Sports psychology, and the use of sports psychologists to improve footballing performance, has been around for decades.
A number of high profile players, from the likes of Michael Owen to current Real Madrid starlet Vinicius Jr, have worked with sports psychologists to help with different parts of their game. Even in other sports such as basketball, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan both had mental health coaches, a list you can add record breaking Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps to as well.
Sports psychology has become a well-accepted piece of the performance puzzle with many teams employing a full-time sports psychologist on staff and its reach now goes beyond simplified performance aspects such as how a player can perform better in the final third.
But what exactly are the advances, and how are they being used in different domains within sports?
Dealing with stress, anxiety and pressure
The traditional paradigm of football attributes is often separated into mental or physical, but they are truly one and the same. The impact of stress, anxiety and pressure is undeniable on the physical system at its baseline, engaging the body’s “fight or flight” known as the sympathetic nervous system whereas the parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” system.
Constantly revving the sympathetic nervous system leads to on-pitch issues such as impaired decision-making and reversion to previous habits, and physical issues like central nervous system fatigue and accumulation of allostatic load (this is similar to wear and tear on the body’s physiological systems).
Furthermore, these aspects of stress, anxiety and pressure can have an impact on breathing patterns such as leading to less efficient thorax breathing, along with decreased focus and impacted mood.
Sports psychology has become increasingly in tune with mitigating the modern-day pressures and stress of football, particularly with the ever-increasing microscope and interaction that comes along with global audiences, global sponsorships, and of course social media.
The latter has become so prevalent and corrosive at times that the Premier League conducted a weekend social media blackout towards the end of last season to protest the increasing abuse and vitriol players receive with very limited oversight from companies.
Strategies to overcome these obstacles can make a massive difference both on and off the pitch, which are intricately related.
Injury recovery and reintegration
Sports medicine and rehabilitation has come a long ways in general – five years in the sports medicine world feels like 20 of advancement – but one of the recent and most pertinent advances has been on addressing the psychological aspects of injury and return to sport.
There’s increasing scientific research showing how growth vs fixed mindsets can impact attitude and therefore physiology (remember, the mind and body are very connected!).
Research shows that kinesiophobia (fear of re-injury or movement) is one of the last things to return following major injuries, particularly for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. For a very personal experience with that, watch Hector Bellerin’s vlog on his journey back from an ACL rupture and repair earlier this year.
These mental challenges have to be addressed the entire way – from initial injury through physio and then return to play. This is a topic I touch on constantly in my injury articles or videos because I cannot emphasise enough just how important mindset and framing is when footballers are dealing with something that takes away what has become their identity and life’s work. It is a major reason I began taking courses at the University of Los Angeles’ Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).
Technological advancements are now being paired with sports psychology to reinforce and expand the process.
For example, the development of very realistic and affordable virtual reality (VR) devices allows players to experience specific situations in a much more realistic manner than just visual imagery. This allows for greater diagnostic accuracy for sports psychologists, fine-tuning of strategies, and employment of said strategies in a more engrossing environment and manner for the players.
Furthermore, there are advances in tracking technology that give insight into how the player is responding physically, whether it’s through physiological metrics or what they’re actually doing out on the field.
A key example of the latter is eye-tracking technology which can be used to determine what a player is looking at (gaze tracking) and for how long (gaze duration). For an example and further explanation, watch this video:
There’s not only increasing research on how this influences performance, but also that focusing on the correct indicators can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety as well!
Last but certainly not least is the fact the advances and increasing mainstream acceptance of sports psychology has led to deeper integrations of it throughout the footballing fabric. It’s quite common now in youth athletes with very minimal stigma associated with it.
Coaching staff have become much more aware of how sports psychology can help and how it’s a piece of the overall performance puzzle. When the coaching staff is accepting and in-tune with the players’ mental health, mental factors, and the links between mental and physical, it creates a level of synergy and openness that is a virtuous cycle for everyone.
Overall, it’s a very exciting time to be in the sports psychology and performance world because the paradigm has moved towards embracing the intersection of the two and how to fully harness it for the benefit of everyone involved in sport.
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement expert, fitness trainer, and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.