A while back, the technical leader that I report to for the two developing high performance girls soccer teams I coach watched both teams play. His comment: “they look like teams that are thinking too much.” A couple of weeks back, I asked both teams to give me some feedback on their satisfaction thus far with the program. One of the key themes that came out of the older team was “we think too much and need to just do more.”
If you’ve read this blog regularly then you’re well aware that I’m analytical. I wake up and I start thinking before my eyes even open. I don’t stop until I fall asleep (and sometimes my methodical nature delays that sleep). So for me, I’m used to thinking. I don’t really understand why people would get so worked up about thinking. I was told once by a university soccer coach that I think too much and others have certainly pointed out to me my systematic thinking and behaviour.
What can I say. I like to think.
Go to the internet and you can find plenty of reading about why athletes choke. The common element is overthinking what you already know. Paralysis by analysis I guess. Now, I may be guilty of having my analytical nature rub off a bit on the players I coach but I definitely know I don’t want them to overthink their performance. There’s a time to think a lot and there’s a time to think a little.
It is true, I’ve asked the players I coach to think a lot more about what they’re doing than any other coach (or educator in general) has probably asked them to do thus far. That alone may have been enough to ruffle feathers among some of the players that are not at all comfortable having so many thoughts in their heads all the time.
I believe thinking is learning and therefore the best way to change your behaviour (because learning is a permanent change in behaviour) is to reflect critically on what you have done well and what you can do better next time. Therefore, the players have a post-game routine to go through where they think about their game. Then, at a later date, we talk about what they thought about.
I also believe that if you learn to control your thoughts and control your emotions, you can become an exceptional athlete (coach, leader etc). The players have also been given a pre-game routine and we spend a good deal of our weekly training talking about those preparations and getting them to try some of the things during training sessions before running with them in games.
All in all, these players have a lot to think about and sometimes they play slow – like a bunch of players that have a lot to think about. The thing is, they won’t always play slow. The thinking will get easier. Faster. It will almost seem automatic in some instances which is exactly where a high performing athlete wants to be.
So the time to think a lot is after the game in order to reflect and improve. The time to balance thinking and distraction from thinking is the pre-game. Too much thinking and the player will be wound up (will probably choke). Not enough thinking and the player won’t be mentally (and therefore also possibly not physically) prepared. Finding that happy medium is very much an individual process.
The time to think very little is during the game.
But I don’t believe that that means that you don’t think at all. On the contrary, a complex invasion sport like soccer always requires you to make lots of decisions. You perceive your environment and you act based on what you perceive. Conversely, you act and from those actions you continue to perceive what’s going on in your environment. If you perceive and you act then you are thinking.
As most sport psychologists that I’ve listened to note, an average or above average athlete doesn’t want to have to think about every minute detail of his or her performance. A novice one? Yes, lots of thinking required. Like I said above, some of the paralysis by analysis the players I coach are suffering from is just the fact that there’s so much for them to learn as developing elite players. At times they have no choice but to think a lot but that’s still different than overthinking.
The team that reported that they have to think too much when I asked them for more details on that said that it was actually one of the coaches on staff that was filling their heads before games with just too many topics and too much information. That definitely is the sort of thing that leads to slow performances and even choking.
We’re going to try and remedy that in this weekend’s game. The players have a good idea of how we want them to attack and defend each game. I know this because the day before we play, the players get a game plan that reviews what I want them to focus on during the game. That game plan contains a lot of words. If a player tries to remember and say to herself all those words then the moment will be lost on her. She will most likely experience some paralysis by analysis.
I want the players I coach to have a quiet mind. As the Canadian Women’s National team head coach John Herdman says, light, bright and clear. Players need to focus on the game plan but thinking too much about all the details of what needs to be done hurts, not helps. So we’ve created a few key words. When spoken these words will remind the players of what they need to do when they attack/defend as a team or as individuals.
I can say any of those words out loud to remind them or the players can say them to themselves as they play. That way they’re thinking without thinking too much. They hear (or say) the word and then their bodies take over from there. They have a quiet mind because they have not overthought the situation.
In trying to explain this to the players the other night, I likened the process to being in a movie theatre waiting for the movie to start. While you wait, you are consciously distracted by friends and discussions. Your mind is busy. However, as soon as those lights start to dim, you quiet your mind and focus on the movie. You don’t completely stop perceiving, you just train your attention to the screen. I think the pre-game is like waiting for the movie to start. The ref blows the whistle to start the game and that’s like the lights dimming in the theatre. The movie – or game – starts and that is the time to stop thinking too much and to start doing.
We’ll see how it goes.
Next post Sunday, July 5th.