Football Stars Conquer Their Stress


Thinking too much can be fatal on the pitch, where it is best to act as quickly as possible.

In football a fraction of a second can be decisive. Losing this time is enough to be late for a ball, to let the opponent anticipate your next move or to lose your shooting angle. A fraction of a second can mean the difference between taking the ball from the opponent and committing a foul, between scoring a goal and sending the ball high into the stands. On the field of play, time is money, and losing it is the original footballing sin. The authentic star does not take pauses. Not even to think. Once on the field there is no need to reflect. You have to act, surrender to the game and set yourself to autopilot.

Manuel Jiménez, researcher at the group Technologies Applied to Physical Education (Tecdnodef) explains: “We have two different neuronal routes to give motor responses to the challenges presented by a given situation, such as a football match. On the one hand there is the path of learning, which is slower, more imprecise and requires a lot of practice. On the other hand there is the emotional pathway, whose responses are faster because they are not cognitive. In this case, the player doesn’t think about what they’re going to do, but does it directly and with better results.

Manuel Jiménez, investigador del grupo sobre Tecnologías aplicadas a la Educación Física (Tecdnodef).
Manuel Jiménez, researcher of the group Technologies Applied to Physical Education (Tecdnodef).

Let’s take the case of a penalty. The footballer already knows they will have to take it. That’s why they have time to think. Is it better to take a powerful shot or aim as close as possible to the post? Keep it at ground level or aim for the top corner? To the left or to the right? Questions are the daughters of doubt, and doubt is not exactly what is best for a player who is about to take a penalty. “In this case,” says Jiménez, “the footballer is stressed and no longer uses the emotional route, but the neuronal route linked to the premotor area, which is much slower and more linked to conceptual learning than to competitive responses. The result is that they will have a greater probability of missing the penalty.

In the field of play it is not convenient to think with your head. You have to think with your feet and these have to be fully centered on the pitch. You shouldn’t retreat into your head and then return. To be more effective and achieve maximum performance you need to act there and then, quickly and directly; because what we do best, we do without realizing it, as Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour theorized. According to the authors of ‘Introduction to Neurolinguistic Programming’, the highest level of learning is achieved with “unconscious knowledge”. That is, when our adaptive responses are produced automatically, without any conceptual mediation.

The emotional component

“In learning, all information reaches us through the emotional brain, which filters our perceptions – such as good, bad, etc. – before they reach the cognitive brain, which is in charge of evaluating this information,” explains Jiménez. “In this sense, emotions play a fundamental role in sport and, above all, in the world of high performance because they are the athlete’s first interpretation of the situation in which he or she finds himself or herself.”

Can emotions determine a player’s performance? In what way? To answer these questions, Jiménez and his collaborators at the International University of La Rioja (UNIR) and the Research in Sport Science group at the University of Málaga have been looking into this for years. They measure the emotions of a footballer before the competition and compare them with their performance on the field. “We make an analysis from the psychophysiological point of view, which includes tests of competitive anxiety and subjective perception, physiological variables such as average heart rate, hormone levels such as cortisol or testorena, etc. In the end, we can say that we are measuring the stress of a player and studying how it negatively conditions their performances.

La reacción de los jugadores ante el estrés de la competición es clave para sus actuaciones en el campo.
The reaction of players to the stress of competition is key to their performances on the field.

In this process, it is very important to take into account the concentrations of cortisol and testosterone. This last one is the great driver of competitive vigour. It pushes the individual to act more emotionally and to take more risks in order to reach their goal. Cortisol, on the other hand, impels the individual to flee from the predator, to escape from the challenge. “Based on the ratios that exist between these hormones we can anticipate the response of players on the field,” explains Jiménez.

“If a footballer has a higher level of competitive vigor than anxiety, we are dealing with an athlete who is going to face his challenge in a proactive way. On the other hand, if they have low levels of testosterone and very high levels of cortisol, their body is saying that the situation is out of their control and that they are facing it in a passive-reactive way. Stress makes them think more, which in turn increases doubt and so the performance is negatively affected.”

Jiménez and his team stress that the results of their research should have repercussions not only in the professional field, but also in football education. “It is very important that parents understand that their children’s emotional responses are fundamental to their academic and competitive development, as well as to their own personal development. Physical and tactical training is only wasted time without emotional maturity. Let our children enjoy themselves, because if they work under pressure they will end up failing, just as Cristiano or Messi sometimes fall short of the mark.

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