Despite a new coach and the arrival of world-class talent over the summer, Manchester United is still struggling to win big games. The club’s latest setback, against Manchester City on Sunday, came largely as a result of playing a majority of the game with 10 players. Center back Chris Smalling received his first yellow card in the game’s 31st minute, after he interfered when City’s goalkeeper Joe Hart was dropkicking the ball from the top of the penalty area. Only eight minutes later, Smalling earned his second yellow card for a late challenge outside the box. After United was reduced to 10 men, City’s Sergio Agüero scored the game’s only goal midway through the second half to claim three points. Following the game, United head coach Louis van Gaal noted that Smalling should have done a better job managing his emotions in the first half, and made adjustments to his play after receiving his first card. “I didn’t see the first yellow but with the second, you know you already have a yellow, so [you] have to handle it differently,” van Gaal said. “There is also emotion and sometimes you cannot control your emotion but it was not very smart…As a player you have to control your aggression.”
Smalling’s red card provides an example of the consequences that can come from a player’s inability to manage his or her emotions and adapt during a game in response to circumstances. As a player, it is important to recognize that emotions are part of the game. Competitiveness, passion, and a desire to win can cause you and players around you to experience a range of emotions, including excitement, frustration, anger, and disappointment. While you cannot control your automatic emotional response in the moment, you can develop the ability to manage your emotions. As a player, emotional management starts with your awareness. Consider times when you have failed to maintain your focus or composure under emotional circumstances and allowed emotions to negatively affect your game. Recognize that these and other emotions will, at times, challenge your focus and composure during a game, and develop a strategy or plan to respond effectively in these moments. During training, when you notice that your emotions are pulling your attention away, find a stoppage in play and try a centering breath (inhale deeply into your stomach, hold the breath momentarily, and exhale). This can help you release some tension and bring your attention back to the present moment. Refocusing cues (i.e., “My game” or “Let it go”) can also be great tools for helping a player manage his or her emotions while playing. These short words or phrases can help you recover your focus when you feel it slipping away.
Game awareness and decision-making also play a big role in emotional management. When Smalling was issued his first yellow card, it was important to make adjustments in his play (e.g., avoiding late challenges) in order to avoid giving the referee any opportunity to make a difficult call. Recognizing that a second yellow would leave his teammates in a frustrating position with 50 minutes remaining could have helped him avoid a costly decision in a crucial moment in an important match.
High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement