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How to Use the Latest in Sports Psychology to Improve Your Soccer Game
A varsity soccer player heads the ball into the goal to put his team up by one. With more than 20 minutes to play, players from the trailing team are starting to hang their heads. Their body language, slumped shoulders, a slow walk and frustrated, angry expressions convey their temporary lack of resilience. 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 into resignation and reduce their efforts somewhat? Or do they use their anger to fuel the fires of competition and redouble their efforts to score and tie the game?
Psychology is beginning to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding sports performance in general and soccer in particular. This article discusses three recent findings in sports psychology and how they can best be applied to soccer.
Focus on playing to potential, not winning
For example, 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 wrong 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 detachment where players don’t get too attached to the idea of winning or losing. Football players can control one thing – their own game. By focusing the team on playing to their best individual and team potential, and reducing the focus on winning, the team plays more relaxed, more effective football.
Understand your players for better penalties
Another finding shows that some individuals seek potential gains in general and on the football field. Other people spend their efforts to thwart negative outcomes. So one group tries to maximize profits, while the other group tries to minimize losses. Soccer coaches can identify this tendency in individual players and use it to realize their players’ potential. For example, when preparing players for penalties, coaches can talk to players trying to maximize gains (usually the forwards and some midfielders) and tell them to focus on scoring. On the other hand, coaches can prepare those trying to minimize turnovers (usually the fullbacks) by telling them to focus on not missing the shot. It is individualized messages that can run through the shooter’s head as he prepares to take the PK that will increase the likelihood of success during the shootout.
Use mirror neurons to your advantage
Finally, soccer players get better simply by watching world class players. There is a ‘mirror system’ in the human brain that 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 watches a sport or activity in which they participate. However, the mirror system is not activated for a dancer watching a soccer player. The mirror system only activates for individuals trained in the specific sport being watched. We’ve known for over 50 years that visualization is useful for improving sports performance (starting with slalom skiing back in the 1950s). Science is just discovering that the brain also learns by observing experts. Although no muscle movement occurs in the observer, the brain acts as if the body is repeating the movements made while watching Ronaldo. The same pattern of neurons that fire when he watches Ronaldo perform a bicycle kick as when the player himself does a bicycle kick. The possibility exists that players can hone their skills during injuries by watching professional football games, YouTube highlights of favorite players and attending live matches.
There are a number of things that psychology can add to sport in general and football in particular. Try incorporating some of these suggestions into your play or coaching and see what results come. Above all, to have fun. Soccer is first and foremost a game!
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