Dan Abraham on The Discipline of Nervenstaerke
Advanced Psychology Techniques for Footballers – Global sport psychologist and author specializing in soccer, Dan Abrahams is based in England and has helped hundreds of professional soccer players – many of them who play in the English Premier League. Abrahams is a columnist for GoalNation and wants to share his expertise on player development with our readers.
As I write from my desk here in England we’re gearing ourselves up for a game of soccer that is regarded as the richest match in the world. Richest because the prize for winning is staggering.
The Championship match is worth an estimated £150 million to the triumphant team. That’s a lot of $$.
A game with such high stakes comes accompanied by pressure. Pressure for the club as a whole, the coaches and of course the players. It’s during matches like the Championship play-off final when many supporters ask themselves just how soccer players are able to compete in such a testing, nerve jangling environment.
Perhaps an answer lies in the soccer dominant European country of Germany. They embrace the discipline of nervenstaerke – a German term for ‘strength of nerves.’ They feel fear in tight situations like everyone else but they manage the thoughts that can accompany anxiety during pressure play. Their physiology stabilises whilst others’ race. Their mind remains clear whilst others’ fog.
An example of their use of nervenstaerke lies in the infamous World Cup penalty shoot-outs. They have missed only one penalty from 18 attempts since 1982. While players from other countries shake and shudder to think about that 12 yard kick the German players exude confidence. Whether a national trait or something more personal to the team set up the players seem able to run with the pressure. They seem able to cope.
As a sport psychologist I believe soccer players can learn to have nervenstaerke. I believe soccer players can manage their fears, turn down the volume of nerves and deal with the pressure effectively.
This works for youth soccer players and, of course, professional soccer players.
Here is a quick three step guide to playing under pressure:
It’s Simple — But Not Easy!
The first step in playing with nervenstaerke is to recognise that it’s a very simple concept. It’s really just managing yourself. It’s not some magical, mystical entity – it’s simple self-management – managing your thoughts, feelings and actions.
I believe this rational viewpoint is the start of playing pressure soccer. By bringing nervenstaerke down from a pedestal and by declaring it possible for everyone to play under pressure, then we make it accessible for all.
We make it possible. We make it realistic. We make it achievable.
Of course there is a difference between simple and easy. It’s a simple concept but it’s not necessarily easy to do. This is where habits come in.
Habits – Reversed!
If you’re someone who suffers from extreme nerves under pressure I have a question for you. What does that feel like? Describe it to yourself. Perhaps it’s an increased heart rate. Perhaps it’s butterflies in your tummy. It might be a racing mind full of negatives. It could be all three.
Whatever it is that you experience I want you to now use your imagination. I want you to start thinking about what the complete opposite experience feels like. For example, instead of a racing heart beat, it would be a calm and constant heart beat. Instead of a negative mind, it would be a positive one.
Just by imagining what the reverse looks and feels like you give yourself a blueprint for how you want to think, feel and behave.
Your model of nervenstarke is already within you – you just have to imagine it.
Once you know what a better, fearless footballer looks like, your job is to find some techniques to help your mind and body carry out your new persona.
Focus On What You Can Control
A focused mind, a calm heart, a steady body. These are the physical and psychological signatures of nervenstaerke. Whilst there are many, many tools and techniques that sport psychology can offer a soccer player to experience them, there are a few basic critical essentials.
To calm your heart rate take some deep breaths. So simple to say yet something that players often forget to do. To focus your mind create positive pictures of how you want to play and focus on the things you can control, rather than the things you can’t.
For example, you can’t control the opposition, so why focus on them. Don’t waste your time on something you can’t control.
You can’t control the pitch you’re playing on so don’t give the surface a second of thought.
Similarly, you can’t control the outcome of the game so let the score wash over you.
Your job is your role and the responsibilities in your role.
Get focused on these to keep a clear mind. Finally, commit to walking, holding yourself and playing with great body language.
By doing so you lessen the tension that can occupy your muscles. A confident posture also steadies the body. It shows the opposition you believe in yourself. It shows them you’re ready to play with freedom rather than fear.
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