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Talent has been at the centre of much deliberation over the past few years, not only with research experts, but also with general consultants in the dynamic field of sport psychology. Taking into consideration research material and psychology books, this article aims to discuss talent and the components which surround this phenomenon, providing implications and […]

Talent has been at the centre of much deliberation over the past few years, not only with research experts, but also with general consultants in the dynamic field of sport psychology. Taking into consideration research material and psychology books, this article aims to discuss talent and the components which surround this phenomenon, providing implications and conclusions alongside real world sporting examples in today’s elite sporting environment. Furthermore, it aims to offer insight to coaches, scouts, players and psychologists involved in the elite pathway process to reflect upon their talent fostering environment.

Talent can be defined “as any feature of natural endowment that has one or both of the following effects: enhancing training and enhancing performance”, (Simonton, 2008). It is widely recognised there are specific “gold mines”, (Ankersen, 2012), around the world today producing superior athletes in their respective sports. For example, there have been an extremely large number of world champion sprinters originating from Jamaica and long distance runners from Kenya (Ankersen, 2012). This is a potential result of their specific talent ingrained within their everyday life (i.e. due to the very nature of their everyday life, they excel in a certain talent, such as sprinting). However, for the coaches who have produced these athletes the premise could be perceived as more logical. Talent may not be as clear cut as people interpret it to be. There are a number of underlying characteristics which affect talent, subsequently resulting in potential being overlooked; therefore coaches may fail to observe these components. Moreover, they may have just missed out on the next world class performer in their sport. Consequently, as high class facilitators we need to acknowledge that it is not just talent alone which allows an athlete to succeed, there are elements which need to be developed and harnessed to reach elitism. The following sections discuss various skills which could be considered essential for development to professionalism, and the pitfalls we face when finding talent.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships” – Michael Jordan (Schultz, 2007). Jordan is as close to a perfect example to portray talent. A metaphor of a pyramid fits the concept of talent suitably (see figure 1). At the bottom is an athlete’s fundamental talent. However in order to build on this and reach the top (elitism, professionalism) there are steps the athlete needs to take to help build on their talent. The athlete must harness and practice skills to progress up the pyramid. In this case, Jordan’s quote refers to teamwork and intelligence as important assets. Talent could be considered the basis on which true potential is reached, however alongside this process many other characteristics are harnessed (or not as the case may be) in order to reach elitism. It is no fluke that the best sprinters in the world are from Jamaica or that some of the best long distance runners are from Kenya, it is a case that athletes in these regions utilise their talent on a daily basis. As a consequence this creates a talent fostering environment (bottom of the pyramid) where athletes can train hour upon hour (first layer of pyramid) to develop and harness the necessary skills (second layer of pyramid), building on their talent, and reaching world class performance (final layer of the pyramid). Jordan perfected this process to become an extremely accomplished professional in Basketball.

Good players play where the puck is. Great players play where the puck is going to be” – Wayne Gretzky (Fussell, Sheridan & Webster). Anticipation is another vital skill necessary for progression up the pyramid. For example, in a variety of ball sports (e.g. rugby and football) movement off the ball is just as important as movement with the ball. Understanding where the ball will be played is a characteristic of supreme talent, and for the player who has played that ball to recognise where the ball should be played, could be considered the most essential skill separating the good from the great. An implication of this for coaches is providing the most effective environment in which to harness these skills. However, before they provide this environment, primarily they must recognise the potential for development in the athlete.

It is well documented that there are a number of pitfalls (Martindale & Mortimer, 2011) which have an immense impact upon talent, providing a bias to those observing. Physical maturity, age, training and early success (Bloom, 1985; Cote et al., 2006; Abbott & Collins, 2002) can warp perceptions of talent. These areas can often enhance observers’ views of the players. For example once they see a physical mature player ruling the show, they fail to notice other players, therefore failing to notice the potential they offer and that the prospect of development for these players could be far more significant than the physically mature player. We are not eliminating the fact that the physically mature player possesses talent; however other players could offer superior development prospects. For example, at a young age a player may not be fully developed, therefore he/she may fail to perform at their true potential, thus the scouts do not notice them. Moreover, they may not realise that alongside training and other performance enhancing aspects, this candidate could potentially become world class. To illustrate this point, two athletes who were very much at the top of their game – Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. Normally ice hockey is associated with extreme size, strength and speed. Gretzky never possessed any of these attributes during his playing career; however he focused on other key skills such as stick handling and intelligence of the game. He was far superior than his fellow counterparts in these skills hence why he became a hockey superstar, and is still considered one of the best players ever to grace the ice. By the coaches embracing an environment where Gretzky could progress these skills, he became one of the best (if not the best) anticipator and reader of the game. Another example, after a high school tournament in North Carolina, a 6’3 athlete approached a scout. He asked him “what did you think of my game today and what could I do to improve?” This athlete was better known as Michael Jordan and shows the mindset he had developed in order to become the best. By asking questions on performance and receiving feedback, he was able to accelerate the learning process and move faster along the path to elitism (example from Ankersen, 2012). Furthermore these two athletes have gone beyond expectations to earn themselves a place in the record books in their respective sports. They possessed the hunger, the mindset and the determination to continually learn and reach their goals. From a personal perspective, English players in a variety of sports offer these assets and coaches should harness these athletes in an environment which will allow them to thrive, therefore this should in turn, produce a higher quantity of elite home grown talent.

The main aim of this article is to raise awareness and offer insight for players and coaches, in the importance of creating these environments to help produce the next best English talent. How good you are at something does not relate to where you are from, it is merely down to how much one has the mindset to apply themselves to the path of elitism. In the most effective environment, Kenyan runners can flourish, Jamaican sprinters can thrive and Brazilian footballers can blossom with assistance from logical and intelligent coaches. Furthermore, coaches have their role in providing a fostering environment and as psychologists, we have our role to play continuing to help players with mindset, allowing them to thrive.


The above question has been posed countless times and explored in many ways since the advent of talent identification in professional sport (and other domains for that matter e.g. music). Many early theorists believed that talent was innate, you either have an inborn ‘gift’ or you don’t. This, on its own, is a dangerous viewpoint […]

The above question has been posed countless times and explored in many ways since the advent of talent identification in professional sport (and other domains for that matter e.g. music). Many early theorists believed that talent was innate, you either have an inborn ‘gift’ or you don’t. This, on its own, is a dangerous viewpoint to take. It would suggest that a ‘gifted’ athlete needs only to show up to competitions with no training and be able to perform. Research into motor learning (acquiring skill) has shown that this is not the case and thousands of hours of practice are required to perform to your peak. However, that is not to say that nature doesn’t have some say in the matter and those that believe that expertise is purely down to practice alone may need to reserve their own judgement a little. The type of sport is also a big factor – some sports require only very simple co-ordination with gross muscle movements (health-related fitness) such as running. Its very likely that genetics plays a far bigger role in these sports than those that require more complex and finer muscle movements e.g. soccer or tennis. A recent Channel 4 (UK) programme featuring the ex-athlete Michael Johnson explored the premise that slavery actually had a positive long-term impact on sprinters in the Caribbean area (a massive proportion of black sprint champions have ancestors that were slaves).

The idea was that only the fittest survived the long and tortuous journey from Africa, with the weaker dying out. This meant that the gene pool of slaves was already stronger by the time they arrived in the West Indies. There is also another (tenuous) theory that the slaves that were sold in Jamaica (the last stop on the journey) were the most difficult ones to handle. This may have been because they had higher levels of testosterone, linked to aggression and also to higher levels of muscle mass – important in sprinting – Jamaica is now the hotbed of sprinting in the world. Another theory is that stress and trauma can lead to genetic change being incredibly speeded up – over the course of a single generation rather than several – in the form of increased production of type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibres – another essential for sprinting. Other genetic factors that may be important in determining success in a sport may include body type (ecto/endo/mesomorph), height and aerobic capacity for example. These may be important factors in some sports where complex movements are not required. However, it would be impossible for anyone to be the best without being in the correct environment in terms of coaching and possibly even factors influenced by luck.

So, onto nurture. Many recent publications have championed the effects of nurture over nature. Some of the better titles include the Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) and Mindset (Carol Dweck). Sport psychology has also borrowed much of its research from neuroscience (the study of the brain), in particular the ways in which our brain changes as we learn new skills. Our brains have been shown to be plastic (changeable) and physical changes occur as new information is stored. I have covered this previously, but in essence groups of brain cells form new connections and those connections become insulated by a substance called myelin. The more we learn, the more and thicker the connections become and the more myelin we produce. This explains how we acquire and retain more complex skills such as serving a tennis ball or dribbling a soccer ball. For these more difficult skills to work effectively we must have practiced them repeatedly. An arbitrary figure of 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate’ practice has been named as the magic number, although there are holes in this theory (such as individual differences in learning and being in the best learning ‘environment’). In contrast to the nature theorists, this also suggests that anyone can become an expert given time and dedication. This may not be the case in certain sports i.e. an endomorph with predominantly type 1 (slow twitch) muscle fibres is highly unlikely to become 100m world champion, but genetics need not be a handicap in other sports. Spanish footballers have, over the last four years or so, proved that you don’t have to be big and athletic to be successful: many small and technically excellent players have been produced (Iniesta, Xavi, Silva). Arguably the best player in the world at the time of writing is the diminutive Lionel Messi. Access to the best coaches and facilities may also be a factor, but these can be classed as being ‘lucky’ (luck type number 2 – see below)

One of the most influential authors in the area has been Carol Dweck who publicised her research in the book Mindset. She showed that people who had a ‘fixed’ mindset (believing that talent was something natural) tended not to try as hard when faced with challenges, whereas those with a ‘growth’ mindset believed that you could eventually achieve anything with repeated hard work and learning from failure. This would again back up the nurture against nature argument. Other environmental (family) factors that have been shown to be strongly correlated with success in sport come from Bailey and Morley:

  • Parents achieved high standards in domain
  • Relatively high socioeconomic status
  • Ability and willingness to financially support participation and specialist support
  • Ability and willingness to invest high amounts of time to support the child’s engagement in the activity
  • Parents as car owners
  • Relatively small family size
  • Two-parent/carer family
  • Attendance at independent school

Many of these family factors are related in turn to luck (type number 4 – see below) – another important (and often overlooked) factor in success. Statman identified types of luck that may influence success:

“1) Resultant Luck – the outcomes of our actions are affected by luck e.g. training to be a philosopher of sport just prior to the sudden creation of a number of appointments in the area;

2) Circumstantial luck – the circumstances in which one acts introduces luck chance, a young athlete finds himself attending a club run by an expert coach for a certain sport, and his career benefits as a result of this.

3) Constitutive luck – luck affects the kind of person you are e.g. some longdistance runners and cyclists have freakishly low resting heart rates, and because of this, it makes sense to say that they were genetically lucky, within the context of cycling or running.

4) Antecedent causal luck – there is luck in the way one’s actions are determined by antecedent circumstances. e.g. children born into ‘sporty’ and supportive families are more likely to be motivated and better prepared to engage with sport than those who are not so fortunate.”

So it would appear that there are a number of factors that make success occur and for all the right ones to occur at the right time in the right order is a very rare phenomenon. Nature, nurture and luck have been mentioned, but what about psychological factors? Mental strength is often cited as an essential ingredient, and indeed is thought to be the only dividing factor between success and failure at elite level where practice and genetic factors are (relatively) equal, controlling for the effects of luck. Being able to concentrate, be confident and the motivation to practice continuously are just three of the necessary psychological factors required to be a champion. Again, these factors are under scrutiny as to whether they are learned or you are born with them. As a sport psychologist I firmly believe that these skills can be taught (otherwise thats me out of work!). It may be true that there is an interaction between natural and nurtured abilities and to discount one over the other is narrow minded. In fact, nowhere near enough time is spent on this element of the performance model when training athletes, with technique, tactics and often too much of the physical element in particular being overemphasised.

All that is clear from the above is that potential success  (i.e. talent ID) in a domain is multifaceted and highly complex. Existing models are insufficient at present as they tend to focus too narrowly on one area, rather than taking a more eclectic view of trait, environment, luck and psychology (and any others that are relevant). One exception to challenge this is the model by Bailey et al, in full below.

This ‘biopsychosocial’ model takes into account a broader spectrum of possible antecedents of success than more traditional models and highlights many areas where future research can be directed.

What is evident is that those that say that you’re born with talent (nature), or talent can be wholly acquired (nurture) or that its purely down to luck or mental toughness need to broaden their horizons and take into account as many of these factors as possible and the ways and degrees to which they interact. It may be that different sports are under variable influence from each factor – some may be more susceptible to genetic influence (e.g. sprinting), others may be more down to practice (e.g. soccer) and all may be governed by luck and a strong mentality. This reflects my own recent experience working in a centre of excellence (soccer) in the UK, where I was told by a fellow coach that a 12 year old would never be good enough because he lacked pace. My colleague failed to take into account the player’s shin splints (where muscle and bone grow at different rates) which would slow any player down. When he grows out of this his technical ability should come to the fore and his speed improve, but to be put on the scrapheap at 12? Grossly unfair. Especially when many researchers now believe talent doesn’t fully emerge until an athlete (in a late specialisation sport such as football) reaches their early twenties. Of course, there are some prodigious talents (e.g. Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney) who come to the fore earlier, but they tend to be exceptions rather than the rule.

These talents often get labelled ‘geniuses’. However, there seems to be of a link between hours of practice than being ‘natural gifted’. The difference between these individuals and lesser mortals may then be a motivational one – they are more motivated to practice more hours than others. This may also be correlated to high incidences of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in many top sportsmen (Beckham, Gerrard, Messi, Jonny Wilkinson to name but a few) where they cannot stop practising and even the slightest error compels them to practice for many more hours to atone. Other antecedents have also been identified – the ability to make up your own games as a kid and learn the ‘rules’ of the sports’ techniques through fun practice away from adult supervision (e.g. Brian Lara playing street cricket or Wayne Rooney street football). There have also been links between the top players using more visualisation than others as kids (see the article on Wayne Rooney and visualisation). So it would seem that there is no such thing as ‘natural talent’ alone: athletes need to be born with certain physical attributes to be able to take part in sport, but beyond that luck, mentality, environment and above all practice (physical and mental) seem just as – if not more – important.


Every athlete is aware that there are risks that are associated with sports.  Sprains, strains, fractures, and other general aches and pains can go hand in hand with being an athlete.  However, one other common and dangerous injury that is beginning to receive more attention is a concussion.  Concussions can be sustained in any area […]

Every athlete is aware that there are risks that are associated with sports.  Sprains, strains, fractures, and other general aches and pains can go hand in hand with being an athlete.  However, one other common and dangerous injury that is beginning to receive more attention is a concussion.  Concussions can be sustained in any area of the brain, which can affect emotional regulation, decision making, problem solving, personality, and impulse control (Diehl, Thiel, Zipfel, Mayer, Litaker, & Schneider, 2012).  The American Psychiatric Association note in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text rev. (2000) Post Concussional Disorder is a symptom cluster that includes complaints of becoming fatigued easily, difficulty maintaining normal sleep patterns, headaches, dizziness, irritability, aggression, anxiety, depression, labile affect, changes in personality, apathy, and or lack of spontaneity.  With the increased attention to concussions, there has been more and more evidence of the cumulative and traumatic effects they can have on an athlete.

Although the psychological risks of an adolescent sustaining a concussion can be severe, there is limited awareness of how to treat the effects of a concussion (Mittenberg, Tremont, Zielinski, Fichera, & Rayls, 1996).  Athletes who have a concussion may often have questions and concerns that their doctor may not have the answers to (Kontos, Collins, & Russo, 2004).  McAllister & Arciniegas (2002) noticed a discrepancy in the message that patients received in the emergency room and what they actually experience in the aftermath of a concussion.  Athletes as emergency room patients who are told “you’ve had a mild concussion, you’ll be fine” may have a hard time understanding why they are experiencing such severe symptoms and difficulties in their lives.

Post concussive symptoms are grouped into 3 different categories: cognitive, somatic, and affective (McAllister & Arciniegas, 2002).  The cognitive complaints can include difficulty concentrating, shorter attention span, and decreased memory.  Somatic issues can involve headaches, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty with sleep, and sensitivity to noise and/or light.  Patients experiencing affective complaints may experience depressed moods, irritability, and anxiety.  It is important to recognize that not all complaints will be experienced and could be experienced in varying degrees of severity.

In treating Post Concussional Disorder, education, individual therapy, and group therapy have been shown to be beneficial as a means to assist in recovery.  Mittenburg, Tremont, Zielinski, Fichera, & Rayls (1993) found that giving patients an informational pamphlet, Recovering from Head Injury: A Guide for Patients (Mittenberg, W., Zielinski, R. E., & Fichera, S. (1993) and having patients meet with a therapist individually was helpful in concussion recovery.  Six months after treatment, this group of patients reported to experiencing significantly shorter symptom duration as well as fewer symptoms than did the control group.  Bertisch, Rath, Langenbahn, Sherr, & Diller (2012) suggest that group treatment may actually be more beneficial in the treatment of Post Concussional Disorder because the group may provide an avenue of support with peers as well as feedback.  In addition, it may help members share ideas and strategies that may be effective and helpful to other members in the group.  Individuals who have experienced a concussion may feel as though they are helping others in their recovery process and as a result, are not as isolated as they may once have felt by this injury.

If you have suffered from a concussion, it is crucial not to minimize this injury.  Rest is essential for brain recovery and trying to “tough it out” and keep exerting yourself mentally and physically will only prolong your recovery.  In your treatment, it is important to seek help.  You want to make sure you are taking care of all aspects of your concussion.  This means you could seek a doctor or physician to see if there is any physical brain damage, a neuropsychologist to take tests (e.g. ImPACT) to understand see how your brain is functioning, a mental health provider to learn how to cope with the injury, and a support group that would provide you a network of people who understand firsthand what you’re going through.  Look for resources in your area or online to educate yourself on what you are experiencing.  Remember, returning to play before your symptoms have gone away is very dangerous.  Make sure you are consulting with all members of your treatment team before you return to your sport.


I had never really given much thought to football warm-ups. The process I believed was quite simple. After you have sent the goalkeeper with the goalkeeper coach (or with a substitute depending on the level), you set about preparing your players physically for the game. There was the psychological aspect of course – to “mentally […]

I had never really given much thought to football warm-ups. The process I believed was quite simple. After you have sent the goalkeeper with the goalkeeper coach (or with a substitute depending on the level), you set about preparing your players physically for the game.

There was the psychological aspect of course – to “mentally prepare” the players to play. This is referenced in all the literature and is a buzz phrase in coaching courses. Warm-ups were not just physical, but very much a way of preparing the mind. But how?

How do we mentally prepare our players before a game? Is it possible that we just pay lip-service to the players psychological state? We often use very general and non-specific mental terms like “switch on”, “focus”, “concentrate”, “put it in” etc. On the face of it providing players with that information is fine, but, with all the research, sports science and dynamic thinkers out there, is that enough? Let’s scratch the surface here on how to mentally prepare a team during a warm-up.

As mentioned, I always had preconceptions about what to do before a game. It generally went along the lines of this:

  1. Pulse-raising running (2 straight lines)
  2. Dynamic stretches and exercises (2 straight lines)
  3. 5v5 / 6v6 / 7v7 possession game (non-directional)
  4. Quick feet exercises (2 straight lines)
  5. Specific unit time

The above is used and replicated from the top of the game to the bottom. It is done at Anfield and Old Trafford, and on Hackney Marches with the under 12s. As a result of this, my conclusion is that everyone is happy doing what everyone else is doing.

Critiquing this as a physical warm-up is not the task at hand. Nor is debating the reasons why over half of what coaches do prior to the game is done in straight lines, without a ball, when 20 minutes later the players play a game where they do not run consistently in straight lines, and the game is very much played with a ball. But that is very much an argument for another day.

What we will look at is the fallacy of the possession exercises that occur thousands of times a weekend across football.

Non Directional Possession Warm Up Exercises

Just for clarity, “non-directional” possession games are those with no goals, no target areas or zones to score into. Players play 5v5 ‘keep ball’ in a square. Such an exercise is common-place in training grounds up and down the country, and is a staple part of a footballers training diet.

Although this exercise is one of the corner stones of football training, I stopped doing this type of exercise with players about 4 years ago ago, in training sessions or pre-match. This was after a conversation with an ex-professional who played in the English Football League. While frothing from the mouth, he explained:

I hated possession before a game. Hated it. I may as well go sit in the changing room. My game was nothing like what we were doing. I knew if I gave the ball away, my head would go. When I gave the ball away a lot in possession games, I always played poorly. The lads would be on my back, I would struggle to recover mentally, and my confidence used to hit rock bottom.

After this conversation I began to examine whether this experience was the same for other players, and what psychological impact they were having on players. Then it came to me. It came to me like thunderbolt. I realised that non-directional possession games only end when players give the ball away. Let me repeat. NON-DIRECTIONAL POSSESSION GAMES ONLY END WHEN PLAYERS GIVE THE BALL AWAY.

Recently I went to watch a local non-league game, and it became a snap shot of the psychological fallacy of possession warm-ups. Both teams play at “step 4” – a million miles from the Premier League but of a standard that would embarrass most recreational players. The home team was rock bottom of the division having conceded over 150 goals. The away team was in the shake up at the top of the division. They were polar opposites in terms of form, ability and confidence.

 Half of both teams warm-up was a non-directional possession game (one 5v5, the other 7v7), although they occupied vastly different league positions and vastly different form. Lets look how both teams performed:

Away Team, League Position: 4th

The away team were decidedly better in terms of technique, movement, receiving skills, passing etc, as you would expect given their superior league position. Without being overly familiar with football at that level, I was quite impressed. The positivity I had after this first impression though was gone I an instant.

Within two minutes of playing, the atmosphere was almost spiteful. Players were accused by staff and by fellow players of not working, giving the ball away cheaply and not accepting blame for mistakes. Two players spent what seemed like several minutes in a running argument with each other. The full-back got upset with the striker as he caught him around the ankle when making a tackle. A team went from capably warming-up to an utterly negative state. Suddenly players had gone from a state of business-like camaraderie to in-fighting and accusations of not caring. The captain was made to work exceptionally hard to rally feuding team-mates.

Without this possession exercise, the players would have left the pitch for their pre-match talk in the changing room happy, positive and mentally ready to play. As a result of it, they did not.

Home Team, League Position: Bottom

The home team were on an extraordinary run of bad form. They were months without a victory and had been beaten heavily the previous mid-week. Technically, the players were capable, but not of the standard of their visitors. Because of their form, recent results and embarrassment about their plight, this group were mentally on their knees.

They set about playing their possession game 7v7. As usual the first couple of passing sequences can be a little frantic while players adapt. During this, I wondered if the coach would increase the size of the area just to help them keep the ball. He did not.

This group of players, with confidence already badly damaged from a mentally draining season, went about giving the ball away with ease. Unlike their opposition though, they did not argue, nor did they fall out. They were resigned to their failure. Any enthusiasm evident in their body language prior to warming-up morphed into a resigned look of “here we go again”. I was left in no doubt that they would lose the match. Before even the referee blew his whistle.

I wondered whether the coaching staff would have been better doing something enjoyable, a drill that resulted in some form of success, even a childish exercise that would make the players smile. Something, anything, to drag the players’ mentality from scared and unconfident to anything that is remotely positive. Something that makes the players walk away thinking: “We’ve done well there. Maybe we do have a chance”.


Considerations for the mental aspect of the pre-match warm-up vastly outweigh the physical considerations. Regardless of the exercises you complete (with a degree of sense), players’ bodies will be fit to take part in exercise in a physiological sense. What physical warm-up a coach completes should undoubtedly depend on the mindset of the players. Are they complacent and need re-focusing? Are they nervous and need relaxing and success? How do this group of players react in non-directional possession exercises? By considering this, you can now legitimately claim to be preparing players both physically AND mentally for games.


It has often been said that the most important thing children gain from sport is enjoyment. However, youth sport additionally plays a huge role in the personal development of children and provides valuable lessons and life skills. Life skills are defined as “ranges of transferable skills needed for everyday life, by everybody, that help people […]

It has often been said that the most important thing children gain from sport is enjoyment. However, youth sport additionally plays a huge role in the personal development of children and provides valuable lessons and life skills.

Life skills are defined as “ranges of transferable skills needed for everyday life, by everybody, that help people thrive” (Jones & Lavallee, 2009, p.162). Sport provides a multitude of such skills. For example, focus group research with British adolescent athletes investigated what life skills were perceived as necessary and their relative contribution to personal development (Jones & Lavallee, 2009). This research highlighted two particular categories of life skills: personal and interpersonal skills. Personal skills included discipline, self-reliance, goal setting and motivation, whereas interpersonal involved social skills, respect, leadership and communication. The variety of skills mentioned highlights how sport provides a diverse range of skills that are not only advantageous in their sporting setting, but with the correct application can also be transferred to other life settings (e.g. school and other extra-curricular activities).

Positive development has also been shown to be associated with psychological need satisfaction (Taylor & Brunner, 2012). In other words, positive development can better occur when an individuals’ needs for competence (perceived ability), autonomy (the degree of choice) and relatedness (the feeling of belonging) are satisfied (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Taylor & Brunner (2012) investigated the developmental experience of elite youth academy football players. The results showed that players were more likely to have positive developmental experiences (e.g. seeking leadership opportunities and being able to control their emotions) if their psychological needs were met. This research highlights the importance of the role that coaches play. They need to carefully consider the environmental they create, as one which satisfies players’ psychological needs will optimise the potential for positive social development.

The examples above are not to say that enjoyment is not an important part of the sporting experience for children. On the contrary, research has shown that enjoyment is an essential consideration for children choosing to begin sport, and also just as importantly, their continued participation in sport (McCarthy, Jones, & Clark-Carter, 2008).

In summary, youth sport provides many positive experiences which are fundamental to childrens’ perceived enjoyment of the experience, but it also offers the opportunity to enhance positive development and provide valuable skills that will undoubtedly be useful later on in life.


Sport-confidence has been defined as “the belief or degree of certainty individuals possess about their ability to be successful in sport” (Vealey, 1986).  This addresses the degree to which an athlete is sure of his/her ability.  Research on self-confidence in sport has shown that athletes and coaches identify self-confidence as critical to performance and there is […]

Sport-confidence has been defined as “the belief or degree of certainty individuals possess about their ability to be successful in sport” (Vealey, 1986).  This addresses the degree to which an athlete is sure of his/her ability.  Research on self-confidence in sport has shown that athletes and coaches identify self-confidence as critical to performance and there is evidence that self-confidence has positively influenced athletes’ performance in both experimental lab settings and also in the natural competitive settings (Horn, 2008).  So how do we help our athletes become more confident?  It is important to explore the sources of sport-confidence and work to build up these experiences and perceptions within our athletes.  Nine sources of sport-confidence have been identified (Vealey, Hayashi, Garner-Holan, & Giacobbi, 1998):

  • Mastery

Athletes gain confidence from mastering or improving their personal skills.  Set up mastery experiences for athletes in practice to show them that they are skilled and successful in a particular area of their sport.  For areas that need more work, acknowledging and measuring growth is crucial for an athlete to see that they are improving.

  • Demonstration of ability

Athletes gain confidence from showing off their skills to others or demonstrating that they have more ability than an opponent.  Athletes can view the warm up before a competition as a time to show off their ability and superiority to their opponents.

  • Physical and mental preparation

Athletes gain confidence from feeling physically and mentally prepared with an optimal focus for performance.  If athletes can recall how they felt physically and mentally in a prior successful performance, they can attempt to match that similar experience in a future performance.

  • Physical self-presentation

Athletes gain confidence if they believe that others’ perceive them in a positive way.  For example, if an opponent is watching an athlete, how that athlete perceives that behavior is crucial to their confidence.  If they believe the opponent perceives them positively, it will help boost confidence.  On the other hand, if they believe the opponent perceives them negatively, self-doubt may creep in.

  • Social support

Athletes gain confidence from perceiving support and encouragement from others that are significant to them in or out of sport.  Athletes should feel supported by a strong social network made up by their coaches, teammates, family, friends, etc.

  • Vicarious experience

Athletes gain confidence from watching others perform successfully.  Athletes can watch teammates in practice or competition.  Athletes can also utilize technology to watch higher level athletes perform skills successfully (i.e., YouTube).

  • Coach’s leadership

Athletes gain confidence from believing their coach is skilled in decision-making and leadership.

  • Environmental comfort

Athletes gain confidence from feeling comfortable in a competitive environment.  This is why the home team generally has an advantage.  If athletes are traveling, they should become familiar with the setting prior to the competition.

  • Situational favorableness

Athletes gain confidence from feeling that the breaks of the situation are in their favor.  This is more difficult to control than the other sources.  However, if athletes are able to reframe unfavorable circumstances into opportunities or challenges instead of barriers, it can help build their confidence.


In sport there is an increasing awareness of how important psychological factors are within athletic performance and it is now being recognized that physical talent is not the only component which leads to success (Gucciardi, Gordon & Dimmock, 2008).   In the scientific and sport community, mental toughness is viewed as one of the most important attributes […]

In sport there is an increasing awareness of how important psychological factors are within athletic performance and it is now being recognized that physical talent is not the only component which leads to success (Gucciardi, Gordon & Dimmock, 2008).   In the scientific and sport community, mental toughness is viewed as one of the most important attributes that will lead to a successful athletic performance (Bull, Shambrook, James, & Brooks, 2005).  At the highest level it is often the mental game which separates the elite performers from the good performers (Gould, Jackson, & Finch, 1993).  In sport there has been very little scientific attention focusing around mental toughness and this is seen as very surprising considering that the term has been widely used over the last twenty years (Gould, Hodge, Peterson & Petlichkoff, 1987).  Due to a lack of research, mental toughness is seen as one of the most overused and least understood term in the area of sport psychology (Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, 2002)

Early Perspectives

The earliest attempt to define mental toughness was proposed by Raymond Cattell who suggested that it was a personality trait (Cattell, 1957).  The concept of tough mindedness was identified by Cattell, (1957) as one of the 16 primary source traits which were measured by his 16 personality factor questionnaire (16PF).  The 16PF has been widely used in psychological research, however it has not been used in sport to measure mental toughness.  Cattell (1957) saw tough mindedness as an important trait which was part of personality and many other researchers followed in this direction (Kroll, 1967). However it can be argued that this research is not grounded in sound scientific theory and more recently researchers have been arguing that it is important to understand mental toughness from a theoretical perspective (Clough & Earle, 2002a)

Sport General Research

Within sport the term mental toughness is used by a variety of coaches, performers and sport psychologists, and it is only recently that researchers have attempted to define and understand the concept (Thelwell, Weston & Greenlees, 2005).  Fourie and Potgieter (2001) were the first to identify psychological attributes which people considered to be related to the concept of mental toughness in sport. The researchers conducted a study which looked at written responses from 160 elite athletes and 131 expert coaches from 31 individual and team sports (Gucciardi, Gordon & Dimmock, 2009. The data from these written responses was content analyzed and it was found that there were twelve main components of mental toughness which were identified by the participants. These twelve components were; team unity, preparation skills, competitiveness, motivation level, coping skills, confidence maintenance, cognitive skill, discipline and goal directedness, possession of physical and mental requirements, psychological hardiness, ethics and religious convictions (Gucciardi, Gordon et al., 2009).

Jones, Hanton et al., (2002) set out to expand on the understanding of mental toughness by focusing on what essential attributes are needed to become a mentally tough performer.  The researchers recruited ten international performers who took part in interviews, focus groups and a rank order task. After conducting the research the term mental toughness was defined as (Jones et al., 2002, p. 209):

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

  • Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on the performer.
  • Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure”

As well as defining mental toughness, Jones at al. (2002) investigated the key attributes which are essential to becoming a mentally tough athlete. Many of the attributes found in the study were very similar to those which have been found in previous literature (Thelwell, Weston et al., 2005).  Jones at al. (2002) conducted a rank order task to determine the order of importance of the attributes and it was found that the following were all key for a mentally tough athlete: (a) having self-belief in one’s ability to achieve goals; (b) being able to recover from set backs and having an extra determination to succeed; (c) having a high amount of self belief that one has better abilities and more qualities than their opponents; (d) having a high amount of motivation and desire to succeed; (e) being fully-focused

on the task even when there are distractions; (f) having the ability to regain psychological control following uncontrollable events; (g) having the ability to overcome emotional and physical pain; (h) being able to accept and cope with the anxiety experienced in competition; (i) thriving on pressure; (j) having the ability to not be affected by good or bad performances; (k) having the ability to remain fully focused even in the face of distraction; and (l) the ability to switch the focus on your sport on and off.

To extend on their earlier research, Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2007) conducted a study where eight Olympic champions were interviewed along with three of their coaches and four of their sport psychologists. The main aim of this study was to develop a framework of mental toughness which would help to identify key attributes that are used in a number of different sports. The methodology used for this study was a data triangulation and it is seen as one of the most in depth investigations to date (Jones, Hanton et al., 2007).  From the study the researchers found 30 key attributes which differed from the 12 attributes which were identified by the international performers in their last study.  These attributes were put into sub categories within four central main dimensions. The first dimension was related to attitudes which were possessed by a mentally tough athlete, whereas the other three related to characteristics which were relevant for three major aspects of an athletes performance which were training, competition and post competition (Jones et al., 2007). This framework is seen as providing one the most in-depth descriptions of what types of mental toughness may be needed in specific contexts (Gucciardi et al., 2009).

Sport-specific research

In sport there have been two recent studies which have focused specifically on cricketers (Bull, Shambrook, James et al., 2005) and soccer players (Thelwell et al., 2005) views of mental toughness. Both these studies have focused on mental toughness from a specific sport context and they have both been seen as significant contributions towards its understanding.  Bull, Shambrook et al., (2005) interviewed 12 male English cricketers who were identified as being high in mental toughness. From the analysis of transcripts there were four main themes which were identified and placed in a hierarchal structure pyramid

The first theme was environmental factors, which was seen as the foundation of the development for mental toughness. Within this theme it incorporated aspects such as parental influences, childhood background and exposure to foreign cricket as an important part of environmental influences. The next three themes all related to the individual person. The second theme was tough character and this related to factors such as a resilient confidence and competitiveness. The third theme was tough attitudes which was seen as important for having a tough character.  These included attitudes such as; willing to task risks, a never giving up attitude and determination to make the most out of any challenge. The final theme was related to tough thinking which looked at aspects such as being able to think clearly and having high self confidence (Bull et al., 2005).  However, it can be argued that the study was not grounded in empirical data and that the data interpretation was very descriptive and did not involve any in-depth analysis (Gucciardi et al., 2009)

Thelwell et al., (2005) examined mental toughness within the soccer population where he was trying to expand on the finding of Jones et al., (2002) study.  The study comprised of interviewing six male soccer players and comparing their soccer definition of mental toughness to the definition which was proposed by Jones et al., (2002).  From the results it was found that there was a high amount of overlap between the two definitions, however the soccer sample saw mental toughness as always being able to cope better than their opponents as opposed to just generally coping better.  In the study conducted by Thelwell et al., (2005) it was found that the majority of participants were not uniform in their understanding of what mental toughness actually was.  From the results it was found that the soccer players characterized mental toughness as being able to react positively to situations and being able to remain calm under pressure (Crust, 2007).  However, from the six participants it was actually found that only half of them enjoyed being under pressure whilst in performance.

Recently Gucciardi, Gordon et al., (2008) provided researchers with a theoretical advancement into the area of mental toughness by interviewing 11 elite Australian football coaches which was developed from a personal construct psychology framework (Gucciardi et al., 2009). The researchers addressed this from a grounded theory approach where there were three components that were seen as key to the development of mental toughness. These three components were characteristics, behaviours and situations (Gucciardi et al., 2009). The characteristics represented 11 bipolar constructs such as tough attitude versus weak attitude, concentration versus distraction and resilience versus fragile minded.  The situations related to the different events that the athlete experienced which helped develop mental toughness (e.g. injury, fatigue).  Behaviours related to what the athletes would do in situations that required mental toughness. This research was unique to the area of mental toughness as it looked at how you develop mental toughness (processes) and what outcomes come out from it.

Mental Toughness Literature: Problems

To understand mental toughness Jones et al (2002) used a three-stage procedure using ten elite athletes from a number of different sports. The first step of the procedure involved a focus group which involved using three elite players to all brainstorm about mental toughness.  Within research focus groups are often seen as a method that can obtain descriptive rich data, however there are also a number of limitations which should be acknowledged (Gibbs, 1997). There are three main limitations: lack of confidentiality among the participants, lack of diverse opinions from the participants and finally a lack of control from the researcher (Gibbs, 1997).  Focus groups are often seen as place where individuals can be open about experiences and challenge each other in what is said (Kitzinger, 1995).  Therefore when conducing a focus group it is often suggested that a researcher uses group sizes which are between six and ten participants (Bloor, Frankland, Thomas, & Robson, 2001).  In the study conducted by Jones at al., (2002) the focus group was the first part of the study and it can therefore be argued that this would have an affect on stage two and three of the study. As well as this the sample size was very small and therefore this should be taken into account when looking at the validity and reliability of the study.

Within the research it can be argued that individual differences have not been taken into account.  While there are consistent attributes of mental toughness in many studies, there are also many attributes that are not consistent among studies (Crust, 2007).  The mental toughness needed for rowing could be very different to the mental toughness which is needed for a soccer or rugby player.  Ignoring individual differences this can have a detrimental affect on helping to develop high levels of mental toughness among the sport population.

Measuring Mental Toughness

To study mental toughness, qualitative research is seen as one of the most common to help us understand what mental toughness is and how people acquire it (Crust, 2008).  However researchers should also be encouraged to used quantitative methods to help look at differences among athletes in relation to their cognitions and behaviours (Crust, 2008).

Within the mental toughness research the main method which has been used to measure this construct has been through the use of questionnaires (Crust, 2007).  The main questionnaire which has been used in many studies (Golby, Sheard and Lavalle, 2003; Shin, Kim & Lee, 1993) is the Psychological Performance Inventory (PPI; Loehr, 1986).  The PPI consists of 42 items which measures seven subscales which are self confidence, attentional control, visualization, imagery control, negative energy, attitude control and positive energy.  Recently researchers have conducted tests to assess the psychometric properties of the PPI (Crust, 2007).  Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards and Perry (2004a) tested the construct validity of the PPI and found that the questionnaire was not a valid measure for the definition of mental toughness.

Clough, Earle and Sewell (2002b) developed the Mental toughness 48 inventory (MT48) which consists of four subscales which are control, commitment, challenge and confidence. Clough, Earle et al., (2002b) conducted research to test the psychometric properties of the MT48 and it was found that it had a high-test retest coefficient of 0.9 and there was high internal consistency of all four subscales. The MT48 subscales were developed through an association with hardiness and mental toughness and it has been argued that Clough et al., (2002b) did not provide sufficient justification between the two concepts.

Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards and Perry (2004b) developed the mental toughness inventory (MTI) which was used for their own definition of mental toughness.  The questionnaire consists of 67 items and measures 12 different components of mental toughness. The questionnaire has been developed from justified research and has been found to have strong psychometric properties (Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards et al., 2004b).  However the instrument needs to be tested on much larger populations to see whether it can be used to compare elite and non-elite players.  The development of these questionnaires is very important for researchers who want to study mental toughness, however most of them need further testing of validity and reliability before they can be accepted to be used (Crust, 2007).

Development of Mental Toughness

In the literature there are still many arguments concerning issues as to whether mental toughness is a personality trait or a mindset (Crust & Clough, 2011). It is therefore very important to look at the underlying factors that help develop mental toughness.

Even though personality traits are influenced by genetics they are also affected by the environment and are constantly going through a developmental process (Crust and Clough, 2005).  Psychologists are now adopting the approach that both nature and nurture are important with contributing to the development of behaviour and personality. Horsburgh, Schermer, Veselka, and Vernon, (2009) assessed mental toughness among twins and found that it had a strong genetic influence and was also influenced by the environment. As well as this, there have been recent studies looking at differences in brain structures between more and less tough participants. Clough et al (2010) found that there was a positive correlation between high mental toughness scores and more grey matter tissue in a person’s right frontal lobe. All of this research shows us that it is clear that genetics play a key part in the developmental of mental toughness, however it is equally apparent that there are other environmental and developmental processes which need to be taken into account.

In general psychological development and the development of mental toughness is a long complex process which involves a number of environmental factors (Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton & Jones, 2008; MacNamara, Button & Collins, 2010).  The first moment an athlete is in contact with his coach the developmental process will already start to have an impact on that player’s performance.  In Bulls et al., (2005) study it was found that environmental influences such as parental influences and childhood upbringing are key for mental toughness.  Other research has also supported this, showing that coaches, parents, and athletes play a significant role in the development of mental toughness (Crust & Clough 2011).  A study which can relate to these aspects was conduced by Van Yperen (2009) who looked at success in soccer players over a 15 year time period.  It was found that players who had more siblings and had parents who were more likely to divorce experienced more successful transitions.  Therefore by experiencing stressful events, players might develop coping strategies which allow them to deal with the high pressures in their sport.  Coulter, Mallett and Gucciardi (2010) also found that experiencing stressful events inside and outside of sport aids with the development of mental toughness. This research shows us how important the environment is for developing mental toughness and shows us how some of these aspects can be easily manipulated.

Future Recommendations

While there has been much research focusing on trying to define mental toughness, more work needs to be conducted due to differences in peoples understanding of the concept.  Research needs to focus on trying to define mental toughness which is grounded in relevant personality theories.  It needs to be understood whether mental toughness is best studied from a sport general perspective or a sport specific perspective.  As well as this more research needs to be conducted around the observational analysis of mental toughness behaviors so that sport psychologists can intervene and identify how to improve mental toughness (Crust, 2007).  Future research could look at the relationship between mental toughness and a persons cognitions (Crust, 2007).  For example do mentally tough athletes exhibit more positive self-talk in comparison to less mentally tough athletes.  Most studies focusing around mental toughness have lacked methodological diversity and therefore longitudinal studies may benefit researchers who are trying to study mental toughness. By focusing on developing this future research, this could help to build programmes which will develop more mentally tough athletes for the future.

Overall mental toughness is an extremely important topic within sport, however much of the research which has been conducted is based on personal opinion rather that sound empirical research.  Future researchers face the challenges of exploring mental toughness in a broader context and more attention is needed to look at how mentally tough individuals perform in all areas of their life.


In sports coaching, play and practice are said to be two of the key variables that influence skill acquisition. However knowing what is the more effective or what is the best combination of play and practice, as well as what age play and practice amounts should be integrated have proven to be a topic under […]

In sports coaching, play and practice are said to be two of the key variables that influence skill acquisition. However knowing what is the more effective or what is the best combination of play and practice, as well as what age play and practice amounts should be integrated have proven to be a topic under much debate. Research looking at the experiences of both people who went on to be expert athletes and those who did not go on to be experts in there sporting discipline have become extremely popular. According to the ‘theory of deliberate practice’ expert level in sport is the result of extended engagement in high quality training. This theory suggests that gaining expertise in sport is based on two key factors. The first of these is that previous sporting experiences of expert level athletes should be specific to the sport in which expertise is accomplished in (i.e. a sole focus on the sport that expertise is gained in). Baker, Cote, and Abernethy (2003) carried out a study with the aim of analysing the effects of sport specific practice in the development of expertise in sport. From 15 expert and 13 non-expert athletes it was found that experts had accumulated more hours of sport specific practice from the age of 12 than the non-experts did. The second and perhaps most dominant factors which makes up the deliberate practice theory is that expertise is attained by the amount of time/quantity that one engages in practice, it is important to point out however that this practice must be high quality. The characteristics that make up deliberate practice are, immediate access to feedback from coaches, a drive for perfection, high levels of repetition, maximum effort expenditure, complete concentration, long hours of practice, and performed for improvement rather than enjoyment. Again in research that distinguishes between professional athletes and non professional athletes deliberate practice theory has been well supported with Simon and Chase (1973) proposing the “10 year rule theory” which states that a 10 year commitment to quality practice is required before expert levels of skill performance can be achieved, Simon and Chase explain that during their study of chess players they observed that nobody had attained the level of international chess master “with less than about a decade’s intense preparation with the game”.

However, as influential as deliberate practice theory has been in the development of many coaching programmes, there are some key limitations that must be addressed. If we look to further psychological theories that impact on a player’s development, motivation can play a vital role. It is said that athletes who are extrinsically motivated to perform their sport through the expectation of trophies, titles, money, and status tend to experience lower levels of enjoyment in their sport, in time this leads to lowered motivation and fear of failure resulting in dropout from sport. Fear of failure often stems from extrinsic motives for success, that is that the enjoyment and fun of playing sport is long gone and success in sport is a direct result of winning and having social status, when an extrinsically motivated performer experiences negative results they can fear the social ramifications and threat to their status as a champion, this can often lead to a fear or underperforming. Vallerand and Bissonnetti (1992) discovered in a study on academic students that those who held external motives for achieving successful results in school, such as the expectation of increased money earning potential and other external rewards were more likely to drop out of school. This has been strongly supported in the world of sport. Pelletier et al (2001) found that from 396 swimmers those who were extrinsically motivated to take part in their sport were more likely to drop out over any other form of motivation due to a lack of enjoyment. It could be argued that for children and adolescents especially, there is often an external pressure to engage in deliberate practice from parents and coaches who play the role of dictator. Coaches and parents who do not create a healthy motivational climate whereby fun is of high importance and focus on results minimised can increase the chance of dropout in the performer. A final negative consequence to the deliberate practice approach to skill mastery that is often the alternative to dropping out of the sport is maladaptive behaviours. Research explains that external motives or a high drive for winning over enjoyment purposes can lead to the performer to engage in cheating strategies due to a strong need to impress the coach with good results aswell as to impress others by giving off the impression of being highly skilled.

A further limitation to the deliberate practice theory due to its nature of being focused on a singular sport, long hours of engagement, high level of repetition, low fun level, and lack of play time is the risk of burnout. If the athlete is performing a task through the enjoyment of it, a greater level of satisfaction is likely to be had. However a key characteristic of deliberate practice is the lack of enjoyment and focus on fun. The Investment model of burnout explains that a lack of fun makes an activity such as deliberate practice become entrapment, this soon leads to burnout which in turn can lead to withdraw from the sport.

With the limitations of deliberate practice in mind there is a contrasting theory of skill acquisition, this being the theory of deliberate play. Deliberate play can be seen as the opposite of deliberate practice as the focus here is of enjoyment and to try a range of sports which often tend to be “street sports” such as football, basketball, and cricket among others. A key characteristic of deliberate play is that it is intrinsically motivated and designed to foster high levels of fun and natural skill development. The motive for engaging in this style of play is not for skill development or performance improvement (although this can be a bi-product), and there is no specific outcome goals in mind such as playing with a view to enter in to competition, or to become a national champion. Furthermore deliberate play will tend to have rules which are more flexible, and  rules that would be present in the sport at a formal or competitive level are absent, for example smaller teams, no specific positions, and no referees/ umpires. In support of deliberate play for gaining expertise in sport Soberlak and Cote (2003) gathered previous sporting experiences from ice hockey players, between the ages of 6-12 it was found that the expert ice hockey players engaged in an average of six other sports. This supports claims that deliberate play is important for gaining expertise in an activity. As Soberlak and Cote also found, performers who engaged in deliberate play and who went on to become experts in their sport also reported the greatest levels on intrinsic motivation thus resulting in long term adherence, consistently high levels of motivation, and enjoyment from playing their sport. Finally Wall and Cote (2007) hypothesized that “young athletes who drop out will have sampled fewer sports, spent less time in deliberate play activities and spent more time in deliberate practice activities during childhood”. Finding from this study explained that players who engaged in deliberate practice for long hours with little amounts of deliberate play were at greater risks of negative implications in the long term. 

When considering the argument for each approach perhaps it would be more effective for a combination of the two theories to be used. This way enjoyment is maintained which in turn lowers dropout rates and burnout, but also deliberate focused practice helps to master the skill. In support of this combination Memmert, Baker and Bertsch (2010) looked at childhood and youth experiences of expert athletes aged and found that deliberate practice and deliberate play both played a crucial role in the development of skill and creativity of athletes.



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 […]

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.


As a football coach you are always looking at ways to improve the performance of your players and maintain the highest level of coaching. I would like to put forward a proposal of how parental involvement can be encouraged in football. Cote (1999), found that children who become experts before the age of eight are involved in […]

As a football coach you are always looking at ways to improve the performance of your players and maintain the highest level of coaching. I would like to put forward a proposal of how parental involvement can be encouraged in football.

Cote (1999), found that children who become experts before the age of eight are involved in hundreds of hours of play and practice. Throughout their development the greatest influence on their sporting career will be their parents.

Throughout a child’s career they will experience many different cognitive and developmental changes which will affect the parents socialization and the child’s athletic motivation (Brustad, 1992). As a child gets older they are able to incorporate more social comparative information and this is important for how they interpret feedback from their parents. Younger children will therefore rely more on adult feedback and older children will rely more upon social comparative sources (Hasbrook, 1986). This shows that throughout a child’s development, parental involvement will vary in terms of types and intensity.

Harwood and Swain (2001) argued that parental involvement can play a key role in the motivational implications for athletes. This suggests how important feedback is for a youth player and is something that can affect a player’s physical, emotional and cognitive state. Holt, Tamminen, Black, Sehn and Wall (2008) interviewed four families looking at the involvement of parents in competitive youth sport settings. It was found that verbal reactions were placed on a continuum from more supportive to more controlling. Sometimes parents did not realize when they were giving negative feedback or even derogatory comments. This demonstrates that sometimes parents are too involved in their child’s sport and they do not realise the effects that they are having on their performance. As younger children rely more on feedback it can be argued that positive feedback and encouragement from parents will lead to positive performance.

Throughout a player’s career they will experience many stressful events. Holt, Hoar and Fraser (2005) argued that adolescent athletes use a variety of coping strategies to cope with the stressors. Much interest has been looked into where an athlete learns about coping in sport. Tamminen and Holt (2011) decided to address this issue and found that athletes learn about coping through experiences of trial and error. He also found that parents have a very influential role and they create a supportive context for learning. Therefore a supportive environment will allow the players to feel that they can always speak to their parents when stressed.

Sagar and Lavalle (2010) looked at how fear of failure is developed in adolescents and how daily parental socialization has contributed to this development. Fear of failure is learnt through behavioural, cognitive and emotional experiences and in sport the fear of failure has been associated with negative emotions such as worry, stress and anxiety (Conroy, Willow & Metzler, 2002). A parent’s negative response to their child’s failure (e.g. high expectations and demands) can play a role in their fear of failure development. For example love withdrawal can contribute to the development of fear of failure. This is “a practice whereby parents withdraw their affection or create a physical separation from their child when the child behaves in an undesirable manner” (Chapman & Zahn-Waxler, 1982).  Therefore parents should be aware of how they can influence their child’s behaviour as it can have a serious affect on their future development. Young players should be given positive feedback which will influence their behaviour allowing them to stay motivated and constantly working towards the goal of wanting to win.

Overall parents should provide an environment which allows their children to feel comfortable and they should be aware of how they can influence their childrens cognitive, behavioural and developmental processes.