“Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead. The pressure had got to him and he couldn’t stop crying. “If anything, it got worse because, at about four o’clock, he started being sick. That’s when I called the team doctor and told him to get over to our room as fast as he could.” (Roberto Carlos)
“The greater our fear of making a mistake, the greater the likelihood that we will make a mistake.” (Sven Goran Eriksson)
Pressure provides both positive and negative aspects for you coaching and the performance of your players. Without any pressure, players often are not motivated to perform at their highest levels; they might go through the motions, playing the game but not trying their hardest. With too much pressure, players become scared to do anything in case they make a mistake. Some will try to avoid going to the game entirely, creating illnesses or any other excuse to keep them away from it. The key then is to find the right balance, at the point where we are motivated, but still in control of our actions.
The graph on the right shows how an imaginary player performs at different stress levels. For every player, this point is different. Some need a lot of motivation to play hard, others need hardly any at all. Some become frozen with fear with very little stress; some can play through almost anything. It is important that you as a coach recognize which players are which on your team and try to help them accordingly. When you have worked out their levels, you also need to know how best to motivate or calm them.
Symptoms of feeling nervous can include butterflies, feeling tense, yawning, feeling sick, restlessness, increased heart rate, and increase breathing. Notice that yawning is a common symptom. Have you ever been in a pre-game team talk and seen players yawning? Without understanding why the players are doing it, you might think they are bored, or unmotivated when really it is quite the opposite. Most of the symptoms will go away as soon as the game starts, as long as the player has not become overwhelmed by it. If you see these signs and they begin to look more serious, your job is to calm and reassure the player.
Some players will worry about mistakes they have made in the past, others will focus on things they imagine could go wrong in the future. Neither are helpful. Focusing on past mistakes will only serve to reinforce their belief that something will go wrong in the future. Equally, if we spend the whole time worrying about what might go wrong in the future, we will not enjoy what is happening now, and could well subconsciously engineer the future so that what we fear actually happens.
How to Help
One way you can help is to switch the words in the players’ heads to something more positive. For example, changing“feeling like this can’t be good, I’ll never play well” into “most people feel like this. I bet I can handle it better than them.” Ask the players what they are saying in their head and see if you can help to redirect it somewhere more positive.
Remember that the mind is just like the body in that it needs to be trained. You can work with players over time to help them deal with pressure by recreating high pressure moments (through visualization) and helping players control them. You can also give them the chance to deal with the real pressure moments (e.g. who do you choose to take the penalty kick in the game).
Another way is to use the 7 Second Control Plan suggested by Soccer – The Mind Game. This three step process helps players to take back control of their thoughts in just seven seconds. Step one is to slow down. Generally when we panic we speed up our thoughts and actions. Our breathing gets faster and we jump all over the place with what we are thinking about. By slowing down we take back control of our bodies. Step two is to take two deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. This relaxes the upper body and again confirms that you are in charge. Finally, step three is to focus your thoughts back onto what is happening right now, not the past or the future. What do you do next to get ready for the game?
It is important for all players to have a routine that works for them for preparing for games. Some need very little and others need something that can take several hours. Some need everything to be in a set order, others can vary the routine week by week. Challenge your players to try different things and rate their game performance. When they find the routine that gave them the best game, they are getting closer to the routine that is best for them.
One element that players often use is music. Players should find out what kind of music they like – whether it is loud, fast, with motivational lyrics, soothing, happy, calming, or whatever. Some just use it to block out the comments of parents in the car ride to the game, others genuinely enjoy and benefit from listening to the songs.
A second element to bring in is activating reminders. Encourage players to write a list of positive messages that will build their confidence every time they read them. The messages can relate to things they have done well in the past (e.g. “I was the top tackler on the team last year, with 75% success rate), things they will do well today (e.g. “let’s do it! Dominate from the first tackle”), or even positive goals (e.g. “I am going to work hard to get to my goal of 80% tackle success rate today).
The most important step of all is making sure that players (and coaches) know how to switch off and relax. When a game is over, they need to be able to get away from what happened and focus on other things in their lives. Find out from your players how long it takes them to recover from a game: when they are able to go out and enjoy themselves etc. For some players it will be right away and for others it might be several days. For the latter ones it is important that you help them to learn to detach themselves from the stress. One way is to develop a routine for relaxation after games. This could be taking a long bath with music and all the fancy bath products they can find, or it could be as simple as sitting in a comfortable chair and clearing your mind. Again, encourage players to find out what works for them and to use it when they need it.