Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Mental Lessons from the 2014 FIFA™ World Cup
By David Barracosa (PSY0001733584)
The FIFA™ World Cup is an amazing spectacle of football talent and passion and with only two matches left in the current tournament we thought it would be remiss for this event not to be the focus of this 22nd edition of the Mental Toughness Digest (all previous editions can be read via our blog).
The FIFA™ World Cup, occurring every four years, challenges players to perform at the highest level during every match of the month-long event. The 2014 contest in Brazil has been no different. The technical and physical abilities of the players is scrutinized prior to, during and after every match. However, one of the biggest tests facing each player and team is the mental challenge required to compete in this cauldron of expectation and possibility. There is no doubt that to thrive in such a setting, individuals need a significant degree of mental toughness.
While this World Cup has produced some surprising results, one factor has been consistent throughout – a pronounced focus on effort, which has manufactured some high quality performances. This does not mean the team came away with a victory, but perhaps they exceeded expectations. For example, less experienced nations with less financial backing such as Algeria and Costa Rica forced extra-time against strong German and Dutch outfits in the knockout phase. These results are surely a consequence of the mental preparations of the squads, almost as if these “lesser nations” knew that population, ranking, status, money earned counted for little on the pitch (our first mental lesson).
On the flip side of these impressive performances are those from teams who did not appear to give 100 per cent and possibly fell to the mental pressures. Nations such as Portugal, Spain and Italy that were highly rated entering the tournament never got out of first or second gear and it showed through their body language, lack of teamwork and inability to maintain any significant pressure in matches they were expected to win. The performances from these traditional footballing superpowers as well as others show teams will be outplayed at this level, not because of a lack of skill, but because of a lack of mental application (mental lesson number two).
And then some teams appeared to ‘get in right’ mentally at first and then ‘forget’. Colombia, playing in their first world cup for 16 years, appeared determined to execute maximum possible effort from the get-go, which not only resulted in some outstanding performances and victories, but a visible level of enjoyment as well. After each one of their 11 goals scored in their first 4 matches the players would gather to celebrate in a pre-arranged, choreographed fashion before embracing. You could see the way this enjoyment brought the team closer together, while also motivating them to continue to play at the same high level. However, in their quarter final match against Brazil something changed. The mental approach of the Colombians appeared rigid and without the same level of enjoyment. When Colombia scored to make it 2-1 with 15 minutes left there was no post goal celebratory dance. Did they forget or just not feel like it? Sometimes putting the cart before the horse (mental lesson number four) might not feel right, but it can be the best decision. From a performance psychology point of view there is a real chance that had the Colombians done their normal post goal salsa moves, it would have been them not the hosts moving onto the semi-final.
Our final mental lessons, surprisingly, come from teams that reportedly used a sport psychologist. Brazil brought in their ‘psicologa esportiva’ back into the fold in the latter stages of their campaign to help players ‘manage their emotions’. At Condor Performance, we hold the belief that the work of the sport / performance psychologist should be completed well in advance of the start of a particular competition. Genuine mental conditioning, just like physical conditioning, takes time and maybe the hosts shock loss to the Germans in the semi-final was partially related to them leaving some of the psychological preparation to the eleventh hour (5th mental lesson).
England, also used a sport psychologist (technically speaking Dr. Peters is a psychiatrist) and apparently spent most of their mental prep on improving the mental aspects of the England players penalty taking due to them previously cracking under the pressure of shoot-outs in previous tournaments. However, penalty shoot outs only take place to decide deadlocks during the knockout stages of a World Cup. Did England’s emphasis on penalties give us a clue that they felt as if they might stroll through the group stage? If so, then this focus may have come at the expense of other areas of preparation because it looked too far into the future and heightened the perceived importance of spot kicks (our sixth and final mental lesson).
Throughout any FIFA™ World Cup players and coaches must face a variety of mental challenges, including managing the expectations, pressures and game situations they encounter. But there should be no doubt that the nation who gets to lift the trophy this Sunday will have deserved it due to taking their mental preparation just as seriously – maybe more so – than the more obvious areas of sport science.