Working in professional football: The importance of mentally tough behaviours.

In the high performance environment of professional football, individual performances, manager’s behaviours and collective team success when overcoming adverse game situations are frequently tagged alongside the term, ‘mental toughness’. Rightly so, the term mental toughness has been often associated with these situations although perhaps in a slightly flippant way when you actually look at and understand the research that has been carried out within the respective area. As an applied practitioner it is apparent that the core aspects of mental toughness that have been highlighted in the sport psychology research are actually key on the other side of the client-practitioner relationship. That is, for my own role when working with elite players, managers and coaches within professional football. We often talk about the resilient characteristics of top-level performers and the importance of mentally tough behaviours to cope with optimal performance and rehabilitation processes. However, as applied practitioners we need to be aware of how we develop our own toughness in order to cope within a highly demanding environment.

Within the area of mental toughness, I have been largely influenced by Daniel Gucciardi’s work in applied psychology and particularly in the way that he conceptualises it. When looking at some of the indicators that have been recently identified to reflect the core aspects of mental toughness, the following areas have been and are key in my work to remain effective across the different achievement contexts of professional football:

  1. A high level of self-belief in my ability to be successful in my role. I am often faced with different situations that challenge me or indeed provide barriers to achieve my goals. In order to overcome these and be able to consistently work at high levels of performance, I have to remain focused on my own ability when working alone or within a multi-disciplinary team.
  2. Context knowledge and intelligence is vital in the role. Through a previous playing career, coaching background and academic profession, I have gained extensive knowledge of the football and performance psychology area. As a result, I am able to identify what is needed to be successful in my current role and understand both squad and staff dynamics together with the culture of a professional and high performing environment.
  3. The context within the professional phase of football is dominated by a results-driven climate. Therefore, the mentality for continued success is important; not just for players but for support staff as well. The development of a successful mindset allows me to push things forward and step out of my comfort zone. It’s not always about thinking outside of the box, but pulling yourself and others into areas inside the box that haven’t yet been explored.
  4. Within a results-driven business, winning is not always an option so the ability to remain positive and support others when times are demanding is central to the role. I regularly reflect in order to manage thoughts and stay positive so an optimistic focus enables me to learn from all kinds of experiences.
  5. Professional football is a challenging environment with highs and lows fluctuating frequently on a week-to-week basis. It is therefore easy to lose focus on the things that you do well and come away from the knowledge and skills that help you to remain effective in your role. Accepting the challenge rather than perceiving adversity as a threat will allow you to remain buoyant in these challenging times and one of the areas that I believe has helped me demonstrate resilient behaviour within a pressured climate.
  6. Behaviour regulation is the final aspect that I believe has helped me to thrive within the professional football environment. The ability to manage my emotions in times when others may lose control has enabled me to stay focused and direct my attention towards relevant information. Both attention and emotion control will need to be developed so that emotions can be utilised productively and that a high level of focus maintained in times of difficulty.

One thing that I have learned from a research area that focuses on stress and social support is that of the importance of reciprocal relationships. Supporting managers, coaches and players is a two-way process but often neglected on the part of the applied practitioner. In order to remain effective and maintain performance levels, we should look further into the development of (mentally) tough behaviours that will allow us to break down ever-present barriers and continue support within a results-driven climate.