Dan Abrahams is a global sports psychologist helping people to high perform. His ability to de-mystify sport psychology is very evident in his brilliant book Soccer Tough where he introduces some simple but effective techniques that achieve quick results.
His new book Soccer Brain is directed at coaches. In this book Dan gives us some tools and philosophies to help create a more effective player mindset and in turn help establish a better coaching culture.
FOOTBLOGBALL :You and Horst Wien have something in common. Neither of you come from football backgrounds but you both have managed to change how many of us think about and experience the game. Has the fact that you came into football from another direction been an advantage to you? Ie you are coming from a different angle?
DAN ABRAHAMS : I think having formerly been a ‘non football man’ was, and has been, both an advantage and disadvantage. One of the drawbacks of sport psychology is the notion that you bring a pre-determined set of techniques into a sport without much prior knowledge of that sport, without understanding the language of the sport and without knowing the specific challenges the sportsmen and women in that particular sport face. Being a former pro golfer (both player and coach), golf is pretty easy for me to work in. When I started in football a decade ago I was pretty conscious of my lack of knowledge of football so I cut my cloth in non league and immersed myself in the football environment and its different communities – elite professional, journeyman professional, non league, grassroots, women’s football etc. So look, sure, if you’ve never played the game to any level and if you don’t coach it, you’ll possibly never have the same feel for the game like those who have. But at the same time I can only speak for myself and over the past decade I’ve spent thousands of hours at training sessions, talking with leading coaches, at matches and at conferences and workshops delivering and listening. I’ve spent thousands of hours researching the game. I spent dozens of hours in the Prozone suite at West Ham working with a number of clients – so I’m comfortable that I have a good grasp of football.
In terms of advantages – coming in fresh can help you see things with a clarity that perhaps those who have been in the game since 8 years old don’t necessarily have. The number of times I’ve heard a client say to me “Well that’s just football” and you think “Hmmm, that’s not football, that’s the way you’re approaching football.” It’s easy for those who are embedded in the culture of football to just accept the game for what it is rather than cast a critical eye on trends, thoughts and practices. I am able to do that. I am able to look from the outside in and say “Really? I’m not sure about that. This can be changed and this can be seen differently.”
FOOTBLOGBALL: For me your book Soccer Tough had many ” I knew that but never thought about using it that way” moments. It is a terrific resource for any player , coach or parent . Your new book Soccer Brain , how does it differ from Soccer Tough ? Is it aimed more at coaches ?
DAN ABRAHAMS :Soccer Tough was aimed at players but naturally many coaches have picked it up and ‘run with it.’ Which is great! But I knew my next literary offering for the football community would be specific to coaches and centre on the coaching process. I hold a strong belief that the environment a coach creates is a prime mediator of development and performance. So I have written a book about creating a culture of success (development and performance.) It’s split into 4 sections: creating a culture of creativity, confidence, commitment and cohesion. It has loads of ideas for a coach at any level and at any age group.
FOOTBLOGBALL : ( Curve ball question 😉 ) I am developing an age related training strategy for my club. Not just age by date of birth but physical age as there can be gaps of up to 3 years physically between say two 14 year olds . Could we say the same in psychological terms about mental age and can you give advice on how we should begin to develop a more age related ( date of birth/mental / physical age ) strategy in mentoring players from a football psychology perspective ?
DAN ABRAHAMS : From a practical perspective this would be enormously difficult to undertake and I think you’d be looking at some fairly questionable methodologies should anyone go about trying to do this. Of course this is in my opinion. But there are certainly things you can do to help players develop a high performance mindset approach. It starts with your own understanding of the mental side of the game. What many coaches don’t appreciate is that mindset is both a talent and a skill. This is something I write a lot about in Soccer brain. Just as there is physical talent, so there is mental talent. Take a cross section of 20 13 year old footballers and some will have greater mindset talent than others – they are naturally better at concentrating, are naturally more confident etc. Of course this correlates with physical talent – but there will always be players who have less physical talent but over come this with a natural propensity to want to develop and to want to win.
So there is such a thing as mindset talent. Mindset is also a skill. Focus can be improved, as can confidence, determination, emotional management etc. This to me is where coaches need to improve in their ability to help players develop. Firstly just by recognising that mindset is a skill is a great start. Then you need the tools and techniques and the communication dexterity to help players in this area.
To come back to your question – I would say the most appropriate thing for coaches to try to achieve at every age group is to examine the behaviours of those who have good mindset and look to develop those who have poor, maladaptive behaviours. This is key – what a lot of coaches don’t appreciate is that mindset can be seen behaviourally. For example a lack of confidence might manifest itself in ‘hiding’ on the pitch or a lack of vocals. Young footballers may be fidgety when you speak to them. This is because of their brain. If this is the case ask them to stay still and look at you while you speak. Ask them to practice paying attention.
So in summary I’m not sure it’s about saying “This under 14 has a mental age of 11”. I don’t think ethically and scientifically you can do that. I think it’s about saying “This under 14 is demonstrating behaviours that are suggesting a lack of mindset talent. I need to help this player develop his/her mindset”.
FOOTBLOGBALL : My personal view of the game in England is that it has for decades been slow to embrace anything that threatens its “traditional game and values” .Now the FA have put in to operation a new “Player Path ” plan to help improve the poor state of the game at grassroots level with the aim of developing a better standard of player at senior level. how do you think that your area of expertise can help the English FA achieve their aims.
DAN ABRAHAMS : I’d really just like to see psychology resources that hold more real world value for coaches and players. It’s easy to criticise football when it comes to sport science, and it’s fair to say football needs to be better (in England) at embracing new methodologies that arrive outside of it’s own environment/culture. But sport psychology needs to be better at developing strategies, formulas, philosophies, techniques and tools that are developed within football, are specific to the challenges faced in that environment, and are delivered in the language of football. I think I’ve had a little success in football because I’ve done just that. I don’t throw theory in front of a coach or player – I scaffold the theory and make it football specific and teach them in their language. That is so important and something we need to be better at.
FOOTBLOGBALL : Children have a vast appetite for learning but in my opinion it dissipates dramatically when they enter our out of date education system. The same can be said for football where I think that the greatest conceit of coaching is that – young kids learn anyway , what is most important is the environment created by the coach and the coaches ability to not look at how he coaches but more how his young players learn . Would you agree ? And what tools would you suggest for that coach to use with his young group ( 6-9 year olds)
DAN ABRAHAMS : If think for any age group environment is everything. But historically FA courses have been about technique and tactics. Again this is something i have tried to address in Soccer Brain. As I say in the book “ In coaching it is the brush strokes that mediate success not the palette itself.” Coaching never has been or never will be just about technique and tactics. That is instruction and of course it forms a part of what you’re trying to teach. Coaching is environment and culture driven. At any age there needs to be fun, freedom and focus. There needs to be caring, discipline and determination. These qualities are set by the coach. They are the soft skills that make the hard skills possible. I’m convinced that if all coaches in Britain fell in love with getting the soft skills right, the environment and culture right, then we’ll start producing more players at the elite level.
I agree with your thesis – a part of the process of coaching is understanding how people learn – how the brain learns. It’s appreciating individual differences and striving to help every player irrespective of those differences. The intro title to Soccer Brain is called “The Toughest Profession of All” – because quite simply it is. Coaching is tough but some coaches stride around making it easy by just thinking that coaching is about drilling. Rubbish – coaching is player centred and driven by your coaching culture.
FOOTBLOGBALL : At the heart of football coaching is a teacher and a learner. Where both need to be
(a) Adaptable : The coach must show adaptability in response to changes in the players environment ( School , home , growth phase ) , The player must show adaptability to changes in his environment and be able to respond to changes that are happening live within a game.Often it is a woods from trees scenario for the young player. How can the coach bring greater clarity toward helping the player understand the changes in his environment both on and off the field.
DAN ABRAHAMS : Let me answer this simply. On the pitch I believe a coach should be constantly communicating the notion of ‘Think’. I remember Steve Gallen at QPR Academy always saying “What next?” The nature of the brain of young players means that they tend to switch off. They do something and then switch off. They watch the game rather than think the game. If I was a coach I’d constantly be saying “Next” and “Think”. Help them build a habit of prediction. That is what football is – prediction. It’s not really a game of ‘moment’ it’s a game of ‘prediction’. What is Messi and Xavi? They are ‘The now and the next 10 seconds’. That is the foundation of game intelligence. Ask players to do this, to be like this. You can’t reinforce this notion enough.
FOOTBLOGBALL : (b) Creative : How can the coach encourage creative thinking ?
Certainly doing the above can help. The coach also needs to promote an culture of freedom. You can’t be creative if you play anxious. Allow mistakes to happen – in fact have an environment where players love mistakes. Freedom comes before focus – focus will be built over the years as long as you have a base philosophy of freedom.
DAN ABRAHAMS : Creativity is also built from knowledge and mindset. Players should be students of the game. If there’s a clip of Gary Neville talking about how Raheem Sterling plays with his head up on YouTube how come there are young players out there who haven’t seen that clip? Resources are everywhere – you can’t create if you don’t know! In terms of mindset – promote the idea of imagery. Players should be rehearsing passages of play in their mind everyday. These should go from the mundane through to the complex. Create in your mind first – over and over. The it makes it more possible!
FOOTBLOGBALL: Our brains by nature look to save energy by automising a process which can create a conflict between our comfort zone and our development. Discuss
DAN ABRAHAMS : When we learn to drive we control the processes that operate/move the car. Over time these processes become less controlled and more automated. We pass our test and we drive in the most part unconsciously (with some attentional resources placed on the road ahead of us.) We drive for the rest of our lives at a certain standard ad within our comfort zone. But if someone was to come to us and say “I’m going to teach you to drive like Lewis Hamilton” then we’d have to come out of our comfort zone and start focusing on superior driving skills. We’d have to start thinking about our driving performance again – when to shift gear, at what point on the bend – what speed to go at around a hair pin etc. This will feel uncomfortable. It will feel reckless. It requires focus and effort.
One of the most difficult skills for any sports person is to hold that juxtaposition – to go out and play freely and confidently, but to spend time during the week critically analysing performance and looking at what needs to go better. Footballers don’t spend enough time looking at areas to improve because it feels uncomfortable – it can diminish confidence. We are all subject to habits and patterns as we play – breaking them requires self awareness, focus, patience, hard work and discipline.
I do believe this is one of the reasons why many young footballers don’t progress. They get into a certain maladaptive habits and patterns and either remain blissfully unaware that there is a problem or will avoid working on this area because it takes effort to change.
A prime example is ball watching in younger players. If a player tends to focus on the ball too much without getting a picture of what’s going on around him it takes energy and effort and enormous willpower to change this. It takes a move out of his comfort zone to start checking his shoulders 10 times a minute.
I could, if I wanted to name several very high profile midfielders who stopped working with me after about a month because I wanted them to THINK about their game and develop what I call a training script. I wanted them to start changing their dominant motor patterns that were leading in inefficient play. They were British and both have failed to progress – why? Because the feeling of change takes up so much resource from the brain that is was easier for them to not bother.
This is where certain Barcelona players are so good. I’m unconvinced about the notion of “Just do it” on the pitch. To be the very best in the world yoou have to have some thoght, some controlled processes on the pitch. It’s a fluid game that is constantly throwing problems at players – they need clarity of thought in the moment, but there must be some thought. As Xavi says “Think, think, think”.
Many thanks to Dan for taking the time and effort to answer my questions.
You can buy Soccer Brain by Dan Abrahams here