Lionel Messi: A Mindful Player

The ability to make quick and fluid decisions is essential on the soccer field. Players can be decisive when they use their intuition. Intuition allows players to automatically respond to familiar and unfamiliar situations. The key to being an intuitive player is recognizing the patterns on the field during play. However, it takes practice and experience to develop the ability to recognize these patterns. One way to improve your intuition is by mindfully playing and watching soccer. Lionel Messi, forward for FC Barcelona, is an intuitive player. Time after time, as Messi accelerates down the field, he quickly makes decisions that increase his chances of success. Even when he does not have the ball, he stays focused and plays mindfully. In an interview with Time Magazine, when asked how his skills have evolved, Messi stated:

“With [Barcelona coach] Guardiola, I learned to play tactically, which is what I most needed, what my game needed. From the tactical point of view, it’s been about knowing how to stop [and think] on the field when we don’t have the ball. And that makes us better when we have it.”

As Messi explains, it’s important to play mindfully on the field. Understanding the purpose of the drills you do in training can help you learn to play mindfully. To understand the purpose, be engaged during training sessions and games even when you don’t have the ball. Try to connect to each drill in training, rather than just go through the motions. Figure out how the drill could improve your skills or transfer to competition. Try focusing on the ball, your positioning, your teammates, and your opponents. Eventually, you will begin to recognize patterns in play during training and games. As you get used to recognizing these patterns, you may find that you start responding to them automatically, without having to take time to think about your decision. This is when your intuition really beings to develop. By mindfully training on a consistent basis, your brain will prepare to recognize patterns immediately and know what the best decision is for the particular situation. Players who play mindfully and develop quick responses on and off the ball become intuitive and efficient players.

Engaging in Sport

Have you ever been so used to doing certain warm-ups and drills in practice that you find yourself just going through the motions? In order to develop skills and improve, you have to repeat skills, practicing them over and over during training sessions. Still, this repetition should not be a signal for you to disengage with your training. In order to benefit from your training sessions and learn from drills, be mindful of your training and make an effort to engage in the tasks.

Engagement is the choice to commit to and connect with a task. Being engaged in the tasks you have to do as you train can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you are going through a shooting drill, make a conscious choice to engage in the drill and be mindful of your actions. Pay attention to your technique, your awareness of what’s going on around you, and how well you execute. Over time, continuing to be mindful and engaged throughout training can help you identify what you are doing well and what you need to work on. You can then set goals to keep up with what you’re doing well and make plans to train the skills you need to work on.

Being mindful and engaged could also help you enjoy training more because it could help you recognize and understand the purpose of drills. So, instead of going through the motions during a shooting drill, think about why your coach planned the drill. How can you use those skills in competition? Besides your shooting skills, which other skills is the drill helping you develop (e.g., communication skills with teammates, dribbling, composure under pressure)? Being engaged and finding the purpose of drills could help you feel more motivated and focused as you train.

Self-Talk

As an athlete you’re constantly having some type of inner dialogue with yourself, whether you’re trying to push yourself during conditioning or reminding yourself to concentrate on your touches during games. This inner dialogue is referred to as self-talk. A great way to help improve your performance is to recognize the type of self-talk you use.

There are two main types of self-talk: instructional self-talk and motivational self-talk. Instructional self-talk refers to phrases that are task oriented and used to enhance performance by focusing attention on a specific action or activity. An example of instructional self-talk is, “I need a softer touch next time.” Motivational self-talk refers to self-statements used to increase your mood and confidence. Examples include, “I can do this” and “push through.” Motivational self-talk is oftentimes beneficial for strength and endurance tasks, while instructional self-talk is more effective for tasks that involve precision and skill.

Many people think that the type of self-talk you engage in can either be positive or negative. Examples of negative self-talk include thoughts such as, “If I mess up, I’m no good,” or “I can’t do this.” Examples of positive self-talk include statements such as, “I can do this,” or “I’m ready to face this challenge.” However, self-talk is not always so black and white. For some athletes, statements that would be considered negative actually work to motivate them, which could help their performance. Of course, there are other athletes who perform their best when thinking more positive statements. The point is to use self-talk that works for you; it should be effective self-talk – not necessarily positive or negative self-talk. Effective self-talk statements could help you increase your confidence, refocus during competition, improve skill level, and deal with pressure, anxiety, and frustration. So, the next few times that you practice, pay attention to the self-talk you use and how you perform that day. See what your most effective self-talk is and add those kinds of statements to your pre-performance routines. This could help you perform better more consistently.

Mushin and flow

Mushin (moo-shin) is a Japanese concept meaning action without thought. It has been shortened from mushin no shin, which literally means the mind without mind. It began as a training tool for the Japanese warrior class used as a technique to fend off attacks. Mushin was not used to promote violence, but instead to make sure no violence was committed. Japanese martial artists still use the concept of mushin today in order to maintain a calm mental state every day, even in the simplest activities. Mushin is not a state of total relaxation, but rather a natural mental state in which the mind is alert and fully aware of the present moment, but there are no disrupting thoughts that may hinder performance. A player’s mind is free of thought or emotion. It is the constant flow of the mind without any distraction or hesitation towards the task at hand. The player’s passing thoughts are not recognized as a hindrance to their performance because of the focus on the game. The concept of mushin provides athletes with the ability to complete their tasks without having to take time to actually think about them.

Soccer players today should be aware of the concept of mushin in their practice sessions and games in order to avoid conflict and maintain composure on the field. They need to be able to preserve a calm mental state in order to accomplish what they are expected to do on the field. Many players think of the term “in the zone” when they practice the concept of mushin, or flow. After practicing to perfect the mushin mental state, a player will gain an inherent insight into what actions need to be performed in the game without having to spend the mental and physical energy consciously thinking about it. Mushin, like flow, requires focus and composure in a player’s mind in order to consistently make decisions without reluctance. In a sense, the player’s actions and thoughts become “one”; they are second nature to the athlete’s thinking, for example: if the team goes to a certain formation, the outside back will know exactly what s/he needs to do in that position or how s/he needs to shift in order for the formation to work.

The art of mushin can only be accomplished through practice. A player needs to learn how to be able to block out all emotion and thought to be able to focus only on what is in front of him/her. The mind must be able to flow and be uninterrupted by any thought, no matter how minor. Once players practice their skills enough, their actions become subconscious and they are able to react directly and instantaneously to events that are occurring in their surroundings. It can take a lot of time to achieve the full effect of mushin, but with repetition in practice a player can eventually develop a strong sense of it. With the successful practice of mushin, players will be able to act and react against an opponent without any hesitation. The reactions in games and practice become natural in the player’s performance.

To learn more about mushin and the concept of flow, read the following:

  • Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Living the Martial Way by Forrest E. Morgan