There is often a great divide between performance on the training pitch and performance in the pressure cooker that is match day. The difference in feeling is often massive. Why?
The way I describe it is like this. Picture a piece of wood in front of you, say a metre wide. Let’s hoist this wood a couple of metres into the air.
Do you think you can walk across it without falling? Of course! Easy, right? If the piece of wood was about ten metres in length how long do you think it would take you to walk from one side to the other? Not too long right?
Now let’s change my simple challenge. Let’s hoist that piece of wood 1000 metres into the air.
Do you think you can walk across it now? Not so easy? How long would it take you to walk from one end to the other? Probably quite a bit longer than when the wood was closer to the ground.
Now, the task is still the same. But what has changed? Your perception of the task that’s what: “If I mess up I’m going to die.” You now feel fear. The task is not as easy. Your mindset changes; you focus on the negatives and you doubt yourself. Your body changes: you tremble and you feel butterflies.
Your mindset changes; you focus on the negatives and you doubt yourself. Your body changes: you tremble and you feel butterflies.
You’ll probably get across okay, if you dare to try. But if you do go for it will you walk in the same cocky manner in which you walked when the wood was a couple of metres off the ground? Probably more carefully I would think. And the more careful you are the more you compound the fear.
Thousands of footballers can play in training, and they can play seriously well. It’s easy, it’s just football; but when it comes to match day their football psychology changes. Suddenly they feel they have to get it right. They can’t afford to make a mistake, they can’t let anyone down, and they have to be perfect…
Or do they?
Perfectionism: Your Best Friend and Worst Enemy
We all want to play the perfect game. As a football psychologist I work with hundreds of footballers who work hard to play the perfect game.
Whenever we step foot on a football pitch we want to make all our passes, dominate the opposition, win every tackle. We want to have the kind of movement that finds space, and we want to win every header.
This kind of attitude is admirable. It sounds like the mindset of a player with great football psychology. And indeed often perfectionism in football can be your best friend. It can help drive you to train harder. It can help motivate you and can help you play with passion. A perfectionist may set tough to attain goals and may dream high.
Many of the world’s great players have a hint of perfectionism about their attitude and character.
But the attitude of perfectionism can be destructive, especially when directed to match day.
I believe that world class footballers strive for perfectionism in training but intuitively understand that they won’t attain it, and most importantly they understand that when it comes to match day perfectionism should be put aside for fun, freedom and focus.
World class footballers understand that when it comes to match day perfectionism should be put aside for fun, freedom and focus.
Footballers who are slaves to perfectionism will play with one or two side effects: fear or anger.
Perfectionists may play with fear or anger.
Yes, perfectionists release a cocktail of chemicals into their bloodstream that creates fear or anger which suppresses their game.
Fear and anger suppresses the perfectionist’s game.
Those perfectionists who tend to get angry at themselves on the pitch are often ones who go into a game with too high expectations. They say to themselves “I’m going to score a hat-trick today” and when, at half time they haven’t scored they start to get angry, stop focusing correctly and start losing confidence.
Alternatively, perfectionists may say to themselves “I’m going to keep a clean sheet today” and when they go a goal down they stop focusing correctly and start to lose confidence.
Those perfectionists who tend to play with fear do so because they don’t want to make mistakes. They don’t want to take risks.
I mean why take risks when perfectionism requires you complete every pass perfectly? The perfectionist passes backwards and sideways, not just once or twice but nearly always.
The perfectionist passes backwards and sideways, not just once or twice but nearly always.
The perfectionist may hide. The perfectionist may lose focus because he is too busy berating himself for mistakes.
If you think you are too much the perfectionist or if you recognise this in some of your team I’d like to give you two football psychology techniques and three general football psychology philosophies to combat perfectionism.
Football Psychology Techniques to Combat Perfectionism
Firstly, the perfectionist who has too high expectations should set mini process goals rather than performance or outcome goals. And, if I may, I’d like you to wait for the next section of this book for more details on how to set these types of goals.
Secondly, and in line with the football psychology technique in the previous chapter on picturing success I’d like you to take some time to picture what it looks like to play with fun and freedom. This is important because the perfectionist has little or no chance of playing with fun and freedom.
Take a few minutes to build the scene in your mind.
You are on the pitch, you are having fun and you are playing with complete unadulterated freedom. You are loose, you are free, you are fearless, you are committed, and you are decisive.
What does this look and feel like?
What does it look and feel like in the air, in the tackle, with your movement?
What is your body language like? How loud and vocal are you?
What does fun and freedom look and feel like? Blow it up in your mind. Make it big, bold and bright.
Done that? Great! Now do it every day.
And I don’t want you to stop there. I want you to take those feelings and sensations into training with you. I want you free, loose, decisive and committed. I want you on your toes, alert, energised and ready.
And the crucial thing here in training, the most important thing that must become a habit and a pattern is that you mustn’t let anything or anyone take you away from your feelings of fun and freedom.
Let nothing and no-one take you away from your feelings of fun and freedom.
This is so, so important. Let me repeat it. Think about it…then do it
Let nothing and no-one take you away from your feelings of fun and freedom.
You dictate your attitude on the pitch. Not the opposition, not the fans, not the weather, not the state of the pitch. You dictate your ability to play with fun and freedom and with confidence.
You dictate your ability to play with fun and freedom and with confidence.
The Philosophies to Combat Perfectionism
- A footballer who constantly strives for perfection has to understand that football is a game of imperfection. It is too hard a game to get everything right and a big part of being human is getting things wrong. Pele didn’t play perfectly. Nor did Maradona. Lionel Messi doesn’t play with perfection every match. Nor did Bobby Moore or Bobby Charlton. A footballer has to love this fact as much as he loves the game itself.
- A footballer has to understand that perfectionism constricts his play, his creativity, and his decision making. He has to understand that his mind and body works best when he allows himself to play, to move and to think with a mindset dedicated to fun and freedom. Playing freely allows a player to take the necessary risks to play the ball that sets up winning goals, that helps him to make runs behind the defence and enables him to reach for awkward crossing balls.
- A footballer has to understand that with perfectionism comes anger and/or fear and that these are not the route to excellence. Playing with focus and leaving mistakes behind him (as we shall discover in the next section of this book) will help him become the most effective and consistent footballer he can be.