Football

Should football embrace sports psychology?

Balotelli has the mental strength to take penalties. (©GettyImages)
Balotelli has the mental strength to take penalties. (©GettyImages).

The key to football, as it is with most walks of life, is preparation. Making sure you are completely ready for the challenge can be difference winning and crumbling under the weight of pressure and expectation and being unsuccessful.

This is why footballers put in long, gruelling training sessions in the off-season to prime their bodies for the intense season ahead.

However, preparation is an exercise of both mind and body. It's all well and good being at the peak of physical fitness, but if you can’t get in the right mind-set to perform, there's not much point.

This is where the field of sports psychology comes into play. Sports psychology is the science of how people's behaviour affects their performance and how playing sport affects how sportsmen think.

Many psychological concepts transcend into football. Pressure, aggression and motivation all influence. Using a psychologist can help footballers control the pressure they're under and manipulate arousal levels to ensure they are the best frame if mind to play at their best.

The best teams and players are able to play under pressure. The effect of pressure can be seen when a player moves to a much bigger club and struggles to play at the same level they did at their old club, or how some teams get overawed and freeze when the play at big stadiums like Old Trafford or the Nou Camp.

A common situation where the pressure can get to teams or players is penalties. A professional footballer, someone whose job it is to kick a ball for a living, should not miss an 8'x13' target 12 yards away. Yet time and again, players send the ball into the stand rather than into the back of the net. Why does Chris Waddle et al. miss when it counts and players like Mario Balotelli make taking penalties look easier than breathing?

A trained sports psychologist will help control the footballer's perception of pressure. This is often done using imagery and visualisation techniques. These methods require the player to picture themselves succeeding in situations that have lots riding on them, such as penalties and crucial matches.

Using a sport psychologist has proved very productive in other sports. In 1997, the England cricket team brought in David Lloyd. It took a few years to get the players to change their mindsets, but ever since winning the Ashes in 2005 - beating Australia was a huge psychological barrier in itself - the team has moved from strength to strength. They play with confidence and the self-belief that they can win, regardless of the opposition.

The use of a psychologist can be used to help prepare footballers for life after football. Far too frequently, former players are speaking out about having suffered depression during their career or after retiring. Using a psychologist and counselling, clubs can help their players manage without the rush of football and stop them turning to alcohol or drugs to compensate for it.

The question is then, if the personnel and the techniques are available, and the use of psychologists has been shown to help teams and players in other sports, why don't all clubs employ a sports psychologist?

A lot of managers played in a bygone era, when football was more aggressive. Many of these figures in the game hold a belief that seeing a psychologist is a sign of weakness. This belief is still around today, as psychology has yet to fully penetrate football.

Another, more pragmatic reason why clubs don't use psychologists is that it can be a time consuming process. Everyone is different, players require different levels if arousal to play at their best. Some footballers need to be pumped up before going on to the pitch, while others need to be relaxed and calm before playing. Making sure each player has certain cues to follow to get him in their optimum mind-set can take a long time. Time that some managers feel would be better spent on the training ground.

Over the past 20 years, clubs have devoted more time on analysing performances and making sure tailored training sessions allow footballer's to peak at the right time. Now their bodies are in the right condition, it's time their mind's get in the best condition too.


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Topics:
Premier League
Football

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