“I could play single-handedly against 11 players and win. I believe in myself … no matter what the situation, I always think I have a chance of winning.” (Erik Cantona)
“Bobby told me privately, ‘you do realize you’ll be playing against the best midfielder in the world.’ By which he meant Lothar Matthaus. I said ‘No, Bobby, you’ve got it wrong. He is.'” (Paul Gascoigne)
“If I had had more self-confidence, I would have been a better player” (Kenny Dalglish)
Confidence is your level of belief that you can achieve something. It can be as simple as walking up the stairs or as daunting as riding a unicycle across Niagara Falls. To my son, the concept of walking up the stairs can take a lot of self belief. If he fails, he is likely to fall and hurt himself. As an observer, I also have to have confidence in him, to allow him to do it without my support. The coach is often put in this role in the game: can you trust that player to do that job for you? So we can distinguish between trust in yourself and trust in others, but if either is missing your team will struggle.
One of the better descriptions of self-confidence is as a cup full of water. Over time you can gradually pour more water into the cup, increasing your confidence. This might happen when you learn new skills or get positive feedback from someone. At the bottom of the cup there are small holes, leaking the water out on to the floor. Each time you suffer a setback or someone criticizes you, another hole could get added to the cup. As a coach, we need to be careful to be putting more water in at the top of our players’ confidences than we remove from the bottom.
What Needs to Change
As coaches, we tend to communicate most to players about the things they can’t do or don’t do well. This leads to the player basing their entire confidence on their ability to perform a few tasks. When it becomes clear from the coach and other players that they are poor at heading the ball, they believe in turn that their entire game is now poor, even if they are the best tackler on the team.
“In his first few training sessions with Bergkamp, Wenger insisted the striker work on his strong points – his artistic side – rather than spending time trying to improve areas of his game that were not really in his nature.” (Xavier Rivoire)
The pie chart shows a player’s entire technical ability. The green area represents the skills that are working well for the player. The pink area is the parts that are not as good as they should be, and the orange area represents the problem areas. Although we want to work on the weaker areas, we need to encourage players to base their self belief on the larger green area.
A second important change is basing confidence on ability rather than results. As we have talked about in other sections, no matter how good you are, you cannot guarantee that your team will win. Other factors play a part in the result (the outcome) such as the other team, the referee, the spectators, the weather, and the field conditions. So if you have your perfect game and yet your team lose 2-1, is it right that you feel like you didn’t play very well? More importantly, is it right that your confidence should suffer until you next win a game? Similarly, if you have a terrible game and yet your team gets lucky, squeaking a victory with a dubious penalty in the last minute, should you increase your confidence?
“Confidence is very low. We need a win, just to get the club moving forward again, it’s been a long time. It gets to the players and everyone and takes confidence away.” (Kevin Keegan)
“Well, we won a derby on the road and that gives us a lot of confidence going forward in our season.” (Victor Manuel Vucetich)
I have literally dozens of quotes just like the two above. If you watch enough post-match interviews with coaches you can start to collect your own. They all say the same mistaken thing: that winning or losing controls confidence. Realistically it is always going to have some impact, but when the coach comes out and says it, now it takes center stage. We encourage you to do the opposite: congratulate the players and the team when they play well, not when they win. Often the two will overlap, but not always.
Fear of Failure
Related to always focusing on the outcome is being scared of making a mistake or losing the game before it has even happened. When the doubts come in, your ability goes out. As soon as you starting asking questions like “what if I miss this penalty” or “what will they say at school if we lose this game against our local rivals” your performance level goes down. The usual response is to take fewer risks; to play it safe to try to avoid making mistakes. This is like playing the game with weights on your shoulders. Where in practice you might have tried an amazing penetrating pass, in the game you choose to play it back to keep possession.
“You must dare to fail if you are to dare to succeed. If we are to be winners we must hate to lose, but we mustn’t suffer anxiety if we do.” (Sven-Goran Eriksson)
We encourage you and your players to focus on the process rather than the outcome. At the penalty kick you think about striking the ball, about placing it in the specific corner, about your controlled breathing and so on. Remember that in situations we want you to be in control. Where you can control the process, you cannot absolutely control the outcome.
The first step to improving your team is to have confidence in yourself. If you have that you can start to have confidence in others. We encourage you to be your own supporter. Talk to yourself (probably in your head is best…) about what you are doing well. Focus on strengths and things you did well in the game or practice. Be truthful and honest though. There is no point in lying to yourself. Repeat it over and over until it becomes programmed in there.
Next, write some of the statements down. Put them on Post-It notes and stick them on your mirror where you will see them every day. Record some on to your Ipod to listen to with music before your game. Find other ways to reinforce the messages in your head. In Soccer – The Mind Game the call it “adding more legs to your table” – with the table representing your self-confidence. Each time you add a new statement of something you do well, you strengthen the table and make it less and less likely to fall over.
As you all know, communication is almost entirely transmitted through body language and tone. Very little of it comes from the actual words. When you look down and dejected, others will see it and their trust in your ability will be affected. Soon the whole team feels it and performance suffers. When you exhibit strength and strong self-belief, others will feel that too. Think about eye contact when you talk to them, the gestures you use, how you are standing, and the tone of your voice. The goal is to transfer to them the feeling that you are absolutely sure you and they are great at what they do.
“There are plenty of players in football, like Jimmy Hill for example, who lack the ability of the great players, but who have bags of self-confidence … there are others, brim-full of natural talent, who are often fatally undermined by a lack of self-confidence.” (Terry Venables)
“[Martin O’Neill]’s got such massive belief. If you had to win 7-0 to go up, he’d go out there believing we could do it, or rather making damn sure every other bastard thought we could.” (Mick McGuire)