Footballers can have a bad game for a number of reasons – injury, tactical confusion…just an off day! Bad games happen to everybody and the mental side of football can be a primary reason as to why a player can have a beast of a performance. Distraction, over-emotion, a sudden loss of confidence…I could go on! Stress tends to be a major contributor to poor games…and it is a mindset area that coaches need to be aware of. This is a short guide to helping players deal with the stress of competitive football.

Psychological research tells us this – whether a player feels stressed about an upcoming game depends on the interaction between:

1. The personal resources for coping a player has (think ‘personality’)

2. The appraisal the player makes about the game (“I can play well” to “I don’t think I’m going to play well”)

3. The coping responses of the player (think ‘self-talk’ and ‘imagery’)

So that’s the research – but you don’t need to know the long words and you don’t need to go rifling through academic journals to understand this process and to have a few ideas to help your players.

Look at the above and take some time to think about your players. Which ones do you think have incredible natural ability to cope with the stressors of big game? Which ones do you think need help? Of the ones who need help, how do you think they appraise the game? What do they say to themselves? Can they learn from their team mates, the ones who appraise the game in a helpful way?

Now don’t for one minute think that this doesn’t affect every single one of your players. It does – big time! Every player on your team, your squad, your roster has a mental response to an upcoming game. And their internal drives their external….how they think going into a game influences how they will subsequently perform.

You the 21st century coach need to be the absolute nuts at helping players manage their responses (for anyone outside of the UK ‘absolute nuts’ means ‘to be very good at!’)

The exciting thing is that there are so many ways to help players appraise the game in a helpful way. I talk a lot about these in both of my books (Soccer Tough and Soccer Brain). But here’s a few ideas:

Create a Script

I came up with the idea of a script about a decade ago when working in non league soccer in England. I asked players to focus exclusively on the things they can control by getting them to pick 3 things that they wanted to achieve during the game other than getting a positive result. These things had to be related to the responsibilities within their role.

Try this with your players – there’s loads more detail about creating match scripts for your players in Soccer Tough and Soccer Brain.

Basic Psych Skills

Taking a deep breath is a cliched remark to a person who is feeling the heat – cliched because it works! For players who are highly anxious going into a game ask them to take some deep breaths. Ask your players to attach some internal pictures to the breaths…ask them what their best performance looks like or ask them to think about their training mentality (where they are more likely to play and compete loose, free and confidently).

Basic psychological skills are, as the name suggests, pretty basic. But they can be quite powerful! And you can help players implement these.

Self Talk

Self talk is another powerful psych skill that you can use to help a player deal with an upcoming game that makes them feel stressed.

“I’m not going to play well…the striker is so quick and so strong” needs to be re-framed into an inner dialogue that helps rather than hinders.

A crucial coaching technique in your toolbox involves asking the kind of questions that help player re-appraise.

“Ok, this striker is quick and strong – let’s accept that but let’s look at some solutions. Imagine you play an amazing game against this player – tell me what this looks like? What will you be thinking and doing?”

A question like this opens up a catalogue of inner pictures that helps a player problem solve. As a coach you need to listen in close – listen for the clues that the player will give you.

“I’ll be constantly on my toes and tight to him at the right times…I’ll be one step ahead at all times”

“On my toes” and “step ahead” might be clues here – help the player talk to himself about staying on his toes and playing head up. Help the player envision himself do this and set his personal objectives (his match script) revolving around these outcomes.

The 21st century coach is a great football psychologist. She’s a coach of mindset and has a passion for sport psychology. She helps players settle their nerves by helping them re-appraise the stress they inevitably feel going into a big game.