They say if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. I've found this to be true in most aspects of life, but particularly as an elite athlete. As you advance up the ladder of football, you will soon find that with each increase in level, comes an increase of ability, speed of play, decision making and execution. Less mistakes are made and demand for consistent performances is higher than ever.
Have you , ever found yourself being able to do exactly what you want with the ball throughout the week leading up to match day feeling unstoppable, then as soon as you enter into the game, panicking or completely vanishing? You're in great shape, and have all the skills in your locker, but something just disconnects when you need to perform at your best. So what's causing this to happen?
Did you know that as human's, our minds are designed to protect us from potentially dangerous situations? Think of the last time you walked down a dark alley at night, or stood up on top of a tall building (if you're afraid of heights). Your body starts to do all sorts of weird things as you begin to imagine all the worst possible things that could happen. "I could fall off the edge of this building", and your palms start to sweat, you feel your heart beating faster and your legs feel weaker. This is your mind signaling to you that there is danger on your life, and so your body starts to act up.
Did you also know, that sometimes our brains can't tell the difference between a threat on our life, and a threat on our pride? Think of the last time you had to give a presentation in front of a group of people... Your body started acting weird, your heart started pounding, you started to sweat. Sounds familiar doesn't it? Well even though your life isn't in danger, your mind still recognizes it as a potentially disastrous situation. "What if I stutter or forget what I need to say, and everyone laughs at me!?", and typically what happens is, when you have these negative thoughts, it leads to a negative outcome.
The exact same thing happens on the football pitch. If you enter a match with a negative mindset, and start to think of all of the things that could go wrong "What if I try to dribble and loose the ball", "what if I miss this penalty kick". As you start to make up these hypothetical scenarios in your mind, your body starts to have that same negative reaction, because it senses danger and wants to protect you, and that's why you freeze up and can't perform.
Now, don't worry, this happens to more players than you think. I can almost say for certain this has, and continues to happen to even some of the best players in the world. Can you think of moments where the greatest players have under performed in big matches, or missed game deciding penalty kicks? As I said, it happens more than you think.
Now let's go back to remembering how well you performed in training this week, or down the park with your friends, why are you able to dribble 7 players and smash it top bins when you're playing with your mates, but can barely control the ball when it matters most. That's because of your mindset. When you are in low stake situations, you do not fear the consequences. If you lose the ball to one of your friends at the park, there are no repercussions so you approach the situation confidently, hence why your body does what you want it to do, but in a match, you perceive the stakes as higher, now if you lose the ball, the opposition might score or you might get benched.
So how do you fix this problem?
The way to get over your made up fears is to treat every match the same way you treat a kickabout with your friends. Remember that it's something that you love to do, and get excited about the opportunity to express yourself with the ball in your own unique way.
Here are a few tips to prepare you mentally before a game:
1. Come up with a routine that you do every time you are about to play, and I mean any time you are about to play. Whether it's a world cup match in the garden with your neighbor, or if it's the world cup final, have the same routine. Start off by developing the routine before those low stake situations, then once you've repeated it and turned it into a habit, start doing the same routine before your matches. Your brain will recognize the routine, and will remember that usually after this routine, you play with confidence and freedom, and you will naturally start to feel the same confidence after performing the routine before higher stake situations too.
2. Do whatever makes you feel at ease. Some people say you need to listen to fast or heavy music to get pumped up before matches, and if that works for them, great, but it doesn't mean it will work for you. If you try to implement random rituals that make you feel anxious, get rid of them and experiment until you find what gets you in the right frame of mind.
3. Nutrition - Don't wait until the day of the match to start trying to eat an abundance of healthy energy boosting food. Your body takes a long time to digest and use the nutrients from the food to fuel your body. Start eating right at least 2-3 days before the day of your match, to allow your body to get to work converting those nutrients into energy so that you are fully fueled for game day.
4. Visualization - I'll touch on this briefly and go into greater detail in a future post, but visualization is a real game changer. Sometimes, even when we are feeling calm, and we've done all the necessary preparation, we still let negative thoughts creep into our minds. If this happens, it's your responsibility to fight against them with positive thoughts. If you start imagining failures on the pitch, instantly start thinking in great detail about some of your most successful moments on the pitch. Really focus on this, close your eyes if you have to, to block of distractions. Think of how that felt, think of the buzz you got when you scored that goal, how it felt when the ball struck cleanly off your foot and almost broke the net, replay it over and over again. Your mind can't differentiate between imagination, and reality, so by replaying these moments, your mind thinks they are actually happening and you build confidence.
So, I hope you learnt a little more about why you get nervous before matches, and some practical ways to get to work so that you can conquer your thoughts in the future.