By Dan Abrahams, a global sport psychologist helping people to high perform. Get more from Dan at www.danabrahams.com.
There rarely seems to be a happy medium. Soccer players over-think. Soccer players under-think. When they do think, they can tend to think about the wrong things. Yet thinking is a skill that’s important. It determines how you feel – and how you feel influences how you perform.
Whenever I start a relationship with a new client most have a soccer psychology that tends to relate to the same challenge – thinking. Of course what different players think and how different players think varies, but the common denominator seems to be thinking…every single time!
If you are experiencing a period of plateau or slump your brain loves to book mark this fact. It loves to keep reminding you of what is going wrong right now. In fact it’s basically pointing you in the direction of danger (“Warning, stop playing so bad”). In this state you tend to over-think.
The thoughts drip from your brain – “I can’t believe I’m playing this bad…if I keep on like this I’m going to be subbed…and then I’m going to be dropped…I’ll never get back in the team…” And so it goes on.
Historically, when working at academies and with development squads I’ve found that young players tend to over-think. They’re worried and concerned about their future. They’re consumed by what the coach might think of them, and what the coach might have planned for them. If they make a mistake they suffer from a tidal wave of thought.
Stop over-thinking. Stop worrying. If you find yourself thinking too much about your game then STOP. Say STOP to yourself or see a STOP sign. Then SHIFT. SHIFT by focusing on positive body language. Shift by paying attention to the game right now. Shift by concentrating on your role and the responsibilities in your role.
There are so many things to shift to. Players get into a slump because they don’t shift. They don’t have that flexibility of attention and flexibility of thought. But it’s a skill and it can be learned. It can be improved.
But Don’t Under-Think
Soccer players who never think about their game outside of training have just as poor psychology. An ambitious player needs some game analysis. An ambitious player needs some time to reinforce strengths.
Take a little time, say 15 minutes, every day to think about your best games and your dream games. That’s great soccer psychology. Make these images big and bold and bright. In your mind produce your personal highlights reel and enjoy re-playing outstanding again and again.
This works neurologically. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination. When you imagine your dream game, your brain actually thinks it’s happening.
So by replaying your very best games or by imagining your dream game you create the perfect blueprint or the perfect template for you to go and reproduce what your brain has primed on a daily basis.
Commit to this process every day. Olympic champions do this. The best tennis players and golf pro’s do this.
You can under-think on the pitch too. Soccer is a game of problem solving. There’s no point doing the same things time and again when you’re getting beaten in a personal battle. Change things – and to change things you have to think. You have to strategize.
It was Xavi Hernandes who says he likes to “Think, think, think” on the pitch. He’s constantly looking for space, constantly thinking about the next move and next play. He doesn’t over-think the game, he hits that sweet-spot between thinking and doing.
Think Process, not Outcome
When you do take a little time to think about your game, make sure you’re envisioning the responsibilities within your role.
The idea of imagining yourself playing for Manchester United or lifting the World Cup to my mind is pop psychology. It’s pseudo-science. This form of thinking (or visualisation if we’re going to use a technical term) won’t really make a difference.
What does make an impact is spending a little time breaking down all the plays in your game and imagining yourself executing them with excellence. What does make an impact is thinking about the runs you want to make, the movement you want to have, the shots you want to get away, the tackles you want to win, the space you want to find or to fill and the kind of team mate you want to be.
That is outstanding sport psychology and that is incredible soccer psychology.