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Manchester United and the mental side of the game

I recently had the opportunity to sit down (figuratively, of course) with a lovely lady named Rebecca Symes. Rebecca is a chartered sports psychologist who owns her own consultancy, Sporting Success. She has written for Channel 4 News  and has appeared as a guest expert on Sky News – i.e. she knows her stuff! You can follow her on Twitter @SportingSuccess, or visit her website www.sporting-success.com. I wanted to get her thoughts on a few things Manchester United-related.

Importantly, though, Rebecca is not a United fan. To ask questions about United of an actual Red is to court bias; it is hard to give an objective answer if one has pre-existing concerns or formed opinions on a matter (or player for that, erm, matter). Therefore, when asking Rebecca certain questions, names were deliberately left out. The issues I allude to will be obvious to most United fans (a right-winger in poor form, for example), but were not to Rebecca. As such, her responses were based only on the details laid out in the question. You could argue my questions were, to some extent, loaded, of course – or were formed with certain views already in mind – but I did my best to provide Rebecca with the basic information only, and allowed her to answer as freely as she liked.

Unsurprisingly, the first question on my mind concerned a certain Ecuadorian right-winger…


We have a player who has stopped doing what he once did so well. He’s quick, powerful, but rarely attempts to ‘take on’ an opposition player. He used to do this often. What would you say/do if you encountered such a problem?

What you are describing sounds like a possible loss of confidence. This can occur for a number of reasons but one of the behavioural implications can be players tend to take less “risks”, usually because they aren’t backing themselves to take them on and be successful (e.g. maintain possession). Also, when a player is low on confidence, it can mean that they might be experiencing some unhelpful anxiety. When this happens they can tend to be more aware of potential “threats” (e.g. opposition players) and become overly focused on this and not their own performance.

How might you help such a person?

Well the first step would be to establish with them exactly what the issue is. Let’s say it is a loss of confidence. It would be important to establish where the loss of confidence has arisen from and what might be the underlying reasons (bearing in mind that these might not even be related to football – off-pitch issues impact on-pitch performance). But, looking at it purely from a performance angle, it’s about enabling players to draw upon their past positive experiences – clearly identify their strengths and be clear in their game plan (focused on the process not the outcome since you have a greater level of control over the process) to help them build their confidence back up again.

What would you do/say to help a player who has been out with a long-term injury?

Injuries can be a very tough time for players; a real emotional roller coaster. Best practice management of this would involve all science and medicine and coaching staff working together to ensure the player has a clear programme of rehabilitation which paves a path back to playing. Being left with no clear plan and no future in sight can be very damaging. So knowing what their daily and weekly rehab targets are, being able to monitor progress towards these, having a clear understanding of who their support network is, and still being made to feel involved in the squad are important points to consider. However, it does need to be monitored on a case-by-case basis as for some players spending too much time around the club when they are injured can lead to greater levels of frustration when they are not able to play. It is really important that players are provided with support at a time like this as they can experience a whole range of emotions, from frustration, anger, anxiety, loss of confidence, sadness, and even depression. Players will often open up to physios due to the nature of their role and the amount they will see an injured player, so ensuring they are aware of warning signs to look out for on the psychological side is important – they are not expected to be a psychologist or break any confidentiality, but if a player is deemed to be at risk, then like any professional, they ultimately have a duty of care to that player.

Any other long-term or persistent injury concerns?

As mentioned, a potential risk of mental health difficulties, especially depression. Also, returning to play can be an issue. Sometimes the physical effects of an injury can be healed quicker than the mental affects so judging when a player is ready to return is key.

Sometimes football players can spend a long time out of the side, even when fully-fit. They’re unable to play the sport they love. What sort of issues could arise from this?

The biggest issue with this is usually frustration. In this situation a player really needs to have an honest conversation with the coach around how they are viewed, where the player is seen in future plans and what they need to do to get back in the side. However, sometimes this is easier said than done! Aside from this it would be good for a player to establish their own measure of success so they can see their own progression even if they are not regularly getting in the side. Ultimately, a player has to decide if they are at the right place for their career progression if they are never getting opportunities to play.

How would you help a player if they came to you wanting help dealing with a ‘big game’ and the pressures surrounding it?

Pressure trends to occur when there is an imbalance between what the expectations are and a player’s perceived ability to deal with those expectations. There are two sides to dealing with this: a) managing the expectations, which involves understanding where the expectations come from and rationalising them (getting them into perspective), and b) building confidence and backing yourself in that situation. It’s worth remembering that pressure can be a good thing, but whether it is or not is all down to how a player interprets the situations (e.g. opportunity to show what I can do, rise to the challenge etc versus opportunity to fail and let my team down).

Wider still, what sort of pressures do you identify as top sportsman being subject to?

Well they are potentially under all sorts of pressure. Pressure to perform week in week out (for themselves and for their team), pressure to maintain fitness/be injury free, pressure to be a role model, pressure to represent their club/sponsors, pressure to make the most out of what is ultimately a short-lived career (relatively speaking), pressure to sensibly manage the huge amounts of money they can earn, pressure to manage the scrutiny of the media etc. People seem to think that just because players might earn a lot of money they should automatically be able to deal with all of these things, but that’s not the case. Players don’t have any superpowers just because they are talented. All of these are skills in themselves that need to be developed and players should be supported to do this.

We often hear of football clubs having a ‘winning mentality’. In your opinion, what does this actually mean? Is it merely the repetition of winning football matches?

I think it’s more than a repetition of winning football matches, although that does help, of course. To me it’s more about having a shared vision of success – not only knowing what you want to achieve but also being really clear on how you are going to get there. Everyone will be on the same page with this and know and understand their role within this. It’s about players backing and supporting one another, being able to take risks without fear of failure and having a belief not only in your own performance but also in the team collectively. Its also about being resilient – they don’t let small knock-backs along the way get them down and they never give up hope – they have an optimistic (yet realistic) outlook which usually sees them through to success.


I don’t know about you, but that last answer kinda sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I’d like to say a massive thanks to Rebecca (thanks, Rebecca!) for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions – I (we, I hope!) really appreciate it.

Finally, if you’ve got any questions you’d like answered in the future, please leave them as a comment below, or tweet me directly, and, if we’re very lucky (i.e. I ask very nicely), I’ll sit down with Rebecca (still figuratively) for another Q & A.

Don’t forget, you can follow Rebecca on Twitter @SportingSuccess, or visit her website www.sporting-success.com for all your sports psychology needs.


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By Jack Holt

Once got told off by Steve Bruce.

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