Confidence Is Elusive

One match you play with confidence and the next you don’t. Do you suffer from this problem, just as countless millions of footballers around the world do?

It’s not as if the leading professionals on the planet don’t fall into this category. From David Beckham to Lionel Messi to Pele to Bobby Charlton to Maradona to the players playing in the English Premiership, La Liga and Serie A right now to the players who won the first ever World Cup for Uruguay in the 1930’s, every professional player has had the enormous challenge of trying to maintain confidence. Some have overcome terrible slumps in confidence and form while others have fallen foul of the confidence disease and finished their careers prematurely.

A lack of confidence can prevent a promising career from even starting. Across every continent some of the game’s brightest young talent fail to make the grade because their confidence is fragile, skin deep and built on quick sand. They can trap a ball superbly, dribble past defenders as if they’re not there, and shoot from the tightest of angle and score, and yet when they are given their chance to play for the first team in the professional leagues their silky skills vanish, their awareness is non-existent, their anticipation and decision making slows… career over before it’s started. Their football psychology simply isn’t good enough.

You know confidence might just be the most important skill you have as a footballer.

Confidence might just be the most important skill you have as a footballer

Let me repeat that because it’s so important for you as a footballer to understand:

Confidence might just be the most important skill you have as a footballer

I’ve written the word skill on purpose. Skills can be developed. Your confidence isn’t fixed. It can be improved.

Confidence isn’t fixed, it can be improved

That’s exciting to know isn’t it? With a little effort, with a little will power, with some knowledge of football psychology you can take control of your confidence. You can step foot on the pitch and deliver a performance that is full of confidence… perhaps not every time but certainly most of the time.

The Enemies of Confidence

If you play football on a weekend for your local team or with mates after work in a 5 a side league I’m sure you do so for fun and for fitness. But I’m also sure you want to win. I’m sure there is a competitive edge to your matches. And where there is competitiveness there can be worry, uncertainty, fear, doubt and anxiety. These are the enemies of confidence.

The enemies of confidence include:

  • Worry
  • Uncertainty
  • Fear
  • Doubt
  • Anxiety

They strike at the heart of consistency. They slow you down both physically and mentally. They ruin your decision making and co-ordination. They prevent you from being the best individual footballer you can be and the best team mate you can be.

Confidence: What is it?

Quite simply confidence is certainty and freedom.

A footballer who is confident believes he will play well. He believes deep down that he will execute his skills with commitment and play to the very best of his ability. And when he plays he plays with complete freedom, with trust, without fear of mistake, playing to win and not to lose.

A confident footballer plays to win and not to lose

Take a couple of minutes to picture this confident footballer. Put yourself in his or her boots. Picture playing with complete freedom, playing without doubt, worry or anxiety.

Is this you?

Occasionally maybe, but EVERY time?

If it’s not you at all or not you enough of the time then you should be very excited about reading this football psychology book. You are going to improve your football massively.

Your Football Brain

Your brain is where it’s at on the football pitch. This is the part of you that controls the ball, passes, tackles and shoots. It’s the part that anticipates, makes decisions, scans the pitch for team mates and the opposition, reads the game, focuses, manages emotions and remembers the good times and the bad.

Hey it’s pretty important! In fact it’s safe to say that your football brain is your football game.

Your football brain is your football game

And it is due to a single quirk of the brain that confidence tends to be inconsistent and elusive.

The reason why confidence tends to be inconsistent and at times elusive is due to the way your brain is designed

Brain Fact

The brain is hardwired to be negative

Let’s say that again because it’s important to know:

The brain is hardwired to be negative

In other words, it is all too easy for the brain to concentrate on worries and fears and for gloomy thoughts to dominate. And this happens both on and off the pitch.

Now let’s be clear. I’m not saying that everyone is walking around all doom and gloom. And I’m certainly not saying that everyone is the same. Some of us are more optimistic and positive than others (and of course slices of realism are crucial for us to be able to function effectively in life.) But what many psychologists believe today is that the brain defaults into the negative and that by and large we’re hardwired to register and remember negative events more quickly and deeply than positive ones.

We’re hardwired to register and remember negative events more quickly and deeply than positive ones

Let’s think about this in our everyday life for a few minutes.

Some people who have been bitten by a dog subsequently develop a fear of dogs. But in all likelihood they will have had hundreds of positive experiences with dogs previously. The one bad experience negates the hundreds of good ones. Here’s another example. Sometimes we let a bad experience overshadow what essentially was a good experience. Perhaps you’ve been to a social event where one person was incredibly rude to you. This episode may have trumped the great conversations you’d had with other guests and left you feeling hurt and angry and pushed the positives of the event to the back of your mind.

When you think about a working day, or when you think back over your life, what experiences capture your attention – your successes and pleasant times, or the failures, hurts and disappointments?

Yes, our brains like to prioritise negative pieces of information rather than positive. We pay much more attention to criticism than praise. It is why research shows that people suffer more negative emotion if they lose £100 than experience positive emotion if they win £100. It is also why bad news can easily undermine a good mood whereas good news doesn’t always have the ability to get rid of a bad mood.

The reason we’re like this is to do with survival. For humans to survive as a species our brains evolved to anticipate and overcome dangers, protect us from pain, and solve problems: so dangers, pain, and problems are what is most attractive to the brain. A leading neuropsychologist Rick Hanson ( calls this the “brain’s negativity bias”. He says that the human nervous system “scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one’s world. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones”.

I love that:

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones

So what happens on the pitch? The brain is attracted to all the problems the game confronts us with. The fact the defender is a man mountain beast and he keeps barging you off the ball. The fact the opposition are top of the league and they play at a high tempo. The fact the bottom team are so motivated to beat you that they keep pressing you and you keep losing the ball. The fact that you’ve just missed a great chance and you now can’t get it out of your head and you can’t stop thinking that you’re going to be dropped. The fact you think you look stupid after you just played that misdirected pass.

Result? Loss of confidence in the moment…individual performance shattered!

And what happens off the pitch? You remember the bad games, the games you lost, the mistakes you made, the poor training sessions you’ve had, the criticism from the manager and coaches, and the verbal bashings you’ve had from team mates. You spend time thinking about how you’re going to lose the next match or lose your place in the team.

Result? Loss of confidence, a lack of self belief and little chance of performing to the best of your ability on match day

Yes, the reality is that the brain is brilliant at honing in on what is wrong with our game and fantastic at making us worry about how we are going to play in our next match. The brain is a master at making us brood over our football when it’s going badly. It is great at making us dwell on our mistakes. The brain is top notch at helping us focus on what is unfair during a match when things are going wrong and we are losing.

And it is this negativity that ultimately leads to both losses of confidence and an inconsistency of confidence.

This negativity can be consistent. It can eat away at your ability as a footballer. It will slow you down on the pitch. It will damage your co-ordination, your awareness, your anticipation and your decision making. You’ll make simple look complicated. Off the pitch it will strip away your self-belief and subsequently damage your motivation and focus.

So to be clear about this:

Both on and off the pitch the brain likes to focus on the negative

This is particularly true when you are playing under pressure. It likes to dwell on mistakes or think about the penalties of making a mistake.

And remember this brain fact from my introduction: whilst football works in seconds, the brain works in milliseconds.

The brain works in milliseconds

This means that a negative thought can pop into your head very, very quickly and it can have catastrophic effects on your confidence and ultimately on your performance.

This isn’t you

Now you may be reading this and thinking “this isn’t me, I always think I can do well. I’m a pretty positive person.” And you might be right. Your football psychology may be rock solid. You may be someone who is able to reflect positively and who is able to summon up confidence for the match ahead.

But I urge you to be as self-critical about your confidence as possible. I urge you to look deep inside yourself and honestly question how you think and feel after a training session and how you think and feel leading up to a match. What really is the state of your confidence and your football psychology?

The next couple of chapters of this football psychology book have been written to address the fact that the brain is hardwired to be negative. It will give you both on pitch and off pitch techniques that are simple to understand. They will take a bit of will power and effort, but when used on a consistent basis they will have an enormously positive effect on your game.

It’s important to remember this:

Your football brain is your football game

So let’s get working on that football brain…