Aston Villa Avoid Complacency in Massive Win Over Sunderland

Saturday’s Premier League action saw Aston Villa take a huge step in its attempts to avoid relegation this season, after earning a 4-0 win against Sunderland. The victory was even more impressive, considering what was at stake: before the match, Villa was one spot above the relegation zone in 17th place, and playing an away game against a Sunderland side one point ahead, in 16th. With four goals, two apiece from strikers Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor, in the first half, Villa was able to secure a valuable three points, and jump ahead of Sunderland in the table. Speaking to reporters after the match, Villa head coach Tim Sherwood was pleased with the win and the offensive output, but recognized his team’s ability to maintain the shutout after building such a large lead by halftime. “We’re delighted, obviously, to get four goals in one game,” Sherwood said. “I’m almost as pleased with the ‘zero’ on the end of it in the second half as I was with the four goals we scored in the first half. It’s not easy, you know, to play when you’re 4-0 up…it’s a lot easier when you’re 4-0 down to be honest.” Speaking to his players after the game, Sherwood re-emphasized the importance of staying grounded and avoiding complacency with 9 league matches left in the season. “I just told the guys, there’s a long way to go…there’s a lot of hard work to be done, but this is a great step.”

It can be difficult, at times, for players to maintain high levels of concentration and effort after they’ve been successful. When things are going your way on the field or in your career, and the game seems to be easy for you, it is tempting to take your foot off the gas pedal and coast to an outcome. You can become over-confident in your abilities, and assume that the game has been won, or your goals have been reached, before the “final whistle”. As a result, you may stop working hard, and your focus can drop, as you lose sight of your role and responsibilities in the moment. The same can hold true for your team, moving forward after a big win. As a player, complacency can be one of the biggest hindrances to consistency on the field, because success can cause you to lose sight of the hard work and discipline it took to get to where you are. Avoiding complacency has everything to do with being aware of your mind’s tendency to stray from the present moment. As a player, it’s normal to imagine yourself winning or to spend time thinking about your outcome goals, because either one can motivate you. However, there is a time and a place for both, and when you find that you are thinking so much about an outcome that it is taking your mind away from the present moment, try to shift your focus back to doing what it takes to be successful. During halftime of a game like Aston Villa’s over the weekend, reflect on what allowed you to have success in the first half. Remind yourself, in times like this, to stay in the present moment with a refocusing cue (e.g., “Here and now” or “Don’t let up”). It can also help to set small goals or objectives for yourself, during a game for instance, by challenging yourself to maintain possession, or win your 1v1 defensive battles. Communicate effectively with players around you, reminding them to stay organized, disciplined, and focused on the present. With two and a half months left this season, Villa does indeed have “a long way to go” to ensure that it can compete in the Premier League next season. The ability of the players and coach to stay disciplined and focused on what they need to do throughout each game will go a long way in helping them achieve just that.

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Madrid Faces Early Questions Surrounding Attitude and Concentration

Despite a busy summer of high-profile acquisitions, and opening the La Liga campaign with a win over Córdoba CF, Real Madrid is facing some early concerns this season. After losing to cross-town rival Atlético de Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, Real Madrid lost 4-2 to Real Sociedad in their second league match over the weekend. Things looked promising on Sunday for the defending UEFA Champions League winners, when Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos put Madrid ahead 2-0 after only 11 minutes. However, two goals before halftime drew the hosts even, and two more second half strikes by David Zurutuza and Carlos Vela gave Real Sociedad an impressive comeback win and three points, despite being outshot and out-possessed. Some were quick to attribute the result to recent losses in Madrid’s roster. Angel Di Maria (sold to Manchester United), Xabi Alonso (sold to Bayern Munich) and Cristiano Ronaldo (out with an injury) were all missing from a squad still brimming with the world’s best talent. However, following the game, head coach Carlo Ancelotti pointed the finger at a lack of concentration, rather than a few missing players. “This defeat does not change anything. What needs to change is our attitude and concentration in these types of games. At 2-0 you must show concentration to see out the game…The first half hour was very good, with good concentration. The other hour was very bad. We thought the game was over.”

Holding onto a lead can be a challenging mental task for players, because of the temptation of slipping into complacency and assuming the game has already been won. As such, it is important to ensure that players remain committed to their roles and responsibilities on the field after a lead has been built. Even when you’ve had early success in the game, remain objective about your performance. Determine what has worked well for you in the early stages, while also looking for any small adjustments that can be made to improve your performance and maintain the advantage. As a player, use the early success to boost your confidence. However, complacency emerges when you fail to continue doing the small things that brought you success in the first place. In these circumstances, take on a leadership role, by bringing teammates together into a huddle after a goal is scored, to ensure that all players are on the same page and collectively maintain, or even lift, their focus and intensity.

On the other side of the result in Sunday’s match, Real Sociedad showed impressive mental strength in coming from behind against a stronger opponent, after enduring its own struggles to open the season, when they were bumped out of the Europa League last week. After conceding an early goal (or more), many teams find it difficult to lift their intensity and focus enough to avoid falling further behind, while also trying to stage a comeback. In doing so, take a moment to determine one or two adjustments you can make individually as a player, to help your team prevent the deficit from growing. Try to focus on the simple aspects of your game (i.e., effective communication, hard work, etc.) to regain composure and confidence, and stay organized as a team. The use of a refocusing cue (i.e., “Next pass” or “Here and now”) can often help you stay in the present moment, rather than becoming distracted by possible future outcomes. Above all, rely on your strengths and your sources of confidence to maintain a belief in your team’s ability to get back into the game. Sunday’s result sent two very different messages to the players on Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, and as it is still early in the season, the game will serve as a learning experience for both teams on staying focused and fighting until the end.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

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.

Concentrating Through Stressful Situations

Whether you’re preparing for a big game or your training session for the day, being prepared not only physically, but also mentally, can help you perform at your best. Being distracted, for example, could cause you to hesitate rather than react right away in different situations. This may cause you to miss out on a good play, or even a goal, and may ultimately result in you hurting your team’s performance. There are a few things that you can do to actively increase your concentration, which could help you improve your decision-making and thus, your performance.

Having a structured mental routine can help you not only prepare for an upcoming training session or game, but also can help you rehearse certain situations that may arise during your performance. This is something that you may do instinctually as you develop your skills, but is also something that you can be aware of and purposefully practice. To help you concentrate, particularly in undesirable or stressful situations, make a plan for what you’ll do when the situations arise. Think of stressful situations that occur when you’re playing. This could be the other team scoring a goal, losing a 1v1, or getting tackled, among others. Think of what your typical response is and what your ideal response is and train yourself to use your ideal response as you practice. Then, if the situations arise in a game, you’ll be more prepared to stay focused and make quick decisions because you’ve already planned out and practiced how you’ll react.

Keep in mind that if you can train your feet, you can train your mind. However, just like your physical skills, you must keep practicing your mental skills in order for them to stay sharp and continue improving. Continue practicing so that you can improve your concentration, make quick decisions, and perform successfully.

Take it slow

Picture a coach and a player on the soccer field. The coach is teaching the player a new, difficult skill. At first, the skill seems confusing for the player and the player struggles to mirror the coach’s moves. The coach breaks it down and shows the player the skill in slow motion. Once the skill is slowed down, something clicks in the player’s mind and the player executes the skill.

Does this seem familiar to you? Often the way players learn new skills is by practicing the aspects of the skill in slow motion to get accustomed to the individual moves the skill requires. Then, once the skill is learned, players tend to pick up the pace with the skill and always practice it at full speed. Although setting your training environment to be like a competitive game environment (which includes training at game pace) is a good way to train your body and mind to be more comfortable with competitive situations, there is value in taking it slow and slowing down practice in order to examine skills more closely.

Taking time in your training to practice in slow motion will help you pay close attention to each individual skill you use in your sport. Paying attention to these skills is a great way to focus on how well you perform the moves. While most of the skills you use regularly feel automatic, practicing them in slow motion will help you discover whether or not those automatic moves are as good as they can be. In slow motion, you can ask yourself, “Is my technique just right?”, “Am I getting the most power I can?”, or “Is this as accurate as it can be?” Reflecting on these questions while you practice in slow motion might lead to you making minor adjustments that could improve your overall performance.

So, the next time you practice or learn a new skill, try not to rush into playing at full speed. Although practicing skills makes you more comfortable with them over time, there is always room for reflection and improvement, which can come from taking it slow.

Focus can give you the edge

Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior, commonly known as Oscar, is a 21-year-old central midfielder from Chelsea FC who was recently signed by the club. Even though he is young, he has already started to make an impact on the field for Chelsea.

On September 20th, 2012, Chelsea began their defense of the Champions League title that they won last season. They played their first Champions League game of the year against Juventus. It was a very exciting game with four goals, and many chances for both teams. The game ended in a tie, with both teams scoring two goals. Three men scored during the match: Vidal and Quagliarella from Juventus, and Oscar from Chelsea. Oscar was one player who stood out in this thrilling game. He had two goals in the first half of the game, and his second goal was a stunner. His finish was pure skill, but it seems that his field awareness set him up for the goal. Having the ability to know where everyone is on the field is a world-class skill, which requires complete focus at all times.

Being able to focus is a key factor not only for playing soccer, but also for everything you do in life. Most of the things you do require focus in order to be done at an optimal level. One way to improve your focus is to consciously make yourself concentrate on the task at hand. It is common to experience distractions, but practice becoming aware of your distractions and pushing them from your mind. Use words and phrases, such as “change channels” and “focus on the task,” to remind yourself to bring your focus back to the present. This will help you focus on your specific task, which can help you complete the task more efficiently and meaningfully. If Oscar did not have the focus to allow him to know where everyone was on the field, he would not have been able to show how creative and skillful he can be.

Catch phrases that stick

What company runs the “Where’s the Beef” campaign? Who says “Just do it?” What makes these slogans and others similar to them so memorable? The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath explores how companies are able to get consumers to remember their catchphrases and products. The Heath brothers give 6 tips to make ideas stickier: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories.

Simplicity— Finding the core of the message by stripping it down to its most essential idea allows you to guide a players’ decision making and help make the idea stick.
Unexpectedness—Begins to get the person thinking about related events and get the idea to stick. It forces a search for understanding and developing a plan for not allowing this shock to occur in the future.
Concreteness— In order to build an abstract idea, start with a concrete base. Once the basics are learned, adaption to the same principles to other areas can occur.
Credibility— Getting what is said believed. If the person relaying the message can be trusted then the message has a better chance to stick.
Emotions—Making the message worthy of caring about. Make it about the audience and the benefits gained from the idea.
Stories— Makes the situation more concrete and credible because it actually happened. Gives a sense of reality to your core message

The trick now becomes using these tips that make successful ad ideas work and transforming them to function for sport. A great example comes from Danny Califf, a defender for the Philadelphia Union. Danny uses catch-phrases, such as “Understand your strengths,” that fit several of the tips from Made to Stick to keep focused on the field and increase performance. Danny’s catch-phrases are simple, concrete ideas that help prepare him for the unexpected. Saying “Be a pessimist” allows him to think of the worst case scenario to stay ahead of the competition. The catch-phrases are: simple (basic, core messages), concrete (easy to understand), credible (if you don’t believe yourself, we have a different problem), and emotional (knows how it benefits him). These catch-phrases may also remind Danny of stories that he can draw from to succeed.

Using a catch-phrase is the same as finding the core of your message. If the message is simple and can satisfy other categories then it is more likely to stick. The catch-phrase can be the perfect vessel for coaches, parents, or players to keep an idea around. It is important to start with the simple message. Finding the core first will make the idea concrete and allow for an easier path to getting it to stick.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House.