Playing Brilliant Football – A Sport Psychologist's Guide


Playing Brilliant Football – A Sport Psychologist's Guide

What are the key ingredients for a brilliant footballing performance? How do the world’s best footballers continue to break down barriers and push themselves to heights never reached before? With the World Cup coming up in Russia, this blog takes a look at 9 ways you can take your football to the next level. 

These psychological and physical attributes have been selected from international football research. Empirical evidence has shown that elite athletes use these techniques to deliver peak performance consistently. What’s more, you can do the same as well.

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness in football can be described as the ability to positively respond to setbacks, poor performances, adverse situations and extreme pressure. In a study examining the characteristics of elite sporting performers (including footballers), mentally tough athletes were seen to have a strong desire to succeed accompanied by an ability to get themselves out of difficult situations. For example, after making a mistake, rather than hiding they still wanted to get the ball. 

Deliberate Practice

In a study examining elite youth footballers in England, players who engaged in extra deliberate practice were significantly more likely to obtain professional contracts than players who did not. In the Bundesliga however, Germany internationals were seen to only engage in full-time deliberate practice after the age of 20. Germany have one of most successful international football teams in the world. Could this be down to later sport specific specialisation? When you practice, rather than how much you practice could be the key. Our blog on 8 ways to maximise training looks at deliberate practice in more detail.

Relative Age Effect

In a study examining the birthdays of elite footballers, an overrepresentation of players born in the first half of the ‘academic’ year was observed in professional football. According to the FA, 57% of players at Premier League academies were born between September and December, while 14% had their birthday between May and August. In relation to the current England World Cup squad, players like Rashford, Sterling, Vardy, Maguire, Dier, Loftus-Cheek, Delph, Alexander-Arnold, Butland, Cahill, Jones, Welbeck, Pickford, Pope and Trippier are all born during this time. That’s 15 out of a possible 23.

Tactical Knowledge (Football Brain)

When players are deemed to have a ‘football brain’, you automatically think of players that control the game, make the right passes and look comfortable in possession. Tactical skills are seen to be a major determinant of later success in football. Research analysing over 100 elite level footballers’ tactical skills showed that the most successful players excelled in 2 key areas, decision making and positioning. Basically, pay attention to your coaches tactics.

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Sleep

Sleep is essential to reach your optimum psychological performance. With the correct sleep, footballers are now improving their reaction times, decision making processes and their power. A study examining the impact of sleep on recovery in elite footballers highlights how  sleep deprivation may lead to impaired muscle damage repair and muscle glycogen repletion. Psychologically, sleep has the ability to improve cognitive functioning and reduce the likelihood of mental fatigue.  Research has also suggested that you can even sleep your way to success.

Motivation

Different players are motivated by different goals. Some players are motivated by being the best, whilst other players are motivated by helping the team through hard work. Research has shown that players who are motivated by being better than their peers commonly have high-levels of self-belief and hold high social statuses, whereas players who focus more on what they can offer the team will improve their technique and skill specialisation. A successful player will be motivated by both these focuses, a great way of emphasising this point is through the growth mindset.

Playing with confidence

Whilst identifying successful footballers, confidence has been seen to be one of the key distinguishing factors. Research has shown that elite youth footballers gained the most confidence from reflecting on past experiences of overcoming adversity or the mastery of a skill. When footballers play with confidence they often want to receive the ball and try things they normally wouldn’t. This is also seen as a key part of developing resilience. Our blog looks further into how we can build self-confidence.

Coping with stress

In high profile football, coping with stress is a compulsory requirement for success. For sporting events like the upcoming World Cup, players will have to develop a range of different psychological strategies to deal with having the weight of a nation on their shoulders. During the Women’s 1999 World Cup, a study found that players coped with stress most commonly by using their social network, reflecting, understanding their individual situation and ignoring unhelpful information. Read our blog on stress management to find out more.

Pre-performance routines

Before a football competition players can start to feel what’s commonly described as having “butterflies in their stomach”. But what can be done about this? Research has suggested that having a pre-performance routine can help settle nerves before a match. These kinds of routines can reduce experiences of anxiety by organising helpful thoughts and actions into a systematic order. This can then provide the footballer with the ideal mindset to perform well. Why not prepare with our blog on what to think about the night before a match?

Final Thought

In this blog our sport psychologists have provided a recipe that includes all of the essential ingredients for brilliant football. Covering topics like mental toughness, the correct types of practice and even how your sleep can help you achieve more. Football is a complex and extremely demanding sport; however, the best footballers have been able to master these different skills to produce some fantastic football. With some extra work on and off the pitch, you will be able to do the same.

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