chicago (Dr. Blaslotto) did research on visualization and free throws. The researchers divided people into three groups and tested each group on how many free throws they could make.
After deciding their baseline free throw percentage, he had each group do something different:
Group #1: practiced free throws every day for an hour
Group #2: visualized themselves making free throws
Group #3: did nothing
After 30 days he tested their free throw accuracy again.
This is what he found:
Group #1: (physically practiced free throws) improved 24 %
Group #2: (visualization) improved 23 %! All without touching a basketball for 30 days.
Unsurprisingly, Group #3 did not improve.
Physical practice is of course important. But imagine using the power of the mind along with physical practice. After all, there is only so much physical practice you can do; your body may wear out, you might get fatigued and practice bad habits, or injuries may prevent you from practicing. Visualization can be a great addition to any training program — it’s safe, efficient, and effective!
Speed Recovery from Injury
Believe it or not, visualization can increase the speed of recovery. In a study done by Achterberg and Mark S. Rider (Dossey, Meaning and Medicine, 167), researchers measured the effects of visualization in altering the immune system. The subjects were divided into two groups. Each group was asked to visualize images of the shape, location, and movement of one of two types of white blood cells. Blood counts were taken both before and after each twenty-minute visualization sessions.
Results showed that the highly directed imagery was cell-specific; that is, it affected one of the two types of white blood cells toward which it was intended or directed, and not the other. This study illustrates the power that the mind has over what is happening in the body. Visualizing a sprained ankle being repaired and active again can decrease the injury time. Visualizing getting better from a cold can speed up your recovery. In the unfortunate case that you are injured or get sick, try visualizing and see what happens.
Prevent Skills from Deteriorating While Injured
A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they sat in their chairs and only imagined lifting. In a study at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (Yue 2004), researchers compared “people who went to the gym with people who carried out virtual workouts in their heads.” He found a 30 % muscle increase in the group who went to the gym and a 13.5 % increase in the people who just imagined going to the gym! This is powerful stuff. While clearly an athlete needs proper physical conditioning, when they aren’t able to do this due to injury, visualization can help them stay on track until they can.
Sometimes athletes hit a slump or a plateau, or they are stuck in a pattern of performance that they can’t seem to change. When this happens, athletes often over-think the situation or get tense and stressed out, which can make the situation worse. This can be frustrating and lead to some very negative and unproductive mindsets. When an athlete is working hard physically and still not improving, or working hard and not able to perform the way they should, the reason is usually mental.
Visualization can help the subconscious relax around a situation. When success is visualized, the mind becomes more patient. During visualization athletes often see the root of the issue. They can work through their performance patterns in the following ways:
Visualize past successes and learn from them.
Study their ideal mental performance state in a controlled environment.
Explore places for improvement away from the intensity of competition.
Visualization works, pure and simple. I’ll leave you with a study by Soviet sport scientists leading up to the 1980 Olympics.
The study explored the effects of mental training through visualization, on four groups of world-class athletes just prior to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. The four groups of athletes were divided as follows:
Group 1—did 100 % physical training to prepare for the Olympic Games.
Group 2—did 75 % physical training and 25 % mental (visualization) training.
Group 3—did 50 % physical training and 50 % mental (visualization) training.
Group 4—did 25 % physical training and 75 % mental (visualization) training.
What researchers found was that Group 4, the group with the most visualization training, showed the greatest improvement of all of the other groups! Group 3 did better than Group 2, and Group 2 did better than Group 1.
Of course, physical training is important, but imagine what combining physical and mental training could do for your athletes!
Co-Founder of Positive Performance, Lindsey Wilson has been teaching, writing and speaking about mental training for the last five years. Lindsey regularly writes on mental training and has been featured on ESPN’s HoopGurlz.com and in Coach and Athletic Director magazine, as well as the NYTimes.com, VISIONS magazine, FullCourtPress.com, and the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She can be reached at [email protected] And you can learn more about her mental training services at www.positiveperformancetraining.com
Dr. Keith Wilson
Visualization is one of the first skills that comes to mind when soccer coaches start thinking about performance skills for their players. Unfortunately, most players do not understand how to utilize this skill and then take it to the soccer field. It may feel like an interesting classroom experience, but it does not easily help their soccer game.
I believe this problem is based upon two factors. First, the visualization alone is not internal or kinesthetic. Second, the athlete is not taught concentration or focusing skills, which enhance the visualization. This article will present stepping stones to help the athlete make their visualizations more internal and kinesthetic.
In order for the visualization to be effective in improving skills, it needs to be internal. The athlete needs to be able to see, feel, smell, and hear the actions of the athletic skill and environment as well. One has to turn on all the senses in order to make this visualization most effective. This is the part of the visualization where most beginners begin to lose faith in visualization. They are not able to feel their muscle groups move in the scene, they cannot hear the action on the field, and they cannot see the action through their own eyes. Consequently, the visualization does not connect to an “on the field” performance.
However, telling an athlete “just visualize the scene” is like telling an athlete to dribble faster without giving specific instructions that will help her dribble faster. It is challenging to add the kinesthetic experience to visualization if it does not come naturally. The importance of visualization being kinesthetic cannot be overstated. This kinesthetic dimension enables the visualization to utilize the muscle groups and thought patterns necessary to help build the mental and physical skills into an automated performance pattern.
Performance hypnosis offers one skill that is designed to help the athlete internalize performance visualization. Performance hypnosis can accentuate this skill. Achieving an alert trance state through performance hypnosis can easily be demonstrated. The athlete knows there has been a change in the way her body is reacting. She can see and feel it. This experience helps to build belief that what the player is visualizing is helping to create a change in her mind/body connection. The hypnotic skill, which is taught in this exercise, is a self-hypnotic skill and can be used safely by anyone who reads the article and follows the directions. While the athlete can reach a deep level of immersion utilizing this protocol, they are always in full control and can respond to interruptions if necessary during the visualization immersion.
One effective hypnotic tool that enhances this kinesthetic mind/body connection is called the “kinesthetic primer.” To illustrate it for the athlete, write these numbers and words on a dry erase board like this:
When the athlete first sees this on the teaching board it will not make sense to her. It is best to demonstrate the skill to enhance the learning process. State that the exercise consists of two hypnotic components: 1) Decreasing numerical count; and 2) Repetitive connection to the kinesthetic mind/body connections. Suggest that the athlete sit in a comfortable position and begin to focus on the three kinesthetic elements.
The facilitator should begin to note the kinesthetic cues, inviting the athlete to “come along.” An example is as follows:
Five things I see (name five things in the environment that are seen — examples are given):
I see the — (table)
I see the — (lamp)
I see the — (chair)
I see the — (shoe)
I see the — (tissue box)
Note: Tell the athlete that during this exercise they may experience slight confusion. For example, they may lose track of the items counted. If so, tell them to enjoy the pleasant sensation of the self-induced trance. They may simply continue the round, wherever they decide to begin again.
Five things I hear (name five things in the environment that are heard—examples are given):
I hear the — (traffic)
I hear the — (air conditioning)
I hear the — (music)
I hear the — (traffic)
I hear the — (music)
Note: It is acceptable to repeat kinesthetic cues — if only three sounds can be heard then they can be named again.
Five things I feel (name five things in the environment that the body senses or is experiencing —examples are given):
I feel the — (vibration of my voice)
I feel my — (hands touching each other)
I feel my — (feet touching the floor)
I feel my — (arm resting on the armrests of the chair)
I feel my — (toes inside my shoes)
Note: This element refers to physical sensation rather than emotional feelings. This is not meant to notice anxiety/arousal levels or temperature of the physical surroundings (hot, cold, etc.).
Now move to round four. Naming four things in each of the categories.
Four things I see (name four things in environment that are seen).
Four things I hear (name four things in environment that are heard).
Four things I feel (name four things in the environment that the body is experiencing).
This progression continues until the athlete completes an entire round of one thing seen, heard and experienced.
This hypnotic exercise accomplishes at least four things:
It helps the athlete become more focused on their mind/body connection.
It slows down their breathing.
It helps the athlete to block out other distractions.
It enhances the athlete’s ability to visualize and feel bodily sensations while in an alert trace state.
There are two problems that an athlete will often raise as they learn this relaxation/visualization skill.
First, they are concerned that the skill will take too long to do when they need it and second, people will think that they are crazy when they do this out loud with people around them. Each of these is a valid concern.
This hypnotic skill is most effective when the athlete has made it a very familiar skill. Just as the athlete must practice corner kicks and dribbling skills, so must this skill be practiced in its entirety until it becomes second nature to be able to relax and be centered using the basic performance hypnosis primer.
Once the skill has been well learned then it can be shortened in two ways. First, the athlete can start to practice this silently. It is possible to get the same rhythm silently in the mind when the athlete takes the time to do the exercise. This can be done in pre-game time or riding the bus. As the athlete establishes and reinforces this relaxation platform, it is easier to stay at the optimal level of intensity during the game. Second, the athlete can start at three and count down through the senses. This shorter version can be effective when the skill is well learned as it allows the athlete to stop the negative anxiety spiral quickly.
The basic kinesthetic primer is also a great building block for use with more extensive performance hypnosis visualization skills. By enhancing the kinesthetic mind/body connection, the athlete can improve their visualization powers. This is further illustrated by the last step in this skill acquisition. One needs to be able to take this kinesthetic skill to the competitive environment.
The following is an example of the way this visualization exercise can be done with an entire soccer team. This example is shortened to accommodate the space of this article:
Use a quick induction (start at 3 or 5 from the basic primer depending upon the skill of the group) to get into an alert trance state
Begin to focus on the sights of the soccer pitch.
See the grass and notice the color
Notice the lines and condition of the field
See your opponents on the field
Notice their uniforms
Notice the soccer ball at your feet
Check out the color and design of the ball
Continue this section until the athlete is comfortable with the visual sense
Begin to focus on the sounds of the playing field.
Hear the sounds of people on the sidelines and in the stands
Hear the sound of your opponents as they talk and warm up
Hear the sound of the ball as you are dribbling, passing and shooting
Hear the sound of the ball as your teammate is receiving the ball
Hear the sound of the ball as it is flying toward the goal
Hear the sound of the goalkeeper as he moves to stop the ball
Continue this section until the athlete is comfortable with the audial sense
Begin to focus on the sensations of the playing field.
Notice the texture of the playing surface
Notice how your soccer boots feel on your feet
Notice the feel of the ball as your foot strikes the ball
Notice how the ball feels as it leaves your head after doing a header
Notice the power of the ball as it strikes the back of the net
Notice the feeling of running while moving to receive a pass
Continue this section until the athlete is comfortable with the sensations
Bring the athlete back to the here and now by counting 1-10. While counting, pause along the way to highlight the skill they have been practicing. Highlight the confidence they bring into the present by focusing upon their kinesthetic visualization experience.
Now that the player is able to experience kinesthetic visualizations, it is possible to advance the soccer skill visualization. You can do group visualizations when the leader helps the teams be kinesthetically grounded while practicing soccer skills, like set plays.
The individual player can also do kinesthetic visualizations at home or during team practice when instructed to practice a specific skill.
There are three types of visualizations that are helpful in the athletic environment.
Learning a new skill or strategy.
Perfecting a skill or strategy.
Practicing a skill or strategy repeatedly to build confidence in that skill.
The coach or performance consultant can continue to design visualization tasks that match the technical and emotional skills that are being taught to the team. The visualizations that are done in a kinesthetic style will be more effective for the team and individual.
The mental toughness of the team will continue to improve when the proper relaxation building block is taught to the team. Once a soccer player knows how to handle pressure better then they are able to make better decisions on the soccer field. The great bonus of teaching kinesthetic visualizations is that the player learns how to relax and create effective soccer visualizations.
Dr. Keith Wilson is a performance consultant in El Paso, Texas. He is certified in clinical hypnosis with the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis. He can be reached at [email protected]
Don NortonAssistant Coach at Rowan University
From 2002 to 2009, I had the privilege to serve as the men’s assistant coach at Haverford College with Joe Amorim. Joe is a brilliant coach and a wonderful person. I learned much about the game and life from him. When I joined his staff I was glad that we won our first game of the season. The preseason had gone well; the team had talent, good chemistry and spirit. I was excited about the team’s chances for that season.
On Monday, after Saturday’s first game victory, I watched as all our players walked down the hill and prepared for afternoon training. One by one they all gave Joe a piece of paper that he nicely folded together. After training that day I asked Joe what the players had given him. He replied that players had turned in their “required homework” from Saturday’s game.
I asked Joe about the player’s homework and what was required from them. The rules for players’ homework was simple he said. The players were required to write at least one page about their performance for every game. Homework was required for every game and due at the beginning of the next practice. No exceptions. If you didn’t play, you still had to turn in your homework. Joe asked that every player look in the mirror and examine their performance and discuss what they felt; what they did well, what they did poorly, and what they needed to work on individually and collectively as a team. No “bitching” was allowed about playing time or teammates. Also you were to mention the amount of sleep you got and the foods you ate to prepare for the match. This was your time to look in the mirror. On the bottom of the page, you gave yourself and the team a grade from 0 to 10, and you signed your name. Your game reports were kept on file, and they were between you and the coaches.
At first, I have to admit that I was skeptical about players doing homework about their performances. After all as coaches aren’t we the ones who are supposed to let them know how they played? Many of us “grade” every training session, etc. As time went on, once I began reading the reports, I saw the many benefits of having our players spend time reflecting upon how they had played in the previous match.
Reading the reports that each player submitted gave me valuable insight into them and how they thought they had played and how they viewed the game. As coaches we certainly want every player to always be aware and think and react with positive actions for themselves and the team. The comments I read really helped me better understand them as players and what they thought was important for success. The one thing I can say with certainty is that the players who really go into the most detail and were critical of themselves on the smallest of matters were our most important players. They are the players who hold themselves to very high standards. Often we would meet privately with that player to let him know how much the coaches, players, etc., appreciated their effort and contributions to date. Some players expressed that they felt more comfortable writing down their thoughts as opposed to speaking among the other players.
Reading the homework allowed me see just how much our players were aware of changes that occurred in matches. I always read about how the other team switched formations due to score lines and what that switch meant to various players’ responsibilities and overall performance. Often I would see snippets of our pre-game, halftime and post-game coach’s points about speed of play, first-touch, team shape, compactness, playing out of the back, etc., reflected in those reports. I saw our players insert a sentence or two suggesting from time to time that we work on certain aspects of the game more in our daily training. Our staff always respected those suggestions and the spirit in which they were given because we wanted our players to “take ownership” of their team.
As the season went on, the homework turned in by our players became clearer, and they were now able to identity team and individual problem areas that had been lingering with themselves and the team from the start of the season. They commented on our lack of quality possession and passing in the attacking third, and a few other problems. We saw in our players’ reports an even deeper understanding of how they needed to play and prepare for the games.
I have to admit that I would occasionally read a player’s analysis and think to myself, what game was he in? But because that player was required to write it down, it allowed the staff to privately speak with him. The meeting would hopefully clear up any misconceptions, and we could continue to discuss his thoughts as opposed to not knowing what he felt about particular aspects of his game. Having players do a game report increases the communication within the team. We all want our players to be “students of the game” and having them evaluate themselves forces them to examine how they approach and play within the game and gives coaches another window into our players’ thoughts.
When the season ended, we asked the players to summarize their season and that of the team. I asked several players when the season had ended what they felt about being required to evaluate themselves and the team after every game. My players all agreed that as young adults they were responsible for each and every game/performance. Doing the reports forced them to spend some time away from the field to think about how they prepared for and played in every game. All my seniors agreed that although they had more than enough schoolwork, doing their “soccer homework” made them better players. They reflected upon what they did well, what they did poorly and what they needed to do to improve upon. At the end of the day, the “homework” they did made our players and coaches better.
Be World ClassSimon Hartley
Mental toughness is a term that’s being used a lot these days. Coaches know the importance of having players with mental strength. However, I’ve spoken to many experienced coaches who have seen these characteristics become increasingly scarce in recent years. It seems that toughness is becoming a highly prized commodity.
But what exactly is it? How do we recognize players who display it and how can we develop mental toughness in our players?
I believe that the first step is to understand what genuine mental toughness is and is not.
What do tough players look like, sound like, and behave like?
Some people would say that the tough players are those who shout the loudest and bang their fists on the locker room doors. They are the players who try to intimidate their opponents, physically and verbally. Are those players really mentally tough? What about players who push themselves physically, put their body on the line and risk injury? Are those the tough players?
As a sport psychologist, it is something that has always fascinated me. I often see players and teams that crumble when they hit tough challenges. I have seen some teams that have imploded at crucial times during a game or during a season. Some panic if they get behind or when they have a bad run of form. Some even panic when they find themselves exceeding their expectations. They go to pieces when they make the finals or find themselves fighting for a league championship.
Teams often seem to throw their game plan out of the window when the opposition asks some searching questions. What happens when Plan A doesn’t work as expected? How do the players respond? For many years, I defined mental toughness as the ability to stick to the game plan, no matter what. Obviously, I recognize that “the game plan” needs to be flexible and adaptable. However, we should not abandon it completely and start panicking at the first sign of trouble.
How do athletes respond to criticism? What happens if that criticism comes from 40,000 screaming fans on a Saturday afternoon? What if the television, newspapers and media compound it? While working in a Premiership football club a number of years ago, the coaching staff developed a saying — “when the going gets tough, the tough hide under the treatment table.” We used to see the number of injuries rise (and take longer to heal) when the team was struggling and the fans were booing the players. The players were actually using the treatment room as an escape! Coincidently, our captain (who did the shouting and fist waving) was the most regular visitor to the treatment room if we lost at home. Perhaps the genuinely tough players are not the ones who make most noise, shout loudest, wave their fists and bang on the dressing room doors. Maybe those are not the best indicators of true mental toughness.
When I look at tough players, I don’t tend to see fists banging. In fact, the toughest players that I’ve seen don’t tend to be physically or verbally intimidating either. Maybe they don’t need to be. Instead, the players who show true mental toughness tend to display three distinct qualities.
Commonly seen as “bounce-back-ability” and the ability to thrive in adverse situations.
The ability to keep going and push to the very limit.
The ability to make really good decisions and execute skills at a very high standard, while under pressure.
To me, these qualities characterize mentally tough players. As a sport psychologist, I look to see how players respond when they hit challenges. I believe that actions, rather than words, are the best indicators. Here’s a simple example—do players opt to do what’s easiest or what’s best? Will they push themselves to do everything they can or just do what’s necessary? A player’s actions on a daily basis can tell us a lot.
What happens when they encounter the really tough challenges? For example, how would they respond if they suffered a serious injury?
How do they respond to criticism or when they make mistakes? Will they become despondent? What about a poor run of form? Will they come back stronger, or will they wither? Do they tend to hide? Do you hear excuses and blame or see players taking responsibility? In a Premiership dressing room at halftime, I once heard a player explain that it was not his fault he’d played poorly in the first half. The equipment manager was to blame because he’d given the player a long sleeved shirt, and he couldn’t play in long sleeves.
What about if the team was 4-0 down with 15 minutes to go? Would they take their foot off the gas and give up or fight to the very end? I recently saw my hometown team in exactly this position. Unfortunately they imploded and ended up losing 6-0.
How do players respond in high-pressure situations? Would they lose the plot, or would they be able to produce a peak performance?
The answers to these questions will tell us a lot about mental toughness in players. Often the toughest players are not the ones who shout loudest, make the most noise or appear the most intimidating. Sometimes fear can be dressed up as toughness. Bravado tends to be a façade — “fake toughness.” I suspect that it is a sign of weakness rather than strength. Mentally tough players are often the ones who step forward and take responsibility. They will respond to setbacks by applying themselves, focusing, practicing, training and preparing better. When you know what to look for, mental toughness is fairly easy to spot.
Like any skill, mental toughness can be developed and learned. It is not simply an attribute that is inherent within people. Therefore, coaches can actually help to foster mental strength and toughness in their players, and players can develop it in themselves. Once we understand what genuine mental toughness looks like, we have a fantastic starting point!
Simon Hartley is the author of Peak Performance Every Time, published by Routledge www.peakperformanceeverytime.com and How To Shine, published by Capstone.
Much has changed in the landscape of US youth soccer over the past several years. Most notably, players are competing with multiple teams in multiple leagues, they are performing in 2 to 3 games per weekend, and they are being recruited at an increasingly younger age. Although psychological barriers are a natural part of athlete development, I propose that these changes may disproportionately influence the experience of psychological barriers in areas of goal orientation, motivation, and attention. Not all players will experience psychological stress in this evolving environment, however for those who do, it is the leading cause of performance setbacks as well as burnout or early termination. In this article, I aim to build awareness by discussing three major changes in youth soccer and how each change can affect a player’s experience of psychological stress and continued participation.
With the existence of two leagues that operate simultaneously, the youth player of today is competing with multiple teams in multiple leagues during a single season.
On the one hand, teams and clubs are able to attract talent and develop a competitive training environment that parents and players are seeking. Many look for the best opportunity to compete at the highest level and those opportunities are more accessible today.
However, consider what player movement indirectly communicates to the participant—“I need to be on the best team, the most winning team, and the team playing in the x league.” Such a mindset is indicative of an athlete who judges and perceives achievement with an ego orientation. Goals, in this case, are focused on what a player can do to show superiority. This is most easily accomplished by obtaining impressionable statistics.
An ego orientation toward goal achievement can increase psychological stress because it is largely dependent upon uncontrollable factors, like scoring a goal, winning a game, getting onto a certain team, etc. On the contrary, an athlete with a task-mastery orientation will set goals that aim to improve the technical, tactical, physical, and psychological skills of soccer. Since all facets of soccer skill development are controllable, a player has more opportunities to feel proud and successful.
As a coach today, it is important that your players are balanced with both an ego and task-mastery orientation, where they are motivated to improve skills in a competitive environment. In the table below, I aim to present the mindset of both orientations while considering the distinctiveness of player judgment versus perception.
A player’s motivation to participate in soccer is largely dependent upon the experience of rewards. On the one hand, positive reinforcement is readily experienced from extrinsic factors like scoring a goal, wining a trophy, or being praised. However, consider what happens in the face of unfavorable outcomes—motivation fluctuates and psychological stress increases. Subsequently, it is important for a player to be intrinsically motivated by enjoying the process of acquiring skills and feeling accomplished after working hard.
In today’s landscape, the youth player experiences an excess of extrinsic rewards. With teams registered in multiple leagues and players traveling with multiple teams, there is upward of three organized games per weekend, which is equal, if not, more than the number of practices in a given week. Not only are there more opportunities to win/lose, score, be praised, etc., but the organized game itself is a steady reward. As a result, a young player can lose sight of inherently pleasurable reasons for participation, regardless of his or her consciousness.
How many of your players juggle in the backyard or kick around with a friend? As a coach, a major indicator of motivational style is whether your players are driven to spend time with a ball on a day off. If you notice that love of playing soccer is being undermined by the prevalence of games, reemphasize the joy of gaining skills and performing advanced tactics. Naturally, coaches want athletes who are competitive and driven to win, but the most powerful motivator to perform and perform successfully is drawn from autonomous rewards, which can be experienced whether in an organized game, practice, or while playing in the yard.
It is widely agreed upon in the psychology literature that adolescents are in a time of identity exploration. They are constantly questioning, “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” Now consider a player who is asked to expedite the journey and decide the next step in life at 16 years of age. The stress can become overwhelming, especially since the decision is largely determined by academic and athletic performance.
When college coaches are watching, a player may have unrealistic performance expectations and may imagine the worst possible outcome. For example, internal thoughts like “I need to play my best!” “Don’t mess up!” or “The coach won’t like me!” are common in those who desire to be recruited. Such thoughts shift a player’s attention away from the process of performing and place a heightened emphasis on the outcome of his or her performance. Although a subtle difference, when the focus is on performing your best and being noticed, there are two possible emotional outcomes: success or failure.
With this style of black and white thinking, a player’s confidence is constantly at risk. Imagine a player who misses an open shot or gets beaten one on one. When attention is focused on outcomes, perceptions of failure thrive and self-worth is questioned. However, if attention can be refocused on the performance of specific tasks and skills, a player is more likely to problem solve in unfavorable situations, and emotions are likely to remain balanced. As a coach, you can be a great source of relief by reminding your player of three key components to having a task focus.
Remind your players of performance strengths by communicating some skills or plays that he or she has done well in the past. The recollection of positive past performances has been found to enhance confidence and optimism in future performances.
Psychological Mindset of Goal Orientation
Judgment of Competence
Compare to those in proximity of age and skill level
Compare to previous performances
Perception of Success
Statistics — scoring a goal, winning a game, getting onto a certain team, etc.
Feelings of dominance
Improvement — new skills, better tactics, quicker, etc.
Feelings of pride and satisfaction
Reminding your player of his or her role serves two purposes. First, it seems that the recruiting process strikes a fear of not being noticed. However, a player may do more harm than good when trying to play outside of his or her skill set. Second, a role provides a player with a clear focus toward performing the tasks of his or her position, as well as the skills that he or she has to offer to the team’s overall success. In essence, having a clear role helps the player stay focused on what is needed to have a good performance in contrast to being noticed.
If something is out of your player’s control, they have to let it go. Energy is a limited resource and can be exhausted on thoughts about coaches watching, bad refs, or a rainy day. My college coach would say, “control the controllables!”
The landscape of youth soccer will continue to evolve throughout the years. Whether there is player movement, an excessive amount of organized games, or pressure to stand out, players will always be faced with psychological barriers that are unique to an individual’s situation. In this article, I have presented three possible areas at risk of psychological stress in today’s youth soccer environment, including goal orientation, motivation, and attention. Altogether, it is most important that young, influential players are taught to examine from within in the face of external noise and judgment. As a coach, you can be a great resource to your players with the power of awareness.
Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2005). The Sport Psych Handbook: A Complete Guide to Today’s Best Mental Training Techniques. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Williams, J.M. (2010). Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
What Motivates Young Players?Terry Michler
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