APU Health & Fitness Original

Elite Soccer Coaching and Enhancing Players’ Mentality

By Simo Idrissi, M.S.
2022 Sports and Health Sciences Master’s Degree Graduate

and Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences

Elite soccer coaching requires the continual evaluation of players’ performance factors, such as movement load, quality of intensity, time quality and ball passing timing. During pre-season practices, coaches and their assistants communicate to players that the team goal is to win every game and that the coaching staff has worked hard to make the plans to accomplish this goal. Changes to the initial plans will undoubtedly need to be made at appropriate times – both within matches and throughout the season – but the goal to win every game will never change.

Gathering Elite Soccer Player Data and Recognizing Players’ Behavior and Performance

According to PLoS One, data collection and recognition of behavioral tendencies and physical performance of both individual players and the team as a whole are essential elements in match planning and in-game decisions. A foundation of comprehensive planning greatly reduces coach and team pressure during soccer matches.

When players are under the stress of a game, elite soccer player behaviors shift to unbalanced defensive mechanisms instead of ball possession. Also, they experience heightened anxiety, leading to declines in their self-efficacy and self-worth, notes the Journal of Men’s Health.

Player reactions toward hardship moments needs to follow regulatory fit and arousal procedures as described in the International Journal of Exercise Science. This way, players are taught to overcome stressful situations while reflecting on what the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences refers to as automaticity. Players also experience appropriate increases or decreases in the quality and quantity of self-talk, imagery, and emotional control, according to the Journal of Human Kinetics.

Coaching Elite Soccer Players When an Opponent’s Skill Level Is the Same or Higher

The influence of the unconscious mind is a major reason why some elite soccer teams struggle to perform up to their potential. The Association for Psychological Sciences notes that in the realm of cognitive psychology, the unconscious mind processes information without players directly realizing that what they are doing is really a controlling system within which their learning depends on previous experiences – both good and bad.

Frontiers in Psychology notes that the variation of formations, roles, and tasks in competitive matches and practice sessions strongly influence cognitive behaviors. These cognitive behaviors process functionality within a brain area called the basal ganglia, according to Biology of Sport.

During elite soccer matches, the role of each player is generally limited to only three or fewer distinct tasks. Physical Education Theory and Methodology observes that player data collected during practices and matches create both qualitative and quantitative information. However, results often differ according to individual players’ talent level, field position and experience.

When elite soccer players gain confidence in their capabilities through effective coaching, a feeling of self-worth, self-efficacy and positive self-talk, they will experience more success during intricate patterns of play. Dogmatic perspectives will hopefully then lead to quick, solution-driven decisions to increase their performance. In addition, comparing players’ skill levels with the strengths and weaknesses of opposing teams involves preparing players using mental fatigue effects training to enhance reaction intensity, according to Frontiers in Psychology.

Creating Patterns of Play, Pre-Organization and Player Innovation

The Journal of Human Kinetics notes that when systematic patterns of play are repeated successfully by individual players during a match, a well-coached team can create multiple challenges for the opposing team. Often, these challenges are created by suppressing previously planned offensive and defensive strategies. When a player or team needs new innovations, appropriate performance variations will lean towards coaching techniques used in pre-season, in-season, and post-season training sessions.

Deviating from coach-established patterns of play often negatively affect team effort and success. Great coaches are very aware that coaching comments made privately to an individual player regarding specific skills often need to be different from the comments made to the entire team. This need to express coaching comments differently is because a group of offensive or defensive players trying to apply innovative, coach-established strategies can unfortunately lead other groups within the same team to perceive coaching signals differently.

Employing Conscious, Unconscious and Subconscious Thinking to Improve Elite Soccer Players’ Performance

Past experiences influence the overall evaluation process by players because behavior is a set of complex mental structures that develop the personality of both the sender and receiver, says Health Psychology Review. Trends in Cognitive Sciences also notes that the mentality of both coach and athletes relies on different imagery functional mechanisms. The elements of conscious, unconscious and subconscious thinking have the potential to complicate communication to players.

Player awareness of their personal ability to understand game tasks is critical to the overall learning of team strategies planned by coaches. These tasks can be developed through repetition until the cognitive processes of players are able to go on autopilot. According to The Conversation, players instinctively lean towards stress responses that have the potential to either enhance or reduce performance, which is also strongly influenced by communication and attitudes from coaches, spectators, and the sports media.

elite soccer coaching one aspect Idrissi Graetzer
elite soccer coaching three aspects Idrissi Graetzer
Coaches can direct players’ learning processes using conscious, unconscious and subconscious thinking – not just by communicating with player consciousness only. This way, coaches can limit obstacles to perception, limit communication time, avoid misunderstanding and build a healthy team atmosphere. Images courtesy of Simo Idrissi.

Personality Variations and Elite Soccer Team Communication

The control of behavior is an internal intellectual conflict revolutionized by illusion, according to Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Mental illusions within the context of elite soccer competition involves egoism and correct versus incorrect thinking by players in the heat of competition.

First attempts at teamwork in initial elite soccer practices often involve perceptions that are not necessarily based on comprehensible factors, but rather on previous complex experiences that emerge in that moment through unconscious self-talk and numerous mechanisms involved in self-convincing, according to Psychology Today.

Individual players who are not playing up to their full potential could be negatively affected by coaches who promote innovations in a manner that is not communicated well from the coaching staff to players. This communication then mixes with previously organized patterns of play, leaving some players lacking in their ability to effectively understand and process the intended innovations and resorting to simply following what other players are doing.

Unsuccessful game day outcomes often accelerate the activation of imaginary behavior mechanisms, according to the Institute of Experimental Psychology. The ability to communicate soccer strategies to players using the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious mind is often a critical factor for coaches who desire to advance to more elite level teams.

PLoS One notes that many things can hinder players from repeating the specific strategy patterns stressed by coaching staff during practices when they compete against opposing teams that often have very different caliber players in various field positions and groups. Because soccer games can quickly become unpredictable in competitive matches, players need considerable mental training to reduce the “fight, flight or freeze” response, particularly during high-pressure times within a championship match, according to PLoS One.

Players who do not necessarily fulfill predictions by the coaching staff in all areas within a match are often the “weakest link in the chain,” which limits overall team performance. Ongoing analyses of coaching decisions during a competitive match involve the measurement of the specific responsibilities of individual players in relation to quickly changing team goals. This situation can be further complicated if a team becomes more player-oriented than goal-oriented or coach-centered.

Elite Soccer Teams Must Buy into Leadership Styles and Strategies

Pressure situations intentionally created by elite soccer team opponents are meant to disrupt the strategies created during practice sessions. It takes time and excellent communication by coaches to empower players to learn how to feel responsible and accomplish both short- and long-term goals, according to The Sport Journal and Psychology Today.

When elite soccer players buy into the leadership styles and strategies of their coaching staff, players in all field positions will desire more and more responsibility due to their enhanced understanding of integration processing. That will enable them to better compete as a team versus just a group of individuals.

About the Authors

Simo Idrissi, M.S., earned his Master of Science in sports and health sciences from American Military University in 2022. His capstone project, “Mental Preparation and Biofeedback to Enhance Soccer Team Performance Throughout a Competitive Season,” is available online and was written under the guidance of Dr. Daniel Graetzer. Simo is a former professional soccer player as well as a current coach and technical director for elite soccer teams. He also holds several coaching certificates from the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Daniel Graetzer color

Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his B.S. from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, MA from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, and Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City and has been a faculty member in the School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in social media blogs, encyclopedias and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in practical application of developing scientific theories and societal well-being.

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