Imagery as a crucial determinant of self-belief
Dan Abrahams is a sport psychology consultant who specializes in soccer. Dan joins the National Soccer Coaches Association of America to share his insights into soccer psychology. All thoughts and opinions in this regular feature are that of Dan Abrahams and not necessarily reflective of the NSCAA. You can find out more about Dan’s new book Soccer Tough at danabrahams.com.
Apart from brief stints living in Spain and France whilst playing professional golf (not particularly successfully I might add), I have always lived in London. And this summer has been a particularly exciting year to live in one of the world’s most sporting cities. We’ve enjoyed watching the finest athletes on the planet compete in the London Olympic Games. We’ve seen them, often within touching distance (the cycling road race passed close to my cottage in West London) run faster, swim stronger, lift more, jump higher and play with greater intensity.
All of these attributes couldn’t have been displayed without the level of preparation that only the world’s most committed competitors are prepared to do. Soccer players should stand aside Olympians in terms of physical and mental preparation. Chapter 3 in “Soccer Tough” serves up a mental skill that is a staple part of any Olympians training program and should be included in the soccer player’s battery of skills to execute in the lead up to a game.
I’ll allow the great English striker Wayne Rooney to introduce the skill I have in mind. As I quote in “Soccer Tough:”
"Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what color we're wearing – if it's red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a 'memory' before the game. I don't know if you'd call it visualizing or dreaming, but I've always done it, my whole life. When I was younger, I used to visualize myself scoring wonder goals, stuff like that. From 30 yards out, dribbling through teams. You used to visualize yourself doing all that, and when you're playing professionally, you realize it's important for your preparation." (Source: The Guardian 17/5/12)
Rooney is describing the mindset skill of imagery as a crucial determinant of his self-belief and the key role it plays in his match preparation. It sounds like it was a process that came naturally to him. “I’ve always done it” he says. “When I was younger I used to visualize scoring wonder goals.” Wow! Is Rooney’s audacious talent in his feet or in his head? It’s an interesting debate.
Picturing an upcoming performance can help a soccer player commit to thinking like a winner. It can help prime a performance by creating a blueprint on the brain’s pathways – the connected cells that allow the body to control the ball, pass it, shoot and tackle. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is simple. The brain isn’t easily controlled and when internal pictures come into conscious attention they can have a life of their own. As I mention in Soccer Tough:
All too often when a soccer player thinks about his future soccer, whether it is related to the immediate game or the season ahead, he thinks about how he doesn’t want to play. He runs plays in his mind related to losing the ball, missing and getting beaten. This is because our brain finds it easier to register, remember, and think about negative events more quickly and deeply than positive ones.
The brain is better at rehearsing failure. A leading neuropsychologist called Rick Hanson calls this the “brain’s negativity bias”. He says that the human nervous system scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one’s world. I love the way he describes the brain as like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. What I don’t love is that this means the brain’s natural state is to shatter a positive soccer image.
Now I know that you know that imagery and visualization are not new. I’m not inventing the wheel here. But it’s amazing how many soccer players I come across who don’t know how to picture their upcoming performances properly, how to take control of their inner movies and how to build a robust belief system using this common mental strategy. Chapter 3 gives the reader a number of ideas to work on, and at the heart of tapping ones imagination is the ability to ask questions. Back to "Soccer Tough:"
I know that if my clients enjoy the process of asking great questions they will cultivate a strong soccer image and enjoy the benefits of a mindset full of self-belief. This is because I know that when they answer the questions they ask themselves they open up a bunch of pictures in their mind. And these pictures drive their soccer image. This is exactly the same for you. Ask yourself a question about your soccer game and in the process of answering yourself you will send a number of images into your conscious mind that feed into your soccer image.
So what questions can you ask yourself that feed your soccer image for the games
ahead? Here are a few examples:
What will it look and feel like if I play my very best in the next match?
What movement will I have if I’m dynamic, on my toes, and fully aware of what is going on around me?
What will the crowd see if they watch me score a goal?
Try this out right now. Ask yourself something about your football related to your next game. Make it a positive question because you want to drive positive, upbeat images into the forefront of your mind.
As a coach help your players drive how they feel about their next game by getting them to ask themselves pertinent and powerful questions. Perhaps get your strikers to ask themselves about what they have to do to score. When a striker asks “What movement will help me find space” or “What runs will get me in behind the defence” then that goal scorer gets to rehearse some pretty important pictures that not only drives how he feels about the chances to score in the upcoming match but will also help develop both self-image and self-belief.
The term visualisation is understood by most coaches the world over. But the 21st century soccer coach doesn’t just accept this as fact. The modern day coach seeks to help players develop and ignite inner pictures that drive skill acquisition and consistent high performance under pressure.