The Whitehouse Address looks into the key factor in developing young footballers

In a previous article titled The Key Factors in Creating Elite Footballers, The Whitehouse Address looked into some of the reasons why and how young footballers progress from the grassroots game to becoming professional. 

Aspects such as opportunity, quality coaching, 10,000 hours, scouting and with most things a bit of fortune all play a part in creating a footballer. It is not a definitive list yet these are the factors which appear the most important for a player to move along the spectrum. 

The final aspect which was covered was a player’s mindset. It has been found by many researchers that a player’s psychology and their mindset is the difference between becoming an elite professional and staying an amateur. Thus this aspect of sport psychology is clearly a field which needs to be looked into further.

Sport psychology. The key factor in developing footballers

What do, top-level athletes, all have in common? They have mastered the skill of mental toughness and have a strong football mind. Mental toughness is a learned skill, that it is a necessity for all athletes to master and needs to be trained as frequently and seriously as you would train your body physically.

Technique, speed and tactical execution are crucial components of football, but it is mental toughness that marks out the very best players – the ability to play when pressure is highest, the opposition is strongest, and fear is greatest. Top players and coaches understand the importance of sport psychology in football but how do you actually train your mind to become the best player you can be?

Young footballers have many barriers to restrict their development to becoming a professional. Dealing with injury, setbacks and making mistakes can all have a detrimental effect on a player during his developmental years. Being able to train the mind and work on improving a players mindset has become an important tool in helping young footballers deal with setbacks and allow them to continue on their journey.

Therefore in youth academies across the country, the psychology of young individuals can be argued to be the single most important factor in turning a good player into an elite one.

In order to get a deeper understanding of sports psychology The Whitehouse Address has been fortunate to get an interview with one of the foremost football psychology consultants in Europe. Dan Abrahams has worked with more than a dozen professional clubs and hundreds of players over the past 10 years. His passion is simple; he wishes to demystify sport psychology and create practical, simple techniques to help football players win.

Dan has spread his soccer psychology philosophies across the soccer globe and his mindset techniques are now used by players and coaches across the world. His new book Soccer Tough is destined to become on the best football books available and is essential reading for all football players, coaches and parents who want to excel in the world’s most popular sport.

The purpose of this interview is to give you an insight into the purpose and importance of sport psychology and why it should be a part of your training and development plan. As an expert on psychology and having worked with many professional athletes Dan is the perfect man to give more insight into this key factor of player development.

Interview with Dan Abrahams

Hello Dan,

Many thanks for joining The Whitehouse Address to give us an insight into the importance of sport psychology.

1)      What made you want to become a sports psychologist?

I was a professional golfer in my early twenties and a pretty poor one at that. I had a bit of ability but what really held me back was my mindset – dealing with pressure, building confidence etc. I was very motivated but I found the soft skills the hard skills to improve. I started to coach golf and that merely compounded my interest in sport psychology. So I headed to university and did a degree in psychology and masters in sport psychology.

2)      What is sports psychology and why is it so important for developing elite footballers?

Applied sport psychology is helping people optimise their thought, focus, feeling and behavioural processes to develop skill quicker, as well as improve emotional, social and performance toughness and intelligence so they perform better. On the performance side you’re helping competitors high perform, more consistently under pressure

On the performance side of football, psychology is important because of the nature of the game and the structure of the brain. As I describe in my new book ‘Soccer Tough’ football is a game of mindset for several reasons. It is a game of fine margins – so why not work to become slightly mentally tougher – an inch here an inch there will help you perform better. From a brain perspective whilst football is a quick game, the brain trumps football for speed – it works in milliseconds. The brain throws up thoughts and feelings as we compete. And it is negatively biased.

From a development perspective to my mind the elephant in the room in British football is emotional literacy. Young players need to improve when it comes to managing themselves emotionally and socially on and off the pitch. The ability to cope with adversity is a strong mediator of speed of skill acquisition. I see so many emotionally illiterate youngsters in the game.

3)      Is a players mentality the “glass ceiling” to becoming an elite level player?

It depends how you define mentality. I think there are players who are perceived to have limited ability but who will run through a brick wall for you. But these players could improve the cognitive skills of anticipation, pattern recognition, decision making, awareness etc and that would help raise their technical and tactical ability.

There are players with great skill but who could use sport psychology to raise their intensity levels. Sport psychology offers a diverse range of soft skills that every footballer could use to improve weaknesses and areas of challenge. I think its impact would work on a more subtle level for some.

4)      Why has English football taken so long to open up to psychology?

I think the fault lies with both football and psychology. The sport psychology industry is all over the place. You can become an NLP practitioner in 2 weeks and some of these people are actually listened to by sports people.

 At the same time those who are ‘fully qualified’ as a sport psychologist don’t necessarily know how to sell psychology in. They can make it too complicated talking about complex theories – things coaches and footballers don’t necessarily want to hear. 

The word ‘psychology’ comes heavily loaded and suggests ‘problem’ or mental health. I see myself as a stretch not a shrink and my book Soccer Tough aims to address this.

That said football needs to be more open minded to all performance components. I guess fear of the unknown is a big factor.

5)      English players are often said to be technically inferior to other players from around the world. Yet is it more about their mental strength rather than technical?

No, I think the reasons behind that are multidimensional. Football in Britian has got itself ‘stuck’ in a development and coaching pattern that is taking a long time to get out of. It rewards physicality above skill and is founded on an underlying philosophy of ‘you have it or you don’t.’ I’d like to see the top clubs develop a more holistic coaching process and more patient demeanour when it comes to developing players. With the EPPP I think this is already happening.

6)      Do you believe that the way young players are coached, trained and communicated with, effects their development?

I think you would have to be on a different planet to think otherwise. Style of coaching, language, relationship behaviours, club cultures, coaching systems – all heavily mediate the speed and effectiveness of development.

7)      Many young players appear to play “within” themselves and often appear afraid of making mistakes. What do you believe is the reason for this and what could sports psychology do to improve these players, make them more confident and ultimately improve them as player?

The reason stems from the evolution of the human and the fight, flight, freeze psychological and physiological process. Sport psychology can provide simple techniques to help players deal with the maladaptive thoughts and feelings they experience ‘under pressure.’ But the discipline can also upskill and educate coaches to be able to develop sessions that help young players deal with the natural impulse to compete with fear.

8)      How important is a players “mindset” to become a better player?

I think where mindset fits is complex. It underpins technique and tactics and game intelligence and also mediates how well those qualities are executed on game day. I’m not a big one for saying – it’s 80% of the game or whatever.

Psychology, the brain, mindset etc are important parts of the process of improvement and performance. I think if you’re asking about sport psychology – it makes a small but important difference. There are things I can do that coaches may never have the time to be able to do (nor able to because of their role as decision maker) – but I do believe a big part of my job is upskilling coaches.

9)      What key tips would you give to a young footballer wishing to become professional?

Have fun, train and play with freedom and focus. The 3 F’s!!! Oh and read my book Soccer Tough ;-)

Train the mind to become the best you can be 

So there you go, if we are serious about developing elite footballers who can compete with the best in the world then we must seek to use all disciplines open to us. Sport psychology has started to become more accepted both with senior players and with youth academies and many are waking up to the understanding that sport psychology is a valuable tool to further the development of football players of all ages. 

Yet what about the rest? Are parents and grassroots coaches aware of the impact that they are having on their players and do they know techniques that could help and further the development of their players and their children? Imagine if more people working with our youth were aware of the positive impact sport psychology can have on the development of our children.

Essential reading

Dan Abrahams book Soccer Tough is the ideal companion and guide to helping players to train their minds to become the best player they can be. Soccer Tough demystifies the crucial side of the game and offers practical techniques that will enable soccer players of all abilities to actively develop focus, energy and confidence. 

Soccer Tough helps banish the fear, mistakes and mental limits that holds players back. In the book Dan shares the real life techniques which he has used to develop professional players from reserve level to international level and his ability to turn demoralised youth team players into first team players.

Soccer Tough aims to aims to make each player the best they can be. It is a great tool for players, coaches and parents. As well as exploring how the best football players think, Soccer Tough’s value is that it gives actual practical techniques that can be used to aid the development of young players.

If you have a real desire to develop youth players then Soccer Tough is an essential read to help you achieve this.

You can see more of Dan Abrahams here

The book will enable you as a player and coach to;

  • Train your soccer brain and performance mindset to play more consistently and deliver under pressure

  • Use the power of Body Language to play with energy and intensity

  • Create dynamic mental Scripts that pinpoint focus and give your game mental structure

  • Utilise commanding Self-Talk to develop certainty and performance confidence

  • Boost your self-belief through Visualisation and imagery