We all have certain ‘anchors’ in life. We all have that particular sound, smell, taste etc. that takes us back to a certain place in our lives. I can still hear the creak in my living room door from when I was a child – a door that been at a landfill site for twenty years! That smell of a particular food from a barbeque that takes you right back to the spot you were sitting that sunny afternoon. You hear the sounds and even feel the feelings you felt in that exact moment in time. In soccer you can anchor thoughts in players. You can do this by reminding them of past experiences – a particular game, goal, save, dribble, training session etc. when they excelled. Time these anchors right and you will get players playing at their maximum.

Whether we know it or not, but as soccer coaches, we are anchoring all the time. The question is whether we are doing it correctly or not; whether we are creating positive anchors in players, or negative ones. As a coach, you have the power to take a player back to their most significant moments; moments that they look back on fondly and will go on to inspire them. You also have the power, and maybe even the habit, of taking their memories and feelings back to occasions that you should not. For example, reminding them of missed penalties, poor tackles, misplacing passes etc. this can be a significant reason for further poor performance.

A number of years ago, I worked for a particular club whose goalkeeper coach used to watch the game in the stand and record various statistics in relation to his goalkeeper’s performance. At half-time, the coach would relay these performance indicators back to the goalkeeper. When I first heard of this I believed it to be a fantastic idea, envisaging the coach relaying information about where most of the opponents corners were placed, what runs the strikers like to make, or where the number 9 liked to place his shots – information that could really help the goalkeeper and give him a better chance of keeping balls out of the net in the second half. Instead:

“You dropped X number of crosses. X number of your goal-kicks went out of play. You failed to hold X amount of shots” This used to go on and on…

Let’s look at the impact this negative anchoring had on the goalkeeper. He has just come off from 45 minutes of hard work. If they are losing, moral is down and the player needs a lot of effort to get back in the game. The goalkeeper then has to re-live all of his negative experiences through his coach telling him, in explicit detail, everything he has done wrong. What we are forgetting is that he doesn’t really need to know this stuff, and certainly doesn’t need it reinforced. He then spends all of his recovery time reliving his errors, thinking about that cross he dropped or that goal-kick that went slicing out of play. In other words, he spends his break time getting agitated, and having negative thoughts anchored in his psyche. The coach firmly believed that he was doing a good job, but I suspect there was an element of “I told you so” involved. The player eventually confided in me that he hated it, that his confidence was never so low and that he was no longer motivated to play. All he could think about before and during games was how many mistakes he was going to make. In a soccer sense, this crippled him.

Positive anchoring is about doing the exact opposite. It is about embedding the positive things into his psyche. It is about picking his performance off the floor and helping him to perform to his best. Let’s look at ways the coach could have handled this situation differently, and actually improved the performance of the goalkeeper.

Even if his first half as bad as the coach thought, the goalkeeper will already know this! He will already be thinking about that cross he mishandled, that shot he fumbled etc. What the coach needs to do is get rid of those negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. It is these positive thoughts that will turn his form and his game around.

Why not ask him what is the best game he has ever played? What was his best ever save? Recreate in him those moments where he felt invincible between the posts. Tell him of times where you have seen him be outstanding – “remember that game where you caught that cross, then started a counter-attack which led to our winning goal”? You bet he remembers it – and you have just reminded him of how good he can be! What you have done is sent a struggling goalkeeper back out for the second half full of thoughts about how great he is. When that first cross comes in, he is now thinking of one caught months ago, rather than the one he dropped minutes ago. Trust me; he will catch it this time.

This situation has stayed with me vividly since then. I suppose the sights and sounds of that coach destroying the one player he is supposed to be improving, anchored in me. I vowed never to tolerate a colleague like that again, and keep players like him as far away from my team as possible.

This can be done for all players. It can be done for the whole team. Do you think Harry Redknapp miraculously saved Portsmouth from certain relegation in 2004 by telling them about all their bad performances? He did not. He called them “fantastic”, every time he could. He reminded players how good they were.  That is anchoring. That is coaching. And that is motivation.