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The science of football: Developing Mental Toughness

Sport psychology has not always been well received in the world of professional football.

Despite being widely acclaimed as the world’s most popular game, the implementation of psychological procedures to enhance football performance is often undervalued as a contributor to the development of the ‘complete’ football player.

Here, I discuss the importance of sport psychology in football, and specifically, the importance of mental toughness in gaining the all-important competitive edge with Zofia Campbell, a Sport Psychology Masters Student at the Research Institute of Sports Science at Liverpool John Moores University.

In interviews with elite players, coaches and managers, words such as ‘confidence’, ‘passion’ and ‘commitment’ are commonplace with reference to positive performances in football, and at an elite level these concepts are often accredited as being the difference between a win or loss.

With the ever-increasing pressure on top players to consistently reach their peak performance, there is a growing interest in gaining a ‘mental edge’ over the opposition to create a competitive advantage.

Psychological training

Until recent years, there has arguably been little interest (or perhaps I should say knowledge of) the use of psychological training for improving performance in footballers. Indeed, coaches as well as others that surround these individuals provide psychological support but despite scientific evidence and testaments from sportsmen themselves, it is still rare for footballers to receive technical mental training from sports psychology practitioners.

These practitioners – often known as ‘performance’, ‘talent or ‘mind’ coaches (labelling yourself as a psychologist is not always well-received in football environments!) are making their living by claiming to change the mentality of our sportsmen and women for the better.

Whether it be to enhance motivation and confidence, or to provide athletes with strategies for coping with stress and anxiety, there are many ways in which sports scientists can develop an athlete’s mind to facilitate peak performance.

A particularly prominent concept within the psychology of football is known as mental toughness. It refers to a player’s self-belief and drive to succeed, their capacity to remain composed under pressure, and their ability to keep focussed and bounce-back from setbacks.

When reading this definition, it is easy to see that mental toughness is a desirable characteristic in a football player, but it is rarely cited as a key performance indicator alongside other important traits such as skill, speed, strength, and tactical awareness.

Key psychological characteristics associated with mentally tough elite footballers; Jones et al (2002):

1. Self-belief: Having an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve competition goals.

2. Motivation: Having an insatiable desire and internalized motivation to succeed and repeatedly bouncing back from setbacks with increased determination to succeed.

3. Focus: Remain fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions.

4. Composure/Handling Pressure: Thriving on the pressure of competition (embracing pressure, stepping into the moment; accepting that anxiety is inevitable in competition and you are more than capable of coping with it).

How can I develop mental toughness?

1. Aquire the right attitude.

Be a ‘competitive warrior’ putting everything on the line, and never fearing failure. Play with heart, determination, and full focus. Believe you WILL reach intended goals.

2. Program your mind for success ahead of time with positive affirmations and expectations.

Focus on those things you want to occur, rather than things you’re afraid might go wrong.

‘I will…’

‘I can…’

‘I am going to…’

Visualise yourself performing the way you want

3. Develop a routine:

Develop a systematic pre-performance routine that clicks on desired mental-emotional state of mind (practice, pre-game, competition).

Practice - once you walk through the gate, you commit yourself to giving it everything you have the entire practice i.e. making a commitment to listening, learning, executing skills/drills with precision and full focus);

Pre-game competition - develop a systematic routine for engineering the environment and getting yourself ready;

During Competition - once you walk between the lines, you are committing yourself to being mentally tough and a great competitor throughout the entire game).

4. Remain composed at all times:

- Never dwell on mistakes made;

- Move on from mistakes as quickly as possible (if plan A does not work, go to plan B or C);

- Don’t allow frustration to undermine your confidence/focus.

5. Take control of negative self-talk:

Reframe “stinking thinking” into positive task oriented suggestions… instead of ‘I can’t hit that shot if my life depended on it’, let go, reframe it back into something more positive and task orientated ‘get a good look at the goal, see it, feel it, trust it’.

6. Look at failure as a stepping stone for future achievement:

He missed 9000 shots, missed 26 game winning shots, lost 300 games – Michael Jordan, NBA 6 time World Champion “I failed over and over, that is why I succeed”.

Examples of mental toughness

In 2005, Liverpool FC were 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan in the Champion’s League final. They were being outplayed in the first half, and the fear of humiliation was evident amongst the players as they walked off at half-time. This particular ‘competitive circumstance’ watched by millions of fans around the world placed enormous pressure on both teams, but when experiencing such a setback as being 3-0 down at half-time, it was impossible to see how Liverpool could get back into the game. Cue, Steven Gerrard: the inspirational captain scored an early goal and his commitment and confidence seemed to emanate to his teammates and fans… and the rest is history. Gerrard put in an outstanding performance that night which, in our opinion, would not have been possible if he didn’t possess such extreme levels of mental toughness.

Of course, it is not just the big stages that can display this impressive characteristic. The FA Cup provides a great opportunity to witness the mental toughness of lower league teams when facing the challenge of Premier League opposition. League two’s Swindon Town knocked out Wigan (53 places above them) in this season's 4th round. After going 1-0 down, Swindon remained resilient in the face of technical superiority, showing confidence and composure. Instead of crumbling after the setback, the team responded to the challenge and stayed focussed. Their consistent attacks and top quality crosses made for an exciting match, and Swindon eventually finished the game with a 2-1 win. After the match, Swindon Town manager Paolo di Canio praised his player’s spirit: “My lads today deserve something from the club - to do something and put their names in the stadium forever… Today they did show the dream can come true.”

In conclusion, the aim of every football player, and coaches guiding them, should be to develop a healthy lifestyle and well-shaped mental and emotional attitudes that allow the player to maximise physical and technical potential. Appropriate and attractive strategies should be implemented to ensure that mind and body act in unison.

Ultimately, the journey to football excellence, as both an individual and team player, must involve training to meet the mental demands of the game as well as the physical and technical demands.


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Scott Robinson:

Zofia Campbell:

By Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a First Class Honours Sport Science graduate from the only five star rated Sports Science Research Institute in the UK; Liverpool John Moores University. He has acquired a wide range of experience in both playing and coaching sport with a career high of representing Stoke City at youth level and coaching football at the International Youth Games.
Scott has previously been responsible for leading five sports scientists on placement with Blackburn Rovers' nutrition department. He has completed sports science work for FIFA, where he travelled across Europe performing a multitude of sports science tests, and has also worked as a physical education teaching assistant at a high school in Cheshire.
Scott is currently undertaking a Masters of Science in Sports Physiology, also at LJMU, specialising in sports nutrition where his research focuses on assessing and enhancing the nutritional knowledge of elite level footballers.

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