Your team is 1 goal down at 87th minute and you get a free kick, what is your next move going to be? How are you going to get past that wall? How are you going to score the winning goal and take this home? Have you ever wondered what goes inside the heads of these players? What they are thinking? Forget the numerous fans cheering you on; forget that there are 80,000 eyes on you. Focus, concentrate, and shut it all out. Well, it’s not so easy. The pressure that one feels in that moment can break you down and make you miss your target. And boom, it’s over.
It’s mildly terrifying to contemplate what kinds of thoughts swirl around the mind of an average Premier League footballer at any given moment. Footballers aren’t exactly famed for their intelligence off the pitch, yet their mental skills during the heat of competition are, by and large, something to behold.
For some, the gift of confidence and calm comes just naturally to them. But for others, they have to be trained. Just like how they work out at the gym to gain their strength and muscle or perfect their free kicks. These players now work with sports psychologists, who teach players a range of mental tools and techniques, from positive self-talk and anger management mechanisms to mood triggers and rapid refocusing skills. These intangible psychological weapons aren’t visible to the television cameras or the fans in the stands, but their impact certainly is.
Many of the methods are grounded in cutting-edge science. Owing to improvements in neuroscience and technology, it is known that the key to elite performance is the in pre-frontal lobe. “This lobe is responsible for planning and organizing incoming information,” explains Vardayini Chitale, a leading sports psychologist, who has worked with young performers in the field of tennis, badminton, swimming, cricket and football. “Mental toughness means having an unshakeable belief that you can do something and stay focused in the biggest of moments.” Vardayini believes that it is extremely important to understand an athlete first based on their personality and motivation to react to the situation in the sport.
According to a study published by the Journal of Sport Behaviour in 2010, self-talk really does make a difference. The study showed that the introduction of psychological skills, such as self-talk at half-time improved the performance of midfield players in the second half in at least two of the three performance components measured (passing, first touch and tackling).
Mugdha Bavare, a swimmer at the international level, is a practicing sports psychologist and has helped many IPL and Ranji players improve their performances and reach their seltrue potential. She explains the relationship between anxiety and performance using the Catastrophe Model – Zones of Optimal Functioning. She also suggests relaxation techniques and imagery that can be used to manage stress.
Many footballers also use memorised keywords to conjure appropriate mindsets. A player vulnerable to anger might say ‘ice’ on the pitch to remind himself to stay in control when things get heated. Your brain finds it much easier to handle one evocative image than complex processes. Reactions can only take a split second to get out of control, so speed is crucial.
Even body language can be harnessed to project a positive frame of mind and elevate confidence. “Your physiology is linked to your mental state. If you have your head down and shoulders slumped, your brain chemistry changes for the worse. Holding your head up keeps your brain alert. It’s why managers often look at body language to decide on substitutions,”
Players are often asked to focus on three things; they usually have to be the things you can control. A striker can’t control goals but he can control his movement, energy, and the quality of his strikes. It sounds simplistic but it’s about using the machinery of the brain in the right way.
Psychological skill training is as important as physical training. The myths that it is meant only for elite athletes or it provides quick fix situations need to be broken. PST needs to run side by side with physical training. Thus, to get to the top, you need to master the art of controlling your mind.
Priyal Parekh is a handpicked product of the Bayside Pathfinder where we empower the young and the young at heart with the power of storytelling. To become a part of our extended family of unique contributors, call up Prem Madnani at +91 9892913788 or email him on [email protected].