A Winning Mentality

The mental side of sport is often totally overlooked or misunderstood by fans not just about football but about all sports. For many the only time they see is at a major athletics meeting when when a 100, 200 or 400m race is about to be run. Visialisation for these athletes is a key element to success.

Sunday football and professional football are worlds apart and I'm not talking about playing ability wise here but mentally wise. The Sunday morning footballer is a reactive footballer, few of them read the game to any great degree, they wait for something to happen and react to it. Standing on the side line you can see what they should be doing which often differs greatly from what they actually do. A professional footballer not only has to react but has be pro-active and make things happen.

He must know his own role inside out, he must know where he should be on the pitch at any given moment and where his colleagues should be. That is the essence of our system and partly why it takes some players more time to adjust than others. Within that structure comes the players individuality.

Players and teams can have a high level of technical ability but if they are unable to manage their emotions, think clearly under duress, and maintain confidence, they will be less effective.  It is therefore important for the coaching staff to develop the players mental toughness. In training you can only replicate pressure to a limited level as you can't reproduce the intensity and adrenalin of a proper game. The role of the Europa League, the League Cup and the FA Cup in that respect are crucial to a squad players mental development.

A coach is looking for a players reaction in certain situations, there may be only a few times in a game that the player is actually under any great pressure, how he reacts at these times is more informative than the other 80 minutes playing without pressure.

Mental toughness has three major components that a player can learn:

1. Control 
An athlete has the absolute control of his attitude, his body language and his work ethic.  His attitude is determined by his internal thoughts and the confidence he has in himself and his team. His body language can reveal this to opponents if the player is not conscious of it, or to the fans. If I asked you to name two lazy footballers I would guess a fair few of you would say Berbatov and Adebayor. Work ethic speaks for itself, has a player given 100% and again to those watching the answer is no.

2. Coping
Things happen if life that are not in under the players control, an injury for instance, a period out of the side waiting for a chance or off the field events for instance. How a player handles these highs and lows depends upon his mental toughness, the tougher obviously handle them better. Player X is a big game player, we all know of players who have been out of form but when the chips are down in a big game they produce the goods.

This is essential in a striker, you may only get one chance a game, you have to take it. It's high pressure which some cope with better than others and we could argue the merits of Soldado and Defoe for ages here. For me Defoe slightly lets himself down but where he has quality is that he doesn't let a miss affect him. He doesn't focus on the negative but continues to focus ready for the next chance that may come along. Time will tell us if Soldado is more clinical, if he makes the right mental decisions at the crucial moments. Each had one clear cut chance in the last two games one made the right mental choices and took his, one made the wrong mental choice and didn't.

You see some players going ballistic when a referee makes a bad decision, he is never going to change his mind and how many then get themselves booked immediately afterwards simple because they couldn't control their emotions. That emotion has to be channeled into the right areas and not wasted on areas that do nothing to help the team.

3. Consistency
Consistency is a key element in any sport, a player who gives you one good game, then a bad one, then a good one affects the team. His teammates never know if he is going to produce or not which causes doubt and throws them another mental challenge to overcome. The Mr Dependables will always be valued, they provide the stability and ease the worries of others. If you can rely on your teammates you'll be less stressed and more consistent yourself. The accident waiting to happen defender throws everyone into confusion. A keeper that makes too many mistakes creates doubt in his back four which causes them to make errors compounding the problem.

Andre Villas-Boas uses the mentality of individuals as a key component in his squad make-up. If a player doesn't demonstrate the right attitude his days are numbered. Both Emmanuel Adebayor and Benoit Assou-Ekotto have fallen foul of this, both were up for sale this summer. Their attitude was deemed disruptive so they were removed from the squad environment. Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe have also had disagreements with Villas-Boas but having aired their views both have knuckled down and shown the attitude Villas-Boas expects of them.

AVB came to the Lane with the task of changing the clubs mentality, unlucky loser was not good enough. Unlucky is simply an excuse for not good enough. We have had a series of campaign just falling short, to put it bluntly we have bottled it. When the pressure was on the Arsenal players produced the goods and ours didn't. That's the bottom line. Mentally they were stronger than us.

The result is a staff turnaround, new players without that baggage and existing players who have shown a mental toughness of their own. Michael Dawson epitomises those mental qualities. He had the option to leave but refused and said I know I won't get much game time, I know I'm fifth choice but I'll stay and fight for my place. We all know how that turned out, he became one of AVB's regulars.

Winning is to be expected now, winning trophies is to be expected, Champions League is to be expected, hating losing is to be expected as is never giving up. Excuses are not accepted. That is the new Tottenham that some fans have embraced and some haven't.

A year into his contract AVB has the complete backing of the board, he has proven himself to be a quality manager. The players have had time to work with him and know what is expected of them and that gives him the licence to be ruthless. You perform or someone will take your place, that helps him to create that winning mentality.

A comment was made to me the other day travelling to The Lane by a better player than me and he said to me, you got to a half decent standard because you wanted to win. He was right I did, I hated losing, they soon learnt not to talk to me straight after a losing game and I would happily give players a piece of my mind if I didn't think they were giving it 100%. I wanted to be the best I could be and did pre-game training on my own to hone my skills ready for the game, nobody else did. Now the same club has pre-game practice for everyone every week. Mentally I was stronger than others.

So how does a player improve their mental toughness and create a winning mentality? Well I'll defer to Gary Neville on that one who talks about it on this video: Gary Neville: Become a Master of Mentality

Shifting the mentality from unlucky loser to a no excuse culture takes time, hopefully at the end of the season we will see it bear fruit with a Champions League place and perhaps a trophy before a title challenge next season.

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