As football evolves and becomes more heavily influenced by analytics, there is one factor that numbers will likely be unable to solve for the foreseeable future; gaining the psychological edge. In this article, I will be reviewing club practices and academic studies on the subject. Please note, I am not a psychologist. My educational background includes Sociology and Coaching Education and I hold a United Soccer Coaches Special Topics Diploma on Sports Psychology and Individual Mental Skills.
Someone who is a psychologist, however, is B.S. Christiansen, FC Midtjylland's Mental Coach and former Norwegian huntsman, who prioritizes making sure each player feels valued in an effort to gain a psychological edge. As The New York Times discussed in an article analyzing Midtjylland's practices, Midtjylland is currently operating alongside a Danish data firm to try and identify commonly-shared psychological characteristics amongst successful players. The club is also working to identify the best practices for players to learn, to make sure the data and pioneering we have become used to seeing from the Danish club are actually being understood by their players.
While Midtjylland works to gain insights that we may likely never see unless we are employed by the club, we can consider the research that is public. Leonardo Alvarez-Kurogi, Wanessa Onetti, Jose Carlos Fernandez-Garcia, and Alfonso Castillo-Rodriguez published a study that analyzed the psychological profile of elite youth futsal players and the position they play. The study applied the use of a questionnaire and a one-way ANOVA test based on the original playing position to a pool of 84 U16 players and 83 U19 players. All players were candidates for the Spanish National Futsal Team. The study considered Self-Confidence, Mental Attitude and Preparation, Control of Stress, Concentration, and Motivation. The positions that were profiled were Goalkeepers, Defenders, Defender-Wings, Wings, Wing-Defenders, Pivots, Wing-Pivots, and Universals. Defenders and Defender-Wings, Wings and Wings-Defenders, and Pivots and Wing-Pivots were placed into partnership categories while Goalkeepers and Universals remained independent. The study found that goalkeepers were especially strong in the psychological skills of self-confidence and control of stress, but displayed low levels of motivation. Goalkeepers appeared average in mental attitude and preparation skills as well as concentration. Defenders and Defender-Wings displayed high levels of self-confidence, control of stress, concentration, and motivation, but average levels of mental attitude. Wings and wings-pivots showed high self-confidence and average levels of mental attitude and concentration, but below-average levels of motivation and mental attitude. Pivots and Wing-pivots showed the best mental attitudes and good amounts of concentration and motivation, but struggled in self-confidence and controlling stress. Finally, universals were highly motivated and showed a good mental attitude, but lacked self-confidence and concentration and highly lacked control of stress skills. The authors of this study presented the argument that these scores create a benchmark in what a successful prospect achieves and that we can cater our training sessions to maximize the mental development of these skills. For example, a successful defender in Futsal needs a very high level of concentration, so we can create scenarios that cognitively challenge a defender's concentration.
A study by Aurelio Olmedilla, Roberto Ruiz-Barquin, Francisco Javier Ponseti, Francisco Javier Robles-Palazon, and Alexandre Garcia-Mas analyzed the psychological disposition and perception of performance amongst U16 and U18 female players. The Psychological Characteristics related to the Sport Performance Questionnaire (CPRD) and the Psychological Skills Inventory for Sports (PSIS). The characteristics examined include Stress Control (SC), Influence of Performance Evaluation (IPE), Motivation (M), Team Cohesion (TCOH), and Mental Skills (MSK). Compared to a general sample, the player pool was higher than average in Motivation, Stress Control, and Team Cohesion, while remaining average in Influence of Performance Evaluation and Mental Ability. An interesting note of the study is the U-16 players showed higher scores on all categories than the U-18 players. All players in this study play at a youth national championship level in Spain and show benchmarks of mental play, this allows for the potential of an easier understanding of what it can take youth players to achieve the best levels of performance along with personal growth through the training of stress control.
While the individual development of the psychological motivators and characteristics of play is key, one popular article featured in Psychology Today analyzes "The 'Magic Potion' of Team Chemistry", which is authored by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova. In previous research, Bezrukova and Spell found that team chemistry contributed to the worth of roughly three wins in Major League Baseball, a highly individualized sport. With football/soccer, you have a much higher dependence on chemistry throughout 11 players at any given time, so you likely would find a higher ratio of the level of chemistry to winning. The 'Magic Potion' discusses how teams must remain diverse, that too strong of a leader can potentially lead to problems in a political setting. However, sports teams remain together for a longer period of time and have a broader scope of goals to determine success. In a high-performance setting, a broad range of pay can be a very problematic aspect of a team's chemistry. Teams also need to find the balance between diversity and creating fault lines. A team needs diverse thoughts and groups with a sense of identity, but not too strong of an identity that you create the fault-line, where tensions can easily be created and cause disruptions to the team. Spell and Bezrukova have expansions of their research published, and I highly recommend reading more of their work if you are interested in the impact of team chemistry on team performance.
To finalize the research presented, I would like to discuss one of my favorite books, Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson. Erikson looks at the four types of human behavior and communication methods to match the types of human behavior. This book provided insights (on the insights discovery test) and created easy-to-understand color types of individuals that I actually applied to my experience coaching U18 football.
To briefly outline the contents of the book, we can first discuss what each personality type is. We can start with the task-oriented personalities, the red and blue types. Red types are more extroverted and oriented to performance and results. Blue types are more introverted and oriented to being analytical in their process, can often be called perfectionists or quality-oriented. Moving to the relation-oriented personalities, we have the green and yellow types. Yellow types are extroverted and can be very communicative and spontaneous. Finally, our green types are very introverted and reserved but often considered very loyal and thoughtful. Most people can be considered as two personality types, some can be three, and rarely you can even be all four or just one. I personally am a hybrid of blue and red types. If you are interested in learning more about your personality, Red Bull offers a personality test that is used by numerous clubs and professional organizations throughout the world and it is completely free, you can try it out here. Being aware of your own personality is key, being able to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses in a social setting... but how does this tie into a team setting?
As mentioned earlier, I have utilized personality testing with my own U18 team in my first season. Before I arrived at my first workout session, I (with the permission of parents or legal guardians) sent out personality tests to have an understating of how my players ticked before I truly met them. This allowed me to know how to change my dialogue with my players to create the best responses. In addition to being able to change my dialogue player-by-player, I also had the potential to work beyond the standard units such as defenders and attackers. As the book teaches, green and blue personalities are perfect partnerships. In addition, yellow and red personalities are also ideal. To look at the other axis, blue and red personalities are complementary personalities. Green and yellow also work without much issue. If we are to consider the problematic relations, it is when we go across our grid. Yellow and blues struggle to be on the same page, much like reds and greens. This does not mean that your best friend could never be yellow if you are a blue, or your partner could never be green if you are a red, but it does mean that we can take an approach in training at a high-performance setting that can potentially reduce conflict risk. Especially in a situation that is utilizing partnership roles, such as work in the gym, we can potentially place players who fall into the prime relationship personality types as a way to keep players happier and close to others within the squad. We can also ease the transition of new players into a squad by introducing them to players of similar personality types.
Throughout this article, we looked at academic works, practices at Midtjylland, and a bit of summarizing of Thomas Erikson's Surrounded by Idiots, a book I cannot recommend enough. While I am obviously a very analytical person given my experience as a performance and recruitment/technical analyst, I firmly believe that in order to achieve success you must have positive chemistry and successful psychological aspects within your team. The research discussed within this article are just some of the tools I use to aid my efforts in finding an edge and winning the mental game.