Performance in training is not always proportional and equitable to performance during a game.
“The fittest player will be the one playing”. How many times have we heard this come from the coach? Halfway between a timeless saying and a motivational slogan, this expression means that performance in training is used to measure a player’s physical form in the face of competition. Those who work best during the week will be prized ‘ownership’ of the football pitch. But is it the way forward? Is performance in training always proportional and equitable to performance during a game?
“It’s the eternal question,” explains Emilio López, current goalkeeper coach of Shanghai Greenland Shenhua: “When I was playing for Celta, I always said that there were goalkeepers who trained very well, but when it came to playing games they had a bad time. Sometimes it’s very easy to show quality with 20 people watching you, but less so with 20,000 people shouting at you as soon as you make a mistake.”
According to Emilio, many players fail to succeed precisely because nerves get their way and play tricks on the mind when competing: “Being able to play a good game is what makes the difference in the end, which then allows you to reach professional football.” In this sense, “mental strength” and “maturity” in a player is key, “being able to play in the same way both in the presence of your friends and a demanding crowd.”
“Training and competition are completely different scenarios, in which very different internal and external variables come into play,” explains sports psychologist Iago López Roel. “In a game, there is a referee, a rival, a public, sometimes a higher intensity in terms of pace… Managing these variables influences motivation, expectations, confidence. In the end, ultimately making or breaking an athlete’s performance.”
The key to understanding what happens in a football player’s head is the concept of “activation level”, which López Roel defines as “the reaction to a certain situation or to its interpretation of it”. If a player perceives a context as excessively threatening, his or her activation level may rise excessively. “In this case, an excess of motivation detracts from effective concentration, naturally having a negative impact on the player’s performance,” the psychologist explains: “If a footballer gets used to training with such a dynamic from a young age and learns how to correctly interpret and manage his or her experience on the pitch, there’ll be a better chance of competing with a productive and effective attitude.”
“if I have thoughts that sabotage my approach to the game I end up paying attention to aspects that are out of my control and I stop concentrating on what I can control”
According to López Roel, the person responsible for Sports Psychology at the Galician consultancy Amizar, the key is to learn how to concentrate. “And that is essentially what training is: if I have thoughts that sabotage my approach to the game (my opponent is too strong, if I play badly the coach will stop playing me…) I end up paying attention to aspects that are out of my control and I stop concentrating on what I can control (where I have to place myself, who I have to pass the ball to…). That’s why it’s important to apply specific concentration-oriented strategies before the game, such as the adoption of certain rehearsed routines.”
But what happens when the problem isn’t the match but the training itself? “You have to differentiate between elite football and educational football,” says Carlos Rivero, technical director of Marcet’s High-Performance Academy. “In the former, what usually takes centre stage is effort management, and that happens mostly with more experienced players, who have a long history in this sport and know exactly how to regulate their energy and levels of effort throughout the week to make it to the match in an optimal condition.”
Grassroots football is completely different. It’s not normal for a 16-year-old player to not perform in training and then be in full form when competing, but there are exceptions. According to Rivero, the habits of each player can explain this phenomenon: “Some of our students have a lower training pace because they come from different sporting and social contexts, training in Spain is not the same as training somewhere else. Our job is to make them understand that no team will sign them if they do not show quality and consistency in the training sessions.”
“Talent can also come into play here,” adds López Roel. Very good players can train at half their potential and compete very well. Simply because they can afford to do so. In addition, it is probable that they would be able to confront opponents with the correct attitude because they either feel or know that they are superior. “But normally, time will usually wear at this specific dynamic and has been the case with many talented children at the age of ten to eleven, but when they reach sixteen, seventeen, eighteen they no longer stand out. The vast majority of these cases are players who have become used to winning easily and have rarely ever trained with their utmost effort and perseverance. Unless you are Messi, if you do not work on these aspects of training psychology, sooner or later others not only catch up but surpass, leading to a snowball effect of decreasing performance. Winning always comes at a price, no matter how good you are.”