How the players’ psychological state affects their performance


By Don MacMahon


Anyone who has watched football, regardless of the level (perhaps with the exception of very young players) will realise that a team that is losing a match by more than one goal seems to find it an almost insurmountable obstacle in their efforts to get back into the match.

As well, we can all attest to the effects a serious injury to an important player can have on the team’s psychological equilibrium. But what exactly goes through the mind and psyche of professional players before, during and after a match and what effects do the various playing conditions exercise on their ability to perform?

I am NOT a sports psychologist (which is a very rigourous discipline and not for the faint-hearted) but I do have both coaching, officiating and playing experience at a respectable level and after almost 45 years of watching football at all levels, I have some ideas on the matter.

Lets break the analysis into three separate but interconnected phases. Pre-match preparation (mental), in-match attitude and psychology and after-match recuperation.


Most professional players will start preparing themselves mentally a day or so before the game is due to kick off.

Why so far ahead? Because their sense of comfort, confidence and balance may be fragile or at least unstable due to their last results or prior experience with their opponents.

That is why a player will start ¨psyching¨himself up well before they actually take the field. That is one reason why the players universally ask the fans to cheer and vocally support them regardless of what happened before. This is particularly true of away matches where real AFC supporters and Gooners are renowned for being the 12th man, so to speak.

There are many questions flitting through the player’s mind before the kick-off. They already know whether they’ll be starting or not, or on the beach as Walter and Tony like to say. So their concerns might centre around the officiating they can expect (definitely a preoccupation in Arsenal’s case) , the likelihood of getting injured (again a major concern for any Gunner) and/or what they will do if they don’t play as they expect, but actually have a hard day at the office.

Keep in mind that there is NO player in the world who will say to hell with it….I don’t care whether I play well or not as long as I get paid. Any idiot who believes that should move to the US bible belt where anything is believable provided a pastor says it.

Sports psychologists tell us that players need to do at least two things while preparing for a match; follow a routine they enjoy and that comforts or settles them and visualize success rather than failure. That is a key reason why being booed by your pseudo supporters is particularly malicious and pernicious to their mental strength.


In every sport, starting out on the right foot is crucial for any player dealing with the nervousness and stress of a professional game. If a player bottles his first touch or makes a mistake right after entering the field, he will find it difficult to concentrate and may want to try too hard to recuperate his confidence. This can lead to more serious errors.

On top of that if he is booed by the fans, he’ll need a strong character and quiet spirit to overcome that punishment as well.

It is no surprise that many players won’t go to clubs whose fans are known for their negativity and pseudo-support. Players expect and need unconditional approval (as we all do) and will, when cheered on despite a poor start, usually perform ahead of the curve. Players play for themselves first, their teammates second, their manager after that and then their supporters.

That doesn’t mean that the fans are second best, since the passion and desire to win that a player displays is generated by a complicated combination of ALL these motivators and at any one time the player can be thinking of the fans ahead of all else.

Statistical research in sports medicine has shown that a team that is down or discouraged at the break will find it very hard to generate enough energy and overcome their mental and physical fatigue in the second half. Therefore, rather than just criticizing AFC for starting poorly (a criticism they too often merit), the true supporter should laud their team for coming back against mighty odds and thankfully our fans usually do. They should also admire Wenger for his ability to work against the odds all too often.


Depending on the outcome and the team’s current league status, a draw can seem like a defeat and a defeat can seem like a fatal blow. Players will de-stress after the match in many ways but one sure way they usually won’t is to listen to the media and internet chatter.

The manager will usually review the game with the players the next day or so and may even meet with individuals who need encouragement and support after a particularly hard game.

The player, whose stress and hormonal levels will be extremely high after a 90+ minute match will need to de-stress in the comfort of his home or with friends and/or family. Gone are the days where a player went for a ¨few¨ pints after the game and sometimes before the next game as well. Stricter player regimes (owing much to Wenger’s innovative philosophy) have significantly improved players overall fitness, preparedness and longevity in the Game.

A great player will analyze his and the team’s performance on his own but also depend on the manager to highlight things he saw but the player might have missed. If the player has a slight niggle, he will see to it that it is treated. Gone are the days where a niggle was ignored and a ¨stiff upper lip¨ was lauded as being truly manly and British (most nationalities towed this line). This attention to detail and preservation of a homogenous playing state is a crucial comfort to modern athletes and serves to stabilize their psychological state both before, during and after the match.

This is but a brief overview of some factors that affect the modern athlete in Football and other sports as well. There isn’t enough room on UA to deal with the complexities of a player’s full psychological life but this is a cursory attempt to introduce UA readers to this complex issue. The physical and psychological demands placed on professional athletes are enormous and while they are paid handsomely to perform, they share the same human frailties and needs as any of us do so our appreciation of this fact should caution our attitudes towards these men and women.

The Untold Index

32 Replies to “How the players’ psychological state affects their performance”

  1. A great quote on Positively Arsenal this morning:

    “Its our [the supporters’] job to support the team, not manage it.”

    It is ALWAYS important to be supportive. Negativity leads to under-achievement.

  2. A point I would like to add for In-Match, and that is putting the ball into play opportunities. This is mostly for penalties and free kicks, but the player who is going to take the kick, must play the script over in their head before attempting to do so. If multiple players are going to gather at the ball location so as to obfuscate who is going to kick, they should all appear to be doing this. Doing what? Think back to the Olympics, and probably high jump and pole vault are the two that stand out most for me. For teams who have an exceptionally strong thrower, the throw in is another ball into play opportunity where this can take place.

  3. Excellent article.

    Like you Don, I have been involved in all facets of the game for a great number of years and have the experience to endorse all your observations wholeheartedly.

  4. when a team is down 1-0 and the team on the lead manages to incur a red card, then you as a referee has done the losing team a huge favour by delivering a psychological boost to their bruised psyche, if the winning team now increases the goal to 2-0, then you as a referee need to award a penalty against the winning team to as again restore the crumbling psyche of the loosing team, this is just you script acting the central headline of the premier league – The best league in the world where nothing is predictable, where every match is frenetic to the finish. Now summary is you just got predictable. Full stop

  5. By the way, good write up Don. Thanks.

    P.S. Reference to the referee in my initial comments isn’t to you but on the QPR game from the point of view of your article

  6. I was watching on television, so anyone at the game is welcome to correct me, but it seemed to me the crowd was very quiet after Giroud was sent off and it was still 1-0. There was a song for Giroud, but other than that it seemed the crowd was quiet and nervous. And then the singing and cheering only really started again after we were 2-0 up. That’s how it seemed to me on the tv.

    And isn’t the point of singing and cheering that you do it when the team needs a lift? In other words, shouldn’t the crowd have been singing when the team needed a lift when we were defending a one-goal lead with ten men? Isn’t that the time?

  7. Quincy – absolutely right. I even noted it too. Trouble is, we were all feeling anxious too – so less conducive to singing.

  8. Don,
    While I must accept the accuracy of your observations, I can’t help recalling last May’s FA Cup Final when Arsenal went 2-0 down quite quickly.
    When that happened and when ever it happens, I think of Arsenal’s historical fighting spirit and I don’t worry overmuch. Of course we often fail to recover and lose the game.
    Where you are so right and where so many supporters forget is the mental state of players as they take to the field, over which the manager has little or no control.
    It is naïve to think that all the players think about is the game plan, the opposition and their own ability.
    Financial worries, personal relationships and family upsets all contribute to performance, let alone minor hidden injuries.
    That is why, in my opinion, that to entirely blame the manager for all that happens, individually, on the pitch is often unfair.
    He can select the team and decide tactics

  9. Don.

    Even though I am familiar with the idea of visualization, especially as practised by high jumpers, I am not capable of doing this myself. When I close my eyes, I do not see images. I can sort of feel equations. Are there other things a person can do instead of this visualization?

  10. A very interesting and enlightening read. Shows how easy it must be for Chelsea and the likes of Matic with the current media, pgmol, and especially aaa wankfest, and,the latter are really embarrassing themselves over Chelsea on certain blogs. Some arsenal blogs are these days heavily chavcentric.
    Need to get behind this team, when fully fit and with a couple additions, they will deliver.

  11. Gord…..visualization has, contrary to pop psychology,very little to do with actually ¨seeing¨ anything but rather ¨feeling¨ or ¨sensing¨ the emotions that accompany success. Basically to effectively experience this psychological phenomena, here are some simple steps:

    1) Start by thinking about what happens as a result of your succeeding in your effort. ie: winning a foot race, getting elected to an important post, etc.

    2) Then attempt to appreciate how this makes you feel….proud, calm, any positive or negative emotion will do.

    3) Once you get a sense of how it feels, focus on that feeling and then try and ¨see¨ yourself being praised and acclaimed for your success.

    4) Once you get to that stage, take a break and do something you enjoy like snacking, having a drink ,going for a walk with your dog etc.

    The process is called free associative simulation and basically tries to connect your subconscious emotional state with your physiological state, thus supposedly inducing a positive psychological feedback loop, or at least that is the theory. Give it a try! The emotion, whether positive or negative is unimportant, but the linking with your physiological state is… bridges the gap between the rational/cognitive sphere and your affective/sensual state.

  12. This is an excellent article and a most illuminating one Don. Thanks for writing and making me comment, which I rarely do these days :).

    Indeed, players are … in the end… human beings. Just well coached, as a direct result of the profession they work in.

    A question I had was… Why do some players seem to handle all the attention and praise/criticism really well…but others being visibly affected? One of the biggest examples I can remember.. is Eboue coming on as a substitute and then being subbed off late in the game again, due to the fans booing his poor performance. Another I can remember is a Fulham late kickoff, when AW took a 17 year old Alex Song off to protect him. But yet for example, he played Aaron Ramsey through some truly awful patches on the right wing after his injury, retaining confidence that he could come through it. Doubtless…there are more examples…and better ones…but I guess this is enough to make my point.

    Please answer if you can.

  13. Don

    I’ll think about things a bit. I still believe how I think is not conducive to this. For example, I am good at drawing maps. While I can recognize a good map (or bad), I have no images in mind. To me, a map is a doubly linked list (at a minmum).


    Season’s greetings. Hopefully you write in more often than just at end of year. Hopefully your life is going well.

    We have another airplane AWOL in the Far East: QZ8501 from AirAsia. Indonesia to Singapore.

    Number 1 possibility for MH370 is still conspiracy. Some families are still expecting family members to come home.

    Good night people.

  14. Arvind…………some players like all ordinary, average people develop different coping mechanisms and have different dominant and recessive personality traits or characteristics, plus unique life experiences and varying life skills that permit them to be more or less flexible and in some cases almost immune to derision and insensitive to ridicule or denigration. I cannot tell you what combination of the above factors is best for developing a tough skin or whatever but I can say that someone like Cristiano Ronaldo, who exudes confidence (almost arrogance) handles the criticism and stress better than most other players, and someone like George Best wasn’t able to handle the same adulation and criticism because of his many devils, both alcohol and drug-induced but also familial.

    Arsenal, imnho, have among the bravest and most resilient players in the EPL simply because they have overcome some terrible and almost continuous reviling and physically intimidating butchery, aided and abetted by the cowardly AAA, the FA,the EPL and most certainly the PGMOL and yet we are still in it.
    This ios mostly due to Wenger’s formidable man management and psychological boosting and his sincere caring and concern for every one of his players. I can feel another article coming on so stay tuned….

  15. Hello Gord :). I hope you had a good year and Christmas. I read a lot of your posts, so do keep writing. I’ll admit though, I am very poor at maths and a lot of other things – so some of it is too complex for me. A lot of it though, always makes me think and I will be happy to tell you about which posts of yours I like..if you feel that’ll help.

    I will try and write a bit more. I have not seen a single game live..for the last 2 years no that’s wrong..I saw the 2-2 with Man City when I went home to India earlier this year. But no… buying a TV and a subscription for 90 minutes a week did not make any financial sense so I content myself with reports and highlights and Untold 🙂 – as I do not watch pirated streams either.

    omgarsenal: Thank you. Yes, I wonder what the answer is. If it was that simple .. I guess those players would be always always in demand. Arrogance…sometimes though IMO is just a cover up for a deeply insecure person under the surface (just my opinion based on keenly observing people, not a medical one). I remember AW saying once…you have to keep telling them how good they are…all the time.

  16. Quincy /Pete the quiet was more because the fans were considering where to hang the PGMO cheat. Most of the fans didn’t think it was a red card offence because Giroud didn’t head butt Onuaha but they leaned toward each other & touched heads. The QPR man & his Official proceeded to cheat the game of fair play.

    The referee knew he was wrong because he didn’t give the initial push or the strangle hold by the FA’s England role model. Giroud’s reaction was natural but should have been controlled. If he had pushed the player onto the official & knocked them both out it would have truly made my day.

    OMGArsenal – you are so right & true.

  17. Arvind, both Song & Ebouye were brought up in humility. I was born & raised in Africa. The African in my day was rarely arrogant. Their mentality was humble & they would light up with praise. Ebouye was very much like that. The European generally has a more open upbringing & can cope with a higher level of denigration. In fact most kids in Europe would fight more if booed. The Americans would not care because they are brought up with confidence rather like the English Public school kid.

    Both Ebouye & Song have natural ball skills and genetic physical gifts. Their mentality was nurtured by Wenger which made them rounded footballers in my opinion.

  18. @menac, it was a red card. I think most of us know that and realize it was a stupid thing Giroud did. Walter said so himself. Sometimes our players do stupid things, they’re not angels.

  19. Nice article as it was targeted towards the players and not the aaa’s etc. Players seem to do the same per match preparation like we did but more scientific than our playing days. U can see the simple things that they do ie listen to music on the way to the ground. I don’t know about AW, but if we would have lost to a team in a previous tournament and id would be playing them again, we would be itching to get revenge. I don’t see that with our team.

  20. Chapman’s Ghost – I know what Atkinson showed & what could have been showed. Welbeck was held around the midriff and pulled to the ground in the penalty area & Atkinson didn’t see it as a foul let alone a penalty & card. In fact physically there was more contact & force in that incident than Giroud used. The push on Girouds back whilst being tripped was more of a red card but the PGMO cheat gets away with selective vision. He also ignored the throat grab by Ferdinand.

  21. Great article Don, thanks.

    I have a few questions/comments:

    (1) From my personal experience, different people react to different incentives. I know this from my past in the military and from work. There are people who will only move their butts when yelled at; you get the best results from them when they are put under pressure (because when they are not, they just get into “lazy/idle” mode); they need to feel that there is something at risk to bring out the best out of them. And there is the other group, who get all shell shocked when yelled at, and just freeze under pressure. And of course I guess that most of us are somewhere in between, and react differently to different situations and people. But my point is that there are type of people (and players) who will only get themselves gonig when facing adversity, hostility, and the need to “show them” (whoever that may be).

    (2) I have a feeling which is based on observation, that there is some corelation between clubs’ success and fans’ being spoiled, i.e. very successful clubs will have very spoilt supporters. Not only will those supporters not cheer when the team is losing – they will jeer when the team wins, but doesn’t play “nice” football. Examples: Real Madrid, Barca, Juventus, AC Milan, Man United, ourselves (unfortunately), Bayern Munich. Clubs that get positive support even when losing are much rare: Dortmund and Atletico spring into mind. Maybe Loserpool, a bit. Those top clubs employ the best players in the world and are statistically more successful. Would that mean, that top players are the type of people who perform better when facing adversity? (see my first point above)

    (3) Different issue: I think that, very broadly and generally speaking, our game this year (and maybe even in the past few years) has suffered from something that had nothing to do with buying player X or Y, or playing system A or B – but from something else. Which is also something I can remotely connect to principlas of warfare and that is containing and disrupting enemy manuvers. Sometimes, disrupting the enemy can be more important in making your own manuvers, and more accuratly, the timing of moving from defence to offense (counter-attack) is usually where the enemy is most vulnerable. However, it takes a very differnt psychological mindset to defend. It takes patience, it takes a lot more restraint, it takes forcing yourself to being more frugal with your actions. But most of all it is the giving away of initative and timing which makes it difficult. You have to wait for the enemy to make a move. It is difficult psychologically.

    It seems to me that when we don’t perform well, it is usually not our attack, but rather our defense, and not specifically our defenders – but the concept of “defending as a team”. Wenger has said that, and many of our players.

    I remember that one of our better matches this year in this respect was WBA away. It was a hard fought game and WBA gave it out their best. But each and every one of our players did what they had to do – stick out a leg, put in a shoulder, hassle and disrupt. And it seems to me that psychologically the squad is not happy in doing that. That’s why Flamini is so busy shouting at everyone – they are just not helping destroy the other team’s play, and are much more concerned in building up our play.

    Now (and sorry for the length of my pre-question) – do you think there is a difference, psychologically wise, between being ready to attack and be the intiating party – and being ready to defend and being the disruptive party?


    (of course not total)

  22. @Arvind

    I’m not much of a Christmas person, but I did enjoy making the Christmas meal this year. I don’t think many people are going to try and be as mathematical as I am. But, what I hope comes across is some of the philosophy. It is too easy to abuse statistics, and so if I can do things “better”, perhaps others will start? I would like to see more medians used over means (averages). I am sort of like you in that I seldom see games on TV or video. In part, this allows me to work during games. If you do decide to write, write about what interests you. If some involves me and I can respond, I’ll try.

    Have a great day!


  23. Menace-Do you actually believe what you write?
    I know what Atkinson showed & what could have been showed. . In fact physically there was more contact & force in that incident than Giroud used. The push on Girouds back whilst being tripped was more of a red card but the PGMO cheat gets away with selective vision. He also ignored the throat grab by Ferdinand.

    Your African brain is pickled..You honestly think that a push is worse than a headbutt??And ferdinand grabbing giroud by the back of the neck, how is that an assault.How is that a red card?? I know most on here believe in conspiracy theorys around here and is why we are average as a team these days,but to completely exonerate the man at the helm who runs the club from top to bottom is quite unbelievable.

  24. @ Nick Lee, I wonder why did you have to describe Menace’s brain as being “African” and what did you try to mean by that.

    Please, educate us.

  25. I have a request to make of those authors of articles on UA, specifically those who incessantly insult, disparage, ridicule, and demean believers in Jesus Christ.

    Your comments in this regard are completely rude inconsiderate, and bigoted. Not only that but not in any way germain to the subject being discussed.

    If you wish to debate the veracity of Christ’s claims, the Bible, or any of the fundamental tenets of true Christianity, there are ample places to do that. But, it is not appropriate here.

    We believers should not have to be subjected to these kinds of insults just because we too wish to support AFC.

    If you think that Christ has been found to be a madman or a charlatan I would be happy to debate that with you, but beware, just hurling insults and cliché are not enough.

    If you think you are being brave and ridding the world of dangerous and false religions, just try doing the same with Islam and see where you end up.

    Please, just stick to the subjects and be truly unbiased.

  26. Tommie
    The same as if id have called his english brain or italian brain if he was english or italian.
    Now you are educated.

  27. Jeez There are more basket cases on this website than anywhere else on the web..Some proper fruit loops.

  28. Very good point Myron. You said it all.

    @Nick Lee, I think it was unnecessary making reference to where people come from in disparaging them. If anyone’s brain is pickled then you top the list. Your hatred for Wenger is well documented. For you, every discussion must somehow include your favourite topic- Wenger bashing. Pray, when did neck-grabbing become legal, especially when the ref was dealing with the issue at hand? Ferdinand ought to know better. Shame on him. For one that has captained before, that was very poor and in bad taste. What was his objective?

    And you seem to think it’s cool and proper. Against a player of the club you claim to support. Poor reaction from Giroud, but that was the looser in Onuoha showing up. If you think some people’s brains are pickled, I wonder what they think of yours with your peculiar comments.

  29. Stan
    I haven’t got a hatred of wenger or hate anyone at arsenal.What i do think is that wenger has taken the club as far has he can and is at fault for most of the problems we have as a club.I unlike you do not try to put the blame on everone else from referees ,players, pundits to the club cat.He buys the players ,he coaches the players ,he picks the team,he makes the substitutions and he dictates the tactics (or lack of )for the matches so when our season pans out the same way every other one has in the last 10 years there has to be one common denominator.Everyone can see this apart from a loyal bunch which over the years is getting smaller and smaller.
    On your other point if a qpr player had headbutted one of ours he would be labelled a thug and quite rightly so, so when it happens the other way it is a “poor reaction” .And if one of our players had grabbed his neck he would of been see to do the right thing and protecting him.
    Im so called a wenger basher because of what Wenger has done in the last 10 years.You are a wenger lover beacuase of what Wenger did the 6 years previous to that.

  30. @Menace: Thanks .. its interesting to know how geography plays an impact on players. And Eboue was always one to have fun and it felt that he truly loved everyone at Arsenal. He dived a bit too much for my liking..but that apart yes – your reasoning makes sense.

    @Gord: Lets see..I’ll try and write soon.

    @TommieGun: To your question (although it was not addressed to me) – I think the difference is very subtle… and it has to be muscle memory here. What I mean is, every one has a certain amount of will power. To an extent, they can control their natural instinct – i.e a team like Arsenal can defend, for a game… or 3 … and play like Mourinho’s park_the_bus_against_big_teams do. But over 10 games, they can’t – it’s not “in them”, if you know what I mean.

    That’s what a defensive midfielder is about and why they’re so hard to get. It’s a true sacrificial role for the team…and being super aware about things. Coz the natural human instinct is to win..and claim glory for the self (which is perfectly fine I might add), so to see tons of people bombing forward – and still “sit” or “think defensively” is an art. And it has to be in that person.

    That’s why at this point… a midfield of Ramsey/Wilshere/Ozil won’t work consistently. We’ll lose 1 game in 5 playing them, because they’re all offensive minded. BUt 3 years down the line, if Wilshere adapts his game like Arteta has done, it’s possible.

    What Wenger is trying to do is exactly what you have said – reduce the difference in the minds of the players, between attacking and defending… and just doing what the game needs at that time. It requires a supreme footballing intelligence…and I doubt if it is ever completely possible. But if anyone can do this…AW can.

    I hope that partially at least, addresses your question 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *