It’s the space where players share their stories – inner narratives related to family, friends and football. Nothing seems taboo when they talk to physios, masseurs, and doctors. From debate around political preferences to disagreements about favourite chocolate bars, the range of topics enjoyed is broad, and the style of debate can be impassioned, deep and meaningful.
Perhaps most notably, the conversation around football can tend towards a freer and more open dialogue. Players are less fearful about being judged, about admitting weaknesses, and about discussing the psychological frailties they inevitably experience as the season unfolds.
At first glance this is understandable. The head physio doesn’t pick the team. A masseur isn’t scanning for linguistic clues related to uncertainty, doubt and worry. The club doctor isn’t developing a game model that may rule a specific player in or out. It seems natural that the medical department can serve up an environment where players feel they can be open and honest.
But shouldn’t that environment be club wide? Isn’t it in the best interest of every club to develop environments that help players feel safe to express the maladaptive feelings they experience?
Excellence in the shape of consistent high performance in the medium and long term is unlikely to be found through the suppression of human emotion. It’s more likely unearthed through acceptance and exploration – acceptance of the human condition, and exploration of ways to manage the challenges that emerge from within.
Now, I know what you might be thinking here: “Dan, there’s no way players will ever admit to their coaches that they’re feeling anxious or they’re lacking confidence. There’s no way they’re going to communicate with their coaches that they’re feeling flat, or low, fearful or doubting.”
And all that may be true. But it doesn’t prevent key stakeholders at clubs (coaches and senior staff) from communicating the message that negative thoughts and emotions are a part of the fabric of football – that doubts, and worries, and anxieties are inevitable for just about every player at some point in the season, perhaps at multiple times.
I’d like to respectfully suggest that modern day footballers need fewer motivational posters adorning the corridor walls, and instead they require access to resources that gives them a greater understanding of how to deal with the kind of negative emotion that impacts their performance and well-being. They need fewer ‘punch the air, you can achieve anything’ pre-game talks, and more reinforcement around the specific mental techniques that helps them think and focus flexibly.
A psychologically unsafe environment in football is one that ignores more so than suppresses. It turns a blind eye to the human experience. It states “This is football, we don’t do that stuff here.” This approach so often makes things worse. Disregarding anxiety can tend to turn up the volume of anxiety. Overlooking drops in confidence tends to increase the likelihood of low confidence. Insisting on fearless can tend to generate fearful.
In contrast, players who experience an environment wrapped in psychological safety don’t lose their edge, they gain an edge. Talking through the factors that cause anxiety, drops in confidence and the onset of fear enables players to become students of themselves and students of the mental side of the game. A studious examination of self with relation to the game can enable players to find solutions that help them feel good about themselves, play tough and compete with aggression.
Above all, players need a healthier and safer environment that gives them the space to flourish as human beings and to thrive as human performers.
How can this be achieved? Most likely through a collaborative staff effort – an interdisciplinary mix of people who can help players explore their emotions without judgement and generate practical solutions that can be utilised in training and on game day.
Specifically, I’d like to suggest a turn against the tide of professional footballing norms. I’d like to propose a breaking of some normative rules. I’m going to give you two to break, both of which are designed to help players enjoy a safer and healthier learning and playing environment.
My rule break number one is this: give players space to discuss negatives – thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and experiences. Provide them with an opportunity to share moments of vulnerability and times of perceived hardship. By doing so, you don’t eliminate unhelpful and maladaptive mental states, but you do normalise them. And by normalising them, you give players a greater chance to breath, to understand themselves, to reset, to be curious about solutions, and then to ‘go again’ (equipped with the tools to deal with adversity).
It matters little who facilitates this process. It could be one of the coaches, it could be the head of sport science, or it could be the club doctor. It could be the team captain, a couple of team leaders, or perhaps ideally a sport psychologist. No matter who drives the process, players need the opportunity to express vulnerability. They need a platform to share the thoughts, feelings and emotions that tend to hold them and their game back.
Do this in pairs, in small groups and as a team. Do this regularly. Make it a part of the training week. Just imagine every single player invested in unhelpful thinking – owning the emotions they experience, being honest about how they’re feeling, and working collectively to find individual and team answers to the mental side of the game. This process can build a powerful brand of social cohesion that team bonding sessions simply can’t reach.
My rule break number two for you lies contrary to traditional coaching vernacular. An insistence on high performance is close to the lips of most coaches the world over, and that’s understandable. When there’s precious points to be won, and when jobs are on the line, why wouldn’t you preach from the pulpit about high performance?
The answer lies in the notion that incessant talk about high performance can invite feelings of anxiety and tension that increase the likelihood of low performance.
Performance talk can evoke fear. It can even cause panic and a brand of over-thinking that causes a player to release all his or her energy before a ball has been kicked. Narratives that include extreme language such as “I must perform” or “This is a must win game” can induce a desperation incongruent with the kind of mental states that evoke game intelligence.
The solution? Stop insisting on high performance. Stop insisting on the need to perform. Stop the ‘win at all costs’ talk. Instead, lessen the pressure on players by helping them focus their minds on the tasks they need to accomplish in order to give themselves their best chance to high perform. After all, that is all that can be asked of them.
Help players direct their attention onto high performance tasks rather than high performance itself. There are subtle but important differences between the two.
High performance tasks are advantageous psychologically because they engage players in three adaptive ways: tasks help them focus on the specifics of performance. Tasks orient them to controllable factors. And tasks emphasise approach behaviours (what players want to achieve) rather than avoidant behaviours (what players don’t want to happen).
Let’s look at an example:
“You must score today…it’s your job as a striker” vs “Keep making those aggressive runs behind the defence…you’ll give yourself chances to score”
“We must win today, and you’re so crucial in the middle of the park in this game” vs “Keep searching for space today no matter what…by finding space you can make a difference”
A healthy environment for competitors is one that helps them focus on the specifics, the controllables, and on positive behaviours. It’s one that’s tolerant on high performance but tough on performance tasks. It’s one that is linguistically flexible around high performance but enjoys greater rigidity with performance tasks.
That’s not being fluffy. That’s being precise! That’s not being light. That’s being demanding! That’s not being weak. That’s being strong!
My two rule breaks go hand in hand. Picture this:
Every single player on your team enjoying their performance moments and a greater sense of well-being because they play at a club that offers a healthy and safe environment. Their emotions aren’t ignored, they’re embraced. Anxiety, doubt, worry, drops in confidence – these natural inner experiences aren’t curbed, they’re celebrated and worked on – together!
Empowered by psychological solutions for their negative emotions, your players also enjoy a healthy psychological stretch through insistence of task execution. They don’t seek high performance every day, they seek the execution of high performance tasks – specific, controllable, positive tasks that when accomplished build their confidence and self-belief.
That truly is a healthy and safe environment oriented towards high performance.