By Dan Abrahams, a global sport psychologist helping people to high perform. Dan’s book "Soccer Tough 2: Advanced Psychology Techniques for Footballers" introduces soccer players to more cutting edge tools and techniques to help them develop the game of their dreams.
Champions tend to be champions because they are tough on themselves. They have an inner voice aligned with excellence and they demand lung-busting, effortful activity week in and week out.
However, the psychology of elite sport works in a subtle way. Just as you can’t run around like a headless chicken on a soccer pitch, you can’t constantly beat yourself up. Doing so leads to a mental agoraphobia that restricts freedom, imagination, confidence and focus.
The champion’s mindset is flexible. The champion knows when to be tough and when to relax. The champion develops the capacity to compartmentalize his or her thinking related to skills, strengths, weaknesses, and a desired future game.
To develop your game and to feel good come match day, you have to know when to be tough on yourself. You have to know when to turn up the volume of your self-criticism. Here’s my guide to this most crucial of thinking skills.
Tough on Training
If you take nothing else away from this article, if you think that what I say doesn’t apply to you or that I’m prescribing a recipe of fiction, then please, please take this home with you. Please read and re-read. Please let it penetrate your mind and let it pierce your skin: be tough on yourself in training.
Please, please be tough on yourself in training. Training is reserved for your zone of stretch and your zone of ugly. What do I mean by this? I mean you have to come out of your comfort zone and you have to try new things. Inevitably when you attempt to expand the elastic skills you possess something will snap – it’ll look ugly. But that’s ok. That’s fine. You can make mistakes in training. You can look ugly in practice.
Be tough on yourself in training. This means turning up the volume of focus on your skills and being hyper-critical. First touch – out your feet better, passes – clipped in with more accuracy, crosses – whipped in quicker, tackles – improved timing, movement – seeing the space faster. What can go better? What can improve? These need to be asked alongside the crucial question of what went well. Remember – flexible thinking – the art of sliding the scale of strengths and weaknesses.
Being tough on training requires a mindset that’s tuned to pitch perfect. In my book Soccer Tough, I wrote a whole chapter on dealing with the problem of perfectionism. Such a mindset can be debilitating. But I would be the first to ask, or demand, a greater level of perfectionism from an elite player during training. On match day it’s a silent killer. But in training it can be a hidden facilitator of success. I’m not asking you to become overly emotional in training. I’m not asking for anger or frustration. I’m asking for focus. I’m asking for attention to detail. If you don’t get your skills right, then stay calm and relaxed – focus, focus, focus.
Think better. Play better. Demand better. Be tough on training.
Tough on Championship Habits
Toughness on championship habits must be like the commitment you display towards brushing your teeth or having a shower. No one would contest that these habits of hygiene are not vital daily activities. For champions, great habits are like the seven-a-day fruit and veg requirement – they may be a struggle to do at times but if you want success you’re going to have to do them. You’re going to have to execute them.
My concern is that so many of you are motivated…but you’re not committed. You want to do well, boy you want to do well. You want to play first team college soccer. You want to stay in the team. You want your team to be a Championship winning one. And maybe you’re greedy – you want more. You want to play MLS. Perhaps you want to go even further. You want to go to Europe to play the EPL, La Liga, Serie A or Bundesliga.
But being greedy doesn’t invite you to the table of champions. You can be motivated to get there but being committed to the process of improvement required to play elite level soccer requires commitment to daily habits that can be dull and boring and sweaty and gut-wrenching. It doesn’t look attractive. It doesn’t look fun. It doesn’t always look cool.
Performance profiling, video analysis, that extra rep, the last lung busting five, failure, mistakes, muscles that burn, that extra step, visualizing, on your toes non-stop, going home early, getting to bed, staying still, non-stop movement, cognitive overload. Need an ending to the sentence here – what are these things? I would end it with something like “overload: all necessary elements to build greatness in the right time, in the right amount.”
The greats execute great habits. They commit daily, hourly, minute by minute to great habits.
Tough on Match Mindset
Most soccer players are tough on themselves in the wrong way when it comes to match day. They are tough on result and outcome. They are tough on performance.
I understand this. It’s honorable. You want to win and that is why you compete right? And you want to play well. You want to play well for you and your teammates. I understand your motivation. I understand what you are trying to achieve.
But let me assure you, you are being tough on yourself in the wrong way. Assertiveness and aggressiveness in competition are complex psychological constructs. Soccer players will compete in a better frame of mind if they relax before a game. Trust me, I’ve psychologically coached players going into some of the biggest games in the world. My message?
“Relax. Calm. It’s so simple, so easy. Ignore the outcome and the score. Let go of your performance – you will perform how you perform. Go out and manage yourself – take care of your body language and talk to yourself with confidence relentlessly. That is all you can do.”
You see, I want all my clients to be tough on themselves as they compete – but tough on themselves in the right way. I want them to be tough on mindset. I want them to be tolerant of their performance but tough on their mindset.
Why? Because I know that you can’t force a great performance. I know that human beings, no matter the sport or the situation, compete better when they play with fun in their heart and freedom in their feet. Both fun and freedom combine to focus your mind.
I know that the more you focus on the score or project your mind towards the game’s result the more chance you have of playing tight and anxious. I know that the more you try to push a great performance the further you will get away from a game of excellence.
So with the above in mind strive to keep a great mindset – and be tough on yourself about it. It’s unacceptable to slump your body language. You must stay alert, alive, lively and your toes no matter what. You must insist on a focused performance. You must insist on your inner voice holding strong – helping you maintain your confidence and your energy levels. You must insist on staying upbeat irrespective of making mistakes or going a goal down.
“It is unacceptable to lose the mental battle on the pitch. It is unacceptable to be sapped of confidence, focus and intensity at any stage of the game. I will keep an incredible mindset no matter what."