What do players do if it’s going wrong? Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams discusses the most important question players must ask themselves
A wise person once said: “The quality of your life bears relation with the quality of the questions you ask yourself.”
As a sport psychologist there’s one question I ask players that I think is more important than any other. One that stands out as different – that at first glance appears negative, but is in fact positive, adaptive and powerful. One that is imperative for all players to be asked, or to ask themselves.
The question is this: “What are you going to do if it’s going wrong?”
Historically, I’ve found players to be scared of this question. It’s often met with a quizzical look and an uncomfortable response: “But that’s focusing on negatives, why would I want to think about that?”
Well, here’s why – guarantees and ‘sure things’ are sparse in elite sport, but if there’s a safe bet in any competitive environment it’s that mistakes will happen. There will be moments of poor play. Adversity is inevitable. There will be times when the opposition gets the better of you, no matter what you do. In a sport like football, where seconds count and where internal feelings of failure can take hold and deplete confidence in milliseconds, the capacity to deal with failure is a skill that’s a critical essential.
I remember one of the first times I ever asked a player this question. This was a Premier League player, an international footballer – a striker with a strong CV. We were having a discussion around match objectives, working on breaking down his role into specific, controllable processes. During the discussion he mentioned that the defender he was due to be up against in his next game was very powerful, very tough, and very dominant. And so it seemed natural to ask: “What are you going to do if it’s going wrong – if he’s overpowering you, getting the better of you, dominating you?”
He’d never been asked a question like this before. It led to a short period of silence, but a good silence – a thoughtful moment of reflection and solution finding, until an answer emerged: “If it’s going wrong I’m going to use my movement. Pull him out wide, drag him in deep. Try and get in behind him; he’s not as agile or as quick as me. I’m also going to stay relentless with the process goals we’ve spoken about. That’s what I’m going to do.”
This was a thoughtful response, reflecting on his own strengths, considering the weaknesses of the opposition, emphasising the need to focus on the process of his game. And as you can see this wasn’t a negative conversation. On the contrary, it was wholly positive. This elite level player now had an overarching philosophy for dealing with failure. He had broadened his ability to manage mistakes. He was prepared to cope with adversity.
And cope he did! For the first 15 minutes of the game, the opposing defender got the better of the striker, winning headers, closing space quickly, making the game feel claustrophobic. But the striker wasn’t anxious and didn’t panic. He focused on the solutions he’d mentally rehearsed in the lead up to the game.
He exercised patience, and over the course of the match he used his agility and speed to positively impact in and around the penalty area. He scored and assisted – he made a difference!
DEAL WITH FAILURE
The question “What are you going to do if it’s going wrong?” can make a difference. I would caution
against thinking that your players ask themselves this or go through this process already. Some do (in their own way), but many don’t. And that’s why we see so many players respond poorly to those tough moments that unfold in the game.
They get overly angry at themselves or far too despondent. They get tight and tense and stressed. “It’s not my day”; “I’m just not feeling it”; “The opposition are playing far too good”. These pervasive inner thoughts eat away at their confidence, and they need to be squashed instantly. When you engage players in brainstorming how they’ll deal with failure, you give them a better chance to cope, to self-regulate and to manage themselves when the pressure is on.