The Psychology of Footballby: Rex LardnerEditor American Football Monthly
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Maybe Knute Rockne said it best, “Football is a game played with arms, legs, and shoulders but mostly from the neck up.”
Every coach is trying to get an edge on the mental side of football. It could be on the best way to motivate his players or simplifying a defensive scheme so his athletes can comprehend it easier. Most psychologists say focusing on simple goals can lead a player to identify and seize more opportunities.
Jared Wood is a sports psychology consultant in Southeast Michigan and has been writing the ‘Coach to Coach’ column for a few months. It seems like the complexity of the game is increasing yearly and that’s the mental side as well as the physical side. We asked Dr. Wood some basic questions about the psychology of the sport:
How would you describe the mental side of football?
‘The mental side of football is incredibly complex. In addition to schemes, checks, and reads that are completely mental, the mental side of the game also has a lot to do with how we react physically and emotionally. For example, training until reads and checks are automatic results in lightning quick physical reactions. Any mental hesitation or confusion results in physical hesitation. Likewise, emotions such as fear and anxiety, which are harmful to physical play, need to be dealt with using mental techniques, such as imagery, self-talk, goals, and confidence building techniques. Sport psychologists teach these techniques, and we have our work cut out for us with the complexity of football. What it ultimately comes down to is trying to find some definitive mental and physical skills to reduce the complexity and increase confidence.’
What is the most critical factor for a coach to consider as it relates to the psychology of his team?
‘I’ll give you two. The first is that the football player is a human being who has a life outside of football. Whether the player is a youth, professional, or any level in between, players (and coaches for that matter) bring personalities and personal issues into the game. To coach a player to his potential, a coach must understand the person, not just the player.
‘The next is that it is incredibly important to focus on what to do. We ultimately get what we focus on, and we can’t get what we want focused on what we don’t want. Coaches too often emphasize mistakes by pointing them out and getting upset over them. This is a problem on so many levels. For example, it creates fear, which is bad for effective football execution, and it brings all kinds of attention to the mistake, even forcing players who didn’t make the mistake to focus on it. There is no need for it. Players are far better off focusing on what to do. Hammer what to do, and forget mistakes.’
How can a coach learn the techniques for teaching his team to be mentally ready?
‘Today, so much material exists to help coaches. There are books, manuals, blogs, videos, classes. Coaches have so many resources at their disposal. I hope that we at AFM are taking steps to help coaches with monthly articles as well. I think the best way to learn more about the mental game is to hire a sport psychologist for a few hours. The sport psych can come in, learn more about your unique program, and customize a few lessons to help you learn the most important psychological lessons for your program. It may cost a little more to do it, but it will be the most effective way to master the mental game in both the long and short-term.’
This month’s issue of ‘Coach to Coach’ discusses ways to overcome early season adversity.