A varsity soccer player heads the ball into the goal to put his team ahead by one. With more than 20 minutes to play, players on the team that is behind start to hang their heads. Their body language, slumped shoulders, a slow walk, and frustrated, angry expressions convey their temporary lack of resiliency. The speed with which they can bounce back from this setback holds the key to their success. Do they give in to their disappointment, let it turn to resignation, and ever-so-slightly decrease their efforts? Or do they use their anger to stoke the fires of competition and redouble their efforts to score and tie the game?
Psychology is beginning to unravel some of the mysteries around sports performance in general and around soccer in particular. This article discusses three recent findings in sports psychology and how they can be best applied to soccer.
Focus On Playing to Potential, Not Winning
For instance, players who make predictions about who will win the upcoming game enjoy the game less than those who do not. By predicting the outcome of the game, it creates the possibility of being incorrect and thus leads to the anticipation of regret. This anticipation of being wrong puts more pressure on the player to perform. As we know, too much pressure can push a player out of the zone (where performance is maximized) and into a subpar performance.
A better approach is that of nonattachment where players do not get overly attached to the idea of winning or losing. Soccer players can control one thing – their own play. By focusing the team on playing to their best individual and team potential, and decreasing focus on winning, the team plays more relaxed, more effective soccer.
Understand Your Players for Better Penalty Kicks
Another finding shows that some individuals look for potential gains in general and on the soccer field. Other people spend their efforts attempting to thwart negative outcomes. So one group looks to maximize gains, while the other group looks to minimize losses. Soccer coaches can identify this tendency in individual players and use it to fulfill their players’ potential. For example, when preparing players for penalty shootouts, coaches can talk to players who look to maximize gains (usually the forwards and some midfielders) and tell them to focus on scoring. On the other hand, coaches can prep those who seek to minimize losses (usually the fullbacks) by telling them to focus on not missing the shot. These are individualized messages that can run through the shooter’s head while preparing to take the PK which will increase the probability of success during the shootout.
Use Mirror Neurons to Your Advantage
Finally, soccer players become better simply by watching world class players. There is a ‘mirror system’ in the human brain which responds to actions we watch, such as Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a goal with a heel kick or performing a scissor move. This system in the brain has been shown in brain scan studies to activate when the individual is viewing a sport or activity in which they participate. However, the mirror system does not activate for a dancer watching a soccer player. The mirror system only activates for individuals who have been trained in the particular sport being viewed. We have known for over 50 years that visualization is helpful in improving sports performance (beginning with slalom skiing back in the 1950’s). Science is just discovering that the brain also learns by observing experts. Although no muscle movement takes place in the observer, the brain acts as if the body is replicating the movements being made while watching Ronaldo. The same pattern of neurons fire when watching Ronaldo perform a bicycle kick as when the player him- or herself does a bicycle kick. The possibility exists that players can hone their skills during injuries by watching professional soccer games, highlights on YouTube of favorite players and attending live games.
There are a number of things that psychology can add to sport in general and soccer in particular. Try incorporating some of these suggestions in your play or coaching and see what results come. Above all, have fun. Soccer is first and foremost a game!