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Team leadership – mental preparation and the coach’s role

Stewart Cotterill (2013) emphasises on team leadership as a dominant aspect for success and makes it clear that it is not necessary that the most talented group of players always win games but insist that what matters most is how well these players function as a team.

In his opinion, effective leadership is a crucial determinant in optimising team functioning. Many times, after a defeat coaches tend to say, ‘we were not mentally prepared to win’, or ‘the team was not united and nobody stood up to lead’, or ‘there was no leadership on the field’.

A fundamental principal to the coaching process is the coach-athlete interpersonal dynamics.

The perception of an athlete relating to the coach-athlete relationship has motivational effect.

Coaches can positively influence athletic performance, as well as the psychological and emotional comfort of an athlete (Horn, 2008).

Coaches have to create confident coach-athlete interaction in order to understand the thoughts and emotions of their athletes.

Moreover, Mintzberg states that a manager’s role is based on the interpersonal relationship with his subordinates. The manager must use his motivational skills to motivate all the subordinates and takes responsibility to train them.

Jose Mourinho insists that a coach that knows only about football is not the best coach but in order to excel he must also be a tactician, a motivator, a methodologist, a psychologist and a leader.

For better understanding, the definition of a leader is, “the person who leads or commands a group, organisation or a country”.

The leader’s job is to get the best results out of the group he or she leads. Moreover, a leader must get the best out of every member of the group by understanding every characteristic of each member and adopt his or her leadership style accordingly.

It is not the team that has to adapt to the leader’s way of thinking and working.

Richard Huseman in his book ‘The Leader as a Coach: How to coach a winning team’, makes a clear statement on coaches when he says that the coaches “get you from where you are to where you want to be”.

He focuses on real-life examples as a sports coach and stresses that an excellent coach is one who shows outstanding coaching schemes including that of creating a winning culture by practicing what is preached.

More widely and firmly, Socrates said that “the mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the excellent teacher demonstrates, and the great teacher inspires”.

In today’s world, football coaches, at every level, are regarded as teachers, trainers, and role models, and the way they set the example aids in creating and transferring the right mentality to their players.

The challenge of every coach is not only ‘to do’ but ‘to be’ and the priority becomes how to transmit their mind-sets and develop a winning mentality to the whole group.

The way an athlete prepares for competition becomes very important. However, on the other hand, it is a norm that the majority of coaches and athletes tend to ignore the importance of mental preparation and rely mostly, if not totally, on the physical preparation.

In general, an athlete who is believed to be physically fit is considered to be ready to compete at top levels.

Nonetheless in recent years, studies show that athletes need to focus on becoming mentally fit and fundamentally possess optimal mental fitness to succeed.

“Coaches and athletes are becoming aware of the fact that in today’s world, competition is tough, even though athletes are physically fit, yet the margin for victory is slim” (Bhambri, Dhillon, & Sahni, 2005).

Coaches and players are starting to recognise more that mental fitness is an important characteristic and therefore mental preparation is an essential resource. If athletes and coaches recognise the impact of mental preparation on performance, mental training during practice will allow for performances to be better.

When coaches develop athletes and focus on the fundamental needs at youth level, most certainly they would be creating players who are hungry to win, who possess a winning mentality.

Back in August 2016, in the course of an interview, Wayne Rooney praised his manager Jose Mourinho sustaining that he had boosted back the confidence in the squad by creating the right winning mentality.

In his own words, Rooney said: “Jose brought that experience in, that winning mentality again. That’s showing in the players and it has maybe lacked over the last couple of years.”

Winning mentality

This affirmation shows how inspirational and motivational it is for the players when a coach instigates the right winning mentality within a group.

Motivation is considered as an extra energy and regardless of whether the player is an amateur or competing at top level, high level of self-motivation is a learned skill that everyone can obtain.

A motivated player gains the willingness to persist in training, to withstand stress and to make the needed sacrifices to achieve the desired goals (Dahlkoetter, 2012).  It is recognised that motivation has two forms, intrinsic and extrinsic.

The first stems from the feelings of satisfaction and fulfilment a footballer senses when achieving a goal, whilst the second derives from rewards or reprimands which go beyond the control of the footballer.

Certainly, a footballer needs to have strong mental skills to manage the stress and pressure of the game both during positive and negative outcomes.

A determining factor between failing and succeeding for an athlete is attributable to psychological dynamics. The determining factor between a good athlete and a great athlete can come down to the quality and extent of their psychological preparation and how well these athletes apply their skills during high pressure game situations (Pattison, 2012).

Athletes who wish to improve their performance need to work on developing specific mental skills for their particular sporting competition.

Supporting the importance of mental preparation, (Edwards & Steyn, 2008), state that mental training is as much as important as physical training and that it helps to develop psychological skills which assist every athlete to optimise their performance.

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