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How sports psychology and mental toughness training can get you playing the best soccer of your life. By Dr. Alan Goldberg.
He breaks off on a solo run up the sidelines that's marked goal all the way. His team is down one nil midway through the second half. He's the team's captain and their emotional and tactical leader. As he goes, so goes the team. Last year they won their Division II National Championships behind his brilliant, gutsy play. Playing the entire game with a painful bone spur, he led a dramatic, last second comeback to steal a win that sent the team into the Final Four. His Achilles heel, the one glaring weakness in his game, wasn't showing back then.
And now as he pushed the ball up the field the crowd collectively rose to their feet in anticipation. The coach had seen him like this before and liked what he saw. His brilliant, although somewhat inconsistent striker was playing loose and aggressive today.
(When you step onto the pitch, do you bring your whole game with you? Do you come to play soccer or are you playing tentatively because you've let the importance of the game get to you? Or maybe you're too focused on the size or skill level of the opponent or the fact that there are scouts in the stands.)
Coming in from the right wing the striker put a great move on the last defender leaving just the keeper between him and a much-needed score. The keeper came out to try to cut his angle off just as the striker let go a laser of a shot off his right foot. The ball rocketed towards the goal and seemed to have the goalie beat. The keeper then made a lunging, diving effort and miraculously got two fingers on the ball, barely deflecting it into the post and, with a "somebody-is-watching out-for-me bounce", luckily out of play. What a tough break! They were so close to tying the score. As play continued it was obvious that something had shifted. The striker seemed just a little less loose. He seemed to be pressing more, trying too hard. (Good soccer just happens. You can't play well by putting pressure on yourself to pay well. If you're trying out for varsity, ODP or a regional team and really want to be selected, then you have to relax and let the game come to you. Building up the importance of a match will rob you of your speed, quickness, skills and aggressiveness. Trying too hard in soccer is the game of diminishing return. That is, the harder you try, the worse you play!) He had told his coach after the game that he just couldn't believe that he had missed the shot. Sure the keeper may have gotten lucky, but that was no excuse! He just shouldn't have missed! Period! He expected more of himself…He demanded more. He was too good a player to not take advantage of such a great scoring opportunity.
Shortly after this missed goal he made an uncharacteristic mistake losing the ball on a poorly executed pass. This got him even more upset with himself and he started yelling at himself while the game went on. (Do you know that your physical game is always limited by your mental one? What kind of sports psychology skills do you possess? Do you know what your mental strengths and weaknesses are? Are you a mentally tough soccer player?)
One big mental trap that a lot of soccer players stumble into is the inability to deal with mistakes, bad breaks or lousy calls. If you can't quickly and gently let go of these in the course of play you'll mentally take yourself right out of the game. Carrying your mistakes around with you is the best strategy I know to get you to play crummy soccer. Dwelling on your mistakes while the game is going on is a big mental "no-no" that will hurt you and your team.
As the game progressed the striker was clearly a lesser force on the field. Because he was preoccupied with his mistakes and failure to score, he was out of the flow of the game. He stopped being vocal and he stopped being a positive leader. As a consequence, his team's offense began to sputter and the opponent's began to dominate the ball. Despite this, our striker couldn't stop mentally beating himself up! With 5 minutes to play the other team scored an insurance goal and went on to win.
So how important is your mental toughness and sports psychology to playing championship soccer? Plenty! As far as sports psychology goes it's quite simple. Given that you've paid your physical dues, are in good shape and have a decent technical & tactical knowledge of the game, the difference between you playing well or playing poorly is in between your ears!
Our hero in this story was clearly lacking two things: First, the ability to forgive himself. You will not play good soccer if you emotionally beat yourself up whenever you screw up. Doing that will only make you more tense and kill your confidence; Second, the ability to quickly return his focus to the game and the task at hand. To be mentally tough you must learn to discipline yourself to immediately refocus after mistakes or setbacks. "Reboundability" is a key mental toughness skill needed to keep your mind in the flow of the game. Understand there's a proper time and place to work on your mistakes and it's not during the game. Wait for practice to think about and work on your miscues.
Are you a mentally tough soccer player? Do you know how to stay calm and loose under pressure? Can you stay in control of your emotions and focused on the game even though your opponent is continually trash-talking, pulling at your jersey and playing dirty? Can you quickly bounce back from mistakes and bad calls? Can you maintain your intensity and confidence no matter how far down your team may be? Do you know what the mental traps are for soccer players and how to avoid them? How about mental preparation for big games? Do you know how to effectively use imagery and visualization to build confidence and enhance your play?
The techniques of applied sports psychology can help you take your soccer game to the next level. You'd never go into the season and leave your physical training to chance. So why leave your mental toughness up in the air. Start today to build your "mental muscles." Let the sports psychology work for you.
Dr. Alan Goldberg
As a sports psychology consultant Dr. Goldberg has worked with soccer teams at every level from professional right down to junior club competitors. He is an on-going consultant to the University of Connecticut Men soccer program. In addition, Dr. G has presented at the National Coaching Symposium at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and is a repeat presenter on sports psychology and mental toughness training at the annual meeting of the NSCAA, USYSA, AYSO as well as AGMs around the country. He has worked with US Soccer providing sports psychology training for coaches' licensing courses and has presented at numerous ODP camps nationwide. Dr. G is the author of Playing Out Of Your Mind (Reedswain pubs.)and The Psychology of Winning Soccer (4 tape mental toughness program with Star GoalKeeper's Dan Gaspar) and Sports Slump Busting, (Human Kinetics). In addition Dr. G writes for the NSCAA Soccer Journal and Soccer Jr.
Posted on 06 Jun 2006 by coachgianni