As professional sport gathers more articulate data, the idea of sports psychology is evolving, as a winning mindset is established early, especially in the video game realm.
The smell of liniment is once again in the air as our major men and women’s footy codes, AFL, Rugby League and Rugby Union, begin their seasons, while football gears up for its finals. Apart from the liniment, every dressing room reverberates with motivational speeches from coaches and captains as they try to inspire their side to victory before the game has even begun. So it is timely to take a look at sports psychology today, and what mental factors make a difference to both individual and team performance across the footy codes.
It is amazing that right up ’til the 1980’s the mind game of sport was largely seen as voodoo and unimportant, where the mind was somehow disconnected from the body. Coaches sometimes invited former heroes to “wind up” the troops or even have players engage in face slapping each other before a game. Thankfully, people started “looking under the bonnet” to explain peak performance and suddenly champions and coaches stated the bloody obvious: the mind and mental preparation play an important role in individual and team performance.
So let us begin with the premise that mind power, both individual and team, influences sport performance across all the footy codes.
A few riders first: talent will always beat no talent as long as the attitude and commitment is right. What then will make the difference between a winning footy team and a losing footy team? Here is where individual and team mental factors come into play – and they are very, very different.
Individual psychological factors of playing winning sport
The mental building blocks of a future rep player begin way back when a child is 5 or so years of age. A child’s imagination is wide open at that age and there is active programming of their attitude and motivation at a subconscious level. Already they have shown athletic ability down at the local park or in the school playground, and their above average skills reinforce their intention that sport is going to play a significant role in their next 20-odd years. Showing off their sporting talent also lays foundations of confidence, and for challenging opponents later on.
They will also be consuming digital/social media and will be looking for a hero, a champion in a sport to emulate. They will select a role model and watch them in action, and will adopt that player’s mannerisms, physical actions and winning moves down at the local park, winning grand finals and test matches while assuming the identity of their champion. With this talent mimicking comes a confidence in one’s own sporting ability, and most importantly, goal setting for the future – i.e., to one day be like their idol.
In this fertile mental arena, it is football, with its incredible range of video games, which holds a big advantage over other footy codes, because these games feature the mannerisms and talent of such superstar role models as Messi and Ronaldo in action. Here, just by playing a video game like FIFA, a child can assume the identity of their hero and learn his skills and behaviour, and simply “be” him scoring incredible goals.
This is when performance is instinctive and in the moment, when a player is most enjoying the contest, the highest level of individual performance. You sense this with a footy player like Johnathan Thurston who is always in the game, attacking or defending for the entire 80 minutes and loving it.
When English Premier League side Liverpool played at the MCG in recent years, one journo noted he had never seen so many kids at the ground to watch any sport. This means that other footy codes such as AFL and NRL have a lot of catching up to do to capture the hearts and minds of young, athletically gifted children. Through games such as FIFA, football has shown that technology is a powerful way to win talented sporty kids over to a particular footy code, but it is the imitation and mental rehearsal of becoming like their hero that also sets in place an attitude and motivation to succeed in their chosen sport.
During their teens, another psychological factor emerges that has a big impact on the future development of young sportsmen and women – to what degree the person is a competitor. Adolescence is all about self-discovery – working out who you are and where you fit in – and from there, the next phase is self-attitude, and assessing just how good you are in your chosen sport – how you measure up against your opponents.
A young sportsperson will soon work out that in order to be a good competitor, they must master the skills demanded by their position and be match fit every weekend. Again, self motivation will propel them: peak performance against strong individuals and opposing teams; more and more intense training; mental preparation before each game, which focuses on rehearsing the delivery of skills at pace while outsmarting and outplaying opposition.
They are assuming the identity of a winner during this period, and their mindset is always looking for affirmation of this goal. For example, imagine you have just bought a new red Mazda 323. Suddenly out on the road you are seeing red Mazda 323s everywhere. This is because your mind’s eye is subconsciously looking for them; your mind has emotionally connected with this brand of car. Ditto when a young sportsperson performs well under pressure, scores a goal for example; the emotional affirmation motivates them to achieve at a higher level.
When working with one footy team, I got each team member to state on camera what assets they brought to the team. This way the team got to better understand itself and know where its strengths lay and what tactics to employ to put those attributes to work.
This is when confidence is controlling performance and all the second guessing of plays and the destructive, conscious mind chatter of “what if this happens?” is quietened. Performance is instinctive and in the moment. Simply, the more subconscious and in the moment your play is, the better it will be. Belief in oneself and the conviction that one can outperform opponents stems right back to those mental building blocks at 5 years of age when a child identifies and emotionally connects with a sporting hero and starts wanting to be like him or her.
It is also when a player is most enjoying the contest, which is the highest level of individual performance. You sense this with those gifted tennis players who thrive on a five-set battle to win a championship or a footy player like Johnathan Thurston who is involved for the duration, attacking or defending for the entire 80 minutes.
Conversely, fear is a sportsman’s biggest block, but the mind can be tricked into feeling confident and bulletproof. I was approached by a representative rugby player who had been given goal kicking duties against an international side. He was unsure about delivering, so under relaxation, I got him to imagine when he lined up for a goal kick that the goal posts changed from white to his favourite colour, which was red. While looking at the red posts he warmed his hands through mental focus before kicking the goal.
Many footy players have their own mental preparation strategy (listening to favourite music for example, or talking positively to themselves) but the conviction to playing at one’s full potential really comes from all those steps from a young age, through to defining oneself as a competitor and a defining oneself as a winning team member. Of course, there are days when nothing goes right for you and everything goes right for your opponent. All of us have those days and it does provide motivation to get back on winning terms next week.
Team psychological factors of playing winning sport
While there are those champions who play in teams yet who can be described as individuals, many play a team sport because they are givers who want to share in the glory and the hard times with their team mates. Simply, it provides meaning to them to be part of a team, if you can have that sort of character predominantly in your team then you are on your way to having a winning culture.
Again, let us assume all teams in a competition have players of equal ability. There are well-researched findings of what makes a successful team culture and they include: a general consensus on values, opinions and motives, hence conversation comes easy within the team; team members perceiving and agreeing on the pecking order of the team structure from the leaders to the followers; all team members sharing a common goal that they are passionate about; being mates first and foremost, with little or no fragmentation; wanting to be seen as a team, and the want to succeed.
When working with one footy team, I got each team member to state on camera what assets they brought to the team. This way the team got to better understand itself and know where its strengths lay and what tactics to employ to put those attributes to work. They were a winning team, which also helped them to configure the big picture of who they were and where they were heading. Once again, mindset was in play, as out on the field, one player might remember what another said to the team, “my strength is taking it up the middle”, and as the situation called for this, passed him the ball.
Through video games such as FIFA, football has shown that technology is a powerful way to win talented sporty kids over to a particular footy code, but it is the imitation and mental rehearsal of becoming like their hero that also sets in place an attitude and motivation to succeed in their chosen sport.
Fear also can affect a team’s performance. For example, our nation’s swimming team was preparing for a major meet and one of their opposing teams was full of world champions. Our team feared being thrashed and embarrassed. The term “own it” became our team’s call cry which included one member leaping from the stands onto the pool deck and dramatically revealing his powerfully built body by stripping off an army great coat, saying to the opposition: “we own this place, you are here to come second”. The crowd went mad, and it worked – the team’s confidence from that one act of ownership and confidence saw records broken and our young national swimming team winning the meet.
I was also a member of a premiership winning footy team and it was in no uncertain terms created by the combined passion of our coach and our captain. Yes, we had a great backline and a workmanlike forward pack but the emotive team messages expressed by the coach before the game and the smart, strategic advice offered by the captain at half time meant we were winning in the mind and out on the paddock.
The coach had a knack of igniting our emotions and appealing to our teamship, i.e., that all our training and mateship would be rewarded by a great performance, and what a great team to be part of. Then at half time, the captain would correctly point out where we were winning and losing, and what we should focus on in the second half. Without a doubt, what he predicted at half time invariably came true in the second half. It became a wonderful confidence driver and in all, we lost just one game, won the grand final by 29 points and scored 549, and had just 34 scored against us all season.
So the psychology of playing winning footy is a lot of things, from individual preparation of the mind and body to building a positive team culture, and of course, you have to have the “cattle” to begin with. But it all begins at a young age with simple daydreaming of becoming as good as your hero and using that imagination to “own” the identity of a champion, and a member of a championship team.