TEDxNottingham caught up with Dan Abrahams, an expert in football psychology, to learn a little bit more about the discipline. Here’s what he had to say…
1) What would you describe as the main goal of psychology in general?
That depends on what specific area of psychology you’re focusing on. For me sport psychology has a number of aims: supporting athletes emotionally and socially as well as enhancing performance and development. The discipline also supports coaches pedagogically – to teach effectively and help athletes build skill as well as enable them to deliver psychological skills training.
2) How important is the role of psychology in elite sports and football?
I think sport psychology plays a small but important role in sports and football. All development and performance in sports are neurologically underpinned but psychology is an area that is often overblown (but ironically underused.) For example, some people say that sport is 80% mental and throw around ludicrous figures like that. You can’t quantify its influence in percentage terms. I think important to note is it’s not a case of ‘you have mental toughness or you don’t.’ The brain can be developed just like any muscle or sports skill.
3) What are the key ‘mental attributes’ of the highest performing players/athletes in your opinion?
The usual: self belief, performance confidence, focus and the ability to manage intensity levels. The not so usual: emotional management, the ability to cope with adversity, self-awareness, being ‘coachable,’ leadership, optimism, managing conflict. And the unusual: visual awareness, anticipation, decision making, and pattern recognition.
4) What do you believe to be more powerful as a motivator, fear of failure of desire for success?
In my personal experience it’s different for different people. The brain works in a reward or threat manner. Finding out what taps a player’s motivation is quite powerful. But both can be enormously destructive too. Both can lead to crippling doubt, worry and anxiety.
5) How important is public recognition/appreciation in elite players performance?
Just like most people in society I think most footballers have an egotistical urge to be recognised and appreciated for great performances. My concern in British football is that all too often the former appears to outweigh the latter. Many young players fall in love with the lifestyle rather than the game itself. There aren’t enough students of the game – players who are obsessed with and fascinated by improving their skills as a footballer.
6) How do you, on a practical level, improve the psychology of players?
The players improve their own psychology. I give them a mental structure by which to manage their mindset and build skill quicker. I believe language is a strong mediator of success in football. How a player speaks to him or herself and how he or she sees the world around them is very powerful when it comes to success and failure. So I help players build a rich language revolving around emotions, self belief, confidence and focus to name a few.
7) How can/will technology shape the future of psychology in your opinion?
Mobile phones that play clips can be used for modelling. But aside from basic stuff like that I’m unsure it will….at least for the foreseeable future. Things like neurofeedback work on such a subtle level and are so far removed from the football environment that I can’t see them making an impact for many years to come.
8) Finally, do you have any simple applicable tips for an ordinary person to improve their mental strength?
Yes, ask great questions. For example, when you’re sitting on the train coming back from work ask yourself “what went well today?” This helps your brain (which tends toward a negativity bias) to settle on some of the better moments of the day. This may sound simple and somewhat cheesy…but most of the thousands of research studies done on cognition (thinking) support the view that happy people dwell on what is right with their lives rather than on what is wrong. Simple concept but tough to do consistently. Despite having a good knowledge of psychology it’s certainly not something I find easy to do.
To hear more information about Dan and his work, check out his site or follow him over on twitter.