Following my last blog on motivation in the lower leagues I’ve coincidentally found myself watching a lot of documentaries about those at the top of their sport. Your stars such as Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer, Anthony Joshua and the Juventus first team squad. From these insights into the top guns of their respective sports, one thing consistently stood out – the unwavering strength of their mentality. Anything that their sport throws at them, they seem to have the psychological resolve to overcome it. A solution to get the job done. It got me thinking that whilst a strong mentality can be paramount to success in all walks of life, I would argue this is even more the case with professional sport – even in the depths of the lower leagues of Scotland.
I have played and trained with players who can manipulate a football to an incredible level, are physically fit and on the face of things have every attribute to be a top level footballer. Yet one thing is missing – a strong mentality. Their lack of resilience, perseverance and drive becomes ever so evident as soon as soon as the going gets tough. Despite their talents they can hide, become defeatist and huffy and they can drop out of the game. There’s a reason why these players can find themselves sharing a dressing room with the Danny Denholms of this world and not the Scott Browns, and I believe their psychological makeup is certainly a contributing factor.
On the other hand, I have also encountered the polar opposite. Those who can’t trap a bag of cement, are physically average, slow and have a build more like an office manager than a footballer; yet they have an unwavering psychological mindset. They are your six or seven out of tens in the papers, reliable, consistent and can handle the pressure. I personally like to bracket these players as “Ross Tokelys”. A player who may look aesthetically out of place, yet their mindset alone can contribute heavily to a clean sheet. I have played with many Tokelys over my years and, generally speaking, these are the kind of guys who can have a real positive impact on the overall psychology of a team. You know you can trust this teammate but at the same time I find myself asking how did he become so mentally strong?
I believe a strong mentality is easier to nurture in child and teenage years. People have to face problem solving situations which demand perseverance, resilience and reliability. I believe with each one of these challenging experiences, the mentality will improve. This has been my experience with working with younger people, however it is purely anecdotal and there is a good chance that I’m talking out my erse. From my own childhood experience, I found school easy and rarely bumped into any problems in or out of the classroom, which probably explains why my adult instinct is to avoid problems at all costs. I think I would bin all my values and principles in order to avoid confrontation, which isn’t always ideal for the on-pitch environment.
The extent to how much an individual’s psychology can be strengthened in our adult years is debateable. At university, in between playing Fifa, Football manager and getting constant humiliating knockbacks from girls; I used to attend the odd class. I remember in a lecture theatre dozing in an out of a lesson on sport psychology when the tutor mentioned that working on your mentality can lead to a 1% improvement in your performance… 1%? Is that it? It left me thinking, well what’s the point?
However, the British Olympic cycling squad boasted that this technique was their key to success – reaping virtually every gold medal possible at the time. The team boss was Sir Dave Brailsford and he would always talk about marginal gains. Basically that improving every facet of your training, approach and mentality by just small percentages would lead to wide scale improvements. His team allegedly may have gained larger gains from the odd performing enhancing drug but let’s gloss over this detail for now… Maybe there is something in it?
We know that this emphasis on psychology is something well established in the sporting elite however the difficulty becomes in how this can be applied in the lower leagues of Scotland. With time between games at such a premium you just aren’t going to make part time players sit through an hour of time with a psychologist. The phrase “time is of the essence” will never ring truer than in the life of a part time footballer… good luck finding the time! It is not the priority and if you are forcing it down the player’s necks it will likely not go down too well either. It will bring out the stubbornness and defensiveness of many and would disillusion others. I have been in dressing rooms where this has been tried and it has been widely ridiculed by players.
I think players who are interested in this sort of thing should do it in their own time. The lower leagues are a cut throat business with a plethora of similarly levelled footballers competing for that next 1 year deal to keep their career going. It is imperative that you are strong between the ears otherwise you will end up out the game and thinking what could have been. If you don’t have the resilience – you will not last long.
Perhaps across the lower leagues the most pragmatic way to improve a player’s mentality is through a more informal or indirect type of psychology. A good manager and player will use psychology indirectly to get the best out of their players and teammates. They will recognise which player needs an arm round the shoulder, a talking to, ignored, or who needs banned from Lucozade and Macaroni Pies (Answer to that last one is Iain “Yano” Campbell if you weren’t sure). They will notice who needs motivated, relaxed, and who needs to be reassured. In my opinion, knowing your players and teammates and using this informal psychology is the way to tackle it.
I’ve also had managers use disguised psychology techniques on me. When I found myself out of the team last year I plucked up the courage to plead my case to the gaffer and had prepared in my head several times how I was going to approach this, with little thought given to any potential curveballs. I will leave you with as close to a transcript as you will get:
Me: “Gaffer, we have lost a couple of games and I feel I am not getting a proper chanceI’ve scored goals when I’ve played and felt I have contributed to the team. I can’t see why I’ve been dropped.”
Gaffer: “I’m glad you’ve came to speak to me, it shows the trust we have.”
Me: “Thanks gaffer”
Gaffer: “Anyway the reason you aren’t playing is because you’ve been pish son.”
Case closed… or so I thought. Saturday comes and surprisingly I find myself in the starting eleven. The game goes well and I manage to play half decent and score in a 2-0 win. Training arrives on Monday and I make my way to the training pitch where the gaffer is standing with a huge smile on his face. He power walks over arms aloft belting out,
“Reverse psychology ya cyant!!!”
I think I would have preferred an arm round the shoulder.