Psychology in football is nothing new. That said, the use of psychology on footballers to improve their performance certainly is new. Steve McLaren was famed for using sports psychologists with his players whilst at Derby County and brought this with him to Manchester United, when he took on a role as assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson.
During his time as Latics’ boss, Roberto Martinez took advice from the then-on-loan defender Paul Scharner, who famously used life coach Valentine Hobel to fine-tune his mind ahead of any games. The mental well-being of players can prove all-important and it seems that modern footballers and managers agree.
After the Latics suffered a crushing 3-2 home defeat by Swansea, Martinez responded in a unique fashion. Speaking to John Edwards of the Mail, Scharner said of the manager’s response: ‘When we walked into the training ground canteen (the next) morning, we found the manager had taken down all the photos of Premier League games and replaced them with pictures from our cup run. Suddenly, we were looking at the walls and seeing images of our great win at Everton and semi-final victory over Millwall at Wembley. It lifted the whole mood and made us all feel a lot better about ourselves. It seems he is catching on! The mind is so important. Everything is in your head. Look at the chair you are sitting on. Before it was built, someone thought about it. That is where the idea is formed.’
Speaking of his ambitions for a Wembley final, Scharner went on to explain why, for him, sports psychology is so vital to the modern footballer: ‘The way I see it, everyone in the top league prepares physically and has talent, so to get an extra edge, I believe you have to maximise your mental powers. It is difficult to say what percentage it improves my game, but I honestly believe I would not be a Premier League player without it.’
According to former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, the key to winning the mental game is learning to deal with disappointment. In a recent interview with fourfourtwo.com Neville explained how a winning mentality is vital for the right mind-set: ‘Winners understand that a game isn’t always going to go their way. You will face adversity, but you can’t get too down when you’re losing and get too carried away when you’re winning. The right mind-set comes from having a belief in your ability and the confidence to overcome difficult moments.’
However, a winning mind-set and the use of psychology to better prepare a sportsman for an event is not just the preserve of the modern footballer. Nor is it the preserve of the physical sports. In fact, the physical sports are somewhat behind the times and latecomers to the sports psychology party, where a number of other disciplines have been using psychology to beat the opposition for many, many years.
Talking exclusively to pokerology.com, Barbara Connors explains why sports psychology is vital for the successful poker player: ‘Having a feel for the psychology of the game helps you in two ways. Firstly, the better you can read your opponent’s thoughts and feelings, the better you can read his or her cards. But even more important, a deeper awareness of your own personality enables you to play at your absolute best and side-step common pitfalls such as tilt. Opponents come and go, so we begin with the one player you can never get away from: you.’
The similarity between footballing psychology and that of poker players is a close one. Both need to understand that defeat happens and have total confidence in their ability. Furthermore, both need to be able to focus under extreme pressure when facing defeat squarely in the face. Similarly, both footballers and poker players have their superstations and pre-game rituals, all of which the sports psychologist can help with.
In an article on fulltilt.com, Dr Paul Seager, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, comments, “Comparing an opponent’s behaviour away from the table, their ‘honest baseline’, with the way they present themselves in game can be very enlightening”. (click here for the full article)
Whilst we cannot all make it as a professional football player, everyone can try their hand at some sports psychology of their own with a game of poker. How is your poker face? Can you read the player opposite you? How do you respond to defeat? Can you come back from defeat and win against the odds? How canny are you at reading other people?