Yesterday we played the game that it was all about; the game that everything was about. The match we had been looking forward to for months. Before the game it was quiet in the dressing room. Tight faces, boys looked straight ahead, nobody said anything.
After the referee came to get us, we calmly walked onto the pitch. Now it had to happen. Where our opponents ran onto the field, we quietly followed. The game started; as we are used to do, we tried to build up the game from the back. Because the opponent pressured us early on, we often chose to play the long ball. Sometimes we succeeded, but often we handed the ball back to the opponent. It was the opponent who scored the first goal and it was not undeserved at the time. The boys looked at each other; gloomy faces. At a time when you feel you have to be there, you let it slip away like that. We often find ourselves in this situation this season, and if the opponent manages to push through, you lose the game. We start to worry. Some in our team have been through this before and get a kind of déjà vu. A feeling of, here we go again. We also call this brooding thinking. If you stay in brooding mode, you will lose the match. You can see it in the faces, gloomy looks, looking at each other without saying anything and when something is said, negative feedback. As soon as this happens, we often don’t get over it. We also think that things will never be right again. Blaming others does not lead to a better execution, a better result. You get into a downward spiral, the performance gets worse, you start paying attention to the wrong things and the result will be the same. In fact, you can already see the state of the flag before a match. Negative self-talk undermines self-confidence and leads to frustration. If players look up to an opponent before a match, if players talk about things like where a particular player played, you have already lost the match. This is the negative self-talk that paralyses. Also during the match shouting things like:
“Are you doing it again, when will you learn?” do not lead to a better performance, stronger, this leads to a worse performance, a worse result.
So how do you get out of story thinking?
It is important to build in recovery moments in the first place. Do not wander off, create breaks. In a sport like volleyball, this is your time-out and the moments between sets. In a sport like football, you have to build these in yourself. Of course there are the obvious moments, the dead ball moments, or the moment you have scored or when the opponent has scored. But there are more moments, also during the match, when it is possible to build in rest. The trick is to achieve the acceleration in a match, but also to build in the rest at the right moments. Don’t drift on!
It is also important to pick yourself up, positive self-talk. It’s not about big stories, but about short exclamations, the pep talk. Addressing each other in a positive way also helps. As a coach, do not tell the players what they should not do, but briefly mention what the players should do, or confirm what the players do well! Use key words.
A lot of players played together in the same team last season. Before the match, there was always music in the dressing room. To the sound of Tsunamie the boys prepare for the match. A ritual that, apparently, has no meaning. In volleyball, teams often start with a yell. After scoring a point, but also if the point is lost, players come together for a moment. A new start. Some goalkeepers in football tap their feet against the goalpost. The traditional Haka that the New Zealand rugby players perform before a match is also an example of a ritual. Rituals bring you into the here and now, they make you feel safe, they put you in the right mood to start.
The previously mentioned music in the dressing room was part of the ritual before the match. Many top athletes listen to music before a match. It puts them in the right mood. Music can excite you, but it can also calm you down. It makes you think about action.
It’s obvious, but look around you, athletes who are in action mode do not look gloomy. They look happy, they enjoy what they are doing. Always focused on the next action, on things that matter, are your football boots right, the ball, your opponent. This prevents you from being distracted by external stimuli, prevents you from worrying. I advocate loud music in the dressing room and much, much more emphasis on fun!