The World Championships Football have started and I already look forward to the inevitable nerve-racking penalty series during the knock-out rounds. Who copes best with  pressure? Why do star players sometimes miss out (like Messi in the first match of Argentina) while less talented players  score effortlessly? Is it possible to train the penalty shootout? Opinions differ, certainly in the Netherlands. Of course you can train shooting on the goal from 11 meter, but many experts say you cannot simulate the intense pressure of the moment.

During the regular time as well, there are multiple situations when a player in a split second can lose the ball or find a brilliant opening. Professional football players train intensely on technique, running patterns and automatisms in the team.
Yet, it does not always work out that way in a real match. Often this is blamed on players being uninspired or selfish or their physical condition and so on. This is not what you expect from a professional footballer on forehand. In general I think it is safe to say that professional footballers are well trained and have a huge will to win, every match again, every pass again.
The reason football players not always succeed is because it’s much more difficult to think clearly under pressure. Coaches know this, that is  why they motivate their team to pressurize the opponent by chasing them constantly or as they say “playing with a knife between their teeth”. They hope this will result opponents failing to think clearly. However, if your team is not able to think clearly either, this may result in awful tackles and fouls. We will most certainly see those at this World Cup as well.

How do you recognize when players no longer think clearly?

Clinical Psychologist Taibi Kahler has categorized a number of stress behaviours, which we also see in football:

  1. Overcontrolling
    F.i a player does not pass to other players anymore, wants to do everything himself, is critical of others.
  2. Pushes believes or crusades
    F.i. a player pushes his opinions against fellow players, opponent, trainer, referee and/or the linesman and does not accept the decisions of others.
  3. Makes mistakes
    F.i. wrong ball seizure, wrong passes, waiting too long to pass, so he loses the ball or misses the chance.
  4. Manipulates / breaks rules / takes extreme risks
    The well-known dives, asking for yellow cards, rough tackles, very risky actions or neglecting his defence duty.
  5. Withdraw
    F.i. a player withdraws from the game and only acts when he is urged to do so.
  6. Blaming
    F.i.  a player who blames others “it was your man” and does not take responsibility for his own actions

None of these behaviours will benefit the players performance, the team and the result. Well, why do they do it and how can you prevent this? How do you ensure your players remain thinking clearly while under pressure?

We distinguish two types of stress, eustress (the positive tension you need to perform) and distress (the tension that leads to the behaviour you see above). We can experience the same situation sometimes as eustress and the other time as distress. This also explains why a player excels under pressure one time and fails the other time.

Fulfilling psychological needs play an important role in this. Taibi Kahler recognizes eight psychological needs that we all have to a greater or lesser extent. Failure to meet your main psychological need lead to predictable distress behaviour. This explains why you may observe the same stress behaviour again and again by the same player. Fulfilling psychological needs improve the ability of clear thinking.

Which psychological needs are there and which distress behaviours relate?

  1. Recognition of work
    The trainer expresses his appreciation for a players commitment.  Lack of recognition of work may lead to the distress behaviour of over-controlling.
  2. Time structure
    The trainer offers structure, you know what is expected and when. Some players and teams have rituals before a match. Lack of structure may lead to compensating by over-controlling distress behaviour and becoming critical of others.
  3. Recognition of opinions
    The trainer asks for a players opinion and/or vision. If you experience that people do not listen or respect your opinion, you may push your believes or crusade until they listen
  4. Recognition of person
    The trainer and the team express their appreciation for a player as a person. If you do not experience recognition of a person, you might start pleasing to be liked. This can ultimately lead to making mistakes and/or difficulties in decision making.
  5. Sensory
    You provide a pleasant environment, good music and/or good food. If this need is not met, it can also lead to the distress behaviour of making mistakes.
  6. Challenge
    The trainer makes a player special or gives a special assignment or a player has his own challenge. Not having a challenge or experiencing that the challenge is not feasible (anymore) can lead to distress behaviour of manipulation or creating drama or breaking rules to have the thrill of the challenge.
  7. Solitude
    The trainer offers some privacy to help the player recharge and focus, some players put on headphones create their own space. Lack of solitude, may result in the distress behaviour of withdrawal.
  8. Contact
    Just some physical touch, or a little joke. Lack of playful contact can lead to failure to take responsibility and the above-described distress behaviour of blaming.Taking good care of your own psychological needs and that of your teammates, can significantly improve the performance of your team and yourself. This applies both in sports and in “real life”.

    Richard van der Veen  is a trainer / coach of entrepreneurs, managers and professionals in improving their personal, team and business performance. For this he uses the Process Communication Model® from dr. Taibi Kahler. A scientifically based and very practical instrument to improve communication and motivation and to manage stress behaviour.

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