Dan Abrahams is a leading sports psychologist who has worked with players and teams at all levels to improve their performance on pitch, court and course. Dan has just published a new book, Soccer Brain. He has kindly agreed to answer some questions on sports psychology that my time on the touchline have prompted.
TL Dad: What experience and research is your new book ‘Soccer Brain’ based on?
Dan Abrahams: Soccer Brain is a book for soccer coaches. It comes from a decade of working at just about every level of football and with most age groups. I have worked alongside hundreds of coaches and managers – experiences that have shaped my views on effective ways to coach and manage players and teams. With regard psychological underpinnings to the book – my passion is to demystify sport psychology for players and coaches so I try to avoid too much ‘dry’ stuff. There are lots of stories in the book related to the experiences of those perceived to be great managers and coaches. I love to bring this stuff alive for people. However there still has to be substance and all its tools and techniques are backed by research.
TL Dad: Do you find the psychological challenges of adult and junior players to be similar, or not? If not, what tend to be the differences?
DA: Similar but in different forms and at different extremes. Parents must remember that their kids have different brains to them. What we know in neuroscience now is that the front, intellectual brain isn’t fully wired up with the emotional brain until a person is in their mid twenties. Emotional management for your footballers is very difficult. Many kids tend to be engulfed in emotion, especially after a poor training session or a loss. But you always work on the same things whether you’re working with academy players or men/women’s first team – areas like confidence, focus, intensity, motivation etc tend to resonate throughout the lifespan of a footballer.
TL Dad: One of my children (aged 6) went through a phase of not being able to tolerate losing football matches – even when in a non-competitive environment. What would you advise a parent in this situation?
DA: Losses are a great opportunity for parents to help their children manage adversity and subsequently provide effective schemas for adulthood. I’ve always given parents a basic process for post match losses. Firstly, don’t feel compelled to say anything. Allow your young footballer time to stew. You know it’s no bad thing if they’re disappointed. This means they’re competitive and they want to win (and as we all know, competitiveness is a valuable commodity in adult life, something that is thrust upon us no matter who we are.)
Once your young footballer is in a better mood then it’s time to be proactive. But avoid making statements, strive to ask good questions. For example, what went well today? What could you have done a little better? Asking questions helps a young footballer open up a catalogue of pictures. They are not judgmental and they help your child become a student of the game (and their own game.) If you want to add value yourself then mention a couple of things you thought they did really well. As a parent it’s useful to lay down tracks of success for your child to come back to as often as possible.
TL Dad: I have found some junior footballers play below par because of a fear of getting injured as the game becomes more physical as they get older. What advice would you give to support them?
A fear of getting injured is tough to overcome. You can provide all the rational advice in the world (for example, if you go in at 50% you’re more likely to injure yourself) but the brain works emotionally more so than it does intellectually. This is an art and not an exact science, so my best advice is to ask the young footballer what 100% looks like. Get them to see and feel the pictures. Try to help them equate these pictures to something different. For example “What kind of animal does this look like?” That might get a bit of an embarrassed chuckle, but if you elicit an answer of, say, a LION, then this is a very productive, emotional picture that the child can use when he or she trains and plays. If they can equate LION to 100% it may make it easier for him or her to compete at that intensity. But do bear in mind your question requires a whole chapter to answer properly.
TL Dad: Children tend to want to practise what they are already good at, rather than new skills they could develop? Do you have any psychological techniques for encouraging children to persevere and acquire new skills?
DA: They often don’t want to practice something they are ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ at because of the fear of failure or the embarrassment of looking stupid. So my first advice there would be to work on a weakness individually away from others. Within that process, as your child starts to pick up the skill, reinforcing the notion of ‘can’ and helping the child identify improvement can help build their confidence in trying new things and working on weaknesses. Another idea is to try to make the drills as fun as possible whether it’s bringing a competitive edge or bringing a playful theme to proceedings. This is simply the art of good coaching.
TL Dad: Where junior players are having difficulty at sports, which have a psychological background, what role do you find the parents to have played?
DA: Parents can be a great influence or a lousy one. Pushy parents can be pushy in the right way or pushy in the wrong way. It’s a real mixed bag. Parental involvement is a very complex landscape. Many people say parents shouldn’t be involved and should keep a distance, yet there are numerous examples of parents who help their kids develop their sport and their personalities in a healthy competitive way. Just because a sports parent is firm doesn’t mean they are a bad sports parent. I’m unsure the job of the parent is to be their child’s best friend all the time. We live in a wonderful world but one that (in the words of Sylvester Stallone) can beat you to your knees. Parents who love their children also know that they have to help their children face adversity life throws at them. Sport is a wonderful platform to help this happen – so I don’t have a problem with the ‘involved’ parent. But it must be a healthy involvement.
TL Dad: Which sports player would you nominate as having the most thorough psychological preparation for competition?
DA: Ha, well this is a grey area because I would say that having a thorough preparation programme for competition isn’t necessarily congruent with being a ‘normal’ person with a ‘normal’ lifestyle. I think the best sportsman mentally is someone like Tiger Woods, but his off course antics show that, whilst his sports prep has been spot on it may have been to the detriment of him as a person. Novak Djokovich seems to have a great attitude on and off the course (but who knows!!).
TL Dad: Thank you, Dan, for sharing your experience and providing some practical tips for supporting junior footballers. We may also know a bit more about how effective Djokovich’s preparation is this weekend.
Dan Abraham’s new book Soccer Brain, is available on Amazon. Dan can be followed on twitter: @DanAbrahams77