The Mental Game: Working on the 4th Pillar During COVID-19

NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SOCCER TODAY ON APRIL 13, 2020. 

Muhammad Ali once said, “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.”

 For those soccer players navigating the COVID-19 crisis, are you making the best use of your time?

Because when this crisis ends and we return to “normal,” it will be apparent who made the days count, and which players simply counted the days.

For the past couple of weeks, I have run 5-day “bootcamps” on how to improve your mental game during this interesting time. This Tuesday through Thursday, I will be running a soccer-specific webinar series from 7-8pm EDT, and U.S. soccer legend Julie Foudy will be making an appearance to talk about her mental game.

If social media is any indication, many players are putting in the work. It’s awesome to see so many clubs providing players and coaches with video tutorials on how to improve technical skills, footwork, and physical fitness. Many coaches are breaking down film with their teams in online sessions to improve their tactical knowledge and expertise.

But how many clubs are giving their players and coaches the skills to improve their mental game? After all, the psychological component makes up U.S. Soccer’s 4th pillar of player development (after tactical, technical, and physical).

Elite players know that, at every level, what separates the good from the great, and the great from the truly legendary, is the mental game. And here’s the beautiful part about this particular pillar. You might not have the tactical, technical, or physical skills to play like Christian Pulisic or Julie Ertz right now, but you can 100% learn to think like them.

Top players and coaches already know this, but they often don’t know how to improve their mental game.

As evidence, when I speak to college and high school athletes, I ask them what percentage (0-100%) of success in soccer depends on the mental game?

I’ve asked that question to close to 700 high school and college athletes over the past year, and the average answer I get is around 75%. Interestingly, college players often say it is higher than those in high school.

I then follow-up with a related question. “OK, so if you believe [X]% of success in soccer is dependent on the mental game, how much of your practice time is dedicated to improving it?

Not surprisingly, the consensus answer is “zero.”

So with that in mind, here are six practical tips on how to work on your mental game during this period and “make the days count.” You have the time to do it.                                       

1. Set Goals Like a Champion (hint: it’s the process, not the outcome, that’s important)

 When asked about their individual goals, many soccer players will offer a slew of “outcome” goals: make the U.S. national team, earn a Division-I scholarship, lead their league in goals, etc.

These are great and worthy goals, but what players need to make those goals a reality are “process” goals.

That’s because, on our own, we don’t have any control over outcome goals. As a player, you don’t get to determine your team’s lineup. You don’t control which opponents you play. You don’t sit on the All-American selection committee, and you don’t get to choose who’s on the national team.

After you decide on your outcome goals - or to steal a concept from Jim Collins, your “big, hairy, and audacious goals” – then ask yourself this question. What things do I control that will maximize my likelihood of achieving my big, hairy, audacious goal?

For example, you control your effort, intensity, and attitude on the pitch. You control your nutrition and your rest and recovery game. You control your conditioning program outside of practice. You control how you spend the 86,400 seconds in every day. In other words, you control your process.

If players only have outcome goals, they’re more likely to burnout, internalize failure, and suffer from self-esteem and identify issues when they fail to achieve their goal.

Focus on process goals, on the other hand, and you are more likely to persevere in the face of adversity. If you develop process goals and stick to them, you’ll be disappointed if you don’t achieve your big, hairy, audacious goal, but you wont’ be disappointed in yourself.

For teams, don’t be satisfied with saying your goal is to win a national championship or win your conference. Heck, every team has that goal at the start of the season. Instead, put some thought into what you can do on a daily basis that will maximize your chances of achieving those goals.

Focus on the process, and the outcomes will take care of themselves.

2. What You Say (to Yourself) Matters

Here’s one of my favorite exercises when I work with teams. I have players write down the two worst things they routinely say to themselves in practice or in competition.

“I’m a failure.” “I’m going to let the team down…again.” “I always choke in big moments.”

I then ask each player to turn to a teammate and say what they have written down, except they are to say it as though they were speaking to their teammate, instead of to themselves.

You’re a failure.” You’re going to let the team down…again.” “You always choke in big moments.”

When I ask them how it felt, players describe how difficult it was to tell their teammates such horrible things. “I would never be able to tell them those things,” they say.

Then the light-bulb goes off. 

If it felt uncomfortable saying those things to a teammate, what makes us think it is acceptable to say them to ourselves?

Do we think these negative comments are helping or hurting our performance?

The first step to fixing your self-talk game is to become self-aware when you’re being negative. Psychologists say you can mitigate these negative comments by replacing them with three positive comments.

Do you have three positive things you can say about your game right now? At the ready? If not, this is a great time to think about them. 

You don’t necessarily have to walk around as Pollyanna and thinking the world is all rainbows, unicorns, and lollipops. But you will enhance your performance if you learn how to remove negative self-talk from your game.

3. Mental Toughness: A Learned Skill

I define mental toughness as having the knowledge, ability, and discipline to perform at your best, regardless of the circumstances.

Do you know how to perform at your best? Do you have the ability to do it? And do you have the willpower and dedication to do it when times are tough?

Mental toughness means playing at your best when you’re down six goals or up six goals; when there are thousands of spectators in the stands and when nobody is watching; whether you’re starting or the last player off the bench; and whether you’re feeling great or when you know you have less than your “A” game.

Players should ask themselves after every practice and competition, if my performance was replayed in front of a jury of my peers, would there be sufficient evidence to “convict” me as a mentally tough player?

A lot of soccer players mistakenly believe they are mentally tough or that they’ll get mentally tough when needed. When the big moment in a game presents itself, they say, they’ll be ready.

They’re wrong. Mental toughness is developed through mental skills conditioning. Like lifting weights or improving your cardio, mental toughness is developed over time and consistent practice (hence the emphasis on conditioning).

You wouldn’t expect to get physically stronger if you’ve never lifted a weight. Similarly, you shouldn’t think you’re going to be mentally tough in the biggest moments if you’ve never worked on your mental game beforehand.

Mental toughness is not a switch we can turn on or off. It is a skill. It can be learned, practiced, and improved.

How can you practice mental toughness amidst this COVID-19 crisis? This week try removing one thing from your lifestyle that detracts from you achieving your big, hairy, audacious goal. Next week, add one habit that you haven’t been doing that will increase your chances of achieving your goal.

4. Gratitude: The Ultimate Antidote to Anxiety

Psychologists say that we can’t hold feelings of anxiety and gratitude in our head at the same time. 

There are lots of exercises that can help us tap into gratitude, including journaling exercises, mindfulness practices, filling a jar full of the things you are the most grateful for in your life. 

But one that I do with my athletes is to think of a time in their life when they were the most grateful. I encourage them to think of their happiest moments with family, where their hearts are ready to explode with joy and gratitude.

This gratitude moment could be a Christmas morning scene with parents and siblings around the tree, opening presents, with holiday music in the background, and the smell of gingerbread wafting in the air. It could be a wedding, graduation, or birthday party.

We play at our best when we are loose, focused, and confident. We play at our best when we are present, in the moment, and not worrying about the past or the future.

This exercise helps athletes get present. It makes them focus on what is truly important in their life. And I encourage them to transport themselves to that time and place, using as many of their senses as possible, to experience it.

The best part is that this exercise can help remove anxiety in any situation, not just in soccer.

What’s your gratitude moment? Don’t have one? This is a great time to come up with one.

5.Visualization: A Free and Powerful Performance Enhancing Activity

If there is one commonality in how many elite performers prepare for a big event, regardless of their profession, it is visualization.

Like the gratitude exercise above, visualization exercises get the athlete to perform their physical skills and movements in their head, using all five of their senses to make it as realistic as possible.

Done properly and consistently, the athlete reaps the benefits of additional repetitions. Visualization can improve confidence, muscle memory, and help reshape subconscious thoughts and beliefs so you can perform at your best when it matters the most.

Because our minds can have difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality (e.g. think of how we react to a realistic nightmare that wakes us out of a deep sleep), our visualizations can feel every bit as real as actual memories.

When Missy Franklin came out to race in the finals of the 200m backstroke at the 2012 Olympics, she noticed how stressed out her competitors looked on the pool deck. For many of them, this was their first time swimming in an Olympic final.

It also happened to be Franklin’s first time in an Olympic final, but thanks to her visualization exercises, where Franklin had put herself in this emotional moment time and time again, she wasn’t nervous. Instead, she was calm, focused, and confident. Crediting her visualization, Franklin said “it was as if it was my 50th time.”

Franklin would go on to win gold, breaking a world record in the process.

Incorporating visualization into your daily routine costs you nothing but time, and it can pay tremendous dividends for your confidence and ability to perform under pressure in the biggest moments.

6. Mental “Stretching”: Create a Pre-competition Routine

Speaking of routines, I bet that every player reading this has a specific sequence of stretching and calisthenics designed to warm-up their body and prepare it for competition.

But what about a stretching routine for your mental game? Do you have a consistent routine to prepare your mind for elite-level competition?

Talk to any coach, and they will likely tell you that that the first 15-20 minutes of practice are often unpredictable and unproductive.

But what if every player completed a quick 5-minute routine to transition from the outside world (e.g. student, employee, husband/wife) to the pitch? Better yet, what if coaches took the first 5 minutes of every practice to do a simple priming exercise to get every member of the team (player, coach, staff) on the same sheet of music, present, and ready to compete as one, at the highest level?

I work with individuals and athletes on these pre-competition routines. Whether your team calls it priming, mental skills conditioning, or mindfulness, these quick sessions usually involve some combination of deep breathing, visualization, and positive affirmations.

Making the Days Count

Whether this COVID-19 crisis lasts a month or several months, it will eventually end. And when it does end, and we are all back on the pitch, will you be ready?

Even though you may not have the ability to practice and compete as a team during this crisis, this is an important time to practice the 4th pillar of player development.

If you have the mindset that you’ll condition your mind like you condition your body, you’ll take your game (and your life) to the next level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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