The power of the mind

The demands of the modern game have reached such a level that a player's mental toughness is now every bit as important as his technical ability. Little wonder then that the newest member of many squads is not a footballer but a psychologist.

The trend is not so much about hiring a quick-fix specialist to try and turn around a losing team's fortunes, but rather an acceptance on the part of clubs that their players need a more integral preparation. Today's elite footballers have their every move, both on and off the field, analysed and commented on by millions of people. Coping with that degree of scrutiny calls for some real mental resilience.

The role of the sports psychologist has evolved to meet the needs of today's multi-cultural and multi-ethnical teams. During pre-season, the most pressing task is to foster team spirit and to make sure the new signings are integrated into the squad.

The fact that in any given dressing room nowadays you will find players from a wealth of different backgrounds makes it essential to have a sense of togetherness and a comfortable environment.

Previously, the work of the psychologist was very result-orientated and reactive. Depending on how a team was playing, the coach or players would seek help to overcome a particular problem - poor home performances, conceding late goals, inability to finish off moves etc. After all, many of these problems are put down to a loss of confidence and not necessarily to a lack of fitness or technique.

Now though, clubs have realised it is necessary to work with managers and players to improve communication and thus create better trust and understanding. How to rein in problem players, how to solve internal dressing room disputes or how to organise the group dynamics to maximise the team's performance are other common requirements.

A task orientated to the needs of the group
"Even though the coach often has a very good grasp of sports psychology, he can not assume the role of psychologist. There are certain things that a footballer will only reveal in a climate of confidentiality. Obviously he is not going to tell his boss that he is short of confidence, for example, because in all probability he will be sitting out the next few games," says one of the psychologists at Seville FC.

Another regular task is working with second choice players who often have to make do with a few minutes as substitute week in week out. The task here is to ensure they do not get discouraged and to give them a set of goals to work towards. "Nothing motivates a person more than having a set objective and a clear plan on how to achieve it. This gives the individual a sense of self-empowerment," says one expert.

Another area where players are in constant need of help is with injuries. It becomes even more critical if a player is out for a long period. As well as keeping a close eye on a player's state of mind, the psychologist also has a critical role in helping restore confidence when training resumes, as many players understandably fear recurrence.

Younger and younger players
So what is a suitable age to start working with a sports psychologist? On this the experts all agree: the earlier the better, the idea being that a young footballer gets used to having the support of a specialist right from the outset of his career. Proof, if any were needed of the value of this is provided by the experience of psychologists who have been working for more than six years with the Seville FC youth team players on sporting as well as personal development. "We help with every aspect of the players' development including motivation, stress, concentration and activation, but not at the expense of the academic side which is every bit as important. You can't have a young lad completely abandoning his studies simply because he is a promising footballer."
Every year, younger and younger players are being asked to cope with demands of the modern game - often before they are mature adults. That is why the challenge is to ensure that they are physically and mentally ready when their chance comes along. "They have to be able to handle the responsibility and pressure that comes with the situation. There have been players who having finally made the breakthrough then lost it all, and others who relax, thinking all the hard work has been done, only to fall by the wayside." It is also important that the people closest to the players do not pass on their worries to them or put them under too much pressure with unrealistic expectations.

Optimum performance
"The players have to achieve a balance between being over stressed and over relaxed in order to perform to the best of their abilities. Every elite sportsman has to learn to hone their performance level to their circumstances," say the experts. If this level is too low, the player underperforms and if it is too high, it can have negative repercussions on the player's coordination and his decision making during a game.
How much energy is wasted protesting referees' decisions? This is another area where the psychologists can help, working on players' "impulse control" and channelling their energy into proving themselves through their play rather than aggression. The aim is to acquire a behavioural pattern and ensure that a player's frustration does not end up harming the individual or the team.
You may not find many psychologists willing to reveal their inside experience, but little by little they are becoming an integral part of the game. Most prefer to eschew the microphones, not just because of professional ethics but also to guarantee the effectiveness of their work.