As the intensity and expectations of the modern game continue to grow to higher levels each season, it is clear that the mental strain of being a footballer is greater than ever. While footballers themselves may not necessarily be famed for their intellectual talents off the pitch, it is hard to argue that the intelligence required to be successful on the pitch is huge. The mental strength of a footballer is something that has become the focus of attention a lot more in recent years, as teams and individuals attempt to discover more efficient methods for achieving optimum performance.
Football is certainly a sport where it is possible for a very hostile atmosphere to emerge and where it is very easy for emotions to get the better of players. In a day and age where the slightest error in judgement can lead to a red card or make the difference between winning or losing, it is has become more and more important for players to be able to keep their emotions under control.
It is fair to say that many of us would struggle with many mundane everyday tasks if we had tens of thousands of fans chanting at us and trying to damage our mind-set and concentration – and it is for exactly this reason that sport psychology has become a key component in the setup of more and more clubs throughout world football.
Sport psychologists already have strong presence in many other sports. For example, Andy Murray has recently stated that he has been working with a sport psychologist to help improve his on-court mentality. Mo Farah has also made it known that he used the tools made available by sport psychology to make sure he was in the perfect mind-set before the 2012 Olympics in London – it is fair to say that the Olympics went quite well for Mo with two gold medals coming home with him. The London 2012 Team GB cycling team also used sport psychology to aid in their very successful Olympic campaign with Team GB securing 12 medals, including 8 golds.
It is appears that football is starting to follow the example of other sports as the use of sport psychology within the game has become a lot more frequent within the past couple of years. You don’t need to look very far to see some examples in football columns. Alan Pardew has confirmed that he is using a sport psychologist to improve his pitch side behaviour after a number of touchline incidences, perhaps culminating in a 7 match ban following a headbutt on Hull’s David Meyler. Jon Flanagan has also enrolled the use of a sport psychologist to ensure that his recent long term injury did not interrupt his mentality. In addition to this, Tim Sherwood also recently refused to rule out calling a sport psychologist to improve the mind-set and attitude of his recently inherited Aston Villa squad.
Sport psychology hasn’t always held such an important place within the setup of a football club however, during Graham Taylor’s reign as England manager Dr John Gardner was appointed to help the team with confidence issues. This was met with incredulity by some of the squad who saw it as pointless. One player was quoted as saying “I couldn’t see much in it myself. I’d much rather have a sleep on the afternoon of a match than someone trying to instil confidence in me”. However, football itself has largely moved on from this mentality and has definitely moved beyond the days of players smashing their heads against the changing room door in an attempt to psyche themselves up.
Roy Hodgson brought in elite sport psychologist Dr Steve Peters for the Brazil World Cup last year, who has worked with a number of elite sporting athletes including the Team GB cycling team, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and the Liverpool football team. Peters was described by Hodgson not as someone who will not “come and lecture to the players” but as an individual who “understands the footballing environment and will join us and be with us”. Furthermore, Steven Gerrard also described the work he had done previously with Steve Peters following a serious groin injury in 2010 that caused Gerrard some worry for his career. Gerrard stated that he had worked with Peters for 3 years and had found his “most consistent form of his career both for England and Liverpool” since beginning to see Dr Peters. Gerrard also stated that Peters had helped him with mental preparation during one-on-one meeting and if the England players buy into what he is saying, that sport psychology could become a very useful tool for players to utilise.
The one-on-one element and lack of lecturing to a big group of players is critical to sport psychology. When a sport psychologist is hired by a club, it is unlikely that they will actually arrange any meetings with the players and will only be used if the players feel they need to see them. This is mainly due to the fact that each individual is different, which means that different methods are needed to help different players. So, what sort of techniques could sport psychologists teach to players?
Perhaps the most common method that is taught to footballers is self-talk. It is quite common that many individuals playing sport will engage in some form of self-talk, but it is much more effective when it is used in conjunction with a sport psychologist. This method is founded on the belief that it is possible to improve your performance or temperament through the use of memorised trigger words. It is not uncommon when seeing a close-up of a player following a phase of play to see them talking to themselves, and it is not unlikely that they are practicing this exact technique of self-talk. This technique also plays into pregame preparation. If a player has had a strong mental preparation prior to a game and feels ready for the match, it is much more unlikely that an incident will cause a player to lose their head or let other emotions get the better of them. It also helps players to be more confident in their own ability and feel a lot more relaxed prior to kick off.
Another method that is quite commonly used is designed to help players when things go wrong. For example, if a player makes a mistake; it is not uncommon for them to have an action that helps them forget the error. Some players may wipe their shirt, or straighten part of their kit. The main aim of this is to learn to deal with a mistake, rather than reacting to it. An example of this is Roy Keane in the 1999 Champions League semi-final. Keane was booked in the first half, meaning that he would miss the final. It was clearly a mistake by Keane to get booked and instead of overreacting to the situation – he dealt with it and put in a man of the match performance and Manchester United booked their place in the final as part of their Treble winning season.
It is clear that sport psychology holds an increasingly key role in football and it is likely to only become more used as scientific evidence for the techniques and methods become more prevalent. Football is sport that is requiring players to constantly becoming faster, stronger, more technically gifted, and better at dealing with the growing mental strain of the game. Football also has more at stake than ever before with growing TV deals, more money on the line and increasingly demanding owners calling for success. It is likely that sport psychology will be just one of a number of tools that are used by clubs and nations to find the edge that could mean the difference between ultimate success, and the axe falling on yet another manager.