This weeks article based on the psychology of soccer was kindly written by Ed O'Keefe who also provides expert mental advice on his web site which can be visited at http://www.secretsofcoaching.com.

The zone is an experience players get when everything they do seems effortless. They allow themselves to be an athlete and allow their subconscious mind to go on "auto pilot". The athlete is not thinking, "what could go wrong, who's in the crowd, or will I get pulled from the game?" Instead they are, "in the game."

When people are in the zone the game goes by quickly. They play so well that they may forget what happens. This is because the experience was almost unreal. The best athletes do this most often. They trust in their abilities and let things flow. If the athlete has to think too much about what they are doing, the athlete cannot naturally react and respond and the zone cannot be achieved.


Key #1 - Physiology

Physiology is how you use your body. How you breathe. How you move. How you warm up. Chemicals are released by the brain which are directly related to how you use your body. Your body position, how you breathe, will dictate the types of chemical your brain releases. This is important because when people are confident they have almost a certain walk or swagger. The shoulders are back, the head is up, with deep breathing. Taking this example and concept we can then ask a soccer player, "How do you feel when you are playing your best, what does it feel like in your body?"

So, in preparation to enter the zone the athlete must access those movements and positions, so that when they move in this way they start firing off signals to their brain, saying, "hey, today's the day and I'm going to perform as I did when I was in the zone." The way an athlete moves will, in may respects, dictate whether or not an athlete plays or practices well.

Physiology and how you move is something that is beyond just game day. The athlete should feel confident all the time. When the player thinks about an upcoming game, they put themselves in a certain physiology. A player is asked, "think of a team that you know you can beat." The player will have their shoulders back, their head nodding saying, "I know we can beat them!"

Then the player is asked, "think of the team that's number one in your conference." Their physiology will change. They may become nervous and show signs of anxiety. Their breathing may change. Become shallower and more rapid. The situation can be altered if the athlete has the confidence to know that they, the opponent, may be good, but we are going to find a way to beat them. This strategy can be used the week of the game.

I remember watching the end of a kick off. Both teams scored 4 goals. So it came down to the last two guys. One went up confidently, and put his ball in the back of the net rather easily.
The next guy walked up, head down, and physically looking like he had already lost. To make a long story, short, his attempt went wide left, not even close to being a goal. One thing to note is that his physiology, then affected his thinking, and his internal images which affected his performance.

Key #2-Positive Self-talk

So, as you can see, these three keys are all interrelated. When the athlete places themselves in a negative physiology, the self talk is usually negative. The statement may be, "I hope we can win, we'll try and win today." Or they may ask, "Do you think I can cover my man? He/she is pretty fast!" Or, "I hope I don't blow the game for us today." The words hope and try are all negative suggestions to the mind because they bring up doubt and bring up things that the athlete doesn't want to happen.

The key is to replace the words "hope" and "try" with "know" and "will". The player should say, "I know I'll beat my man today." A goalie may say, "I am shutting down this team today!" "My defense is solid and I anticipate everything!" A midfielder can say, "I have great control of the ball, and am controlling the game today." Even though mistakes will occur, believe in what you can do by giving your body and mind these suggestions, allowing your body to respond the way you want rather than in a negative way.

In developing self-talk the player must realize that they talk to themselves. Most players don't. The average player has 50 to 60 thousand thoughts a day. Research says that 90 percent of those occur the day before. If you do the same thing day after day, those thoughts don't change. If they are negative, those thoughts will continue the entire life of the person.

To change your thoughts, the first thing is to be aware of their inner dialogue. Notice the difference between when the person is happy and feeling good and what they say to themselves. The player should think about it. With the same concept the player should be asked "What do you say to yourself when you make a mistake?"

There will be major differences between the two. They need to be taught that when they start to say a negative phrase they should stop and say, "that's not true" and finish with a positive suggestion. An example would be when a defender lets the other team get behind him or her and they score. Something might come into the defenders head may be, "man I am terrible." Or "I always cost us the game!" The defender needs to be taught to say, "forget it, I'm turning this game around right now." "I always bounce back stronger after making a mistake." The next thing the defender needs to immediately do is change their body position (physiology). This is how the two work together.

Another thing that can be done is to write affirmations. Phrases that allow the player to start programming their mind and create a focus. Simple things like, "I'm a great consistent striker, I'm confident, positive and a team player." These phrases can be put on a 3x5 card and put in a notebook, or placed in their room where they see it and repeat it day after day. It should be related to what they think about themselves and what they want to become.

Key #3-Visualization

This is the aspect of zone training that most people are familiar with. Everyone visualizes. Some people may not be aware of it. Visualization is the best way to preprogram for success in actions in future events. The best time to visualize is right before going to sleep. This is the time to play the scenario that the athlete wants to have happen in the game. It may include what the opponent will do in trying to win.

The athlete thinks of how they and their teammates should respond positively to the challenges of the games. If visualization is done prior to the game it should be done well before the game because when you put your self into what is known as alpha state (necessary for visualization), the body becomes very relaxed. This in itself is good, but not if the athlete is not used to it before competition. This is an individual thing that players must be aware of.

Another good time to visualize is upon waking up in the morning. This is the fastest way of changing any behavior and learning new strategies. An example is a player working on beating their man off the ball, and scoring. The player should watch the play go through their mind starting with 10 times, and keep repeating it until the skill is mastered.

Another situation is prior to the game and the images that a player might have, whether they be a negative or positive outcome. If the player is not confident about the chance of winning the game this puts the player in a negative physiological state which will creates negative self talk which creates a negative outlook on the images of the game. This creates a cycle of negative feelings, and until you change either the self talk, images or the physiology, the players performance will suffer and the opportunity of entering the zone will be lost. An additional negative factor is that the player will take the rest of the team down with them, depending on their leadership role. The good news is that if you change one factor, you change them all. A great place to start is self-talk. The player may feel that they are going to have a tough time, but if the player says, "no way, we have the best staff and toughest strikers in the league, we can find a way to pull this out!," this changes everything. This is the breakthrough that coaches should look for.

Getting Ready for Practice

Following is an example of the mental preparation of a captain of a team prior to practice during the season leading up to an important games to determine the league or national championships. When you wake up in the morning, after first visualizing an important task to achieve at practice, change the physiology.

Stretch, put the shoulders back and get the kinks out of the body and say, "today's going to be a great day, something big is going to happen and I'm the one who will make it happen." This creates a positive outlook on the day. As the day goes on one of the critical things the leader of the team should do is think about how they show up in class or social environments around their teammates. This is the time to be walking with a confident strut and not walking around lazy.

The captain can go up to their teammates and ask them if they are ready and tell them this is going to be a big day. This helps shift the internal dialogue of the players the captain talks to into a positive conversation. If two or three players come into practice looking ready to go, pumped up through their positive physiology, this will raise the whole emotional state and energy level of the team. The captain can also, before practice, give a few words of encouragement to teammates.

What the athlete says out loud still is considered self-talk. The more this is done the more positive the attitude for the team and the individual saying it. During practice the captain can continue to lead the team. During a specific drill they can encourage teammates to give it their all because this will make the difference if the team was in a tight game or sudden death. "They'll be tired but we'll be fresh because we did this drill hard."

Depending on the leadership qualities the captain can also hold other teammates accountable during practice. If players are at 80 percent and missing simple passes they shouldn't be, it's up to the leader of the team to tell the others to pick up the pace and be more accountable. Little things like, "You can get that ball, you're better than that" can make a difference. After practice the routine should be similar to before practice, going around and complementing teammates and saying, "great job, we earned it today." Saying things like, "you've earned it" are important because its a by-product of what has been done. This releases a lot of the stress and anxiety because the hard work needed to win has been done. All these factors add up to playing and practicing in the zone.

Ed O'Keefe started playing soccer, baseball, volleyball and other sports ever since he could remember. Growing up in a family of 13 children, and being the youngest of 9 boys, there was no shortage of competition on the corner field where games were played. After being a multi-sport athlete for 8 years, he attended Marycrest International University in Davenport, Iowa on a volleyball scholarship where he was team captain for four years. He was also conference MVP and school male athlete of the year. While in college he established his own volleyball club, then after college began coaching at Second City Volleyball Club. He studied self esteem and peak performance under Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

He is a master practitioner in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. He has studied Eriksonian Hypnosis. Even though he excelled in the sport of volleyball, Ed has now taken the mental toughness techniques that he has learned and created and teaches them to soccer, baseball/softball players and teams of all levels so they can enter their own personal zone on a daily basis.

He coaches at 2nd City VBC where, in the last 3 years, his teams have finished 2nd, 11th, and 19th at the Junior National Championships. Ed has created many materials for coaches showing them how to get more out of their athletes in 1 month than most do all year. Make sure you pick up your free special reports "The #1 Secret To Sky Rocketing Your Team Without Spending An Extra Minute In Practice" at http://www.secretsofcoaching.com.

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