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Using football to help forge resilience


How can football help forge resilience? Every player will experience failure and success. It is how the player uses these experiences, their victories, and their challenges, that makes the difference.

All sports have often been referred to as natural laboratories where one can examine the psychology of human behaviour. The field is an excellent environment for learning how to craft your response to life’s hardships. There are multiple opportunities for learning how to cope with the ‘lows’ in the mundane and common experiences of football. Players might face having an injury, not being chosen for the team, losing the match or many matches, disrespect from rival fans, or the pressure to succeed.

We can learn from athletes who have continued to show resilience and progress despite facing multiple challenges. It is their resilience, or in other words, their ability to respond well and bounce back, not just react to these challenges, that enables them to have victory on and off the field. Let’s look at three ‘habits’ that can make this possible.


Positive reframing

Balanced thinking is a resilience skill that can be learnt in life, to overcome challenges, and adversities and to reach goals. Positive reframing is a way of looking at a negative or challenging situation in a different light, or in an optimistic way. This may look like thinking about the benefits of a negative situation, or it may look like identifying an opportunity, or a lesson to be learned. Alternatively, it may look like putting things into perspective. It is a form of restructuring cognitions.

A great example of positive reframing is Novak Djokovic’s response to being questioned about his ‘failures’ on the court.

“I think it’s all a personal perspective, how you perceive things in life. It can be really tough, and it can be really easy. Everything starts and ends with us in our minds. To sit here and talk about how tough it is and you have people starving to death…there is no point in talking about that. It’s just the way it is. As an athlete I have to face these challenges, I will call them, and if I overcome them or not, it’s just a matter of work that I have put in, luck at times, and circumstances that I’m in. And that’s it.”

Firstly, it must be pointed out that Djokovic nicely summarises the very reason why IQ Football Academy is so focussed on brain-centred training and neuroscience-based mentoring – our minds have the most influential impact on everything in life. He also puts the problem into perspective. It is perspective that can often draw our attention to a broader picture and help us to realise that failure on the football field is not fatal. Perspective can help us with resilience.

He speaks about overcoming challenges – the loss is not the end for him. If a challenge is reframed it changes the physical connections in our brains. A challenge changes from a memory of failure to something far more positive: a lesson, an opportunity for growth, a bad day…It leaves room for a hopeful future, and not one doomed to failure. The key is responding to these circumstances with the right mindset that results in constructive emotional responses, and essentially enough resilience to bounce back, withstand the pressure and keep moving forward.

Examining the evidence

Examining the evidence is a strategy used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to evaluate specific thoughts or beliefs to better understand the accuracy of those specific thoughts and beliefs. It works to help decrease irrational beliefs about a situation and so decrease unhealthy emotional and behavioural responses. It involves examining the assumptions that you’ve made about a situation because our minds can overestimate and exaggerate. Putting your thoughts to the test is a good way of bringing a more realistic and logical pattern of thought into the equation. And essentially, helps you to build a mindset of resilience.

An example of this in football is if a player receives an injury during a critical season when they could be scouted by an agency for a club or scholarship. A catastrophic view of the situation might be that the player’s dreams of playing professionally have come to an end. By testing those thoughts, a better outcome might be discovered and most importantly, a lesson might be learned about resilience and bouncing back from setbacks.

For example, the player might ask for three different opinions (or more) from medical professionals about the likelihood to return to play, and the effect of the injury on future-play. They could chat to coaches, agencies, scouts, and organisations about the different routes to professional play, and how that might still be an option in the future. They could evaluate other options of play. They could look at whether becoming a professional footballer is the only option they’ve considered and what other opportunities within the football world might look like for them if playing football was no longer an option. Having this kind of mindset will help to forge resilience in their sporting career, but also in life in general.

Having a growth mindset

We often refer to Carol Dweck’s research on a growth mindset and a fixed mindset because it affects so many areas of life on, and off, the field. A simple example of a growth mindset in football is when a striker’s response to missing the goal, and losing over a series of matches is, “we haven’t won yet…”. This answer doesn’t only leave room for improvement, it leaves room for victory, and it goes as far as expecting it. This is what resilience is made of!

If we’re unable to look forward to a better outcome, it’s difficult to move forward. And the reality is, in football and in life, there are seasons of victory and there are seasons of losses. Football provides us with opportunities to see that failure isn’t fatal, and rejection, injuries, setbacks, losses, or unfair treatment can make you stronger on and off the field if you allow it to.

Research has shown that players who don’t perceive failure as the result, are less likely to burn out and are more likely to demonstrate resilience. In adverse circumstances, they often demonstrate less anger, anxiety, and depression. The most important attribute of a person with resilience, who can bounce back stronger from challenges, is that they see their response, not the event that has happened to them, as the determining factor of their future. They acknowledge that their success is dependent on their internal state, rather than external circumstances. This places choices in their control, and it essentially empowers them.

Youth football is a brilliant platform to test, better, and perfect our response to adversity. It is a perfect place to practice our reactions under pressure. Life presents plenty of pressured situations, and if we can learn how to respond on the football field, in front of fans and rivals, we will be able to do the same in school exams, interviews, and during workplace pressures.


Related tag: football academy training

Cognitive behavioural therapy, examining the evidence, Football, Growth Mindset, positive reframing, Resilience, Soccer, sports

Sean Szabo

Recognised as a leading brain-centred football coach in Gauteng, Sean Szabo is an English FA qualified coach who has worked internationally assisting player’s motor and technical football skills, as well as their cognitive development on and off the field. IQ Football was founded in 2015 by Sean as an amalgamation of his passion for football coaching, mentoring, and brain-centred research.