Thursday, 7 October 2010

Football - Mental or Physical? II

Football is thought of as a physical game. One where technical prowess and movement are key. Passing, grace, dribbling, feinting, shooting... all physical components to the game. Whilst they all have a physical component, once a player has hit double figures the bulk of his concern is really mental. Let's take something simple like a short pass. What does this consist of?

Planting foot beside the ball, facing the direction you will play the ball.
Hitting through the ball firmly with the side of your foot.
Weight of the pass.
Accuracy of the pass.
Pass selection.
Timing of the bass.

The first two components seems to be classic cases of good physical technique. The second two might strike us as being matters of physical execution but the mental plays an equally important role. In a pressured situation we are more likely to misplace or overhit a pass. Why is this?

It isn't because the technical demands of the situation have changed but because there is more pressure. Pressure is a mental obstacle for the player to overcome. A player who can remain composed in a pressured situation will appear to be a better player technically than a player who panics. Composure can be seen as a technical maximiser. A player who can deal with being put under pressure will better display their talent than a player who cannot.

It is a leap to assert that they are definitely the archetype but it certainly seems plausible that Arsenal embody this principle. In games against smaller teams they suffer less pressure and play a beautiful, expansive game. Often in the big games when they perceive there is a lot of pressure on them, they crack. If only they could reproduce the same form they reproduce against smaller teams, when playing the big teams..!

Of course it isn't quite that simple as playing against a strong team will be technically harder as defenders have better tackling and positioning and midfielders have more energy, perhaps tactics also have a part to play. Nonetheless it seems true that pressurised situations yield worse performance, than those free from pressure.

As we move on to the next two examples we can see exactly the same principles apply. Deciding which pass to play is at least as important as executing the pass. The choice of pass determines how well a team controls the space. Playing a looser pass from an area of high pressure to one of low pressure is preferable to playing an accurate pass, complete with weight, accuracy and shiny bells back into the area of high pressure. This decision making is mental. In fact the decision to pass at all, rather than pass or dribble, is a mental act. How often do we bemoan a striker for shooting when a pass looked the better option? The timing of the pass should obviously be similar.

Finally disguise - looking one way and passing the other, for instance - is an act of cunning and trickery that is essentially mental. The added physical demands of the situation are negligible (the planted foot might not face the way you will pass). More important is the awareness and lucidity required to pull it off. To top it all off is the decision making process involved with whether to disguise the pass at all.


Two things should have become apparent:

1) Endless unopposed technical practice does not a good player make. Technique is to be put to an end. If we bought a very ornate spoon with a hole in the middle we would not marvel at its ingenuity. Likewise, bells and ribbons are fantastic, but only once attached to an end product. We all know players who were far better at kickups than playing the game!

Do not take this as support for 'route one' or pragmatic football. I am not necessarily an apostle of Mourinho. Playing like Barcelona is an efficient style of play. Everything they do is to a particular end. The players understand what their role is and their style of play. It is good football. As a coach you must ensure your players have a similar understanding of how to put there technical demands of the game into practice, by honing the mental.

2) Improving this decision-making process will drastically improve results. How can we do this?

That will be the topic of my next post.

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