Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Helping the Brain to Win Games
When Alex Ferguson starts talking about opponents, he does so in order to unsettle them and it usually works. Everywhere he has been, Jose Mourinho has projected himself as the undiscussed leader, thus serving as a lightning rod for any criticism - which he is more than capable of handling - and shielding his player from having to spend any energy dealing with it. Zlatan Ibrahimovic talks about himself in the first person because it reinforces his (already quite large) belief in his own abilities.
These subtle mental tricks don't fall within the common attributes one would normally require of football managers (tactics, ability to buy and develop good players) or player (strength, technique) yet without them these three individuals wouldn't be anywhere as successful as they are. What's more, everyone accepts that this is what helps make them so special.
Yet far too often players' mental strength is often, at best, a secondary consideration. Even worse, any talk of bringing in someone specialised to help is frowned upon because of the misplaced belief that it would equate to an admission of weakness.
A few players (although the number is rising) go against the flow in their search for the edge. Among these players is Carlton Cole who turned to Dan Abrahams for help and thanks to this assistance went from being a West Ham reserve to an England international in the space of eighteen months. Anthony Stokes did the same and in doing so put his career back on track with a million pound move to Celtic.
"I think that it is growing but it is not greatly prevalent," he answers when asked about the prevalence of sports psychology in football. "It is the bottom of the wishlist for clubs and also probably at the bottom of the wishlist for player. Yet we talk how important the psychological side is in football so there is a bit of a disconnection."
How did you start in sports psychology?
I was a professional golfer but I really wasn't a good professional golfer! That was largely down to my mindset. I didn't have the right tools. I worked my backside off but didn’t know how to practice effectively, build my belief and confidence, focus correctly and perform freely under pressure. After my dismal playing career I moved onto coaching and it was when I was helping others that I really fell in love with the brain, mindset and performance psychology. So I headed for University and completed 2 degrees in psychology.
What have your experiences been so far and how did you end up in football?
I've had some positive experiences. My leading case study has been working with Carlton Cole who moved from the reserves to an England international during my time with him. I've also helped other players in the Premier League. So far, I've really enjoyed it.
How prevalent is sport psychology in football?
I think that it is growing but it is not greatly prevalent. It is the bottom of the wishlist for clubs and also probably at the bottom of the wishlist for player. Yet we talk how important the psychological side is in football so there is a bit of a disconnection. However, I always say that is the fault of psychology rather than football. We need to deliver tools that are specific to football and market psychology better. There need to be be better football specific qualifications.
Has the success of British cycling had an impact in making sports psychology more accepted? Or is it seen as something that isn't effective in team sports?
Any success in a British sports has got to help. Case in point is that Brendan Rodgers has brought in Steve Peters, who has been very effective for British cycling, at Liverpool. However, I don't think that there has been a paradigm shift.
Would you agree that what distinguishes good from great managers is the ability to manipulate and boost the mental state of his players?
All managers do psychology within their role and some are better than other. A key factor is the culture they develop within their club. If you look at the leading managers - Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger - they've developed different cultures but also sound cultures that help develop their team and their commitment. They've built a culture of success and achievement.
What are the basic things any coach should know?
Let's be clear that I'm not a football coach and that their strength lies in the technical and tactical side of thing. However, what I always believe is that a coach must be creative and to do so they must seek as much information as possible in the four major areas; technical ability, tactical ability, physical conditioning, and psychological strength.
A coach must understand the physical talent but what is often overlooked is mental talent. The kids that are naturally gifted in terms of concentration, discipline dedication, that is something important that is often ignored.
The other thing is being a 1 percenter: I want them to leave no stone un-turned. Find all the 1% shifts you can to help your players excel.
There is a trend to remove competitiveness in youth football but, at the same time, you want kids to develop a winning mentality. Can the two be reconciled? Indeed, can a winning mentality be taught?
I think it can. It is an art; it is not black and white. First kids want to have fun, they want to play with mates and they want to play football. It has to develop around fun; develop a learning environment and then bring in an element of competition. This is pretty much the way English football is taking things and I'm a big supporter of that.
Can you help children develop a winning mentality? Yes, absolutely.
You have to remember in football there is a paradox in that to win you have to focus away from winning and shift it to the things that will help you to win. That is a process. It is about helping define what success looks like. That is not about winning. It is a complex landscape. It is the craft in coaching and to be able to develop skills in a climate of fun.
At what age should elements of sport psychology be introduced?
I've always said that you need sports psychology from the outset but my personal opinion that between 6 to 12 it is up to the coaching staff. From 12 plus if the academy and football club has the resources then there should be a soft introduction. The real world is that clubs often cannot afford that. We have to offer ourselves as sports psychologists so that we are seen to be as important as the other sciences involved in football.
Where does having a strong mental disposition rank when compared to most common measures of a players ability like talent, speed, technique?
I don't think that you can put percentages. What I always say is that they are inextricably link between development, performance and psychology. Learning is done in the brain and therefor development is underpinned by psychology. Similarly, performance is underpinned by mental attitudes. If a player is not confident when they're going on to the pitch they're not going to look up to pass the ball, they're not going to look to receive a pass, they're not going to execute what they've been asked to do and their focus, their intensity, won't be there . Therefore development and performance are underpinned by psychology.
Let's say that you have a player who is talented but struggles to perform when there is pressure: what do you do?
Again that two forms of talent physical and mental. Both of those can be developed. If you have a player who has physical talent but who isn't performing, my advice is to sit down with that player and talk to them. It does very much depend on what that players is suffering from. If it is lack of motivation you need to get to the heart of why they do what they are doing, what they want to achieve that. You want to get behind the main issues.
Yet the approach changes according to what the issue is. That is why it is important that the coach understand the psychology of players. Too many coaches say that they have players that have lots of physical talent but 'he doesn't want it' and there's nothing that can be done. That is rubbish. Of course something can be done. This is where I get back to seeking that no stone is left un-turned. Going to FA modules, reading books like mine can help you get a better understanding. But don't just stop there, put into practice what you read.
Similarly, what should a coach do if his team struggles in the final few minutes?
It is about spending time in training communicating with the players. Getting from the players what is happening. If you're getting to the final 10 mins and conceding goals talk to them to extract from the players the reasons. Ask them "what do you guys think is happening and what do we have to do as a team have to do to manage our mindset?".
I've recently been in a Championship side where something similar was happening. The players said "we're not staying on top of our intensity and the focus drops off". It is about asking the right questions, get the answers from them. The players will tell you and then it is up to you to come up with the team script. If you're struggling in final ten minutes because you lack intensity then make it a team goal for final minutes retain relentless intensity. On the 75th minute you can communicate that message from the side of the ptich. Doing this is a much more effective thing for team building then nights out
What led you to write Soccer Tough?
Going back to the need of psychology to be better at speaking the language of footballers and developing tools for them, my mission is to demystify psychology. I had a number of fairly high profile players and got the permission from them to write their story. However, I also wanted to get away from the language normally used by psychology books and to try to be engaging be inspirational and aspirational to bring in tools and techniques. I wanted to give footballers from all levels tangible techniques to be able to perform better written and delivered in a real world style. Soccer Tough is regularly the number 1 soccer coaching book in the United States and about to be translated to Spanish.
You also mentioned writing another book: what will that be about?
That one is tentatively titled 'Soccer Brain' and will be specifically for coaches. It will deal with the culture that coaches need to create to help players develop and perform more consistently. It is based on the five cultures: creative, confidence, commitment, cohesion and caring. My thesis is that if you create these cultures then you will develop players quicker.
More information about Dan Abrahams can be obtained by visiting his site or following him on Twitter. If you want to learn more about psychology in football, Soccer Tough (Kindle edition here) is one of the best resources you could possibly find.
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Image: Flickr / Steven Depolo