The techniques a sports psychologist uses to help footballers’ confidence
Confidence is often spoken about as being key to performance, but according to AFC Bournemouth sports psychologist Dan Abrahams, it is possible to perform effectively even without any.
A sports psychologist for over 10 years, Abrahams has previously worked for Queens Park Rangers and Derby County. He is also currently employed by the England national rugby union team.
Like any other coach at a football club, his job is to help players compete as effectively as they can on a match day. Even when they’re not feeling confident.
“There are always going to be times where players lose confidence, whether that’s going on a mini slump of form or a longer period of not playing so good,” Abrahams says.
“I can help players play with confidence, and I can also help players compete at the best of their ability when they’re not confident.
“There are going to be times when you lose that bit of confidence, so my psychological toolbox is designed to increase a player’s confidence but also help them manage themselves when they’re not feeling at 100%.
“Just as they need to be able to compete when they’re 60-80% fit, it is possible to compete effectively even when you’re not confident.”
There are various techniques that Abrahams uses in order to bring out the best in players.
“I like to do things in a really fun and simple way,” he says.
“All footballers love to play FIFA or Call of Duty on Xboxes or PS4s – they tend to spend all afternoon playing these games.
“So, I say if you’re playing me at FIFA, you’ve got a controller, I’ve got a controller. As a human being you have two controllers – two things that help you manage yourself in the moment when under pressure.
“Controller number one is your self-talk – talking to yourself – and controller number two is your body language – how you hold yourself. So I talk to players about using their controllers as they compete on the pitch to help them manage themselves.
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“If a striker has just missed a couple of golden opportunities to score he might start to have some negative thoughts about his game.
“He’s got to use controller number one to keep talking to himself, keep himself positive, energised and upbeat, and he’s got to use his second controller, his body language, to reinforce that positive upbeat energetic persona.
“So if he can use those two controllers throughout the game he can manage himself.
“One of my biggest and best case studies was my work with Carlton Cole.
“I started to work with Carlton when he was in West Ham’s reserve team – his career was failing until I started working with him at the age of 24, and then 18 months of hard work later he made his debut for England against Spain for Fabio Capello.
“We worked hard on his mindset. A perfect example of my technique of using your two controllers would be when Carlton was running on to make his debut for England.
“Peter Crouch was coming off the pitch, England were 2-0 down against Spain, and Carlton stood on the sidelines and said although there were a few negatives in there, he kept talking to himself positively – ‘get on my toes, explode onto the pitch, keep moving, keep running, keep working’.
“I say to all players before they go out for match day, make one of their goals to maintain great body language no matter what. That’s so important.
“Managers get so annoyed, not at the 6/10 or the 7/10 performance but at the 4/10 performance.
“If you do make a few bad passes, you do give the ball away, you do miss a chance on goal, you do concede a soft goal, get that body language back up, impose yourself, stay on your toes no matter what, stay lively – that’s a really important thing.
“It doesn’t make you man of the match but it turns a 6/10 into a 7/10 and a 7/10 into an 8/10.”
Why the best are the best
Abrahams also reminds his clients that the best footballers are the best because there are constantly working on how to improve themselves from a a mental point of view as well as a physical point of view.
“To put things into perspective I always say I have a toolbox – memory, imagination and perception,” he says.
“I say to players all of the time, champions are champions because they’re really good at remembering themselves at their best.
“Their best games, best moments and remembering it in detail, like the runs they made, the movement they had, the passes they make and what that feels like so they kind of have a rich sensory experience.
“If they’re rehearsing every single day, if they set those kind of markers as match day goals then that’s a really useful thing to do.
“Steve McLaren used to say when he was the coach at Manchester United under Alex Ferguson, the players were at the top because their levels of motivation, desire and competition were high every single day.
“As you start to go down the leagues, there’s plenty of players with lots of ability, but quite often they have the odd lazy day, they have a day where they struggle with their mood.
“Mood is a massive thing. Fans would be really surprised how many players are affected by their mood swings. They don’t do it on purpose; they wake up and are not quite feeling it, they’re just slightly off, they’re not quite at 100%.
“They’re not at their game because they’re not on it every single day and that really does impact their career trajectory.”
Tough times in football
Although it often goes unknown to most football fans, professional footballers encounter difficult periods in their careers for a variety of reasons which can have a negative affect on their match performances and mental state.
“What you find in football is that so much of a footballer’s career is out of their control,” Abrahams says, “whether that is because of an injury, being dropped by the manager because the manager doesn’t like you or because the manager doesn’t want to play a style of football that suits you.
“I worked with a League One player a couple of seasons ago. The first season we worked together he did really well to play in the first team – he was a playmaker type player.
“He got some interest from Brighton when they were in the Championship, everything was going great. Then a new manager came in and wanted to miss out the middle of the park, play very direct, very long ball, and within 10 games this player, who was the reigning player of the season, was back on the subs bench.
“What a lot of fans don’t see is how out of control these players’ careers are, so that can be very stressful. Your bank account doesn’t always inoculate you from the stresses of life, and by and large footballers want to play, they want to compete.
Working with Bolasie
More recently, Abrahams has spent the last few years working with Everton winger Yannick Bolasie in order to help him feel like – in his own words – a Premier League player.
“Yannick had just come up with Palace, he was a raw skillful player. He really has been a brilliant student of the mental side of the game over the last three-four years.
“There’s a number of things he works on, but patience is massive, it’s so easy to get impatient out there on the wing. One of the best games he had with relation to being patient was the infamous Liverpool v Crystal Palace game that ended 3-3.
“Wingers tend to get impatient and their body language drops, then they switch off and get angry with themselves and the situation.
“For about 70 minutes in that game he hadn’t seen the ball, Liverpool were 3-0 up and were dominant but Yannick kept talking to himself, he kept great body language, he stayed ready to compete and when the ball came up to him he set a couple of goals up.
“He tore Liverpool apart in the last 10 minutes and obviously the game ended up finishing 3-3.”
A sports psychologist’s job is also to be a confidant; he needs to be open enough so that any players are able to open themselves up to any problems they may be having both on and off the field.
Finally it seems like football is starting to take the effects of mental health seriously.
“Certain clubs have become better, not brilliant but better at early intervention,” says Abrahams.
“We know a lot more about mental health and there is a lot more of it being discussed, whether its Rio Ferdinand or players suffering from clinical depression.
Life after football
“When a player is hitting his thirties you might get some support – what’s your career after being a footballer. Early intervention can make a lot of difference as a player steps out of football. It’s about players being proactive.
“What they’ve been used to for years is being in a team environment, having their mates around them. Saturdays is such an addictive thing and you find that even if you’re a sports scientist or a doctor at a club Saturday becomes very addictive.
“You’re working Monday to Friday so you become addicted to that elation of winning, you even get a high from a loss – ‘lads, let’s get back on it next week’ – so those ups and downs become quite addictive, and how a player replaces that or how he deals with (not having) that can be challenging.
“I think the most powerful thing is losing your identity as a person. For so many people, their work identity is wrapped up with their personal identity.
“I’m a footballer from the age of 16 right the way up until they’re 35, that’s who they’re, that’s how they identify themselves and suddenly they think, I’m not a footballer and that’s hard for them to deal with.
“So dealing with that change of personal identity can be a really challenging thing if you don’t have the right tools, the right people around you and the right systems in place. Fortunately, clubs are getting better.”
Interview provided by Iain Fenton, a journalist for CompareLotto