“He’s Good With His Head”

“He’s Good With His Head”
October 23, 2012 Daniel Rhodes
In Featured, Free, Talking Point

By Daniel Rhodes.

We’ve all seen Stewart Downing shrink before our very eyes, unsure of what decision to take next. At the same time, Raheem Sterling has burst on to the scene, full of energy, decisive and never letting his shoulders drop. Without specific reference to any particular Liverpool player, Dan Abrahams, a football psychology consultant who has worked with “a dozen professional clubs and hundreds of players over the past 10 years” will answer a series of questions, put to him by TTT’s very own Bob Pearce. A huge thanks to Bob for asking such intriguing questions and to Dan for taking the time to provide such fascinating answers. Like Bob said in his reply when I sent him Dan’s answers, it went “way, way beyond what I expected.”

Dan will also be available to answer any follow-up questions in the comments section.


How much is confidence in football a form of ‘Red Bull’?

By ‘Red Bull’ I assume you mean ‘intensity of performance.’ Your theory is “the more intense (up for it) I feel the more confident I will be?” There is a small amount of truth in that theory. As a football psychologist one of the things you are trying to help a footballer with is to find that mindset ‘sweetspot’ time and again. You work with them on a bunch of techniques wrapped in a match routine that helps them manage both their focus and confidence levels. This sounds simple but is not always easy to achieve. The human nervous system enjoys being inconsistent and some days it’s challenging for a footballer to ‘feel up for it.’

However, confidence is more complex than that. It’s founded on a series of great habits most of which aren’t related to ‘running around like a headless chicken.’ The more intense you are the more you suffer from tunnel vision. Your peripheral awareness lessens so your anticipation slows and so does your decision making. A healthy balance between confidence and focus, between intensity and relaxation is required on the pitch. When balanced you can play with game intelligence.

To help a player build confidence, they need to believe in the power of belief. Are you able to help a player if they don’t believe in belief?

I partly disagree with that notion. Confidence is a product of increasing belief, improving skill and building game knowledge. Football is both confidence AND competence (and the two entwine.) If I have a player who leans more toward skill and game knowledge then I frame my philosophies, techniques and discussions around those things. Ultimately skill and knowledge resides in the brain so these areas are both pertinent and relevant for me to work on with a player.

What impact can the visible signs of confidence have on an opponent?

It’s very individual-specific but there always going to be players who can’t cope with an opponent who overtly displays confidence or uses high levels of aggression. In a long term relationship with a player, I will at some stage start to speak to him or her about ways to change the emotional chemistry of the opposition. This might involve some overt sign of confidence. You want your opponent to start to release cortisol which is your stress hormone. When this kicks in their movement is suppressed, their awareness and vision becomes poor and their decisions slow. It can even damage their coordination. Simple things like a central defender being VERY loud could damage the confidence of a striker.

Do you ever give advice to coaches on the right tone of their feedback to particular players, depending on where they are confidence wise?

Tone and the language/words they use. Players have different needs, wants, values, expectations, beliefs, experiences, temperaments etc. Players deal with things in different ways. Some you can have a sharper, harder and louder tone with. Others need a softer, more understanding voice. The ‘hairdryer’ concept is simplicity to the point of banality (unless of course you don’t care about excellence as a coach). If you just scream at someone you can kill their confidence. And if someone wants to point at Sir Alex Ferguson – I would say he uses it sparingly and toward the appropriate players.

Is confidence like physical fitness – something to build and then requiring maintenance?

Frighteningly so yes. The great American soccer player Mia Hamm said “Confidence is like a bed. It has to be made everyday.” I have a system that helps players structure their thinking on and off the pitch that helps them manage their confidence. But it’s extraordinarily challenging for anyone. The brain has evolved to make it so. It enjoys a ‘negativity bias’ and is constantly appraising its environment every second of every day. That is the way the brain functions so that is how we function as people – irrespective of our standing in society and how much money we make.

“It’s all in your head!”

Many of us will watch a penalty shoot out and say ‘He’ll miss’ and ‘Certain to score’. Using your experience and understanding of psychology, how good are you at ‘reading’ penalty shoot outs?

Probably no better than anyone else. You can lack confidence but still score – the goalkeeper is a factor as well of course. I think everyone has an intuitive feel for who is confident or not when it comes to penalties. But whether a person scores depends on other factors.

Is there any evidence of a link between low confidence and injuries or injury recovery time?

There is a link between stress and injury. A player who is stressed releases cortisol and there are links between the release of this chemical and speed of injury rehabilitation. Essentially the more stressed a player is, the slower his or her recovery rate. Experience also tells us that a player that is not 100% confident in a challenge will most likely come out worse if there is a clash of bodies.

How much is down to habits, and the breaking and replacing of ‘bad’ habits?

Habits are just about everything because that’s how the brain likes to work – it enjoys patterns. I teach players how to break habits that are holding them back or improve upon the habits they already have. Remember, psychology is about using thought and behavioural strategies to change performance.

With worldwide audiences in the millions, mistakes and errors can be a potential source of extreme public humiliation. How do you advise players to deal with this awareness?

I teach them how to focus only on what they can control. They should be focusing on themselves in the present moment. They should be focusing on executing their role and responsibility and managing their mindset. That is all. This will include an awareness of what the opposition is doing but I don’t want them to dwell on that. They also need to be aware of their team mates and any instruction from the manager. But everything else is out of bounds – the crowd, the pitch, the referee etc. Things they can’t control and have no need to. No matter how good they are, some fans won’t like them for some reason valid or otherwise. You’ve chosen to be a professional footballer so deal with it and get on with your own game.

Some teams have players who seem to take on the role of ‘hero’. What impact does this have on others in their team?

Hopefully either no impact at all or pleasure in the fact they have a great player in their team. But that’s living in a perfect world and of course there is a lot of politics that goes on behind closed doors at clubs between players. It’s more of an individual sport than you’d imagine. Again my advice to players is to concern themselves only in their game. Anything else is going to halt and slow down their progression. They won’t develop skill and they won’t maintain confidence. Forget others…focus on yourself.

When some fans watch a game they see the excitement of the game, some see the tactical battle, do you ‘see’ the psychology struggles that individuals go through? Can you give some examples of the types of things that you’d ‘see’?

Yes very much so. Over the past decade working as a football psychologist I’ve watched thousands of games where I don’t really watch the ball at all. I watch the players. I watch their body language – how they hold themselves, their movement, their vocals etc. Are they hiding or are they showing for it? Are they on their toes, as athletic and dynamic as they usually are? Are they winning the same amount of challenges on the deck and in the air as normal? Are they being vocal? Are they focusing on the referee or their game? Are they keeping the same intensity throughout the game – if not is that deliberate or are they letting the game dictate their intensity? There are of course a lot of obvious signs of mental distress but there are lots of subtle clues to. It’s about noticing the small signs and helping players themselves to notice what is happening to them as they play.

How do you advise players to sidestep or deal with ‘mind games’ from opposing managers?

A player who focuses on what an opposing manager has to say is mentally weak. That’s what I say to them – as you can imagine, that’s all I have to say to them.

What does pressure do to the mind?

Let’s be clear – pressure can be a good thing. It can supercharge your body and focus your mind. However, unmanaged pressure can be a game destroyer. It switches off the front part of the brain – the part that deals with thinking, emotional regulation and has some part to play in coordination. Your thoughts slow and so your anticipation and decision-making slows. You won’t see the game as quickly and as clearly. Game intelligence gone!

What psychology tips would you give to Luis Suarez?

That question assumes who I work with and who I don’t work with.

Psychological Analysis

Can you look at a player, see a change in form, and be confident that this change was due to psychology? What would be the visible signs?

No, which is one of the drawbacks of psychology and why it will always be a discipline that some people just don’t believe in. You can take an educated guess. To my mind, ask the player – he or she will give you their honest appraisal.

When you see a player make big public gestures when something goes wrong, what goes through your mind? How do you read those gestures?

Psychology 101 – never assume anyone’s mindset. That player can be ‘zoned’ – in their high performance match mindset – have fun and playing with freedom – and make a big gesture after missing an easy chance. As long as the player quickly forgets about it quickly then it’s fine. A big gesture in itself isn’t wrong and doesn’t mean that the player is distracted or in danger of losing confidence. There are cultural differences as well – I think players from some countries tend to show more overt signs of frustration. They just have to learn to forget it as quickly as possible.

The public image of footballers is that they are not particularly bright. Does the psychological work you do with players require intelligence on the their part?

That depends on how you define intelligence. There is a societal assumption that intelligence is only related to IQ or language dexterity. There are many forms of intelligence and some of the footballers I’ve met are some of the wittiest people I’ve ever come across (which is an intelligence in itself.). The game itself requires a great deal of cognitive intelligence – to compete under pressure with an enormous amount of cognitive overload is highly complex. Most won’t bring a Dostoevsky novel into the training ground but isn’t that true of society anyway?

Me defending footballers aside – it’s my job to make sure the footballer sitting in front of me understands what we’re doing. It’s not his or her job. My passion is to de-mystify sport and football psychology. Something that the psychology community hasn’t done very well. No doubt if you sit in front of any sports person or business person and start rambling on about systematic desensitisation or the inverted U hypothesis they’re going to switch off. You have to make it simple, engaging and applicable. I worked in non-league football for a few years to learn how to speak the language of football and also to understand the main challenges they are confronted with. I think this is a vital process for any sport psychologist to go through.

Do you need someone to work with you to achieve these changes, or could someone read your book and achieve results working alone?

My book Soccer Tough was a labour of love. As I’ve said my passion is to de-mystify football psychology and that is what my book does. It has stories of the mindset challenges great footballers such as Messi, Maradona, Zola, Beckham and Rooney have had. It also has a number of my own case studies including how Carlton Cole went from forgotten reserve team player to England international; how Anthony Stokes went from four goals in a season to 20 in five months and win a dream move to Celtic; how Richard Keogh of Derby has won four player of the year awards in a row – and many more. It’s a book everyone can read – from professional to serious amateur to Sunday league and 5-a-side recreational player. It’s also one for coaches and volunteers and for fans who are interested in the mindset required to be a great footballer.

I work with anyone but of course working one to one isn’t for everyone. Reading my book can really help a footballer build his or her game and help a coach have a blueprint for the psychology of the game.

Dan Abrahams

Soccer Tough: Simple Football Techniques to Improve Your Game

(Link to buy the book)

(Free Chapter)

“Take a minute to slip into the mind of one of the world’s greatest soccer players and imagine a stadium around you. Picture a performance under the lights and mentally play the perfect game.”

Technique, speed and tactical execution are crucial components of winning soccer, but it is mental toughness that marks out the very best players – the ability to play when pressure is highest, the opposition is strongest, and fear is greatest. Top players and coaches understand the importance of sport psychology in soccer but how do you actually train your mind to become the best player you can be?

Soccer Tough demystifies this crucial side of the game and offers practical techniques that will enable soccer players of all abilities to actively develop focus, energy, and confidence. Soccer Tough will help banish the fear, mistakes, and mental limits that holds players back.