One of the key attributes that determines the success of young players is their mental skill-set. Typically, top professional clubs will assess mental attributes such as attitude, focus during training and games, confidence, composure, self-motivation, aggressiveness and creativity. Players can be very good technically, are intelligent in their decision-making and have strong physical attributes but if they do not have strong mental skills – then ultimately performance levels will be negatively affected.
“Champions must have both skill and will, but the will must be stronger” (Muhammad Ali)
In soccer, young players face challenges on a daily basis. The best players will assess these challenges and successfully find solutions. When humans are faced with a challenge, we typically have two choices – fight or flight. The best young players will fight and not run away from challenges. They will embrace them and once they accept a challenge they become more confident in their own ability. This also triggers emotional responses such as excitement and determination which produces high energy levels. As this sequence continues then young players will successfully develop a resilience (mental toughness) that will allow them to fully maximize their technical ability, game intelligence and physical attributes.
I am a firm advocate of young players practicing and developing their mental skills on a continuous basis, just like they would their technical skills. One of the best resources that I have came across to help young players understand themselves better and improve their mental skills is the work of Sports Psychologist Bill Beswick. I first met Bill at Middlesbrough Football Club in 2005, when he was assistant manager to Steve McClaren. Bill has worked at Derby County, Manchester United, Middlesbrough & Sunderland in the English Premier League and contributes to UEFA Pro Licence award courses for a number of European Football Associations. He has international experience with the England U18 and U21 squads.
The reason I was drawn to Bill’s work is that in his book “Focused for Soccer” he provides young players with a series of self-assessment check lists on attitude, that can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses. He then goes on to provide practical action plans on how to improve confidence, concentration, competitiveness and overall mental toughness.
Bill’s philosophy is based on the belief that psychological skills are not magical but can be learnt (like other skills) through instruction, repetition and perseverance. He sets out, in his book, a recommended process for players to follow in terms of incorporating these new ideas into training as they strive to achieve higher performance levels:
- Use self assessment tools to determine areas that can be improved
- Set three goals that are progressive steps that are relatively easy to achieve
- Visualize as you would want to be and image what it would feel like
- Practice visualization techniques to achieve the set goals
- Monitor your progress through reflection
- Repeat and repeat actions so that they are new and positive habits
- Enjoy your new performance gains with more confident displays in training and games
Taking control of this aspect of performance will provide young players with an important advantage over teammates and other players that they compete against. It will also help to develop good life skills that can be used in the future to be successful.
Player Tips: Read Focused for Soccer and complete the self-assessment questionnaires and recommended action planning process
Coaches Tips: Read Focused for Soccer to gain a greater insight into sports psychology and utilize Bill Beswick’s recommended strategies for teams
Parent Tips: Read Focused for Soccer to improve understanding of what mental attributes required to play at the highest levels. Provide support and assistance to your child as they try to improve this aspect of their performance