“Being successful at race/competition time is 95 percent mental and 5 percent physical. You have the conditioning, technique, tricks and the proper strategy. To get that great performance to come out when it counts the most you have to be able to stay calm under pressure, keep yourself focused on the right things, believe in yourself, rebound quickly from mistakes or bad runs and handle last minute negativity, fears or doubts.”

— Dr. Alan Goldberg
Internationally recognized expert in the field of performance enhancement

Youth soccer players have the daunting challenge of learning to use their feet and body in ways that are not typically used in day-to day-activities. They have to master proper mechanics, tactical strategy and vision of the field.

As coaches we want them to consistently demonstrate these skills both during training and games. We witness moments when our players put everything together, and we believe that our training is finally having an impact. We are excited for the next game, only to see that our players typically cannot string two exceptional performances together.

If you’re like me, I am thinking: “How can I build the skills necessary for consistency?” I often think about my training techniques and the drills that I cover, and to be perfectly honest, I lose sight of the player’s mental toughness and mental abilities. I am the coach and it falls on me to have my players ready for each game.

OK, so I have established that my players are not ready to consistently perform well. How can I help them gain a greater mastery as well as manage the challenging times during a game? How long does mastery take?

Researchers indicate that a person needs to practice 10,000 hours or roughly 10 years to gain mastery of a particular craft. They also note that a person must continually practice to maintain that mastery.  Practicing occurs through the repetition of foundational skills to the point that those skills become essentially an unconscious process. Those skills become so finely honed that we can begin experimenting with creative skills from the platform of those foundational skills.

Next, in this case, the athlete must learn to manage that set of skills under the intense pressure of competition. Not only do those skills need to be mastered physically, but also the mind must master or visualize executing those skills successfully during competition. The player’s mind must also master the frequent challenges that occur during the course of an ordinary soccer game. As you might imagine, mastery is no easy feat.

Mozart composed his first work at 11 years of age but didn’t create his first masterful work until he was 23.  On the pitch, the same is true. Soccer mastery more often occurs at a professional level, and almost all players below that level are seeking mastery. Does this mean as a coach I should give up on my players demonstrating consistent, developmentally appropriate performances? If not, what can I do to improve learning, skill development and more consistent execution?

Let’s reflect on downhill or competitive ski racers, who visualizes as a means of improving their performance. They spend countless hours visualizing basic mechanics applied to their field of play. Why do they focus so much on basic mechanics? Because they are seeking mastery, which occurs when basic mechanics are mastered both physically and mentally. They will need to master both to be highly successful in their sport.

Soccer visualization occurs much the same way. Players rarely have mastered a particular skill to the level described above, and even more they have not likely come close to mastering those skills during mentally challenging moments on the pitch.

Let’s take the next step to reflect on neuroscience. Neuroscience finds, through neurotransmissions, that when we visualize ourselves performing a physical action, our neurons transmits that information to our body. Our body then interprets the information being transmitted as equivalent to a real-life action, although no motion is occurring. As these neurons communicate, pathways are stimulated and strengthened. This neural activity creates memories and learned behaviors that can be replicated in a real-world, future context.

When soccer players visualize or imagine performing a technical skill or a tactical movement, and they visualize their muscles making those movements correctly, they are building strong neuron pathways that will support repetition in future activities that require those skills. This means that success begins in the brain, and when applied to those challenging moments on the pitch, the players have a much greater aptitude to move past that moment and back to successful execution.

Coaches and players need to remember that soccer mastery, using a body part (feet) that doesn’t otherwise get utilized in that way, will take many years of mental and physical practice. They also need to realize that once players step onto that field, their brain maps, their fears and their doubts become active. Unless they have mentally trained, they are likely to find themselves struggling versus moving onto the brain maps created through visualization training.

The mind will perform as it is trained, much like the body, but it does require training. It is time to use the training tools that condition both.