Given the money at stake and the size of the audience, footballers at the elite level can be forgiven for making the odd mistake. Further down the leagues, players know that failing to perform might spell the end of their professional careers. Youngsters in academies are also at risk of buckling under the weight of expectation. Many of them are seen as ‘future stars’ by their families, but their chances of ‘making it’ are still minute. Former FA Head of Talent Identification, Richard Allen, said that “only 0.5% of those signed by a professional club aged Under 9 will go all the way through to play in the club’s first-team.”
The fear of failure among footballers, from the Champions League right down to development teams, is understandable. When nerves take over, however, failure becomes far more likely, and so it’s important for coaches to help players manage their anxiety.
Quite often, they will have no problem performing at their best in training, but struggle to reach those levels on matchday. As we will discover, mental preparation in a variety of forms can help to bridge the gap between practice and competitive fixtures.
Understanding anxiety & its impact on athlete performance
Anxiety occurs when the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear, responds to a perceived threat by releasing noradrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. These stress hormones increase heart rate, elevate blood pressure, and boost energy supplies, preparing our bodies for fight or flight.
This response is there to aid us in dealing with situations that are deemed important or threatening and without it, we wouldn’t be able to recognise danger and respond accordingly. Some level of arousal is necessary for athletes to compete at a high level, increasing their focus, speed of thought and anticipation. However, excessive amounts can hinder performance substantially. The Yerkes-Dodson curve below illustrates this idea.
When an individual is suffering from a heightened state of anxiety, their brain will often enter survival mode. Thoughts become restricted mostly to the primitive limbic system, preventing the higher-level thinking that occurs in the frontal lobes. In moments where problem-solving and creativity are required, this can lead to impaired performance.
Conversely, high levels of anxiety can also lead an athlete to ‘overthink’ in moments that call for a more ‘automatic’ response. Part of our pre-frontal cortex becomes activated when we are learning a new movement, but when we have carried out a specific task repeatedly over a long period of time, the control of these movements becomes the responsibility of our cortex-basal ganglia-thalamus loop.
This transfer from our conscious minds to our unconscious minds allows us to execute certain skills efficiently and quickly without having to apply significant amounts of attention. Athletes often choke when they make the mistake of bringing conscious awareness to movements, as this disrupts the automatic processes that have been built up over years of practice.
Ultimately, football is about solving problems and executing actions quickly and effectively. Letting anxiety get in the way of our ability to carry out tasks of these natures can have a substantial impact on a player’s overall performance.
When the occasion is significant, entire teams can ‘freeze’ under pressure. An example of this could be England’s infamous defeat to Iceland in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. After going 2-1 behind in the 18th minute, Roy Hodgson’s men looked void of ideas, while they also lost their ability to perform seemingly straightforward actions. Assistant coach Gary Neville later stated that he ‘could never explain what happened’.
Gareth Southgate took over as Three Lions head coach later that year, and has consistently spoken about the importance of helping players to psychologically prepare for competition. (source: Boot Room)
“There are lots of barriers for players which inhibit their performance – most of them psychological – so you have to try and make them overcome that and try and limit the interference in their performance.”
For players and teams to avoid freezing under pressure, they must understand what is happening in their brain during competition and how to retain control over these processes. This article will outline some strategies that can be used to combat sports-related performance anxiety.
Strategies for managing nerves
The brain’s frontal lobes are involved in rational thought and the synchronisation of signals before they are sent to the body. To execute a variety of actions efficiently and consistently, It’s important that players have clear minds heading into games. Performance stress can be eased by giving players simple tasks, and should help them to make composed decisions on the field.
For example, you might give your winger three basic goals for a specific match: 1. provide width so the opponent’s back line is stretched 2. offer in behind when the opposing fullback tries to get tight to you 3. if the defender steps off: offer to receive short and try to beat him 1v1 before delivering a cross to the box.
These easy to follow tasks should bring structure to the game amid all the complexity and stress, helping the player to remain calm. Once he becomes comfortable and confident in the setting, he can gradually begin to play with more freedom.
The idea of growing into the game is something that former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger often spoke about. Following his return from a double leg break, midfielder Aaron Ramsey was struggling to perform. Criticism began to mount from fans at the Emirates, but Wenger stuck with the Welshman, telling him to return to basics until he becomes more confident.
“In football you slowly get confidence back and then you play naturally again. The problem is that if you play a great shot in golf or tennis, when you go to your next game you want to play the same shot again. But it doesn’t work like that. You have to do basics, basics, basics, and then slowly you get into the zone where it becomes easier. You have to get back to basics to gain confidence.”
Overall, setting simple tasks can help to relax a player’s mind during competitive action by bringing structure to chaos.
Our brains often struggle to tell the difference between the real and the imaginary. Often simply thinking about being in a dangerous situation will provoke the same physiological response as actually being in that situation. Although this can be an annoyance at times, we can also use it to our advantage.
Preparing for games using visualisation techniques can help players to achieve success come matchday. By repeatedly imagining yourself in game-like scenarios and considering how you would handle them, they should feel more familiar when they occur in reality.
Additionally, it should help a player to feel more confident about the potential outcomes of the game, again reducing self-doubt and anxiety. Speaking to ESPN in 2012, Wayne Rooney revealed that visualisation has been an important part of his preparation throughout his career.
“I go and ask the kit man what colour we’re wearing, if it’s red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game. I don’t know if you’d call it visualizing or dreaming but I’ve always done it, my whole life.”
When it comes to visualisation, it’s important to use as much detail as possible to create a vivid mental image of the occasion. Conor Mcgregor’s former coach spoke about how the UFC champion used to walk through upcoming fights repeatedly in his head, saying that Mcgregor had “warmed up backstage, heard the crowd, smelt the arena, he really immersed himself in the fight night”. By the time the actual event came along, this mental preparation helped the Irishman to feel as though he had already been there “a thousand times”.
Along with visualising future scenarios in detail, training in conditions similar to the ones that will exist in an upcoming game should also help to reduce anxiety. For example, practicing penalties with loud noise in the background can desensitize the player to future penalties taken in competitive circumstances, whereby opposing fans are likely to deploy distraction techniques.
Trust your training
As mentioned earlier, overthinking involves consciously trying to perform movements that have already been mastered and are normally performed automatically. By practicing certain actions over and over again, individual’s develop procedural memory associated with the specific tasks.
Common examples of procedural memories include walking and riding a bike. We can perform these actions without having to be consciously aware of exactly how we are doing so. Simply repeating a football procedure repeatedly should eventually lead our brains to convert the thoughts relating to executing the action from our conscious minds to our unconscious minds.
When performing actions that rely heavily on our training, such as finishing, it’s important to prevent our conscious mind from disrupting the automatic processes. We can keep our pre-frontal cortex occupied by focusing on the direction we wish to strike the ball towards, allowing our unconscious mind to do the rest of the work.
The psychologist of golfer Tiger Woods used to tell him to let his training take over during competition. Wood’s tirelessly practiced his game, before getting out of his own way and trusting that his preparation could get the job done. This mindset allowed him to perform by preventing any perceived pressures from blurring his mind in the moment or paying attention to the physical procedures required to execute the action. Gary Neville also spoke about using this technique during his playing career at Manchester United.
“I remember the psychologist saying ‘the only way you’re going to come out of this is through hard work. Go into training earlier, stay later. Trust in your work’.”
Neville also mentioned that by putting in the hard hours, you go into games with a feeling that you deserve to play well, further removing any self-doubt.
Another important thing for athletes to consider is that anxiety is a matter of perception. Our bodies respond the same way to ‘stressful’ events as they do to ‘exciting’ ones, and so it’s down to the individual how they interpret the physical symptoms.
Furthermore, if a player’s ‘self-talk’ is negative, a negative outcome is more likely. By focusing your attention on an undesirable result, you put yourself at risk of disrupting the processes involved in decision making and execution. Instead, always think of the best outcome in any given scenario, and trust that your training is sufficient to produce a positive outcome.
As shown throughout this article, striking a balance between too much and too little anxiety is a complex task. However, it can be achieved by developing an understanding of how the brain works during competition and what we need to do in order to help it function effectively.