This is the story of the three little pigs — from a mental performance perspective.
The three little pigs live with their mother, who, having spent years raising them, launches them from her home and into the world. So each pig needs to find a place to live. The first builds her house out of straw, the second builds his out of sticks, and the third builds hers out of bricks. The villain of the story, a wolf, comes along and blows down each of the first two houses, sending those pigs running to the protection of the third pig’s sturdily built home. The wolf discovers when he reaches this house that he can’t blow it down, so the pigs get to live another day in peace.
So, what does this story have to do with mental performance in soccer?
Athletes often are urged to approach the mental aspects of performance by fortifying their minds, so when they encounter difficulty and challenge, their mind can overcome the threat. Build your mind into a house of bricks to keep out the “wolves.” Take control of your thoughts — this is a story told to us frequently, but we all know this is easier said than done. The good news is that research is beginning to demonstrate that using strength of will (sheer willpower) to control your thoughts isn’t always the best strategy either.
Actually, efforts to control our minds sometimes can create more distress than help. The more we try to not think about something or block it out, the more often we become preoccupied with that exact issue! Here’s an example: Don’t think about a purple elephant. Chances are an image of a purple elephant popped into your head. But, if uncomfortable “purple elephant” thoughts are not stopped by controlling our minds, what can we do?
Recent research suggests instead of trying to change our experiences or block out certain thoughts and feelings, we can change our relationship to those experiences. A much better metaphor than building a house of bricks is being the eye of the hurricane, as mindfulness coach to the NBA, George Mumford, describes it. We don’t need to build a fortress in our minds to keep our threatening thoughts and experiences out, because we instead can connect with our capacity to be with our experience without being swept away by it. This may seem like a minor difference, but it is in fact a radically different approach to mental performance.
Now, let’s consider a common soccer issue, which is performance anxiety. Plenty of soccer players feel anxious or nervous before they play. Anxiety can become so debilitating that players can’t focus or perform, which may lead to poor play or even quitting soccer.
Instead of trying to block out or change that anxious experience, you can work to change your relationship with anxiety. How? Research shows that mindfulness is one successful approach for this. Here are three important skills that are involved in mindfulness that come from Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), a form of mindfulness that is used by many athletes:
- Be Present: Being present involves being able to notice what’s happening within yourself (thoughts, feelings, sensations), as if from the position of an observer — like you’re sitting on the side of the road watching cars drive by.
- Open Up: Opening up involves “unhooking” from the difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations and accepting what is happening in the moment. When we’re watching the cars from the side of the road, we’re not getting up and chasing certain cars down the road. We’re just sitting and allowing them to pass by. This space will help you to choose how you want to respond as opposed to just reacting.
- Do What Matters: Doing what matters is then connecting to the type of player you want to be and taking “committed action” toward those values. We can accept our experience and still choose to bring our attention and efforts to what is important to us. Whether that’s during the game, at practice or lying in bed.
How do these mindfulness ideas apply to soccer?
Brad (not his real name) struggled with a lack of confidence and anxiety due to pressure. To deal with those difficult thoughts and feelings, he tried to energize himself, to calm himself down, putting it out of his mind and just focusing on the plays, but none of it helped the way he wanted it to. The feelings only grew stronger in fact, and he started to feel depressed and angry about the situation and he wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to fortify himself against the experience of feeling not confident and the pressures he was feeling, but none of it worked, or at least not for very long. The house-of-bricks approach wasn’t working.
Brad decided to try a new direction. Working with a mental coach, he moved to an eye-of-the-hurricane approach. He continued to feel anxious before games and in some high-pressure situations, but his relationship with those experiences started to change. Instead of getting anxious about being anxious, Brad developed the ability to “unhook” from the difficult situation, to notice when he felt anxious and also to play the way he wanted to play even though those thoughts and feelings were still there. Brad started to reconnect with his love of the game and get into flow when he was playing, regardless of the feelings he was experiencing in the moment.
What often stands in the way of our own best performances is ourselves. In this I mean if we can develop skills to be able to work with difficult thoughts, feelings and situations, then we build our capacity to play at our best regardless of what’s going on around us and within our inner experience — just like being the eye of the hurricane.
The best athletes feel anxiety, pressure, a lack of confidence, frustration, fatigue, sadness, the same feelings we all do. They have developed the capacity to perform their best even when experiencing difficulty. An eye-of-the-hurricane approach is something we all can work to develop even if we aren’t Lionel Messi.
Landon DuMar is the Mental Performance Coach at RPM Athlete Performance in Natick, Mass. He currently is pursuing a master’s degree in athletic counseling at Springfield College and has experience working with a variety of collegiate and youth athletes, coaches and trainers on the mental aspects of sport and performance that focuses on flow, mindfulness, expertise and positive psychology. His background in counseling psychology and extensive experience working in youth mental health programming informs his holistic approach to health, wellness, and well-being. Learn more at www.rpmathlete.com.