In soccer, the psychological strength of players is key to winning games and continuing improvement. Mental fitness is an often overlooked part of coaching, and many players are not aware of how big an impact their mindset has on their performance.
Soccer can be stressful for a variety of reasons. Your team might be on a losing streak. Maybe you made some mistakes or received some tough feedback from a coach. Perhaps you’re thinking about college soccer and worried about recruiters watching you play. Any of these things can cause anxiety, which could cause players to lose focus and hurt performance. A good mindset could be the difference between winning and losing.
Tips for Building a Winning Mentality on the Soccer Pitch
Adopt a Growth Mindset
As players seek to improve, there will inevitably be setbacks. The key difference between great players and mediocre players is how athletes deal with those setbacks. USMNT Coach Gregg Berhalter is a huge proponent of this growth mindset and what he calls “positive coaching.” His goal is to create the right environment by empowering players, listening to players, and using positive language. The key to adopting a growth mindset is understanding that you as an athlete have the power to improve, versus having a fixed mindset and believing that you will never catch up to your teammates because they have natural abilities that make them better.
In this iconic Michael Jordan ad, he states: “I failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” This is a prime example of a growth mindset.
Use Positive Self-Talk
One thing nearly every struggles with is confidence on the soccer pitch. Self-confidence is something you can change. And the easiest way to change your confidence level is to change the way you talk to yourself.
Athletes who have positive inner dialogue are able to increase their motivation, control emotions better, and engage in better self-reflection, which helps them get better faster.
Avoid negative words like, “I can’t beat this team”, “I should be playing better”, “I have to score during this game.” These words increase anxiety, and they make playing soccer more like a chore than something you should enjoy doing.
Use positive phrases such as, “I’ve prepared for this match”, “I’m grateful for my coaches and teammates”, “I’m choosing to be present on the field”, “I believe I can score during this game”, and “This game is another opportunity to learn and improve”.
Visualize Yourself Before the Match
Take some time to visualize yourself before your matches. Run through scenarios that you might find yourself in, whether that’s beating someone 1-on-1 or scoring an important goal if you’re an offensive player. Don’t do this half-heartedly. You should visualize every aspect of the game, from the smell of the grass on the pitch to the feel of your jersey on your skin.
This visualization is basically a way to rehearse and control your mindset. This is a common practice among Olympic athletes, but it can just as easily be used by youth soccer players. Bob Bowman, the coach of Michael Phelps, would have Phelps watch a “mental videotape” of his races before falling asleep and when he woke up, believing these visualizations helped to develop helpful mental triggers and habits that would become second nature.
Accept That Jitters and Some Anxiety Are Normal
Before a soccer match, even the most well-prepared players will have some nervous energy. This is a natural process. Your body is producing adrenaline because you are entering a competition. This might mean you feel some tension, have a tight jaw, or even become a bit more aggressive than usual.
The wrong thing to do is to dwell on this anxiety. This will only distract you from warming up, stretching, and mentally preparing. The best way to keep yourself in the right mindset is to focus on your breathing.
Get Your First Touch As Soon As Possible
The sooner you get your first touch in a soccer match, the sooner you’ll realize that all your practice has made playing soccer second nature. Jitters will likely fall away. The more you actively involve yourself in the game, the more chances you have to demonstrate your abilities and the less mental bandwidth you’ll be able to dedicate to anxiety.
If you’ve ever watched any professional sport, you’ll know that even the top athletes can get tight at the beginning of matches. Everyone faces some level of tension when performing in front of an audience, but the sooner they get into the rhythm of playing, the sooner they can hit peak performance.