The Mind Leads, the Body Follows

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There’s more to mental toughness than simply watching an inspirational video, playing an upbeat song on loop, or looking around for inspiration before taking the field — regardless of whether it’s training or match play. This post will break down a few components about mental toughness and how to implement these principles into your instruction, playing, and every day approach to the game.

Get your mind right.

The most important principle is the most simple. Get your mind right — that is, purge the emotional and mental clutter in your head. Yesterday is gone, the future is a mirage, and all that matters is this very moment. Win the battle between you and you. Yes, you read that correctly — win the mental battle between the part of you that let’s things like fear, doubt, and anger, and panic rule the roost and that part of you is full of clarity and calmness. Oftentimes, players end up fighting a multitude of battles before they even take the field. How can you expect to play well if you’re dwelling on the past, playing scared, passing the responsibility instead of the ball?

So, how do we get our mind right? Simple: exist in the present. Some of the best professionals engage in a very breathing exercise to get them ready to compete. One such strategy is the Wim Hof Method (linked here). Essentially, top level athletes are masters of controlling their nervous and auto-nervous systems. That is, they control their breathing, emotions, and focus on the “now”. Another way to get your mind right is to simply relax. No matter how nervous, anxious, angry, or apathetic you may feel — remember that the mind leads, the body follows.

Another method is to focus on things at the micro level instead of at the macro level. Instead of thinking about the whole game, think about your role in the game. See yourself connecting passes, getting involved, taking a positive first touch, winning your one vs. one duels. Then, during warm-up, don’t jog around with apathy. Instead, try to get 1,000-2,000 touches in on your own. To do that means you have to arrive early and prepared. Work on getting your muscles and mind on the same plain. Perform foundational touches and keep-ups to hone that first touch and get those synapses firing. That way, by the time everyone else arrives and the whistle blows for kick-0ff, you’re ready to dominate.

Stop hoping and moping.

No player can get far by merely hoping things work out for them. Additionally, every player takes a step back when they mope. Look, hoping your opponent will take it easy on you or have a bad game might work once or twice, but it’s no way to really be a dominant player. Furthermore, when results go poorly, don’t mope. Own your mistakes and move on. Don’t hope things get easier or that you’ll have a great game. Instead, go out and make it so. Your teammates want to see you battle through the struggles, your coaches want to see some maturity, your parents want to see some independence and resilience. NOBODY WANTS TO SEE YOU SULK EXCEPT YOUR OPPONENTS. People don’t respect negative people or weak personalities on the field. Work on “leaving no doubt”, which means preparing yourself for the good, bad, and the ugly. If you’re off your game, that’s OK. Refocus your energy on doing what you can control to make it better. Remember, we can only worry about what we control.

Things you control:

  • Your starting position
  • Your attitude
  • Communication with others
  • Your emotions
  • Your decision making
  • Your reactions

Before you take the field, know that you’re ready to play and you’re good enough to be on the field. Know that you’re going to work as hard and smart as possible to help your team. Know that there’s always something you can work at and that you’re going to do your best regardless of what happens that day.

Finally, take 5-10 minutes after practice or a game to “decompress” alone. Focus on what you did well and write down a few things you could have done better and move on.

Simplify your game.

This is code for “playing within yourself”. Look, some players play the piano, others carry it. What that means is if you’re not a playmaker, don’t play-make. Know your role and play within it. If there’s something you want to try, try it “when it’s on” — that is, when a player has made a run or the shot was there to be taken in the moment. But if you find yourself taking too many touches, dribbling when you should pass it, yelling at others and getting yelled at in return, concentrate on the simple things. Connect the five yard pass and provide an angle for a return pass. Instead of panicking when the ball comes to you, pick your head up, have a look, and connect a pass. If you’re not a dribbler, don’t put yourself in a position where you have to dribble. The game will get chaotic; it is up to you to simplify your game by playing within yourself. Work on shutting out “the noise” from the sideline peanut gallery (the parents and spectators). Don’t “boot it” every time. Pass the ball and move. Create angles for teammates. Support attacking play. Establish yourself early and often. If you made a mistake five minutes ago I have a secret for you: NOBODY CARES BUT YOU! And those that do care are more willing to dwell on the past than the present; therefore, they aren’t worth listening to until the game or training session is over.

Forget about it.

You will make a mistake. Then, you’ll make another and another. Forget about it. Move on. Do better next time. Simple.

Stop playing to impress others. 

Stop trying to impress mom and dad. Don’t try to dribble out of the back because your girlfriend is watching. This is called “taking the piss” in some circles. Don’t be a clown; be a footballer. There’s a time and a place to take risks and try something fun. Remember, if you piss the ball away, you’d better be willing to “put out your own fire” and own whatever consequences transpire as a result of your actions. That means you aren’t playing within yourself and your mind isn’t right. However, if you do all the things to get your mind right, the body will follow — and guess what? Everyone will be impressed.If you find yourself concerned about what others think or feel, you’re playing for them, not yourself or your team. The team should come first.

This extends to your conduct as well. Don’t try to be a hard ass just because you feel like it. Consider what your lack of discipline says about you — you’re a bad teammate and a mentally unfocused player. Your opponent knows he has you in his or her back pocket. They own you mentally and emotionally. Don’t be governed by reactionary emotions. When things get edgy don’t back down, but don’t get caught up in the extracurriculars. Be tough in the right ways.

The only people you ought to be worrying about are your teammates. Work for them and they will work for you. That in and of itself will send positive messages to the coach and anyone watching. People are most impressed by good, creative, and disciplined play.

Happy players are better players.

You are at your best when you are able to smile, laugh, shake off adversity, and enjoy your football. Allow yourself to be and feel happy on the field. Let the positive part of your personality shine through in your play. Embrace challenges and develop a positive swagger, which breeds confidence and competence.

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