5 psychological keys to get back in the game
You might remember May 2019 for Barça’s historic defeat against Liverpool during the Champions League semi-final. The team felt overwhelmed and entered a negative psychological dynamic they didn’t know how to get out of. Vicenç Raluy, sports psychologist, tells us the keys to understand what happened and how to revert a complicated game.
7th of May of 2019. Anfield Stadium at 22:55h. The referee whistles the end of the game. The faces of Barcelona’s players are the reflection of frustration. Barça had it all to make it to the final given the 3-1 result of the first-leg match at the Camp Nou, but it was defeated 4-0 by a Liverpool risen from the ashes and that as its anthem states, never walks alone.
Johan Cruyff once said that “the hungriest teams are the ones that win the finals”, recalls Vicenç Raluy. “To me this quote is the key to explain the defeat of Barcelona’s team in Anfield. Most likely, Barça had more urgency to win than Liverpool. But Liverpool wanted it more than Barça. This, applied to psychology, we could put it as follows: while one faced the match as a challenge (motivation), the other faced it from the need not to fail to avoid repeating the defeat in Rome in 2018 (pressure, stress, lack).”
The fact is that, media and supporters, were responsible for bringing back to memory day after day, at every talk-show or social gathering, that the shameful defeat in Rome’s semi-final should not be repeated. Did that imperative need not to fail again put such a pressure on the team that it ended up condemning Barça players?
Psychological tips to get back in a complicated game
1. Learn from the past
Work on failures as an opportunity to learn, analyse what has happened, why it has happened and what can be done next time we face a similar situation, is essential.
“Barça went to Anfield without having learnt that much from Rome 2018 or the first-leg match. Therefore, when things started going wrong and started to look like what happened in Rome, players started to have a mental block. Then is when concentration is lost and, most likely, bad decisions are made”, Vicenç Raluy states.
And he adds: “There was a bad cognitive assessment. The situation was treated like a threat, from fear. The mantra was: “I fear that what happened in Rome will happen again”. And that is almost a sentence. A vain example is, if I ask you not to think of a pink elephant, are you capable of not thinking about it? Inevitably, you think about it. Therefore, when you have a cognitive assessment of threat all you have in your mind is what you fear the most. And, inevitably, you make it happen.
What should have been done? Focus only on what depends on you, which is not the outcome of the match but the way of playing it. This way, we redirect players’ focus on doing their job”.
2. The appropriate level of activation
The control of the activation is something essential for the management of anxiety and emotions in sport. You can read about it in the article “How do emotions influence sport performance?”
According to Raluy, “The activation level of both teams was different. Liverpool stepped onto the field with a high level of activation and rhythm. They didn’t have anything to lose and to them a comeback was a challenge, something epic. Whereas Barça stepped onto the field either with a low level of activation or the level of activation was so high that blocked them”
And he explains: “It is tempting to say that players stepped onto the field unenthusiastically. But any team at that level wants to win a Champions League semi-final. Therefore, we can’t say that Barça’s defeat was due to a lack of motivation but a mismanagement of the level of activation and of the cognitive assessment.”
3. Identify the leaders of the team
First division main teams have physiologist and lots of resources, but do they use them? Do they work on the psychological aspect only on an individual level or also as a group? Does the manager value the importance of sports psychology? Do players have faith in it? Do they accept any help or advice?
When the team is absorbed in a negative and stressful dynamic, having a leader able to unblock the team’s mood is essential. But this is something that needs to progressively be addressed by the team’s technical management.
“There are many types of leadership. For example, when we talk about leadership in a company, a democratic leadership is ideal. But in a crisis, there isn’t a democratic leadership, there is an action protocol. And this protocol should have been set beforehand, one must have learned to control the level of activation of the group and to identify the leaders that will help the team leave behind the blockage. The day of the match is like the exam date, it is too late to try to study the lesson”, Raluy says.
4. Talk about the “how” and not about the “what”
For Vicenç Raluy it is important to understand that, in any match, there is always something that it is out of one’s control. Therefore, it is important to focus on the “how” and not on the “what”. On “how will we play” instead of “what” will be the result.
“Focussing on the “how” boosts players confidence, because it depends on them. It helps them focus on the specific task. For example, it is not the same to ask a firefighter to just put out a fire than to tell him how to put it out step by step. These guidelines (how) help block the emotions that paralyse us when we are stressed and help focus on the task.
5. The key to everything
We know that thoughts affect our emotions; that emotions affect our behaviour and that consequently emotions affect our decision-making process. For this reason, it is so important to work on sports psychology. In general, we can affirm that athletes have worked on their psyche when:
- They have confidence because they know that when doing what they know multiplies the options to achieve their goals.
- They know how to manage stress.
- They are motivated and see the matches as a stimulating challenge, as something positive.
- They can concentrate on what depends on them.
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