The Need for Sleep: Fewer Injuries, Better Learning, Better Mood, BETTER PERFORMANCE

Theres a simple truth: The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

Walker, 2019

Top clubs and organisations are starting to become wise towards the advantages of sleep, going against the grain of past thinking where the philosophy was very much ‘sleep is for wimps’

Nike and Google have both adopted a more relaxed approach to work schedules, so much so that they even allow workers to sleep on the job. Throughout their corporate headquarters are dedicated relaxation rooms with nap pods (Walker, 2017). Clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid are also recruiting “sleep coaches” and have added sleeping areas to nap in-between training sessions (Edgley, 2017).

Sleep Effects on Injuries

There is strong evidence to suggest that the less sleep a player gets, the more likely they are to be injured.

From Milewski et al, 2014

Athletes who slept on average less than 8 hours per night were 1.7 times more likely to have had an injury compared with athletes who slept for more than 8 hours  (Milewski et al, 2014). Even just a 2 hour increase/decrease in sleep made a significant difference. 

This is one of the many vital benefits of sleep within sport and wellness. 

Players also tend to lose many weeks of the year through illness (Ranchordas, 2016). Regular good quality sleep boosts the immune system meaning fewer illnesses (Walker, 2017;Pink, 2018) and more time in training and matches.

Sleep Effects on Learning

People who get 7/8 hours of sleep have a more active hippocampus, meaning they are able to learn and retain information more effectively (Walker, 2019).

Concentration and memory retention are increased after sleep, meaning that you will take in more information, and any skills you learn will be remembered more effectively (Ellenbogen et al, 2006). 

When possible for players, take a nap after training if training is in the morning, this way it’ll not only help your physical recovery (Duckworth, 2016), it’ll also help you retain any information you received in training.

Sleep Effects on Mood

Sleep has been shown to make people happier, more positive and have better relationship interactions; whilst a lack of sleep leads to less productivity, less motivation, less creativity, lower mood, laziness, and it also leads to more unethical behaviour (Walker, 2017). 

Therefore good quality sleep is beneficial for players in order to form friendships and understandings with teammates. 

Coaches and leaders should also look to ensure that they’re not skipping on vital sleeping hours too. Studies have recently discovered that under-slept managers and CEOs are less charismatic and have a harder time inspiring and motivating their team (Walker, 2017).

Furthermore, Christopher Barnes (2012), a researcher in the Foster School of Business at Washington University found that under-slept employees in the workplace are more likely to blame other people in the workplace for their own mistakes, and even try to take credit for other people’s successful work. This is applicable to football and the training field, hardly a recipe for team building and a harmonious environment. 

In addition, a good sleeping routine has been shown to have mental health benefits and decreases symptoms of depression (Walker, 2017; Pink, 2018, Mental Health Foundation, 2011)

Sleep Effects on Performance & Energy

Research by Matthew Walker (2017) showed that “When sleep was poor the night prior, exercise intensity and duration were far worse the following day. When sleep was sound, levels of physical exertion were powerfully maximal the next day. In other words, sleep may have more of an influence on exercise than exercise has on sleep”. 

Whats more, sleep has also been shown to increase ‘flow’, that feeling of being in the zone (see more in ‘benefits of napping’). 

It has also been shown that less sleep increases the desire to eat junk food (Walker, 2017), equating to lower performances and lower health.

On top of that, men who average 5 hours of sleep, have significantly smaller testicles and LESS TESTOSTERONE than a man that averages 7/8 hours of sleep (Walker, 2019). Testosterone is important for performance as it helps ready a player for the challenge prior to facing the opposition; it is the body’s way of hormonally preparing for events to come (Bates, 2017)

If as a player you want to perform at your maximal intensity pay attention to the quality of your sleep.

Benefits of Napping

Napping has in recent history been looked down at as being lazy, however research shows just a 10-20 minute nap has an incredible plethora of benefits (Pink, 2018; Walker, 2017). 

Firstly, researchers found that people who regularly took a siesta had a 37 percent lower coronary death rate than those who never napped (Naska et al, 2007) 

Secondly, napping has been shown to increase ‘flow’ (Kaida et al, 2012), that psychological state in which a person performs optimally without effort or self-consciousness but with a sense of control, transformation of time and feeling of intrinsic reward (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi,1998)

Thirdly, nappers were found to be twice as likely to solve a complex problem than people who hadn’t napped or who had spent the time in other activities (Mandar et al, 2011) and it also expands the brain’s capacity to learn (Beijamini et al, 2014).

Finally, naps have been shown to boost mental and physical health (Pink, 2018). 

*Bonus tip – Have a NAPPACINO
The best naps that I’ve ever had has been from Daniel Pink’s (2018) concept of a ‘nappacino’. 

This is how it works – Since caffeine takes about twenty-five minutes to enter the bloodstream, try having a coffee just before a nap. Caffeine, usually in the form of coffee, followed by a nap of ten to twenty minutes, is the ideal technique for staving off sleepiness and increasing performance

Sleep Tips from Matthew Walker (You can see the full list here)

  • Regularity: Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time. No matter if its a weekday or the weekend. It will improve the quality and quantity of the sleep. (Matthew Walker emphasizes this is the #1 priority from the list)
  • Keep it cool: Aim for a bedroom temperature of 65F/18C
  • Don’t exercise too late in the day: Exercise is great, but try to time it no later than 2-3 hours before bed. This is because body temperature can remain high for an hour or two after physical exertion
  • Avoid caffeine: Colas, coffee, teas (that aren’t herbal) and chocolate contain caffeine, which is a stimulant. Even consuming these in the afternoon can have an affect on your sleep 
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed: The presence of alcohol in the body can reduce your REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep.
  • Avoid large meals and beverages late at night: A lights snack before bed is okay, but a heavy meal can cause digestive issues, which interfers with sleep. Drinking too many fluids can cause freuqent awakenings to urinate.
  • Make sure to leave time to relax before bed: It’s important to have time before bed to unwind. Try to schedule your days so that there is time to relax before bed.
  • Take a hot bath or shower before bed: The drop in body temperature after a bath or shower may help you to feel sleepy, and it can help you to slow down and relax before bed.
  • Have a dark, gadget free bedroom: Gadgets such as mobile phones and computers can be a distraction. Additionally the light they emit, especially the blue light, suppresses the secretion of melatonin. Melatonin being a hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycles – with it increasing in the evening to induce sleep. (You can pre-schedule most modern day devices so that they lower the blue light that is transmitting after a certain time).
  • Don’t stay in bed if you (really) can’t sleep: If you find yourself still in bed for more than 20 minutes, or you’re starting to get anxious in bed, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy. Anxiety whilst trying to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Don’t nap after 3pm: Naps are great, but taking them too late in the day can make it hard to fall asleep at night.
  • DONT HIT THE SNOOZE BUTTON: Most of us are unaware of an even greater danger that lurks within the alarm clock: the snooze button. If alarming your heart, quite literally, were not bad enough, using the snooze feature means that you will repeatedly inflict that cardiovascular assault again and again within a short span of time. Step and repeat this at least five days a week, and you begin to understand the multiplicative abuse your heart and nervous system will suffer across a life span.

Reference List


A Coaches Guide to….’NEVER SPLIT THE DIFFERENCE by Chris Voss’

Chris Voss is a former FBI Hostage Negotiator. In his book ‘Never Split the Difference’, he not only shares ideas on how he negotiated with some of the worlds toughest criminals, but on how to develop relationships, how to be persuasive, and how to be a good listener; All vital attributes for coaches (and day to day management).

“Allow me to let you in on a secret: Life is negotiation. The majority of the interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic urge: I want.”

Chris Voss

You can purchase the book here

Voss starts the book with the following statement: 

The first step to achieving a mastery of daily negotiation is to get over your aversion to negotiating. You don’t need to like it; you just need to understand that’s how the world works. Negotiating does not mean browbeating or grinding someone down. It simply means playing the emotional game that human society is set up for. In this world, you get what you ask for; you just have to ask correctly. So claim your prerogative to ask for what you think is right.

So how does this help in a coaches day to day?

The main practicalities for coaches in this book include: 

  1. Creating connexions through communication
  2. Feedback & questioning
  3. The power of your voice (different tones for different situations)

These tools, then, are nothing less than emotional best practices that help you cure the pervasive ineptitude that marks our most critical conversations in life. They will help you connect and create more meaningful and warm relationships. That they might help you extract what you want is a bonus; human connection is the first goal.

Chris Voss

Creating Connexions Through Communication

Chris Voss says that one of the most effective ways to create an instant connexion is mirroring (also called isopraxism).

It’s (mirroring) a phenomenon (and now technique) that follows a very basic but profound biological principle: We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar.

Chris Voss

For the FBI, a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, mirroring is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, and yet uncannily effective.” Have a look at Chris Voss using the mirroring technique in a hostage situation:

In addition to mirroring, Voss also uses labels to create a connexion through communication.

Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it. Give someone’s emotion a name and you show you identify with how that person feels. It gets you close to someone without asking about external factors you know nothing about (“How’s your family?”). Think of labeling as a shortcut to intimacy, a time-saving emotional hack.

Chris Voss

Voss says: Labels almost always begin with roughly the same words: It seems like . . . It sounds like . . . It looks like . . . Notice we said “It sounds like . . .” and not “I’m hearing that . . .” That’s because the word “I” gets people’s guard up. When you say “I,” it says you’re more interested in yourself than the other person, and it makes you take personal responsibility for the words that follow—and the offense they might cause.

Don’t be afraid of misinterpreting the emotion either, even if its not the correct emotion that the other person is feeling, the action of the person saying ‘no that’s not right’, gives them the feeling of being in control, and allows them to keep talking as they delve deeper into what they’re feeling.


So how can we use this with our players?

Heres a conversation I had with one of my players recently:

Player: I don’t feel like myself on the football pitch at the moment

Me: Not yourself? (Mirroring)

Player: Yeah, usually I feel energetic and free of thoughts

Me: It sounds like you’re anxious (Labelling)

Player: Yeah I think so, I feel like I’m constantly overthinking.

Me: Overthinking? (Mirroring)

Player: Yeah, on the pitch its like I have a voice in my head telling me that I’m tired, and reminding me of the mistakes I’m making

Through mirroring & labelling, the player not only felt like he was being listened to & understood, but he also expanded on his thoughts allowing us to come up with a more effective plan of action together.

Feedback & Questioning

In this book Chris Voss speaks a lot about calibrated questions

Calibrated questions avoid verbs or words like “can,” “is,” “are,” “do,” or “does.” These are closed-ended questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or a “no.” Instead, they start with a list of words people know as reporter’s questions: “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how.” Those words inspire your counterpart to think and then speak expansively

Chris Voss

Chris Voss: It’s best to start with “what,” “how,” and sometimes “why.” Nothing else. “Who,” “when,” and “where” will often just get your counterpart to share a fact without thinking. And “why” can backfire. Regardless of what language the word “why” is translated into, it’s accusatory. There are very rare moments when this is to your advantage.


I’ve found using calibrated questions particularly advantageous with on field feedback and in video analyses sessions.

Over the years I have without a doubt been guilty of using ‘why’ questions. Innocently I would ask a player ‘why did you decide to make that pass?’, but as Chris Voss says:

“Don’t ask questions that start with ‘Why’ unless you want your counterpart to defend a goal that serves you. ‘Why’ is always an accusation, in any language.”

For that reason we adapted our coaching interventions to include ‘what’ & ‘how’ questions.

Instead of ‘why did you decide to make that pass?’ we now use ‘what caused you to make that pass?’, and then with any corrections made we end with ‘how does that look to you?’.

This way the players don’t see the question as an acquisition but they see it coming from a point of curiosity and learning.

The Power of your voice

According to Chris Voss your most powerful tool in any verbal communication is your voice. There are essentially three voice tones available: the late-night FM DJ voice, the positive/playful voice, and the direct or assertive voice.

You can use your voice to intentionally reach into someone’s brain and flip an emotional switch. Distrusting to trusting. Nervous to calm. In an instant, the switch will flip just like that with the right delivery.

Chris Voss


Use selectively to make a point. Inflect your voice downward, keeping it calm and slow. When done properly, you create an aura of authority and trustworthiness without triggering defensiveness.


Most of the time, you should be using the positive/playful voice. It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person. Your attitude is light and encouraging. The key here is to relax and smile while you’re talking. A smile, even while talking on the phone, has an impact tonally that the other person will pick up on.


Used rarely. Will cause problems and create pushback. Except in very rare circumstances, using it is like slapping yourself in the face while you’re trying to make progress. You’re signaling dominance onto your counterpart, who will either aggressively, or passive-aggressively, push back against attempts to be controlled.


The positive/playful voice should be the default when speaking to your players, especially in a one on one situation.

The late-night FM DJ voice works well when reinforcing your non-negotiables, a sense of ‘thats not how we do it here’ in a calm and slow manner really fires the sense of purpose without offending the recipient.

For the most part the direct or assertive voice should be avoided especially when trying to persuade someone. It might work as a one off, but it tends to lose its intended focus very quickly if it occurs consistently and it will likely be received with pushback.

Never Split the Difference is available on Amazon here:


Pressure Training – Make Stress Your Friend

How many of you coaches have seen the perfect “training player”, the player that turns it on during training, the best player on the pitch, but then come to the competitive game on the weekend and they go missing, they seem sluggish and can barely place a 10 yard pass, half of the quality they showed during training. Have you ever thought to why that might be?  


The modern coach wants players to get out of their comfort zone and to do something that challenges them, which is of course of great benefit for any individual, but what are the ‘side effects’ of this? 

Whilst a player stretches outside of their comfort zone, stress levels will increase (Curneen, 2015) releasing the hormone cortisol (Katwala, 2016) which tends to have a negative effect on performance (Royle, 2018) by causing slower decision making and slower anticipation rates (Claffey, 2019). However, studies also show that cortisol can enhance learning (Pink, 2018). 

So the question is, how can we use stress to have a positive effect on our performances?

Like most aspects of our beautiful game, the answer is practice! Players cannot practise without challenge or competition and then be expected to deal with such pressures on game day (Beswick, 2015).

‘When you come under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion. You descend to the level of your training.’

US Navy Seals

In my experience coaches at senior level tend to be experts at creating negative stress, whereas some youth coaches don’t want to create any stress at all. Yes its true that people learn better in comfortable situations than stressful (Royle, 2018), and its also true that skills are honed in harsh situations (Evans, 2019). So how can we get the best of both? The best coaches that I’ve seen, create ‘positive stress’ and educate the players on how to cope and thrive with the stress and pressure. 

Some youth coaches might disagree with this approach and may see it as moving away from the player centred approach. I would argue however that denying them to work under pressure and stress is denying them a vital life skill. Stress expert Kelly McGoningal showed strong evidence in her TedTalk “How to Make Stress your Friend” (over 23 million views so far), McGoningal (2013, 2015) proclaimed that:

  1. Stress is only harmful to your health if you believe it is.
  2. The stress paradox says happy lives include stress.
  3. You can channel your stress into energy that boosts your performance.

This has been used for many years at clubs such Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, the coaches organised sessions that placed their youth players in stressful situations where techniques and decision making would be developed in a real-world environment. This was also carried out to develop psychological hardiness (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

The pressure I created during practices may have exceeded that which opponents produced. I believe when an individual constantly works under pressure, he or she will respond automatically when faced with it during competition.

Wooden, 1997

How to Create Pressure in Training: 

“Pressure comes from expectations, scrutiny and consequences. As a leader, we can use these three factors to encourage better performance”  – Evans, 2019

Coaches Note: Before doing these exercises its important to educate your players on pressure and share some tips on how to deal with pressure, especially if working with youth players (You can use the section “Tools for Players to Deal with Pressure” to assist you)

  1. The No Mistake Time Trial: One simple way you can create pressure is during a basic unopposed passing drill. Set the players a task of 2 minutes without any mistakes. When a mistake happens re-start the clock back to 0:00. You can find fault in anything you like, whether it be a misplaced pass, or a lack of movement. (Expectations)
  1. The Dodgy Ref: Make some outrageously bad calls, and consistent controversial calls (Pain, 2016), this is particularly useful for senior players. At the end of the day, every match you play there are going to be moments where your players (and yourself as the coach) will be on the receiving end of a perceived bad call from the referee. How frustrating is it when the player is arguing with the referee instead of working hard to get the ball back. So teach your players how to react to bad calls (Scrutiny)  

“Exceptional performers need only two seconds (To sulk). And really exceptional performers operate with a limit of one second. The strongest performers have the capacity to refocus as soon as they make a mistake.” – Evans, 2019

  1. The Loser Punishment: Especially for senior male athletes, having a punishment for the loser can really lift the intensity & increase the pressure. Something as simple as push ups or burpees, it’s not the physical act that is the punishment, it’s the fact that the winners watch on with the bragging rights. For youth players, I would recommend focusing on the positive outcome, rewarding the winning team (with a lap of honour for example), as opposed to punishing the losing team. (Consequences) 
  1. Game Scenarios: Many of you have probably used game scenarios in your sessions that include specific instructions for both teams (for example, 12 minutes left in the game and Red team leading 1-0, so Reds defend the lead and Blues try to equalise).This is good practice in dealing with game related pressure. To add extra pressure, you can then have the players break off for a 6-minute circuit-training session at the side of the field. After repeating this process three times, evaluate the players ability to handle pressure under fatigue (Beswick, 2015). 

Whichever technique you go for, it’s important that the players are given tools by the staff to deal with these pressure situations.

Tools for Players to Deal with Pressure:

  1. The Left Hand Squeeze: As bizarre as it sounds, there is some science behind it. A study by German researchers Beckmann, Gropel & Ehrlenspiel (2013) were able to improve performance under pressure by asking athletes to squeeze their left hand as they performed their skill. 

“This is because the left side of the body is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain (and vice versa), doing this draws neural resources like glucose and oxygen away from the interfering left hemisphere and reduces its negative influence on automatic processes.” – Katwala, 2016

  1. Challenge v Threat state: Footballers respond in one of two ways to a match. When a player appraises the match in a positive manner they see it as a challenge. When they appraise the match in a negative way they sees it as a threat (Abrahams, 2013). If you are overly nervous before or during a game, don’t try and get rid of those nerves, instead see it as a positive, see it as a meaning that you are doing something to challenge yourself.  

“Pressure can bust pipes, but it can also make diamonds If you take the negative view, it will crush you.” (Grover, 2013)

3. Breath, Label & Bring Yourself Back: 

  • Breath:Too many players take quick shallow breaths when dealing with pressure (Yousuf, 2018), so take slower breaths.  “If your emotions have become too intense and you feel overaroused to the point that you can’t think clearly, you can reduce your physiological arousal by slow breathing. Concentrate on breathing out very slowly and steadily (as if you were gently blowing up a balloon). When you slow your out breath, your in breath will take care of itself. Your heart rate and many other body systems will begin to return to a calmer state within approximately four to six slow breaths.” – Boyes, 2018a
  • Label: The simple act of labelling your emotion can reduce and cope with anxiety (Boyes, 2018b). You could also help ease your anxiety by giving your arousal a different label, such as excitement (Kolenda, 2013).
  • Bring Yourself Back: This means bringing yourself back in the moment. One of the greatest sporting team ever the New Zealand All-Blacks found individual ways that worked for them to bring them back into the moment.  “One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective. Whatever tool you use doesn’t matter, what matters is realising you’re in the wrong emotional zone, and finding ways to cool yourself off and get back in a high-performing head space “ (Coyle, 2014) Other simple ways to help get yourself back in the moment include giving yourself trigger words “I’m back” or “Next chance” (Pain, 2016); or a physical trigger such as looking at your shinpad/the goal/your hand (Yousuf, 2018).

4. Three Breath Technique: 

Take three belly breaths, with your out-breath at least as long as your in-breath. On each out-breath, shift your attention to focus on a different body part. 

First, your eyes: as you breathe out, soften your focus and look into the distance so you have a wider view of your surroundings, taking in the background and peripheries all at once. 

Second, your hands: as you breathe out, notice which set of fingers are tingling more – right or left? 

Third, your feet: as you breathe out, notice which set of toes feels more connected to the ground – right or left?

“Regulating our breathing regulates our emotions. Breathe well, perform well.” – Evans, 2019

To conclude, our beautiful game is a fantastic platform to help individuals with life skills and for me, dealing with stress is one of the most important. In a world where mental health disease seems to be becoming more and more prevalent, wouldn’t it be great if giving people the tools to deal with pressure might help someone who is struggling and maybe even reduce the rate of these diseases.

Reference List

  • Abrahams, D (2013) Soccer Brain: The 4C Coaching Model for Developing World Class Player Mindset and a Winning Football Team. Birmingham. Bennion Kearney LTD
  • Beckmann, J., Gropel, P. & Ehrlenspiel, F. (2013). Preventing motor skill failure through hemisphere-specific priming: Cases from choking under pressure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142(3), 679-691.
  • Beswick, B (2015) One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams. Human Kinetics. Kindle Edition.
  • Boyes, A (2018a) The Healthy Mind Toolkit. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  • Boyes, A (2018b) The Sport Psych Show: Alice Boyes – Prepare and Plan Mindset. Podcast – The Sport Psych Show w/ Dan Abrahams 12/11/2018
  • Claffey, J cited in Abraham, D (2019) The Sport Psych Show: James Claffey- Putting the Person Before the Athlete. Podcast – 28/01/2019
  • Coyle, D (2014) A Mental Trick from the World’s Best Team. [online] available at: http://danielcoyle.com/2014/09/25/a-mental-trick-from-the-worlds-best-team/
  • Curneen, G (2015) The Modern Soccer Coach: Position-Specific Training. Bennion Kearny. Kindle Edition. 
  • Evans, C (2019) Perform Under Pressure: Change the Way You Feel, Think and Act Under Pressure. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  • Grover, T (2013) Relentless—From Good to Great to Unstoppable. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Katwala, A (2016) The Athletic Brain . Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.
  • Kolenda, N (2013) Methods of Persuasion: How to Use Psychology to Influence Human Behavior. Nick Kolenda. Kindle Edition.
  • McGonigal, K (2013) How to Make Stress your Friend. TEDGlobal. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend?language=en
  • McGonigal, K (2015) The Upside of Stress. Avery; Second edition
  • Nesti, M & Sulley, C (2015) Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies. Oxford: Routledge
  • Pain M (2016) Mental Interventions. Chapter 17 Soccer Science: Using Science to Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.
  • Pink, D. (2018). When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Edinburgh: Canongate.
  • Royle, C (2018) The Sport Psych Show: Cody Royle – Where Others Wont. Podcast – The Sport Psych Show w/ Dan Abrahams 10/12/2018
  • Wooden, J. and Steve Jamison. (1997). Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. New York: Contemporary Books.
  • Yousuf, S (2018) The Sport Psych Show: Shameema Yousuf – Empowering Players with Performance Psychology AND Well-being Strategies. Podcast – The Sport Psych Show w/ Dan Abrahams 20/12/2018

Top 10 Reads

Looking for a new read?

At the start of 2020, my friend and I had a goal of reading 20 books in 2020. I ended the year reading 22 books (lockdown assisted).

These books range from new & old and differ in topics, all can be related to coaching and self-improvement.

I have chosen my top 10 and put them in reverse chronological order.


Leading: Lessons in leadership from the legendary Manchester United manager

By Alex Ferguson & Michael Moritz

Fascinating read from arguably the greatest football manager in modern times. Mainly discusses the ways in which he gained long term success, and the lessons that he learned in managing the pressure and stresses of leading.

Rating: 3 out of 5.


Never Split the Difference

By Chris Voss

A great read from a former FBI Hostage Negotiator. Chris Voss talks about the art of negotiation, persuasion and enhancing relationships. You can see a more in-depth review here , in which coaching applications are discussed.

Rating: 3 out of 5.


Socrates: A Man for Our Times

By Paul Johnson

Biography of one of the greatest teachers and philosophers of all time. Socrates’ unique technique of teaching through questions is still widely used today.

Rating: 3 out of 5.


Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking

By Matthew Syed

Im a big fan of Matthew Syed’s writing, and his latest book didn’t disappoint. In a world that seems to have a continued rise of polarised views, Syed makes you think in a different way and shows the benefits of avoiding cognitive bias and developing an ‘outsider mindset’.

Rating: 3 out of 5.


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

By Daniel Pink

A book that I had wanted to read for a long time. Daniel Pink observes the differences of old school external rewards to motivate in comparison to the power of internal motivation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.


Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs

By Guillem Balague

A diary account from Mauricio Pochettino. Pochettino discusses the daily challenges of being a Premier League manager, and the difficulties he had in transforming the culture at Tottenham to turn them from underachievers to Champions League finalists and Premier League title chasers.

Rating: 4 out of 5.


Mans Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust

By Viktor E Frankl

One of the deepest, most powerful books I have ever read. Frankl was a psychologists who was put into a Nazi concentration camp. He gives an in-depth account of what it was like to be in this deadly environment and he used his observational skills to see what broke these poor men, and what common attribute the survivors had.

Rating: 4 out of 5.


The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way Your Lead Forever

By Michael Bungay Stainer

A thoroughly enjoyable read for leaders. How to ask effective thought provoking questions. Includes how to start a conversation (kickstart question), how to save time (the lazy & strategic question), and questions aimed towards learning.

Rating: 4 out of 5.


The Happiness Handbook for High Achievers: Stoics, Circles & Sheepdogs

By Fergus Connolly

If you’ve ever found yourself going from loving what you do to getting burned out and not understanding why and how to get back to normality then this book is for you. An honest account from Fergus Connolly who speaks from his own experience, and tools you can use to find balance in your life.

Rating: 4 out of 5.


Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

By Matthew Walker

I have rarely read a book where I have been so surprised about what I have read. Walker goes in depth on the importance of sleep in relation to extending life expectancies, learning, mood, mental & physical health, and also decreasing injuries in sports. You can read more here .

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for.”


Grit: Successful Footballers And Happier People

Gritty People – Successful Footballers & Happy Individuals

Grit is the perseverance and passion for long term goals and an unswerving dedication to achieving that mission (Duckworth, 2016; Tough, 2013).

This character trait is the difference between the people who initially get excited about a long term goal and then fizzle out when they lose interest or face obstacles, compared with the people who start their long term goal and pursue through the difficulties, set-backs and pressures involved with long term success. 

“To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.” – Duckworth, 2016

Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare – Angela Duckworth

Many people may assume that grit and intelligence go hand in hand. However grit is only faintly related to IQ – “there are smart gritty people and dumb gritty people” (Tough, 2013). In fact those with lower IQ scores and higher grit tend to be more successful than people with high IQ but low grit scores. In a study conducted by Duckworth et al (2007) grit accounted for up to 4% success in success outcomes, taking into account the vast amount of aspects needed for success, this statistic can be viewed as very high.

Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard – Kevin Durant

So how does this relate to footballers and athletes? Some studies suggest that young players who relentlessly purse their long-term goals may be where other players fall short (Jordet, 2016). Players will experience difficulties during their football education, grit is a fantastic indicator of players that will persist through these challenging times. Only players who are highly committed to their goals are willing to perform the thousands of hours of practice needed to develop into an elite performer (Baker & Cote, 2003).

Even more importantly, high grit has been shown to equal high life satisfaction (Duckworth, 2016), in other words high grit = happier people. Expert on Grit, Angela Duckworth created a grit scale, the scale has 10 questions and in the end gives you a rating out of 5. The below graph shows the link between grit level and life satisfaction:

Screenshot 2019-02-23 14.17.20.png

Taken from Duckworth, 2016

You can check out your current grit level in accordance with the grit scale here.

Remember the player Fabio Paim? The player that Cristiano Ronaldo said “If you think I’m good, just wait until you see Fabio Paim.”

What went wrong? Here’s what Fabio Paim said:

“At one point, I could do more than him (Ronaldo) but I did not have what he had, which is the strength and desire to be what I wanted to be. He had a great work ethic and I didn’t have that.”

“I had the quality, at least as much as him, but I did not have the rest.”

“I would have preferred to have less quality if I had more of the other part. I would have been one of the best in the world. But, no one is born perfect. I thought having talent was enough but it’s not.” – GloboSport, 2017

So what does this tell us? Firstly, that Fabio Paim would have been happier to have gritty attributes such as desire and work ethic than to be talented. Talent is not enough, whether it be football, business or learning. ‘Talent’ (whatever talent might me) may get your foot in the door, but without grit to persist with your goals when the inevitable setbacks in football and in life occur then you will never get the rest of your body through that door.

More and more we are starting to see Academies looking for more than just the ability to strike the ball with sound technique or the talent to be quicker & stronger than the rest. Scouts are now looking towards the psycho-social aspect.

Staff at Bayern Munich analyse the many ‘non-talent’ aspects for their young players, such as: character, the ability to handle difficulty while absorbing skills, confidence and sensibility. –  Townsend, 2015

Sport, science and technology expert Amit Katwala’s (2016) suggested as much in his book “The Athletic Brain”:

“Maybe instead of searching for sporting IQ or the million-dollar brain, scouts need to find the young athletes with the grit and determination to put the hours in, even if they’re not very good at first.”

To conclude, being gritty is a very strong predictor of success, and more importantly of happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing. In a world where mental health is affecting more and more people, coaches are urged to educate and encourage their players to increase their grit.


1. Create a Gritty Culture: Each persons grit enhances grit in others, therefore you, the coach, needs to lead by example, ensure your staff do too. Great time for this is how you respond to a loss, go back in to training and have the same energy and desire as is more akin to when teams win, show the players that setbacks are going to happen, and how you deal with them may be the most important thing in whether you succeed or not.

2. Praise Gritty Actions:  A player persist with a challenge even when difficult? Praise it! A player creates a routine for themselves and sticks to it? Praise it! A player fails and tries again? Praise it!

3. Share Stories of Inspiration: Use examples of current or past players in your team or who you’ve coached. Use examples of famous sports people, Michael Jordans reaction to being dropped from his high school basketball team; Beckhams reaction from being the most hated footballer in England to being an international captain and hero. The sporting world is full of examples.


1. Hard Thing Rule (via Angela Duckworth’s book ‘Grit’): This has three parts:

  • Find something challenging, something hard that requires daily deliberate practice.
  • You can quit. But you can’t quit until the month/season/year is over. You must, at least for the interval to which you’ve committed yourself, finish whatever you begin. (in other words you can’t quit on a day when your coach yells at you, or when you lose a match heavily or you had a boring session)
  • And, finally, the Hard Thing Rule states that you get to pick your hard thing. Nobody picks it for you because, after all, it would make no sense to do a hard thing you’re not even vaguely interested in.

2. Assess Your Grit Score regularly: Like most things, ‘Grit’ is something that can be improved on, note down what’s been working for you, and use it to track your progress.

3. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone: “We get stronger when we test ourselves” (Wooden, 1997). Theres small ways that you can practice this off the pitch: For example, if you’re not used to speaking to people on the phone then phone up to order a takeaway instead of doing it online. Speak to your parents on the phone instead of messaging. Ask a favour that you know will be rejected*

*For some creative and amusing ways to get out of your comfort zone read Jia Jiang’s book ‘Rejection Proof’. Or view his YouTube channel.


Reference List

  • Baker, J & Cote, J (2003) Resources and Commitment as Critical Factors in the Development of ‘Gifted’ Athletes. High Ability Studies, 14, 139-140
  • Duckworth, A (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Ebury Digital  
  • Duckworth, A; Peterson, C; Matthews, M & Kelly, D (2007) Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 6, 1087-1101
  • GloboSport (2017) Sob a sombra de CR7, Fábio Paim queria ser brasileiro: “Deveria ter nascido aqui” [online] Available Hereaccessed 28/05/2020
  • Jiang, J (2015) Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible, One Rejection at a Time. Harmony Books
  • Jordet, G (2016) Psychology and Elite Soccer Performance, Chapter 16 Soccer Science: Using Science to Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.
  • Tough, P (2013) How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
  • Townsend, J (2015) Ascendancy Comes in Many Forms: Bayern Munich Report. Nscaa Soccer Journal. September – October, 2015. 
  •  Wooden, J. and Steve Jamison. (1997). Wooden. New York: Contemporary Books.

Mental Agility….Losers who Lose and Losers who Win

‘Mental toughness and heart are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you might have, I’ve always said that, and I’ve always believed that.’ – Michael Jordan

That player that reacts from a setback in a positive manner, that player that then gets to the top, that player that then remains at the top of their field. All examples of a player that that has mental agility, the players that manage to complete all these stages are hailed as some of the greatest of all times:

David Beckham:

1998: Sent off in a crucial World Cup quarter final against Argentina, blamed for the defeat

1998/1999 season: Booed, severely insulted and in need of private security at every football ground he goes to in England

2000: Named England Captain

2001: Scores last minute free-kick against Greece to send England into World Cup 

2002: Captains England in World Cup, scores vital winning penalty against Argentina in the group stage, carries the team to the quarter finals

2006: Captains England in another World Cup

(Also see Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali‘s stories for examples of mental agility in their respective sports)


So what is ‘Mental Agility’ and how do we develop it in our players. Mental Agility (previously mental toughness) is described as “an ability to cope with or handle pressure, stress, and adversity, an ability to overcome or rebound from failures” Jones, 2002.

In a study complied with professional coaches in England, they pinpointed mental agility (resilience in particular) as one of the critical factors for making the step from academy to the professional level (Jordet, 2016).

Academies and clubs can be an extremely stressful environments, in particular when there is a pressure to succeed or they receive a setback from an injury or poor performance. For this reason, players need to deal with these setbacks and pressures of academy/professional football (Mills et al, 2012).

It is not a case of whether they experience a setback, but rather ‘when’ they receive a setback. Every player at some point during their career will experience some sort of set back. The ability to cope with these setbacks effectively reflects the person’s level of mental agility and will be a good indicator of how far they can go in the game (Pain, 2016).

people men grass sport
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The ability to bounce back from disappointment is a life skill that everyone needs to develop (LCS, 2015). What the player tells themselves after a setback, how they act, what they do, this is the difference between a resilient player (CT, 2012) and a player that will quit.



Below is a table taken from Sport Psychologist Bill Beswick (2015) on the difference between a mentally agile striker and a mentally stiff striker:

Screenshot 2018-09-02 11.30.04.png

The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall – Vince Lombardi

Another central characteristic of mental agility is ‘commitment’ (Pain, 2016). Commitment means finishing what you started, continuing even when you don’t feel like it, continuing even when people doubt you and doing what you said you’ll do (Beswick, 2015). The way Brendan Rodgers sees it is that commitment is more important than motivation:

“I want commitment, not motivation, because motivation is fleeting, it goes by feelings. You may get up in the morning and feel you don’t want to do it, so what? You don’t do it? If you’re a life-saving surgeon and you’ve got five operations a day, and you work on motivation, you may be motivated for the first four, but the fifth one needs their life saved just as much, so you have to be committed to the cause.” Brendan Rodgers Cited in Carson, 2014

For me, one aspect of mental agility that players tend to fall back on the most, especially in older age groups and adults is ’emotional control.’ This is seen at every level (although it seems to be more prevalent the lower the standard of football).

I had one player who had fantastic physical, tactical and technical attributes, but if a bad refereeing decision went against him, or an opponent put in a tough tackle on him that he didn’t like it would lead him to experiencing ‘head loss.’ He would start to get aggressive, he would start swearing, he would run around like an angry pitbull, he starts misplacing passes as his objectives shifts and his defending technique would go out of the window whilst he runs a full on sprint without slowing down towards a dribbling forward who either dribbles past him with ease or is brought down for a foul.

We knew that if we could work on his mental toughness we would have a great player on our hands. It all started on the training pitch, firstly, we banned him from swearing in practice and games, this allowed him to think before he acted and to return to emotional control. We then intentionally gave bad refereeing decisions, especially aimed towards him, which allowed him to practice his emotional control practically. This worked a treat once game day came along and his performances improved monumentally.

A fear for some coaches and players is that the individual will lose aggression, on the contrary quite the opposite happens, they gain controlled aggression, they keep the fire in the belly but gain ice in the head.

Screenshot 2018-09-02 11.21.44.png
Observable Control Behaviours in Soccer – Pain, 2016


  1. Ban Swearing: Especially for the players that you can see has a detrimental impact towards their performance
  2. Practice Emotional Control in Training: Use bad calls, consequences for losing control and pressure simulation in games (Pain, 2016)
  3. “No player or team achieve mental toughness by staying in their comfort zone” (Beswick, 2015). Constantly look to challenge players and lead by example by getting out of your own comfort zone.


  1. Trigger Words: Practice breathing strategies and using command words when adversity hits (e.g ‘I’m back’, ‘Next chance’). This will keep your nerves or anger in check and commit to the next opportunity (Pain, 2016). Optimistic self talk is a great way to train resilience (Duckworth, 2016)
  2. Choose your Response Mode: Remember that you choose how to respond to tough times, the more you practice this, the more emotional control you will have. Think “Am I a victim or am I a fighter?” (Bates, 2017; Beswick, 2015)
  3. “Don’t let your victories go to your head or your failures go to your heart”. It is natural to be happy after a win or disappointed after a loss, but make sure you wake up the next day with confident modesty.

Champions never complain, they are too busy getting better – John Wooden

Reference List/Recommended Reading

  • Bates, T (2017) The Future Coach – Creating Tomorrow’s Soccer Players Today: 9 Key Principles for Coaches from Sport Psychology. Dark River.
  • Beswick, B (2015) One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams. Human Kinetics.
  • (CT) Carnegie Training (2012) How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age. Simon and Schuster.
  • Carson, M (2014) The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders. Edition. Bloomsbury USA.
  • Duckworth, A (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Ebury Digital  
  • Jones, G (2002) What is this thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers. Journal of applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205-218.
  • Jordet, G (2016) Psychology and Elite Soccer Performance, Chapter 16 Soccer Science: Using Science to Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.
  • (LSC) Leadership Case Studies (2015) The Leadership Lessons of Gregg Popovich: A Case Study on the San Antonio Spurs’ 5-time NBA Championship Winning Head Coach . Kindle Edition.
  • Mills, A; Butt, J; Maynard, I and Harwood, C (2012) Identifying factors perceived to influence the development of elite youth football academy players. Journal of Sports Sciences 30 (15): 1593– 1604.
  • Pain, M (2016) Mental Interventions, Chapter 17 Soccer Science: Using Science to Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.

Kinetic Academy: The Charity That Creates Professional Players and Resilient Individuals

Kinetic Academy have not been around for a long time but they are already considered as one of the most productive charities of its kind in the UK. Not only are they producing professional footballers on a consistent basis, but they are also playing a big part in breaking down social inclusion barriers.

I spoke to Academy Manager Harry Hudson to discuss how Kinetic Academy use the psychosocial side of the game to produce top players and young adults ready to tackle the challenges of life.

CP: You have had so many success stories in such a small time, how much of an emphasis do you put on the psychosocial side of the game? And how do you develop this in your players? 

HH: We look at player development holistically. First and foremost Kinetic is a registered charity and our remit is to try and help young people become pro-social members of society; football is the engagement tool we use to build trust and respect with our participants. We typically work with very talented players who are raw and have been in and around pro clubs in the past. These players are often damaged psychologically from being dropped and we try and build them back up as people. Our participants volunteer their time in their communities and work with our younger teams on a weekly basis. This notion of giving back is really important to us at Kinetic and it builds humility and opens their minds to different career paths they can explore as well as professional football. It is often when they understand they have more options that they play with freedom on the pitch and then excel – when a player pins all their hopes on being a pro they play restricted and with fear.

“These players are often damaged psychologically from being dropped and we try and build them back up as people”

We also have a ‘support pillar’ within our organisation which has two purposes. The first is the delivery of monthly sessions, delivered by industry professionals, on topics such as resilience, group cohesion etc. From these group sessions individuals often speak with the deliverer post session and ask more individualised questions.

The second strand of our support pillar is bespoke support for individuals who we feel needs additional help. We have a team of mentors, life coaches and councillors to work with our players on a 1to1 basis.

CP: Players such as Josh Maja who scored 4 goals in Sunderlands first 4 games this season and Miles Kenlock who regularly plays for Ipswich in the Championship at the tender age of 21 have both come through your system, what personal attributes did you notice that they possessed whilst at your Academy? Are these attributes that anyone can learn?

HH: The two boys you mention there both had a lot of set backs during their youth career. I remember Myles got sent back to us after one day at Oxford United and then signed for Ipswich a week later! Football is a very tough industry and the players, especially at a young age, have to be resilient and deal with set backs. Both Myles and Josh never gave up and kept their faith and thankfully they have achieved their dreams. The other thing both boys did was trust in the process. It can be very easy to lose belief and stop working hard, being on time and grafting. Players need to understand that it is very difficult and it might not come off for them but their best chance is to be brave, focussed and have other options – that allows the players to play with freedom.

“I remember Myles got sent back to us after one day at Oxford United and then signed for Ipswich a week later!”

CP: Your players tend to come from all different backgrounds and cultures. Is it easy to have everyone integrate with each other? 

HH: London is multi-cultural place and innately players have friends of all different cultures which they have grown up with. Sport can be a fantastic way to break down barriers in society and it should be used to achieve this – it is these social issues which lead to the spike in knife crime and youth violence. There is detachment in what the young people believe they can achieve due to schooling, ethnicity, gender etc. Sport can be an ideal way of bringing different segments of society together.

CP: How much of an importance do you place on education in your Academy? Does it go hand in hand into developing the person within a footballing context?

HH: All young people on our program have to complete their education alongside their football. If the educational aspects are not adhered to then the young person will not be permitted to participate in the football. It goes back to what I was saying earlier we need to show the young people they have options, career paths etc and this increases their self – esteem. It also allows them to play without pressure on the pitch. The next game doesn’t have to be the one to get them a contract, we all know trying to do anything in life under that much pressure is not how humans excel.

CP: What recommendations would you give to a player in his teens that doesn’t have a club or has been released from an Academy?

HH: Find a structure which can support you as a person! Try not to be dragged into the biggest badge or the promises of First team football – find the people and structure who care about you as a person. Ask the questions about employability and exit routes if football doesn’t work out – if they don’t have any answers they obviously do not value it! Being a pro footballer is very difficult – we have worked with hundreds of boys who have the ability but don’t make it. Why? A bit of luck at times I hate to say but also there is something missing. That might be technical, probably is some tactical development, but mainly it is how they conduct themselves. Do they shake the hands of the coach when they are at a club? Do they look people in the eye when talking? We had two boys released from a trial because they had their hands down their trousers on a cold day! Developing the person is critical to success in the game and this is too often neglected by semi-pro and pro clubs in my opinion.

“Developing the person is critical to success in the game and this is too often neglected by semi-pro and pro clubs in my opinion”

Kinetic Academy Graduates:

WhatsApp Image 2018-08-27 at 12.28.31

Top left to right:

Ali Koiki, Josh Maja, Myles Kenlock, Joe Aribo

Bottom left to right:

Wes Fonguck, Rhys Norrington-Davies, Ramarni Edwards, Yeboah Amakwah

Want to find out more about the great work that Kinetic Academy do? Check out their website for more information: Kinetic Foundation

Coach Phil

Twitter @coachphilp

Facebook: Coach Phil P

The Power of Imagery…The Secret of Successful Athletes

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – W.Churchill

Have you ever felt unusually lethargic just before kick off? Have you felt super confident and energetic for some games, whilst other games you can barely get out of 1st gear? Chances are that it comes down to imagery and the story that you’re telling yourself.

Research shows us that the best performers use mental skills more than their less elite counterparts (Bota, 1993; Cumming and Hall, 2002; Wilson, 1999; Nesti & Sulley, 2015)

Imagery is when players use vivid visual description of images prior, during or after a performance (Bishop et al, 2007).

But does it really work? Well recent studies have shown for the first time that when visualising actions, at least two-thirds of the brain’s activity activates in a similar way to actual physical practice (Bates, 2017). In other words, if you use effective imagery your brain already feels like you have performed the task, firing the same neurons and creating the same mental maps that you would experience during practice or matches.

grass sport game match
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Sports Psychologist and Performance Coach Tom Bates has worked with professional clubs such as Aston Villa, Birmingham, West Brom and Bournemouth. Bates goes one step further when it comes to visualisation and claims that it can even be as good as physical practice.

“Visualisation is as good as physical practice, with some additional advantages. For example, when a player performs for real, they don’t have the opportunity to ‘rewind and re-focus’ on the outcomes. During visualisation, they can replay moves, access their full spectrum of emotions, and retune undesired outcomes. That’s why it is so important that the visualisation is real.”

The brain simply believes what you tell it most. And what you tell it about you, it will create (Helmstetter, 2011). Unfortunately for humans there tends to be a natural ‘negativity bias’ in our brains creating negative stories (images) that we tell ourselves (Carretie et al, 2001).

For that reason there is a large importance on the coaches to educate players on mental imagery not only for positivity reasons but also to prevent the damaging effects of negative imagery (Janssen & Sheikh, 1994). Basic and fun introductory lessons of imagery can even be given to young children to experience (Newberyet al, 2014). In fact Dutch giants Feynoord have a sports psychologist who takes players through a very basic and fun introduction to the use of mental imagery (Nesti & Sulley, 2015). 


Footballing and life benefits of imagery:

  • Enhances the learning of new skills (Ross & Haskins, )
  • Improves thinking structure (Bates, 2017)
  • Feel more prepared emotionally, and ready to compete. (Bates, 2017)
  • Increases positive psychology (Pain, 2016; Bates, 2017)
  • Boost confidence, self-belief, concentration, and composure under pressure. (Jones, 2003; Pain, 2016; Bates, 2017)
  • Improves overall performance and ability (Zinsser et al, 2000; Murphy & Martin, 2002). 
  • Decreases injuries (Johnson et al, 2005) and increase rehabilitation (Green, 1992; Reilly & Williams, 2003)


It is understandable why many amateur players don’t tend to use imagery. Firstly, how often do coaches advocate it and recommend it? Probably not very often due to maybe time or other priorities (some tips on introducing imagery for coaches later on in this article). Secondly, it may not feel very natural the first few times you perform imagery. Similarly to practicing technique or other skills, imagery too can be refined through daily practice by using all the senses to create or recreate an experience (Tuffy-Riewald, 2009).

person kicks soccer ball in field
Photo by Zac Frith on Pexels.com

I recently had a player who began doing imagery once a day, he was initially sceptical as it felt ‘unnatural’. He decided to persist and after a month of using imagery on a regular basis he claimed to feel more confident, more relaxed and more prepared for games. Interestingly, he stopped this routine during the off season, and when he returned and resumed his daily dose of imagery, he found it difficult and awkward to use, just like when he first started. But why? It can be likened to the physical feeling of when you first return to pre-season, your body doesn’t feel as prepared and your movements feel awkward. Neural connections hadn’t been made in a while, they don’t fire as quickly at it was for this reason why the brain was initially struggling to paint these pictures.

“Do you think a soccer player who is spending time everyday rehearsing negatives and talking to herself in a pessimistic way is going to feel great on Saturday? Do you think she is going to feel strong, fit, dominant, confident, focused and ready? By all means train your players hard. Put on the best quality sessions you possibly can. But be very clear in your mind about this – your players won’t be as ready as they should be for match day if they have a pessimistic explanatory style.  – D.Abrahams (Sports Psychologist at England Rugby and Bournemouth FC)


  1. USE SENSORY WORDS (Paint Images): Provide athletes with cues to make the imagery as real as possible, such as ‘look’ and ‘feel’ (Abrahams, 2013). Young players tend to think in pictures so have fun with it. Instead of “Trap the ball” say “Let your foot kiss the ball, imagine a big pair of lips on the inside of your foot.” Have a look at this video by Daniel Coyle for more tips. 
  2. USE IMAGERY IN PRACTICES: To include imagery in practice, coaches should direct the athletes to mentally practice each skill prior to physical execution (S.Tuffy-Riewald, 2009). 1. Show them a technical skill (i.e.) pass, step over, shot; 2. Imagine yourself performing this skills (using words such as feel, look, sound); 3. Show us the skill. Another great one for kids, name a well know player, “right kids, here’s a video of ‘The Messi” (a step over for example); Now imagine yourself as Messi, show us the skill!
  3. FINISH ON A HIGH: Especially just before kick off, before they head into the changing rooms or ready for kick off have the players end with a positive imagery.  Have the striker hit the back of the net (for advanced also have them listen to the sound of the net rippling). Have the midfielder hit a perfect pass before you dismiss them. Have the defender perform a strong jump and header (have them call out their name LOUDLY). Have the goalkeeper perform a good save or a strong jump and catch (again LOUDLY calling out a name or “KEEPERS”). These are strong images to take into kick off.



  1. THE 2 HOUR RULE: Avoid thinking about football until a couple of hours before kick-off. A lethargic feeling just before kick off is usually a result of a player thinking about the game all day. Don’t forget, the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. When a player thinks about playing and performing on the morning of a game they will start to release adrenaline this will exhaust a player’s adrenaline load if done too early. If kick-off is at 3:00pm then 1:00pm is a great time to start thinking about all the positive actions that you’re planning for the game. It’s a great time to get that injection of adrenaline before warm-up (Abrahams, 2013).
  2. USE ALL THE SENSE: The more senses you use the more real the imagery becomes. Instead of picturing yourself taking a free-kick, imagine the feel of the turf underneath your feet, imagine the feel of striking the ball perfectly, imagine the sound the ball makes when you strike it perfectly, imagine the sound the ball makes when it hits the top corner of the net, what does that look like, even imagine the smell of the freshly cut grass. See more tips on imagery from Dan Abrahams youtube video here.
  3. PICTURE YOUR BEST GAME (AND MORE): A great bit of mind medicine just before a game, think of your best game and exaggerate it. Below is an example taken from Dan Abrahams (2013) book “Soccer Brain”:

Goalkeeper Imagery: What do the most incredible, sharp saves look like? How do they feel? Picture 10 out of 10 reaction times for your saves. Now turn up the volume. Picture 12 out of 10. Now 15 out of 10. What does that look like? How does that make you feel? –

Striker Imagery: What are you doing to score 10 goals in a game? What kind of movement do you have? How are you finding space? What does the power in your shots feel like? What does incredible movement look and feel like? Tell me about body shape, body weight and direction.

Defender Imagery: What does rock solid look like? What are you doing in the air? What are you doing in your challenges? Stretch your imagination – what does it look and feel like when you are first to the ball every time, when you win every 50/50 and when you keep every striker in your pocket.

Experience is simply the word we give our mistakes – Oscar Wilde

Phil A Phillipou

Twitter @coachphilp

Facebook: Coach Phil P


Reference List/Recommended Reading

  • Abrahams, D (2013) Soccer Brain: The 4C Coaching Model for Developing World Class Player Mindset and a Winning Football Team. Birmingham. Bennion Kearney LTD
  • Bates, T (2017) The Future Coach – Creating Tomorrow’s Soccer Players Today: 9 Key Principles for Coaches from Sport Psychology. Dark River.
  • Bishop, D; Karageorghis, C; Loizou, G (2007) A Grounded Theory of Young Tennis Players’ Use of Music to Manipulate Emotional State. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 584-607
  • Bota, J (1993). Development of the Ottawa mental skills Assessment tool. University of Ottawa.
  • Carretié, L; Mercado, F; Tapia, M & Hinojosa, M (2001) Emotion, attention, and the ‘negativity bias’, studied through event-related potentials. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 41, 1, 75-85
  • Cumming, J. and Hall, C. (2002). Deliberate imagery practice: the development of imagery skills in competitive athletes. Journal of Sports Sciences 2,137–145.
  • Green, L (1992) The use of imagery in the rehabilitation of injured athletes. The Sports Psychologist, 6, 416–28.
  • Helmstetter, Shad (2011) What To Say When You Talk To Your Self. Park Avenue Press.
  • Janssen, J & Sheikh, A (1994) Enhancing athletic performance through imagery: An overview. In A.A. Sheikh & E.R. Korn (Eds.), Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance (pp. 1-22). Amityville, New York: Baywood.
  • Johnson, U; Ekengren, J and Andersen, M (2005) Helping soccer players at risk. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 27: 32– 38.
  • Jones, M (2003) Controlling emotions in sport. Sport Psychologist, 17, 471-486.
  • Newbery, D; Barker, I & Rose, S (2014) Complete Soccer Coaching Curriculum for 3-18 Year Old Players: Volume 1.NSCAA Player Development Curriculum. Coaching Media Group.
  • Murphy, S & Martin, K (2002). The use of imagery in sport. In T. S. Horn (Ed.), Advances in sport psychology (pp. 405-439). Champaign, IL, US: Human Kinetics.
  • Nesti, M & Sulley, C (2015) Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies. Oxford: RoutledgeWilson, A. M. (2001). Understanding organisational culture and the implications for corporate marketing. European Journal of Marketing 35, 353–367.
  • Pain, M (2016) Mental Interventions, Chapter 17 Soccer Science: Using Science to
    Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.
  • Reilly, T & Williams, M (2003) Science & Soccer. 2nd Ed. New York.
  • Ross, G & Haskins, D (2013) Creativity in Football. Sports Coach UK. The National Coaching Foundation.
  • Tuffy-Riewald (2009) Make Mental Training Part of Physical Training. Soccer Journal, September-October 2009
  • Zinsser, N; Bunker, L and Williams, J (2000) Cognitive techniques for building confidence and enhancing performance. In Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance (edited by J.M. Williams),. 284–311. New York: Mayfair.

The Importance of a Strong Character….A Must Have Habit!

“Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to stay there.” – John Wooden

Have you ever seen that young talented player who is head and shoulders above the rest every game week after week? Parents and coaches whispering “that player is going right to the top!” only for them to decline drastically or even fall out of football all together.

Too often I have met coaches who have witnessed this “what if” player during their career.

Granted there could be multiple variables for their decline: injuries, personal problems, bad luck etc. However in my experience the most common factor tends to be a lack of coaching on the psychological corner of the game.

“Character, heart, the mind of a champion. It’s what makes great athletes and its what comes from the growth mindset with its focus on self-development, self motivation, and responsibility.” – Dweck, 2006

It is understandable for psychological aspects to go a miss during training as its not always as visually apparent as seeing technical, tactical or physical development, but for me its the difference between an average player and a good player, and the difference between a good player and a great player!

“Many coaches can influence players technical, tactical and physical capabilities however only the few can effect the psychological state of the player.” – Jose Mourinho

Thats where we come to ‘Character.’ Many people believe that character is innate and unchanging, something you have or you don’t have.” On the contrary, Peterson and Seligman (2004) defined character in a different way: “A set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable.” In fact, ‘character’ are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice; and they are skills you can teach. Or as top psychologist Angela Duckworth put it, “Habit and character are essentially the same thing” (cited in Tough, 2013).

Fantastic news! Like most aspects in ones life it can be developed. Will it be easy? No. Will it be worth it? Absolutely.

action activity adult athletes
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

According to Lally et al (2009), it takes 66 days to form a habit; however it only takes a mere 30 days to lose those circuits firing in your brain, resulting in an element of loss of habit or in other words ‘Character’ (Coyle, 2010). Therefore to create this habit we need commitment.

“I want commitment, not motivation, because motivation is fleeting, it goes by feelings. You may get up in the morning and feel you don’t want to do it, so what? You don’t do it? If you’re a life-saving surgeon and you’ve got five operations a day, and you work on motivation, you may be motivated for the first four, but the fifth one needs their life saved just as much, so you have to be committed to the cause.” – Brendan Rodgers cited in Curneen (2015)

It is argued that commitment may be the most important attribute to acquiring sporting expertise because only those individuals who are highly committed to their goals are willing to perform the painstaking hours of practice required to develop into an elite performer (Baker & Cote, 2003). This attitude or ‘habit’ acts as a mental muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it becomes (Bates, 2017).

Top players have both talent and character, so in insisting that young players show good values and attitude, the coach is preparing them for the demands of high-level sport. – Beswick, 2015

Peterson & Seligman (2004) devised 24 character strengths that were likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. This list didn’t seem practical enough to implement to groups and individuals, they therefore narrowed it down further to 7 aspects:

  1. Grit
  2. Self-Control
  3. Zest
  4. Social Intelligence
  5. Gratitude 
  6. Optimism
  7. Curiosity

Just the act of participating in sport and physical activity goes towards shaping these character traits in one way or another (Newbery et al, 2014). Grit to persist even when the going gets tough; Self-control, the art of practicing self-discipline and social intelligence, being aware of the motives and feelings of others.

This character is tested when things are not always fair or when mistakes and setbacks happen (Beswick, 2015). This is highly prevalent in football whether it is a bad refereeing decision, being dropped to the bench or suffering a bad injury, the character of the player will constantly be assessed. When all else is equal, talent comes second to character (Bates, 2017).

Respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for the game, whether it’s basketball, business, or anything else. Character starts with little things like picking up after oneself, and it ends with big things like not cheating to win. – John Wooden

Traditionally clubs would look at technical and physical attributes when scouting young players, however more and more clubs are now looking towards character traits as a good indicator of potential. Bayern Munich hold “Character” as an important factor when they are scouting and recruiting players . Bayerns Junior Team Manager Wolfgang Dremier describes what they look for from the start “Does the player put their heart and soul into their soccer? You see it during games, exactly how the player conducts themselves and the energy they put in” (Townsend, 2015).

Nottingham Forests successful Academy look to develop 6 character traits in their players: “courage, humility, desire, intelligence, resilience and to create ‘energisers’” (Lester, 2016).

Building character also holds firm as a large part of Dutch side FC Twentes’ philosophy. The former director of football, Cees Lok says ” The aim is to build the kind of self-disciplined, self-managing players who can emerge as leaders and deal with the tough environment of the first team locker-room. At all times the players are made aware that they have ownership and control of their behaviour, that becoming a soccer player and being in the team is their choice” (Beswick, 2015).

‘We’ve no time for a weak person in the first team. When they see weakness [at the academy], they keep working at it. Because a player would not only be dealing with me, he is dealing with 76,000 people expecting them to win each week – and that’s a different issue altogether. So the rebuilding of a character that’s strong in terms of handling a crowd and the senior players in the dressing room: big stars, expectations, media, all these things – it’s not done in the wind. It’s a building process, and the academy people are good at that. – Sir Alex Ferguson cited in Carson (2014)

So how do we improve ones character?

5 Ways to Improve Your Players Character:

  1. FAIL:  The best way to build character is to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure (Tough, 2013). There’s almost a biological need to avoid difficult things and to steer clear of danger. Coaches need to ensure that they spread the word to their players (and the parents) that failure is okay, in fact failure is essential to success! “Everyone makes a mistake. If you’re not, then you’re perhaps not trying hard enough. Everyone fails. If you don’t experience failure then you are not playing with enough freedom” (Abrahams, 2013). Award winning author JK Rowling put it this way “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

  2. CHALLENGE: It is monumental that your training sessions include competition and challenges. “Only under pressure do players demonstrate true character” (Beswick, 2015).  At Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, the coaches organise sessions that place players in stressful situations where techniques and decision making would be developed in a real-world environment (it is important to combine stressful situations with support and care from the coach). This will also help them in terms of well-being, because progressing and dealing successfully with the challenges of competitive play are central to the lives of young players (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

  3. PRAISE HARD WORK: Research by Mueller & Dweck (1998) showed that praising ability in fact lowered children’s IQ, motivation and determination, whilst praising hard work increased the children’s grit, resilience and persistence. Hard work is a privilege, for that reason it is baffling how some coaches still use physical punishments in their training sessions. Using physical activity as punishment runs the risk of creating negative associations with physical activity (CDC, 2011). In fact Nottingham Forest Academy Coach Jack Lester goes one step further to develop character through physical exercises, “We invite the winners of our training games to stand on the line and be rewarded with extra running, while the losers watch their mates get fitter. We’re trying to ingrain that success equals work ethic, desire and resilience. Being allowed to get fitter is a treat, a privilege, a prize” Lester, 2016.

  4. BE AN EXAMPLE OF CHARACTER: “Through being the example, a true leader unconsciously transfers their character and signposts their integrity” (Bates, 2017) Coaching legend John Wooden (2009) said it best “When it comes to character and values, you don’t need to become a preacher, just an effective teacher who understands the power of setting a good example, especially when it comes to standards and values.”

  5. EMPHASISE CHARACTER TRAITS (CONSTANTLY): Identify and share with the players how character drives successful performance; Define the character trait needed to be successful in each situation: losing 2-0? Do you have the grit to stick it out and still work to maximal level? Just won 5-0? Do you have the humility to shake hands with every player of the opposition team and still work twice as hard in the next training session? Do you show gratitude to the person serving your food or to the coach drive by saying your pleases and thank you’s? A great way to teach this is using match scenarios in training. Have your players pick out a number of different examples at random, for example “Your team is 2-0 down with 5 minutes left, the other team have just had a player sent off” and have your team play out this scenario. Do they immediately say its unfair? Or do they rise to the challenge?

When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost. –  Billy Graham

Most of this discussion has been used in a sporting context, however we as coaches should aim to develop and prepare the person for the future by giving them these life skills whether it is in sport or out of sport. In the end “Character is what keeps people happy, successful and fulfilled” – Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at KIPP Infinity cited in Tough, 2013.

Phil A Phillipou


Reference List/Recommended Reading

  • Abrahams, D (2013) Soccer Brain: The 4C Coaching Model for Developing World Class Player Mindset and a Winning Football Team. Birmingham. Bennion Kearney LTD
  • Baker, J & Cote, J (2003) Resources and Commitment as Critical Factors in the Development of ‘Gifted’ Athletes. High Ability Studies, 14, 139-140
  • Bates, T (2017) The Future Coach – Creating Tomorrow’s Soccer Players Today: 9 Key Principles for Coaches from Sport Psychology. Dark River.
  • Beswick, B (2015) One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams. Human Kinetics.
  • Carson, M (2014) The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders. Edition. Bloomsbury USA.
  • (CDC) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). School health guidelines to promote healthy eating and physical activity. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Recommendations and Reports, 60(RR-5), 1–76.
  • Coyle, D (2010) The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born. Its Grown. London: Arrow Books
  • Curneen, G (2015) The Modern Soccer Coach: Position-Specific Training. Bennion Kearny.
  • Dweck, C (2006) Mindset – The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. Ballantine Books. USA
  • Lally, P; Van Jaarsveld, C; Potts, H & Wardle, J (2009) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
  • Lester, J (2016) Coach players to want to win, not to want to earn more money. Yahoo Sport [online], available at: https://uk.sports.yahoo.com/news/jack-lester-111330020.html
  • Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.
  • Nesti, M & Sulley, C (2015) Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies. Oxford: Routledge
  • Newbery, D; Barker, I & Rose, S (2014) Complete Soccer Coaching Curriculum for 3-18 Year Old Players: Volume 1 (NSCAA Player Development Curriculum) Coaching Media Group.
  • Peterson, C & Seligman, M (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. American Psychology Association. 
  • Tough, P (2013) How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
  • Townsend, J (2015) Ascendancy Comes in Many Forms: Bayern Munich Report. Nscaa Soccer Journal. September – October, 2015. 
  • Wooden, J (& Jamison, S) (2009) Wooden on Leadership. McGraw-Hill Education; New York