I Think I Can’t, And Here’s Why…

Mental toughness and the resulting level of performance can be tied to many things, practice, natural ability, sleep, diet, drive to meet the goal… There are any number of components that go into making the winning mindset. A losing mindset can be narrowed down to two things. I overheard a conversation after a game recently, actually it was more like one sentence, but that one sentence told me everything I needed to know about why the game went the way it did and summed up perfectly why the next game will be the same. It also demonstrated how easy it is to share these two things with our children, or our team if we coach. First I’ll give some background and then explain what these factors are, and then we’ll discuss what went wrong and how things could be different.

This past weekend I was at a youth 3v3 soccer tournament, it is a way for the club to have some fun and get others from the community and other towns to join in with a bit of summer fun. It is pretty low-key, relaxed and a lot of fun. There was one game that stood out to me. The two teams were made up of players from two clubs from the same town which always adds a little more to it. The game wasn’t dirty or aggressive in the way some games between these clubs have been, far from it, it was possibly the slowest game played all day with one team totally dominating the other. The score was relatively low for a 3v3 game, at only 3-1. However, the winning team had close to 90% of the possession and there was a feeling that if they wanted to score more they could have. There were points where the dominant team were playing keep away, and when no one came for the ball they just waited patiently for the other team to make a move. Cruyff would have been proud of them, they were playing completely in their heads and being intelligent with what they did on the ball and off the ball.

What was the sentence I heard that told me all I needed to know? A parent from the losing team said “All they [the other team] wanted to do was wear us out”. This one sentence demonstrates low self-efficacy (a belief that someone cannot achieve their goals) and low locus of control (a belief that the environment dictates what happens to the person, the person cannot control their environment). Basically, the message these kids are being taught is “You lost because the world is against you, and you’re powerless to change it.” In the world of psychology we call this learned helplessness. I am sure the parent who said this was trying to spare feelings, build their child up, and remove responsibility for the loss in a kind of “Hey, you tried really hard, it’s not your fault the other team were doing things you couldn’t control” way. However, what does this kid do in the next game, or when he has a difficult test and fails at school? “They put really hard questions in there, you’ll do better next time on an easier test.”

The fact is that the losing team approached the game badly. They had already been beaten easily earlier in the day by one of the finalists, and they lost this game to the eventual winners of the tournament. They didn’t adapt their play all day. They kept one player in front of the goal, essentially meaning they were playing the outfield game 3v2 relying on a lucky break to create an attack, which happened once. The rest of the game was the dominant team waiting, making the 2 players chase, then passing until they had a clear shot on goal.

There were two ways to approach this:

1 – Immediately defend the loss, blame something external and declare “It was the other team’s fault you lost (low locus of control). They had the audacity to play a more intelligent game than you, and you were powerless to resist.” (low self-efficacy).

2 – Go get some ice cream, talk about the highlights of the day*, and when the disappointment has faded ask “What can we learn from this, and what will we do different next time?”

One of the (many) things I really like about my son’s coach is that there is always a take away. There are always positives, and always something to work on. Always. Even if they win every game 10-0 there is still something to improve on. This is every bit as important as working to improve when you are losing. Failing to identify ways to grow because of continual success can result in complacency and a decline in a growth mindset. The coach practices the right things to inspire confidence (high self-efficacy), and a belief that external factors are mere obstacles that can be overcome (high locus of control).

If you have read other posts I have written, you will know that I am not a fan of corpspeak and cheesy little motivational quotes but there are some that have truth in them. Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Whether you love him or hate him, Christiano Ronaldo has become one of the top players in the world, and if you hear what his team mates say about him, it is simply because he practices harder than everyone else. Sure, there is an amazing level of natural talent, but he works really, really hard. Messi by all accounts trains like any other elite player. Ronaldo’s parents could have said “Look, little Lionel over there is amazing. He has natural talent beyond what you have (low locus of control) and no amount of hard work will get you to that level (low self-efficacy)”.

Here are three ways this situation could have been changed for these players when the dust had settled and it was time to analyse the game:

1 – This wasn’t the day to shine – Keep it temporary. You may not have won today, but there is plenty more soccer to come.

2 – What can you practice for next time? – Encourage practice for improvement. This is about personal growth. Practice will lead to confidence and bring high self-efficacy.

3 – What would you do differently next time? – Think about the approach to the environment. Were there factors causing the poor performance that could be changed? How can you change your world to suit your goals, leading to a high locus of control?

The problem of teaching learned helplessness is two-fold. The first is that it doesn’t teach the player that they can improve. It doesn’t inspire them to practice more because, well, what’s the point? The Soccer Gods have chosen the outcome, so why bother working harder just to keep losing? The secondary problem is that this also teaches that a win is down to the will of the Soccer Gods as well. Why did you win? Because the opponents weren’t as good as us. A strong mindset says “We practiced hard, we worked for this, and even though we won/lost, we can see how we have got better and we also see where we need to improve.” You can own your performance, and if performances continue to improve the results will naturally follow.

* A ritual we have begun after games is asking “What was your favourite part of the game?” It immediately takes the thoughts away from the result (whether it was a win or a loss), and gets my son thinking about a specific something positive, and often funny from the game. There is always time to analyse later, right after a game when emotions are still high is not the time. For more on not ruining the car ride home check out Dr Rob Bell: Don’t “Should” On Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness

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Categories: Development, Goals, Mental Toughness, Performance, Sport

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