Coping with fear is essential to being successful in any walk of life and football is no exception. Yal Bekar of Soccer Mindset Academy explains how overcoming negativity will help footballers perform at their very best.
With the FIFA World Cup in Russia 2018 well underway the hopes and expectations of fans of the competing nations are high.
But for England, the team went into this tournament with the least amount of expectation and their most inexperienced squad. The big question before a ball was kicked was would the young Lions perform to their full potential and translate their club form in the nation’s shirt?
England have secured their place in the next round following a confidence boosting win over Tunisia and a excellent display against Panama, the players seemingly coping well with the expectation levels.
In particular, the young players played with no fear and expressed themselves just like their manager Gareth Southgate asked of them. However, and this is the catch 22 situation for the England manager and his players, the low levels of expectation are now being fuelled by encouraging signs and positivity within the camp.
What started off being low key has begun to bubble over with media pundits and ex-players beginning to talk of England having a “fighting chance” of winning the tournament. Expect these levels to boil over should more positive results come their way.
So what is it about the mindset and the weight of expectation that has made past generations of England’s supremely talented footballers perform well below what we know they can?
“The mindset of expectation has a flip side, which is the mindset of consequence for not meeting those expectations and that happened when England played Iceland in Euro 2016,” explains Dr Matt Pain, former head of psychology at The Football Association.
“When England went behind in that game, their minds started to wander into the consequences of defeat and the reaction and level of criticism they would face back home. Once the mind starts to focus on these things instead of doing the job on the pitch, their decision making goes, fear and panic sets in and errors start to happen. The result is players with the experience of Wayne Rooney can struggle to make a pass or trap the ball,” continued Dr Pain.
The weight of expectation became so commonplace that former Liverpool player, Steven Gerrard even talks about a “culture of fear” surrounding the England team during his tenure as captain that contributed to this loss of form at key moments at major tournaments.
And herein lies the major issue with high levels of expectation – fear. Fear of failure. Fear of consequences. Fear of rejection by the nation. Fear of being the scapegoat and even fear of fear itself.
Jim Poole, CEO of Solace Lifesciences, the neuroscience company behind NuCalm, is an expert on fear and what happens when the fight or flight response hijacks the brain.
“Once the fear response is elicited, a cascade of physiological events happen in the midbrain resulting in a flood of the stress hormone Cortisol, the heart races, and breathing becomes shallow. This is a natural human response to protect you from a threat – real or perceived,” he explained.
“The main problem associated with fear during competition is the decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the frontal and prefrontal cortex – literally, when you are consumed by fear, you cannot think straight. We see this all the time in athletics when even the simplest skill cannot be executed effectively.
“Managing fear, managing stress, and managing anxiety are paramount to optimal performance and if an athlete can stay present in the moment without fear or judgment, they can achieve success even under tremendous pressure.”
The answer therefore seems so simple. Play with no fear. Helping players to maintain the enjoyment and freedom that can so often be clouded by fear and doubt is a key part of the work that’s done by Andy Barton, one of the leading performance coaches in the UK.
Barton believes we play internal movies of how we expect the future to be and it is essential for players to ensure that the script they write is the right one. Having worked with England youth internationals he explains why the curiosity and adventure that we associate with falling in love with the game should never be lost.
“You see it a lot,” Andy said. “Even with players as young as 10 or 11, who start playing well and they’re recruited into top academies. They can go from being carefree, happy to make mistakes and trying different things to protecting themselves and being fearful of outcomes.
“It can be quite ruthless for a young player to experience and the worry that they might get dropped from the team or academy itself takes over. You see it with top players as well where they may feel they have to justify being selected for the national team or protect their status and they end up going into these negative spirals. My focus is on keeping that desire and freedom to learn, even at the highest level. It’s such a key element of football,” explains Andy.
This is the first time England have had a full time psychologist travelling with the squad and at the tournament. This is now standard practice through the age groups for the first time with a mix of Full time and Part Time psychologists shaping the players’ mindset from first contact.
The England manager has also rightly focused on creating cohesion in the team – something that has been difficult for previous managers to do in the past – with Jamie Vardy even comparing the atmosphere in the camp like that of the famous Leicester team spirit that led them to their miraculous Premier League title win.
This cohesion has even given players such as Danny Rose the confidence to open up to the media to candidly talk about his own battle with depression. This vulnerability seems to have humanised Southgate’s players and has the media and general public supporting them.
As Oliver Holt, chief sports writer for The Daily Mail, reported from the England camp before the first game against Tunisia: “Jesse Lingard spoke at the media centre about the talent and the spirit among the 23 players Southgate has brought to Russia and the same words kept coming up. Freedom. Enjoyment. Youth. Pace. That is the environment Southgate is building. Freedom, enjoyment, youth and pace are the shibboleths around which he is creating an identity for this England squad for Russia 2018 and beyond. There is real optimism in the squad and it is infectious”.
By the time this magazine is printed we will know if Southgate’s skilful manipulation of expectation levels has had the desired effect on the mindset of the players. Will they continue to play with the freedom and enjoyment needed to do well in this tournament or will they capitulate in the face of much stronger opposition? And will Jamie Vardy be having another party this summer?
Combating The Fear of Expectation
Relax: As simple as this may sound, creating a relaxing environment will help put players in an alpha-state which is conducive to getting into and staying in the zone. As soon as fear and anxiety enter the mind you come out of the zone and performance suffers.
Focus: During a match the mind can wander & negativity can set in so get players to focus on what they can do on the pitch – if they focus on their immediate goals, negativity won’t take root. The more they dwell on any negativity the quicker it grows.
Cultivate: Don’t be afraid of mistakes – develop a culture where mistakes are seen as feedback to getting better rather than a failure. Let players know its ok to make mistakes and allow them to play with freedom knowing they will not be fed to the three lions!
Yal Bekar is founder Of Soccer Mindset Academy – the world’s first online mental skills training platform for young footballers – helping them perform on the big stage.
Image: PA Images