Unhelpful and destructive thinking can kill enjoyment of the game…can wreck playing careers at every level…and can lead to poor coaching protocols. In this article, Killala FC Academy Director, Peter McDonnell, provides us with an honest account of his battles with negative thinking as a player and coach…and offers up some solutions.
I write this piece, whilst in the middle of rehab for my latest knee injury. I never like being injured. No one does, I suppose, but this one has hit me particularly hard, because I like to be on my feet a lot and I like to be active within my training sessions, demonstrating with the passion and movement I would like adopted by my players.
Some days I will be performing my stretches and muscle building exercises and my knee will be in a different pain than the previous day and my mind will spiral – “Where the hell did that pain come from?” “Why am I not feeling better yet?” “I must have re-injured it again, I won’t be able to coach now and my career will be over before it starts and I will have to do a job that I won’t like”.
The spiral of negativity was complete and anyone who was in the room at the time would have sensed my agitation and anger and probably got an earful for absolutely no reason. All this negativity, bred from a single impulsive thought and I let my inner voice destroy any chance of positivity and recovery in that moment. All this, coming from a man who has been really working on his inner voice over the past 24 months.
It illustrates that the inner voice – of a certain type of individual in my opinion – must be worked on through a daily basis, to improve ones life, ones recovery, ones training and ones game performance.
A Player’s Inner Voice
I look at 3 books I have read lately. Craig Bellamy’s – “Goodfella”, Denis Bergkamp’s – “Stillness and Speed” and Roy Keane’s – “The Second Half”. The first noticeable aspect of each of the books is that the cover page appears to capture the subject deep in thought. Each one of them, illustrating a headshot probably telling the world what these books are about inside the covers;
Roy Keane – “I have a point to prove or score to settle, here”
Denis Bergkamp – ” I am bright eye’s and forward thinking, I’m always on the move”
Craig Bellamy – “I pretty decent you know, I might be a hard nut, but I’m not that bad”
These are just my opinions, my conceptions of the covers, but reading through each of these books, I was able to see how much a role “self-talk” played in their playing careers and relationships on and off the field.
My Inner Voice
I think back to myself this time two years ago. In March we started our season here in Mayo and this was my first season back from The US, after coaching the game for 3 years and going through some badges etc. In my head, I was saying “I have to impress here, if I play ****, then everyone will wonder what the hell I am coaching for and I will be a joke”.
No lie, that’s the way my brain was operating at the time. It was the same on the sideline, coaching kids games; “I know loads about this game now and I’m not going to let shite refereeing decisions get in the way of me making this team better and playing football”.
I will go on record and say that I have never used bad language in front of kids, but after the seasons had finished in October 2013, I had been sent from the dugout twice while coaching and booked 11 times and sent off twice for a mixture of dissent and violent conduct (the violent conduct happened as a player, not as a coach in front of kids!)
Did I feel proud about the outcome of my actions during that season? People may have looked at me in the dressing room after a game and thought, “he doesn’t care about the team” – But inside I was full of remorse and shame for what I had done. Why had it happened? Because I never properly realized I had two voices and I let the voice in my head – my self-talk – over rule what was tangible to referees, opponents, teammates and fans.
For a while I thought it was just me. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this game and my fuse was too short to play or coach. That hurt me for a while, but slowly I began to read ways to improve your inner voice to produce positive outcomes in your daily life.
Could this be transmitted onto the field of play or onto the coaches’ bench where I worked? Absolutely. I empathised quite a bit with Craig Bellamy while reading his book. He really reminded me of my own mind-set whilst playing; very defensive, had his back up quite a bit on the pitch and always struggled mentally with injuries.
This made him quite a tough man to deal with, as he admits and he unfortunately lost a very loving relationship with his now ex-wife over it. He goes on to admit how much Steve Peters, a Psychiatrist to many Elite Athletes, has helped him to get over his demons and speak to himself in a better way, making him less angry and resentful.
I think anyone who sees Craig Bellamy in an interview now will realize what a decent, intelligent guy he is. Similarly, Roy Keane points out in his book how Bill Beswick – another Sports Psychologist – spoke to him about setting mental targets, before games, rather than operating coping mechanisms, during the heat of the battle. It was quite comical when Keane outlines, “I’d been advised before to count to ten- OK, wait, I’m angry, 1 -, 2 -, – No that was never going to work for me”.
However he mentions that Beswick told him to focus before the game on thoughts to “keep you on the pitch for 90 minutes”. Keane says this was crucial advice and explained how he managed his temper much better later in his career.
It was the advice that Keane received from Beswick, that I had used as my design at the beginning of this 2014 season. Before each game I played – and coached – I visualised myself being tested by a number of decisions or actions, which I would have let get the better of me in the past.
From there I would spend time visualising and speaking about what my reaction would look like if I wanted to be the best player I could be – not necessarily the best player on the pitch (another thought I had to deal with). Before every game, I had already played almost 90 minutes in my head,
“A late challenge on me and the referee does nothing about it – ok, I get up, I move on and I get back on the ball”
“A blatant offside, not given” – Mistakes happen, anger will take my energy away from the game”.
Don’t get me wrong, this was hard work, but I was physically prepared and with my personality, my mental preparation was just as important. If I wanted to be the best player I could be after crossing the white line, while helping my team or my kids to perform at their best, then I had to speak to myself in a way that affects the game and myself positively. I couldn’t give any energy to the referee, my opponent or the other team as a whole.
End of the 2014 season: Booked six times, twice for dissent the other four as part of the game. No sending off, either from the touchline coaching or within a game. I helped my team stave off relegation, finishing in the highest league position in over a decade.
I encourage, I helped, I drove. Did I get it right every time? No. But it was a marked success on the pervious year and I was proud of the work I put in to making my self talk perform better. I would also like to think that the people closest to me have seen a different side pre and post games also. Certainly I get less of a hard time off the boys now after a game anyway.
Do I need to continue to work? Absolutely. Better never stops on the field and in your mind. What I have learned in the past year, I can now bring to my players – even at the age of 13 and 14. I can pass on the knowledge I have learned to help them become confident, composed and mature players on and off the pitch, whilst enjoying the game of football in a positive way.
Will they slip up along the way? Yes. But maybe they will have he tools to deal with their trial, earlier in life. I can help them cross the white line with their chest out, looking confident and moving into a game where they keep their entire energy for their own game, regardless of external factors.
In a changing world, this might become even more important than technical training, especially to kids at a recreational level. Maybe I can help them think like Denis Bergkamp – Always focused on the ball, the speed of it, the bounce it take, what he can do next to effect the game or the players around him. He was a class act. Technically, tactically and mentally, but no doubt had to work on it through professional life.
I will move on through my injury now. Help the thoughts improve me, make me work harder and come out the other end stronger. No one should remove themselves from something they are passionate about, but use that passion to learn more about themselves and how to improve every day. I would like to thank Soccer Tough and Dan Abrahams for helping along that process.
Pete McDonnell is a UEFA B Licensed coach and Academy Director at Killala FC. Please check out his blog.