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Mental coaching in football

Article written by Manuel Dupuis, mental coach and sports psychologist
Manuel has been working since 2003 with high level footballers and young people, nationally and internationally, and clubs. He is also a trainer for the association of French-speaking football clubs (French-speaking wing of the Belgian Football Union).

Mental aspects in football

In football mental activity definitely plays an essential part. Technique, speed or game development are surely important, but only a good mental situation makes the display of the player's abilities possible. When we are self-confident we play better and we express more easily our potentialities and our level as reached in training. Tension makes us restrain our movements and we show nothing good.
Football is a mediatized sport, steeped in business and money, and many players, parents and leaders dream of success, sometimes in a climate close to madness and generating pressure. Pressure, which is often described by the footballer as necessary in order to excel and to reach top motivation, can also sometimes, prevent motivation for the action and generate inhibition and fear of doing wrong. What about the sometimes complicated climate between players who are supposed to work for the collective, where rivalry is declared to increase group motivation but who sometimes hope that a teammate will breakdown so that they can get into the game themselves... What about the behavior of parents of players who sometimes scream at the edge of the field. This is a kind of stress that paralyses the most talented young people. Really, football playing requires a strong mental

The mental coach: what for?

The mental coach is there first of all to make the footballer feel all right on the field, well in his element. Pleasure is the first key to success ... It helps the body releasing dopamine in the brain and displaying energy in the right way as to let the technique express itself, without being blocked by excessive muscular contractions. Pleasure is a source of motivation and expression of one’s potential. Most of the players will tell you that they played better and more liberated while having fun on the field.

Training the mental abilities of the players

The mental coach is in the first place concerned in the mental abilities of the players.
Apart from the importance of having fun, which is almost a moral duty for a mental worker, the mental coach puts forwards, together with the player, his (her)strong and weak sides such as, for example:

The ability to manage stress

A certain amount of stress, or physiological activation, is necessary for the player to become dynamic, but if it is too much, it causes muscular contractions which prevents from to playing correctly and technically (one can see that during sessions of shootings or also when a player (or sometimes the whole team) completely misses the match because of a too high pressure.

The ability to remain focused on action

We must remain focused on the important elements if we want to play correctly: the ball, the teammates, the opponents, the development of actions which we must be able to anticipate ... Simple? Not really, it is not uncommon for a player to leave the present moment by directing his attention for example to the referee, or to the previous phase, or to a player who irritates him. This is of no interest except that it makes you come out of the game. Learning to focus your attention on the course of the game throughout the encounter requires mental abilities of attention that can be useful to practise.

The importance of self-confidence

The feeling of self-confidence will give your body the signal to express all its potentialities, rather than to inhibit them. It’s essential that self-confidence should be trained if we want to exploit fully our technical and physical abilities.

Positive visualization capabilities

Being able to visualize technical and tactical success, but also positive attitudes on the field can promote performance. Visualization allows the activation of performance automatisms, which will be recorded by memory. Indeed, the brain does not differentiate between an imagined gesture and a real gesture ... Before a match, it prepares the body to act properly. Top performers have higher positive visualization abilities than others.

Manage injury periods and practise mental imagery (visualizations)

Periods of injury sometimes leave room for inactivity and some psychological problems. Therefore, it is important to remain active and practise your technical gestures via visualization exercises.

The mind of the team

Besides individual factors, the team as a whole is also subject to complex dynamics, the main factors of which are:

  • Cohesion in the team

Paradoxically this aspect can be complicated in football, where individual needs can sometimes take too much importance which is deleterious for the performance of the team but also of individuals. Sharing common values, and working together (players, staff, coaches) towards a common goal, and spending informal moments together foster cohesion. The stability of the teams (especially that of the coach) promotes a sense of security and familiarity to the whole team, which most often has a positive impact on cohesion.

  • Staying in a "bubble" of work within the group team, while maintaining adequate contacts with an outside group (supporters, press, ...) is not so simple. It is for the group the ability to focus on its objectives and tasks without allowing the outside world to catch its attention.

  • Positive and effective communication

  • Managing defeats and loss of confidence

Some periods are difficult. In football, it can lead to a real crisis and the loss of confidence can sometimes extend to the group.

  • ...

Steps of individual coaching

After having identified with the player his** strong points and his weak points**, the mental coach will fix with him objectives. For example: to learn how to use the pressure of important games to develop fighting spirit, to gain confidence before a game, or to increase the ability to concentrate.

Then he will draw from his previous experiences some resources, tools and rituals that can be trained and strengthened so that they can become effective again. He will propose specific techniques, such as mental visualization, behavioral approach, meditation or sophrology to take just a few examples. Each player has his own functioning: the mental coach will have to find the method that suits you the best.

Here is the classic pattern of mental preparation:

1/ Analysis of your needs and fixing goals

This is a very important step, because it's about determining on which points you need to work. Very often, but not always, we go then through a self-assessment of our mental abilities (concentration, self-confidence, stress management, motivation, combativeness, management of competition and important moments , ...)

2 / Mental training: strengthening your strong points and improving your weak points

We decide to work on specific aspects, such as increasing motivation and self-confidence, and changing some skills that have some influence on your performance, such as concentration, stress management, or combativeness.

3 / Preparation for the competition

  • You integrate your techniques into your pre-competitive routines in order to get mentally ready for competition

  • You integrate tools to manage particular moments in competition (example: important moments, dead times, ...)

4 / Evaluation

You evaluate with the coach the progress you made, in particular on the basis of pre-defined criteria

Mental coaching in the club

The mental coach who intervenes in a club can work only if he is in a close relationship with the club coach, who knows his players well and who has his own goals. Several elements are therefore essential to come to a positive and effective collaboration:

  • The mental coach meets the coach and sees to what extent he can help and offer opportunities for collaboration
  • He defines with him areas of work at the collective and individual level
  • He plans interventions with the players and with the team in collaboration with the team coach and the rest of the staff, for example
  • working in group sessions on mental abilities such as self-confidence, relaxation, management of positive and negative spirals, ...
  • making possible for players to visualize tactical plans proposed by the coach
  • working individually with a player on a mental aspect (eg self-confidence) or a technical aspect (in visualization)
  • working with the coach group cohesion strategies
  • ...

The choice of the type of work is defined according to the situation and after a meeting with the coach and the leaders.

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