I sometimes wish it was as simple as some soccer fans would like to think!
I’m often listening to soccer phone-in shows on the radio while I’m on the road coming back from a game or from training. And I hear the same frustration week in, week out. “My team aren’t playing with passion!” “Since he’s arrived he’s not shown even a bit of passion!” “She needs far more passion!”
This player isn’t passionate. That player has no passion. This team is passionless. That team needs an injection of passion.
I wish it was just about passion I really do. Then perhaps my job really would be simple (let alone the job of a manager!)
Passion in soccer certainly is alluring. More sprints, working harder than everyone else on the pitch, challenging with power and aggression…these are the kind of behaviours that align themselves with the notion of passion. And they’re certainly behaviours that many ‘winners’ exhibit I can’t deny that.
But performance in soccer never has been and never will be just about demonstrating high levels of passion. And that, my soccer friends, is based on science! It’s based on how we function as human beings.
I was speaking with a former French International rugby player recently. Upon learning that I was a sport psychologist he told me that his problem wasn’t the will to win…his problem wasn’t being ‘up for it’. His problem wasn’t having a passion as such. He explained that his problem was managing his urges and desires, his want, his will and his aggressiveness. His problem was that he wanted so much to do well that he let emotion cloud his judgement. From time to time an excess of emotion…his inner drive…prevented him from playing intelligently. He wasn’t finding that internal ‘sweet-spot’ that translates as intelligent effort under pressure.
And his words ring true for soccer players and all soccer players for that matter. It’s something all supporters, all coaches and all soccer parents need to know. Soccer is more chess than assault course. It’s more intelligence than emotion. That doesn’t mean positive emotions (and even some negative ones) aren’t important ingredients in the make-up of an individual footballer and the collective of the team. It’s just that managed emotion with intelligence is the perfect cocktail for high performers.
Managed emotion with intelligence is the perfect cocktail for high performers
The truth (or at least a scientific hypothesis that gets closer to the truth) about so called passion and performance was actually uncovered in the middle of the last century. Yes it was that long ago! In fact, we have to go as far back as 1959 for the answer. During that year, a psychologist named J A Easterbrook ran some experiments to further the understanding we have of the relationship between arousal, attention and performance. This is what he found.
From his work he argued that arousal (change the word arousal for passion if you want) produces a graded focussing of attention. In an initiallyn un-aroused state, you will be able to attend to a large amount of available information, both relevant and irrelevant to the task at hand. So let’s put this in footballing terms. This is BAD for performance. When you’re out having a kick about with mates in the park, and you’re very relaxed, just passing the ball to each other, this is when you have a very low level of arousal. You attend to the ball but you may also attend to all kinds of other stuff…such as someone walking their dog in the park. That’s not going to help you compete at your best…you’ll play distracted and without purpose. This kind of player definitiely needs an injection of passion! (Although no serious player ever competes like this!)
At moderate levels of arousal, irrelevant information is selectively ignored, leaving more attention for important information. This is, in very simply terms, the ideal level of arousal. It’s where passion works! At this level the dog walker disappears, as you become more absorbed in the game. This is the kind of ‘state’ that I want footballers to play in. This state will be slightly different for different individuals…but by and large this is the sweet spot. If you think of all of the techniques I talk about in my books and at my Academy…HPM, Game Face, Match Script, Controllers, Squashing ANTs, Raising Bars, Soccer Image, Going Dark, Match Routine, Memory, Imagination, Messi Mindset…I could go on and on and on…then be aware that this is what I’m trying to achieve with them…to help players of all ages and abilities find this sweet spot (at least that’s part of the battle won!!)
And then there’s too much passion…
More arousal, or passion if you will, will be to the detriment of performance. This is because as arousal further increases, attention becomes more centralised. In soccer terms a player will miss the periphery information. A player will suffer from tunnel vision. And in a complicated game like soccer…where information is constantly thrown at you…information the player has to act on or has to make decisions as a consequence of…then performance really does suffer. Awareness lessened…anticipation slower…decision making poor.
And this is why passion is a problem. Players can’t run around like headless chickens. They have to be able to see the important things in their environment. They have to be able to solve the problems the game throws at them.
This is what I want for you…or for your players. Play at the right level of passion. Play at your correct arousal level. Play with a keen cocktail of intelligence and emotion. Play in your passion sweet spot.
You know i’ts not that hard to find your passion sweet spot. But you do have to know how. This is why I’ve created so many simple to use mental skills and psychological techniques. Just work on that Game Face and practice it day after day. Just get your Controllers out and use them in training session after training session. Just unleash your Match Script so you compete in your HPM…it’s so simple, it’s so easy…when you know how!