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Mental Performance in Football - Paul Hewitt

Today’s football coaches are becoming increasingly aware of their ability to influence their team’s performance - through mental techniques as well as imparting footballing skills and knowledge. British Football Coaches Network founder Matt Ward talks to sports & performance expert Paul Hewitt, of Olympian Mind, to find out how.

Why are mental techniques important for coaches today?

People quote different figures for the contribution of the mental side of the game to overall performance, from 50 per cent to “everything”. However, one thing’s for sure, with all other things being equal, the team with the mental edge will come out on top.

What difference can a coach with good mental approaches make to their team?

A coach is constantly influencing their team, whether they are aware of it or not, through everything they say and everything they do. They are even sending out messages to their players through their body language, meaning a good coach needs to pay careful attention to themselves and their own emotional state when coaching others.

What are the top 3 mental skills a coach needs to have to positively influence their team?

A good coach needs to choose their words carefully. Even though adult players are less open to influence by words than children, the correct choice of words with our players can help create the results we want, and poor choice create the results we don’t want. As a very simple example, shouting “Don’t miss that penalty” is likely to have the opposite result. Because of how the human brain processes information, the player will filter out the word ‘don’t’ and only hear the words “miss that penalty,” which is clearly not what was intended.

Positive body language is also important - to maintain your own confidence and belief but also to send out the right messages to your players and opponents. A well-known example of influencing others would be the New Zealand rugby union team the All Blacks using the ‘Haka’ dance to intimidate opponents. In terms of self-influence, when you walk towards the penalty spot looking despondent and towards the floor, you have missed already.

Finally, the ability to get into your own performance zone, your natural “flow state”, is important, as well as the ability to help players find theirs - more consistently and more often. Helping players access their high-performance state more consistently is the key to more consistent team performances, and better results.

How can a coach use mental skills to turn a failing team’s performance around?

The real concern with a run of defeats for a team is that it can become an embedded habit – the more you lose you more you are training your brain and your body to lose. So, the sooner this trend is reversed the better. In terms of how to go about changing things, I would shift the focus of the players, individually and as a team, to what they do want rather than what they don’t want. I would draw upon skills such as modelling, mental rehearsal and the mental skills already described. In some cases, I may do deeper work with individuals experiencing performance blocks, to get to the heart of the problem so they can move forward more positively.

How can a coach use mental skills to build on a solid performance and get more consistent results?

When you have good or great performances in your recent history, you already have an excellent reference point to draw upon which is extremely helpful in creating more of the same. The coach can help their players recreate these great performances by encouraging them to mentally reexperience past success as if experiencing it right now and create a personalised anchor to that experience that makes it more likely to repeat in the future.

How would you work with a player experiencing a performance block?

“Performance block” is often a byword for a player being stuck in some way, stuck on the same level, unable to move forward, not fulfilling their potential. The underlying reasons for this are as unique as the individual and therefore its important to get to the root of exactly what’s going on with that player, what they are thinking and feeling, what they are playing through in their minds. Surface level problems include constantly replaying something that went wrong, for example a missed penalty, thus creating more of the same. Deeper rooted problems impact all aspects of a player’s life, including on the field, and may include addictions, anxiety, injury fear, depression, and unprocessed trauma. However once the underlying cause is identified and remedied, progress can be rapid.

What are some of the common mistakes you see coaches make and what impact does that have on their teams?

What I would prefer not to see from coaches is over talking; shouting multiple, sometimes conflicting instructions rather than holding a confident presence and being still. One simple, powerful phrase, said with confidence, is worth a thousand instructions, given that the human brain can only consciously process a limited amount of information at once anyway. My favourite is “anything is possible,” encouraging the player to seek inside themselves unconsciously to wonder what might be possible.

Which coaches do you think have the best mental skills and why?

The strongest coaches are the ones who continue to believe, no matter how desperate or impossible a situation may seem. They somehow believe there is a way out, a way back, such as when Liverpool were 3-0 down in a recent Champions League semi-final and still came out victorious. And the ones that dare to believe when no one else does, for example when non-league clubs defeat the league clubs in the League Cup. As Henry Ford famously says: “Whether you believe you can, or you can’t, you’re right.” Let that sink in.

What advice would you give a coach looking to become more influential with their team?

My advice would be to work on developing your own presence, become a master of your emotions and language. Work on your own confidence and belief, because confidence is contagious!

What training is available for coaches around mental performance?

Mental tools and techniques can be taught, and then it takes practice and dedication to master them, much like the dedication required to master physical skills. To give coaches an introduction to how they can influence the performance of their teams I run a 2-hour introduction to mental performance in football.

For more information visit the Olympian Mind website. A 20% discount is available to members of the BFCN in the 'members discount section'

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