Coaching The Mental Game in Soccer

Recent article on how to coach a great mental game in soccer, posted on Soccer Classroom.

Hope it’s useful.

Coaching a Great Mental Game in Soccer

Simon Hartley

Be World Class

I watched an English Premiership game last season between Arsenal and Newcastle United. As a psychologist, I found it fascinating. At half time, the score was Newcastle 0 Arsenal 4. At full time, it was 4-4. What an incredible turn around. But exactly what was it that changed at half time? What happened to alter the game so dramatically? Did the skill levels of the players change? Did Arsenal suddenly lose their technical ability, or did Newcastle find Harry Potter’s magic wand in the corner of their dressing room? Maybe at half time Newcastle’s players became more athletic, stronger, faster and more powerful?

In reality none of those things changed dramatically. Players don’t lose or gain skill in a 15 minute half time interval. Equally, they do not lose or gain athleticism. It’s true that one team may become fatigued, but it doesn’t usually happen during the half time break.

In truth, the one element that probably did change quite significantly is the mental state of the players. In sport, the things that change most quickly in games are often the mental & emotional states, and tactics & decisions. Often those two things are actually quite closely related to each other. Our decision making, and therefore our tactical performance, is normally closely tied to our mental and emotional state. When our mind is in the right place we tend to make good decisions, as well as executing our skills well.

As a sport psychologist I find it interesting that coaches spend so much time on technique, tactics and physical development, and relatively little on coaching the mental game. Most high level coaches understand that the game is played predominantly ‘in the top 6 inches’ (i.e. from the neck upwards).

So, what are the keys to getting the mental game right? Well, there are 3 main elements to the mental game. These 3 elements work in combination; they are inter-dependent. It is tough to get a performance if we only have one on its own. These 3 elements flow from each other and feed off of each other. So, as coaches, we need to ensure our players have all 3. Once we have all 3 working together, we see a positive spiral of increasing performance.

What are the 3 amigos?

–          Focus

–          Confidence

–          Motivation

The relationship between these 3 is very simple.

When we are focussed, and have a simple, clear job, we stand a really good chance of doing that job well.

When we do the job really well, we become confident and we enjoy what we’re doing.

When we are confident and enjoy what we’re doing, we’re motivated to do it again.

It is very simple, but it often gets over-looked and forgotten. Fortunately, there are some very easy and practical steps that coaches can take to start the process of building this positive spiral. Here are three tips to get you started.

1. Make sure that players have a simple and clear job. Make sure they understand the processes that will help them play well. Each player will have a handful of key processes, which they need to focus on. When they execute these key processes, they will perform really well.

2. Make sure that players focus on their key processes, not on the outcome of the game. Coaches can help by evaluating how well the players delivered the processes, rather than judging them on the results. This is tough to do if the coach is focussed on the outcome. Often coaches have to put their own ego to one side, to allow them to get passed the need to win the game. It sounds ironic I know, but the way to build a mentality that wins, is to take the emphasis off of winning. That’s not just true of junior soccer, it’s true in the English Premiership too!

3. To help build motivation, we have to allow players to play! I don’t just mean participate, I mean play! Play…experiment…discover…be expressive…try things…make mistakes…explore. We don’t have to drop our standards to let this happen, but we do have to embrace the true concept of play.

Of course, there is more to coaching a great mental game than can be written in one article. Each of these topics deserves much more attention. To understand how to coach focus, confidence and motivation in your teams, download the Be World Class Soccer webinar pack at

Happy coaching!