Tenuously Tough

Graham Obree’s 2012 autobiography The Flying Scotsman is a painful read (1).

It’s more a book about depression and dealing with it than images (2)a book about cycling. Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink is equally painful(2).. Obree fights bipolar disorder and in between times trains to the point of black out. McGrath drinks for 24 hours then turns in a man of the match performance for Aston Villa.

Obree broke the world hour record twice and did so using a bike he’d fashioned himself and rode in a flat out racing position.  McGrath had a sixteen year playing career with most of those years fuelled on alcohol. Top talent often has a tenuous grip on top performance.

His condition meant that like it or not, and he didn’t, Obree compartmentalised his life in cycling and his life other than cycling.  McGrath was unable to prevent his alcoholism seeping in to every area of his life. Early experiences had played their part in shaping their attitudes to sport. Obree was bullied viciously at school. Cycling literally offered an escape. 61BZDXZhwYL._SL1052_

McGrath grew up in Dublin, the only black kid in a succession of orphanages. Football was something which gave him friends and allowed him to shine.

Psychologists sell themselves short

The stories of elite performers like Graham Obree and .Paul McGrath and many, many others come to mind whenever coaches talk about the mental side of elite sporting performance.  I’m left pondering whether sports psychologists sell themselves short.

Every other aspect of elite performance – whether in individual or team sport – seems subject to detailed and specific analysis and is evidence –based.  In football for example we are familiar with periodization in training; use of heart rate monitors; GPS; urine sampling; post performance video analysis; position-specific coaching. At Liverpool they have their own research team employed to do practical research linked to Brendan Rogers’ match strategies.  http://www.thisisanfield.com/2015/02/revealed-the-science-behind-liverpool-fc/

We cover the technical, tactical, physical and social sides to performance in some detail, individualising guidance as we go. Psychological guidance, on the other hand, seems to lapse into tired old clichés .

At some point in their career all footballers will have endured team sessions on mental rehearsal, visualisation, self-talk, affirming targets, relaxation techniques, energising techniques and variations on the theme of mental toughness. For a few it might work, for most it passes by.

Addressing the fundamentals

I think it will only ever make a real difference if it’s done over time, on a one to one basis and with the fundamental issues which determine the limits of performance for each player.


Mike is small for a tennis player. He’s very agile, has fantastic speed to the ball and plays with high energy. His technical, tactical and physical attributes combined great confidence with have taken him through the junior ranks. Now he’s hit the senior game where he’s discovered self-doubt.

The first time we met we went for a walk away from the courts and did several circuits of the nearby football pitches. He talked freely. He had begun to experience sudden and catastrophic losses of confidence late in matches. It hit him on ‘big’ points where he described  both the physical characteristics – a weakness in his arms, getting to shots late, snatching – and the behaviours which followed: impatience, feeling rushed and, crucially – a sense that everyone is watching him.  He also told that he feels helpless as his opponent ‘looks bigger.’

So if you were his performance coach what would your advice be? At this stage some might say to change the self-talk, visualise your opponent being smaller, slow things down and rehearse pre-planned mental drills to take control of the moment. Assert yourself. Get back on top. All could be successful and some may have worked for Mike. However are these fixes addressing the more fundamental issue? Are they robust enough to see Mike through subsequent setbacks? Probably not.

A method of shifting self-doubt

For a psychological intervention to work  something of significance has to change. Tinkering won’t shift the behaviour. Here’s what happened with Mike .

  • We met outdoors away from desks and chairs and doors so we walked and talked; he showed me how he moved and it helped him speak
  • We agreed to share the processes we used together so that he could understand how his emotions shaped his decisions
  • We talked about Blue head versus Red head and how to recognise the difference between being rational or being rash, knowing when you’re relaxed and when you’re rushed. (6) This was so we could both be clear about what being in a good winning state was like.
  • He wrote down what it was he wanted to achieve in tennis, how he proposed to do so and what he had given up and was willing to continue to give up in order to achieve it. Going ‘public’ with aspirations helps.
  • He then talked about his tennis journey and more particularly about what he had sacrificed already to be where he already was.
  • In order to feel there was always something solid to fall back on he agreed to up his gym work and the intensity of his court sessions by 10% There has to be enough – and more – deposited in the effort  bankThis was a change. When he was in the final points of a rally late in a match he will know he’s banked the effort needed.
  • He committed to be more competitive in training and for his coach to exert pressure on him (3)
  • He needed to benchmark to the next level so we’d ask – who are your role models and what are they doing? What standards do you set in all you do? How do they compare with the others?
  • He also needed to own the strategy going forward – so then eventually, and after all this extra work he had banked and was continuing to bank, we addressed the presenting problem of choking on some big points late in games
  • We re-framed choking into a temporary phenomenon experienced by all elite athletes and something to be learned from. By doing so we were making it normal. (4)
  • It had taken us five meetings to get to the presenting problem so we then shared a quick and immediate solution that he could use without him becoming too self-conscious or needing unnecessary mental resources: he was to shrink his opponent – imagine him becoming smaller, being clumsy and hitting more slowly before his eyes – and practise doing so beforehand. That was it, but he did need to practise the technique.
  • Mike needed to leave me feeling good about who he is and what he does. I really hoped he’d never need to shrink his opponent because so much else had been invested in building his belief so that the need no longer arose.

I worked with Mike on six occasions over a year ago. I haven’t seen him since.

As I write, new manager Tim Sherwood is talking of bringing in a psychologist, or ‘anyone else who might help’, to motivate his Aston Villa squad. I hope he can find the right solution. If his dressing room is a reflection on the sorts of unique personalities who typically make up the elite sporting squad then there may well be an Obree or a McGrath or a Mike sitting in there just waiting for the right sort of he[p.


  1. Obree, 2012, The Flying Scotsman
  2. McGrath, 2006, Back from the Brink
  3. Moss-Kantner, 2004, Confidence
  4. Beilock, 2010, Choke: the Secret to Performing under Pressure
  5. Ankerson, 2013, The Gold Mine Effect
  6. Peters, 2011, The Chimp Paradox
  7. Wilson and Branch, 2006, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies

No one wants to see him miss this!

The England national side’s success rate in penalty shoot outs is currently 18%. For Germany it’s 87% Why is this? Why do some teams and some individuals consistently do better in high pressure environments?

We can name the moments when top performers choke. Their collapse is often spectacular. Over the years we’ve seen it in different sports: Don Fox in Rugby League, Jana Novotna in tennis, Jimmy White in snooker, Roberto Duran in boxing, David Bedford in athletics, Greg Norman in golf, Eric Bristow in darts. The list goes on…

What happens when a top performer loses mental toughness and chokes? Can a coach make an athlete mentally tough?

Researchers cite the links between arousal and performance. They talk about managing attention and about coping strategies. Some causes of choking are said to be stable – for example personality and self-consciousness. Others are labeled unstable – such as expectation, the perceived reward, the audience or the competition.

For some time now I’ve worked with footballers to help them improve the mental side of their game. Accommodating the stable and managing the unstable causes. There have been some successes and some failures. All performers have ups and downs. Everyone will ‘choke’ now and again. For a performance coach it’s how to help the player manage this to reduce its likelihood and then deal with it should it happen.

Why bother with mental toughness?

Elite performers have the edge. At the top-level in every sport, elite performers use mental toughness strategies. Some are learned and some are natural.

Chris Hoy worked with his psychologist prior to the Athens Olympics 1000 metre sprint to mentally rehearse every possible thing which could go wrong so that they were perfectly prepared. The kilo was the hardest sprint event of all. With Hoy going last, he watched on as three of the four competitors before him successively broke the world record. He required a personal best to take the title. He won gold by 0.185 seconds.

When pro basketball players mentally rehearsed throwing shots for 15 minutes prior to practicing, their success rate went up by 9%

The beam in gymnastics is only 10cm wide and is 125cm above the ground. You could walk along it with confidence. How confident would you be if the same beam was placed 25 metres above the ground?

Adrenaline and cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate change when you are anxious. Your anxiety levels are determined by your thinking. Control your thinking and you control your body and your performance.

Brain scans show that mental rehearsal stimulates and sends messages to the muscles used in the real experience. This means that you can speed your recovery from injury by visualisation. Slalom skiers improved performance by 12% through regular visualisation sessions before racing.

I tell players to take 10 to 15 minutes before you train to go through what quality in training looks, feels and sounds like.  Give yourself an edge – the body follows the mind. Using the techniques improves the quality of preparation and remember nothing replaces hard work in training

A key part of mental toughness is to use the techniques to train at a better quality level. If it’s all about the match day then it’s too late. Performance psychology is not about a rousing speech! Produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas in which you need to improve.

My strategies for developing mental toughness in top performers – or at least, the first few strategies

1. Learning about arousal up and down. Focus on managing your emotional state so that you can lower their heart rate and blood pressure and experience what the difference between anxiety and calm is like. Use visualisation and relaxation techniques. Do so regularly during the week.

2. Mental rehearsal. Prior to training take ten minutes to go through how you will produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas which you need to improve upon.

3. Directed Practice – suggestions for Technique improvement. Take areas of your game where you feel you must be even better. For example a centre forward might focus on:

  • Holding the ball up
  • Positioning for diagonals
  • Winning headers
  • Getting across your man

4. Benchmark against a higher or desired standard. Watch the people who are the best and use training as an opportunity to practise the techniques and do what they do. Again, mentally rehearse in detail the performance improvements

5. Competition. Use competition in training to hone skills and build belief. Competition in training sharpens your competitive instinct and plays a big part in building confidence. Competing against yourself and your own Personal Best in skills sessions also builds self-belief.

6. Showing off! Showing your individual skill, doing what you are good at and letting everyone see it can be another way of giving your confidence a little boost. Do it in warm ups, after training and every now and again as a reminder to yourself of how good you are. Showing off what you can do improves your confidence.

7. Set ambitious targets. No-one ever got better at anything by staying in their comfort zone. To have a big impact, set targets for yourself which are at the edge of your ability level. Work towards these demanding targets. Share them with others: until you do so it is easy to cheat!

8. Scaffold the challenges. Don’t try too much too early! Set demanding targets and work towards them. Build up the basics as you go. Top athletes keep performance diaries and are interested in monitoring their own progress.

9. Demand specific useful feedback. Ask coaches, team mates and your family in the stand for specific role and technical feedback. Find out what you could do differently or better.

10. Recovery rituals. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Your performance goes when you are distracted. You suffer 35% in performance losses when you become distracted. It needs up to 40% more mental energy when you lose focus and have to recover. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Dwelling on failures is unhelpful and will destroy your performance.

11. Parking errors. Leave any errors behind. If you are a goalkeeper and you make a mistake you are not going to correct it by dwelling on what went wrong. Park the error up because you know you will be going over it later.  Use your recovery rituals to help you stay sharp. Some keepers do things like drink from the water bottle and spit the mistake away, kick the post with their studs or rub mud on the gloves. Little things which tell your brain – we’ve moved on…

Sport is full of  cliches. Over a life time of sport, top performers have heard them all. The real work in preparing to perform takes place away from team talks, from motivational speeches, from crowds and stadiums – it starts early on in life. Some of it is learned along the way and all of it is learned at the very edge of what’s possible.


Pursuing ‘Relentless Simplicity’

The UEFA Pro Licence is, currently, the top qualification in football coaching and management and mandatory in the higher end of football. All the home federations run their programmes and for the past nine years I’ve been involved either as presenter, contributor or part of the planning team in the FA version.

Typically about 20 managers and coaches are accepted onto the programme each year. The licence has to be renewed to keep it current. So this last weekend we had our refresher group renewing their licences and our mid-season group meeting together to share some of the programme.  We invite figures from football and other sports to share their insights.

For me, the UEFA Pro Licence weekend is a refreshing reminder that there is still integrity in football with successful individuals who have the humility and openness to share failures as well as successes.  Whether you listened from an education or a football perspective there were lessons to be learned. My seven key lessons are these.

  • “You can coach technical ability, develop fitness power and strength but you cannot coach courage, belief or hunger – all of which are abundant in elite performers.” Mick Wadsworth (30 years in coaching). These are qualities which have to be ‘found’ in the individual with the coach or teacher, having ‘found’ them, gradually drawing them out.
  • “Performance psychology migrates between the land of reality and the sea of bullshit, no one wins an encounter with a speech.  Protect your players from too much of you and let them make their own decisions” Peter Moores Lancashire County Cricket Club
  • “To coach players and develop them you need a well understood consistent infrastructure and a coach who is open-minded and prepared to study new ideas and solve problems.” – Rafa Benitez who has coached in Spain,England and Italy. Rafa told the group that at half-time in the 2005 Champions League final he made no big speech – focusing instead on tactical changes and inviting the players to be ‘proud.’ A minute before he was due to go back out he discovered because of an injury he had to change his team again.
  • “No matter how thoroughly you prepare, how much time you spend in getting tactics and formation right, how much detail you go into nothing can prepare you for the occasion. The occasion changes performances and changes behaviour.”_ – Rene Meulensteen Manchester United First team Coach on setting up to play Barcelona in the Champions League Final. The level of detail in preparation is frightening!
  • “Don’t wait … Create!” Brendan Rogers who has stuck to his personal philosophy and principles of play in his pursuit of world class coaching and whose team are now earning plaudits for their high tempo possession football. He talked of his own learning journey including working with Mourinho. A manager who was obsessive about detail down to the colour of the cones, whose commitment meant he’d occasionally work late and be found asleep in the dressing room at 7.00 the next morning!
  • “Look at your talent pool and work out their cost per minute on the pitch!” Malky Mackay, manager of CardiffCity whose management approach is forensic in its detail. This maxim could apply to any profession
  • Finally, the message that emerged more than anything else regarding coaching and teaching was, “the environment is the best teacher” In other words, the circumstances in which you have to learn provide the benchmarks and shape the everyday behaviours and habits which then deliver the performance.

The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there. The managers, teachers and coaches who excel in their discipline are life-long learners and students of their game.  They are in pursuit of what Mourinho calls ‘relentless simplicity’, making the complex simple, seeing beauty in every aspect of their chosen game.

This is what the future holds!

What will the elite end of soccer look like in ten years time? This was the question we posed to the group of coaches who met at Wokefield Park Reading this weekend for the first ever FA Elite Coaches Programme.

The English Premiership is now 20 years old and some would argue the game has moved on for the better. The trends suggest that it is being played by athletes who, at the top end, are tactically astute technicians who anticipate and solve problems at speed.

In this period in the Premier League we know that there is now:

  • 90% plus pass accuracy in many games (with two players at 100% in two separate games)
  • 3 seconds average time between passer and receiver
  • typically 2 seconds per player in possession, with just over 2 touches on the ball and under 3 seconds to make a decision as the ball come to you
  • heart rates increasing over 90plus minutes to 180 and beyond
  • more distance covered at pace
  • fewer instances of balls going directly from front to back

In the Champions League in the last six years we know that:

  • there are at least 1400 direction changes per game with 12 – 17 km covered by individual players per game.
  • 15% of time is spent on low speed running, 10% on moderate speed running, 2% at high speed and 1% flat out
  • In the last six years there has been a 13% increase in passes and a forward pass increase  of 10%
  • 84% of passes are successful one touch passes!
  • positional fluidity is dramatically up with more teams defending deeper and counter attacking

So the challenge for our modern coaches is to design development programmes and prepare players for a game which requires quicker decision-making, improved technical ability, increased stamina and speed and more tactical nous!

The answer, despite all the fuss about 10,000 hours of directed practice, is not more and more of the same. The answer lies in coaches understanding the principles of athletic development, who know how to encourage effective and instant decision-making in game contexts, have deep understanding of changing tactical demands and an obsession with working towards technical perfection.

We had sixteen of the best young coaches in the English game for less than three days. We debated the future game, the future player and the future coach. In the next eighteen months we will take the theory onto the grass and into the clubs. The word we kept hearing over the weekend was obsession! Let’s get obsessive together!