Youth: Why Young Soccer Players Need to "Up" Their Mental Game

Feb 3, 2020

***This article is part of an educational series for soccer parents and youth players new to soccer***

For the elite soccer player, mental toughness allows them to tune out chants from the fans of opposing teams. It motivates them to carry on despite missing a goal opportunity. It helps them push themselves when their lungs and muscles are burning from fatigue. 

In fact, mental toughness makes a physically skilled player even more fearsome on the pitch, and it’s a reason why all young players should train their minds for resilience. The task may seem reserved for sports psychologists, but coaches and young players themselves can practice this mental skill daily. 

The Science Behind Mind Training for Soccer Players

Mental training isn’t just a trendy, new-age concept - science confirms that it actually changes the way our brains function. And it certainly gives athletes an edge on the field. 

Take, for example, what a positive frame of mind does to your brain chemistry. Sports psychologist Bradley Busch summarizes the effect that positivity has on the brain

“Negativity and criticism is associated with the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the ability of the frontal lobe to function effectively.” The frontal lobe is responsible for critical functions such as problem-solving, memory, and judgement, all of which impact a soccer player’s performance. Reduced frontal lobe activity in a soccer player will likely increase the number of mistakes they make, lower their confidence and decrease their ability to concentrate. 

The reverse is true as well, and Busch explained how a positive mindset primes the brain for elite performance. 

“Positive, energized language {referring to self-talk} releases dopamine, which is linked to certainty and confidence, as well as noradrenaline and DHEA which enable your prefrontal lobe to fire more effectively.” 

As a side note, noradrenaline (aka norepinephrine) is a stimulatory neurotransmitter that boosts memory, focus and increases blood flow to skeletal muscles. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a steroid hormone that circulates in the body, improves muscle strength and enhances overall athletic performance. 

Here’s some more incredible research. A study conducted by Harvard Business School demonstrated that dominant poses alone can decrease cortisol by 25 percent, while increasing testosterone by 19 percent. The decrease in cortisol reduces stress and the increase in testosterone boosts confidence. 

The ability to maintain a clear mind, free of negative thoughts and stressors helps the brain perform at its peak despite external pressure. And when the brain is firing as it should, the body will follow. 

Where Mental Toughness & Resilience Comes in Handy for Soccer Players

In soccer, as it is with any sport, there are numerous scenarios where strength, power, speed, agility or even skill won’t save a player. The only bail-out they’ll have is their mind. 

For example, legendary players such as Andrea Pirlo were revered for their composure and concentration under tough situations such as his perfect penalty kick at the Euro 2012 quarter-final against England. 

Didier Drogba was also another shining example of mental toughness. He was noted for having incredible focus and ambition, which has been credited for his career-defining performances on Chelsea and in the 2007 and 2009 FA Cup finals. For Drogba, this mental toughness is even more respectable because he was a late-bloomer, only getting drafted in his mid-20s. 

Carli Lloyd was told at the age of 21 that she wasn’t good enough and considered quitting the sport. Nevertheless, she went on to become a two-time Olympic medalist, three-time Olympian, two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and a two-time FIFA Player of the Year. All of these feats, which made Carli the “comeback kid”, has been attributed to her mental fortitude. 

What’s the takeaway here? Mental toughness helps players rise up to all challenges, whether those challenges are external or from within. And having mental toughness will help young players push through obstacles when physical strength is not enough.

When Mental Toughness is a Young Soccer Player’s Lifeline

  • When players hit a plateau - Young soccer players will often make rapid progress in their early years, but slow down as they hit their tweens and teens. This is completely normal but challenging nonetheless. Mental toughness helps players get through these development stalls. 

  • When players make mistakes - Even the most skilled player will at times make mistakes. Again, this is normal, but it can erode a players’ confidence. However, if that player has a built a reserve of mental toughness, they’ll be able to bounce back from negative feelings that come with making mistakes. 

  • When players lose - Losing is inevitable but accepting losses is harder for some. When young players improve their mental toughness, they’re able to overcome losses and avoid feeling like failures because they didn’t win. 

  • When players get injured - Soccer injuries are not only painful, but they also carry an emotional toll. Players will likely feel weak and vulnerable and if the injuries are severe enough, they might even experience depression. A reserve of mental toughness can help young players challenge these negative feelings so that they don’t put too much pressure on themselves to return. 

  • When players burned out - Even at the youth levels, players face demanding schedules that may ultimately sap their enthusiasm for the game. When players face burnout, what they really need is time to rest and regroup. However, mental toughness can help push players through fatigue a bit more so that they don’t crash and burnout too soon. 
  • Techniques for Building Mental Toughness & Resilience in Soccer Players

    It’s important for coaches, players and parents to remember that mental toughness is something that can be developed - it’s not something players are born with. And it’s not necessary to spend hours in a psychologist’s office or at a fancy retreat to get in touch with themselves. There are many exercises and practices that young players can do at home on their own or with others to build their mental toughness. 

    Techniques for Young Players to Improve their Mental Toughness

  • Visualization (Mental Imagery) - This involves the act of mentally recreating a scene or scenario and putting oneself in it. Young players can do this by imagining themselves playing calmly under pressure or reacting positively to a loss. In fact, science has proven mental imagery to be as effective as an actual practice game itself. 

  • Positive Self-Talk Affirmations - Whether it’s a mantra, an aphorism or a personal saying, encourage your young players to tell themselves positive things. They can do this under their breath or in their heads. Regardless of how they do it, the use of affirmations will condition their brains for positivity and emotional control. Brain scans have proved it. Coaches can even turn this into a component of their practices, where the whole team repeats certain phrases. 

  • Meditation & Mindfulness - Should parents and coaches become meditation instructors? That’s certainly unnecessary. However, young players can be taught the importance of breath, acknowledging negative thoughts and learning to free themselves from such thoughts. Of course, if young players are interested in the practice of meditation or mindfulness, encourage them. That may or may not entail professional instruction from a meditation instructor. 

  • Reinforce the Mental With the Physical - The mind and body are no doubt connected - what goes on physically affects our mental process. This point has an effect all across the board - from nutrition to exercise and more. With that said, wearing protective gear can give players who worry about sustaining injuries more confidence in their safety. With more confidence, they will feel more inclined to play at a higher intensity as opposed to playing timidly. 
  • Soccer is a Mind-Body Intervention

    You’ve probably heard this cliche before: “in sport, 90 percent of performance is mental”. We won’t argue whether that number should be taken at face value or not, but there’s no denying that elite soccer performance depends heavily on one’s mental toughness.

    The earlier players understand this, the more time they’ll have to develop their mental game, which will give them a serious advantage over those who don’t. And they will be the ones who will enjoy a lifelong passion for the game no matter what challenges they will eventually face.

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