The Messi Mindset: Teaching Players to see their Challenges in a Helpful Manner
Dan Abrahams is a sport psychology consultant who specializes in soccer. Abrahams 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 his new book "Soccer Tough" at danabrahams.com.
To watch Lionel Messi in action is akin to watching the greats - Tiger swing with grace and power, Federer glide around the court, and Phelps rip through the pool. Timing, movement, vision, anticipation, effort and intelligence. Individual "footballpreneur" and team player rolled into a diminutive pocket sized soccer sensation! And he’s only 25. We could have another seven or eight years of this.
Chapter 4 in my book "Soccer Tough" is called "The Messi Mindset" and is dedicated to the Argentinian. In it, I describe what I feel is Messi’s true genius:
Lionel Messi had shown incredible talent while competing for his hometown team and then at Old Newell’s, a Rosario professional club. He would often take on 3, 4 and 5 players before passing or getting tackled. His ball control, balance and co-ordination were something to behold and have been shown the world over on documentaries about his life.
His talent is undeniable but so is the ability of many young footballers when they start out on their journey to stardom. They don’t all become stars and they don’t all become as good as Lionel Messi – the man who has taken up the crown from Diego Maradona as the World’s greatest soccer player in a generation. Many disappear into the shadows of club soccer. To my mind Messi is Messi because he has more of the attributes of a champion than everyone else. The building blocks that make up his performances are higher and stronger. Some of these blocks relate to his mindset: his mental attitude toward football and toward his life.
“Something deep in my character allows me to take the hits and get on with trying to win.”
Here he is talking about being tackled, making no fuss, getting up, maintaining confidence and getting on with the game with the same will to win as before. It is certainly a positive reflection on his performance toughness. But I think this quote is more of an insight into his general mentality and a clue into what has made him the player he is today.
To my mind it is Lionel Messi’s perception of every situation he experiences that has had as much an impact on his status in the world game as his raw talent has. When you add a positive mindset to hard work and talent - you have a soccer cocktail primed for success!
You see, I’m happy to accept Messi was born with an built-in ability to play soccer better than just about anyone else when he was young. But sensational ability at 10 years old doesn’t always manifest itself in being a world beater in your 20s. You have to be able to deal with the challenges life and soccer bring. And there were some REAL challenges for a teenage Messi. Back to "Soccer Tough:"
“When I was 11 I had a growth hormone problem. But being smaller I was more agile. And I learnt to play with the ball on the ground because that’s where it felt more comfortable. Now I realize sometimes bad things can turn out good.”
Messi said this on the iconic Adidas ‘Impossible is Nothing’ adverts and it gives us a great insight into his mindset.
As a boy he was nicknamed “La Pulga” (the flea) because of his height. But it appears Messi cared little about his stature and brushed off suggestions that size would prevent him from playing as a professional in the future. His perception of the situation was helpful, positive and above all confident.
Messi refused to let his physicality handicap him. In fact he used it to his advantage. “I am more agile,” he said. “I can learn to play with the ball on the ground better than everyone else.” I believe, despite the fact he was smaller, he felt taller than his teammates. He may have physically looked up on everyone but he chose to mentally look down on his opposition. He cared little for their body shape. He only thought about his soccer, his ability, and how he wanted to play.
To my mind Messi is the player he is today because of his ability to see to perceive every challenge he faced on and off the pitch in a manner that helped him grow as a person, develop his soccer game and build a robust self-belief. And that is what Chapter 4 in "Soccer Tough" is all about – teaching soccer players to see their challenges in a helpful manner so they keep improving as soccer players and as people.
One of the many techniques I give soccer players to help them "perceive" their challenges in a light that is more positive is what I call "talking to yourself." Allow me to quote from "Soccer Tough" once more:
I can’t remember where I first heard the statement ‘stop listening to yourself, start talking to yourself’ but it’s true. Boy is it true. As has been discussed, our brains tend to deliver a lot of negative thoughts into our conscious awareness. And we tend to listen to them.
“There is no way we’re gonna beat this team, they’re top of the league.”
“I don’t fancy my chances of scoring today against those massive center backs”
“I had a nightmare last week. I don’t feel confident at all”
We tend to listen to these destructive, unhelpful perceptions. And we tend to let them dominate our feelings. We let these perceptions bring us down by making us feel worried and full of doubt and anxiety.
Champions are champions because they choose to ignore this rubbish the brain comes up with. In fact they drown out their negative self-talk. They stop listening to themselves and constantly talk to themselves.
“If we play together we’ll have a good chance to win. They may be higher than us in the league but we’ve won tough games before.”
“The center backs are big but if I use my movement and my pace they are playable. I just have to be more alert and more aware of my team mates and try to find space more often.”
“Last week has gone. How I played has nothing to do with this next match. Train hard tonight and I’ll play hard on Saturday.”
There is no magic or secret to this. It’s very simple. Just see the situation slightly differently, use a different voice and take time to summon up positive pictures and movies and you’ll maintain a great soccer image. You’ll feel good. You’ll give yourself the best chance to perform at your best come match day.