The great football coach Renee Meulensteen has recently said that “every human being operates on a line between fear and ambition.” He was discussing how to compete under the pressured burden of the final few games of the season, with promotion and relegation looming. This is my take on the pressured brain.

Meulensteen continued:

“You, me, players – you’ll always be torn between what we want and fear of what might happen when we try. In football, fear is what you don’t want.

“If it takes the upper hand – ‘We don’t want to lose, we don’t want to make mistakes, we don’t want to do this or that’ – you are hitting the wrong buttons and creating the wrong mindset. As a coach, you must make it: ‘This is what we want. This is how we will do it’.

Here he is talking about how the brain tends to respond towards pressure. That six inches between our ears works on an away or towards programme:

“I’m moving away from pain”

“I’m moving towards pleasure”

This is how the brain works – it functions this way for all of us and is constantly scanning the environment deciding whether to move one way or another.

In his role as a football coach, what Meulensteen is saying is that he wants his players moving towards pleasure rather than away from pain. He wants his footballers playing to play well rather than playing to avoid playing badly.

When you instruct the brain what you don’t want it to do you tend to create the reverse effect. This is what the late great psychologist Daniel Wenger called ‘Ironic Processing’ – don’t think of a pink elephant (you get my drift?)

Don’t miss, don’t make a mistake, don’t lose, don’t drop it, don’t mist-time. How you speak to yourself about the game you’ve got coming up and how you speak to yourself as you compete influences how you perform. The command “Don’t make a mistake” will likely lead to an anxious, tight and tense pass. What happens – a mistake.

So without being a psychologist Meulensteen is pretty much spot on. One can quibble that actually fear of failure can be a tremendous motivator, but his stance is a useful one to hold and to have.

As a coach make sure your players are pointing in a towards direction. Make sure your instructions are positive and direct. Make sure your players are speaking to themselves about what they do want. Make sure they have certainty – certainty of tactics and of their responsibilities within their roles.

Certainty is a pressure killer. It’s a butterflies killer. It’s a nerves killer.

I often get asked by coaches how to help players deal with pressure and deal with nerves. One way is to develop player certainty. Having worked with hundreds of players there have been dozens of times when clients have said to me “I’m just unsure what I have to do on the pitch” Lo and behold, it usually isn’t long before their manager is sacked.

Certainty is an imperative must in your coaching culture. It’s a critical essential. Players must come away knowing what they have to do. They may not be able to execute their role with excellence every time, but they must know it inside out.

Do you help players move into a towards state of mind? Do you help them focus on what they should be doing during a game? Do you help them create certainty? Is your coaching culture covering these coaching musts? If the answer is no then you’ve gotta get on this quick smart!