Written by Madeleine Robson
At the peak of her career, retired American footballer Mia Hamm was often asked the question in interviews, “What’s the most important thing for a soccer player to have?” To which she always answered, “Mental toughness”. It’s a question most top-level footballers are asked often, and you’ll find almost every high performing striker share the same – or similar - opinion.
To understand why mental toughness is such a strong attribute for strikers, it's first important to know that it's a learned skill. It takes years, if not decades, to master the art of being a mentally tough striker. To achieve it, a striker must train their mind as frequently and persistently as they would their physical body.
Carol Dweck describes how vital mental toughness is to the successful growth of a striker in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She writes:
"Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It's about seeing things in a new way. When people change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes plenty of time, effort, and mutual support."
What Dweck means by this is that by opening yourself up to learning and improving your skill as a striker - instead of furrowing away from small failures and insecurities - you'll inevitably grow as a player. This growth is years in the making, and it's the reason why your favourite professional strikers are so successful in the sport.
As a striker, it is without question that you'll face adversity throughout your sporting career. There may come a time where you don't make the cut for the team you wanted to be in, you've become injured and have to drop out of the tournament, you missed a goal at a crucial moment in the game, or your parents or coach are giving you a hard time about your recent on-field performance. The possibility of challenges in your football career is highly likely, but what will make you different, unique and more successful than your competitors is how you use this stress to your advantage.
Dweck also describes the idea of self-motivation as a catalyst to a successful striker perfectly, when she says, “I believe ability can get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.… It’s so easy to begin thinking you can just ‘turn it on’ automatically, without proper preparation. It takes real character to keep working as hard or even harder once you’re there. When you read about an athlete or team that wins over and over and over, remind yourself, ‘More than ability, they have character.”
Physical ability is a powerful tool, but if you have the means to "toughen" your mind through self-talk, visualisation and positive affirmations, you may well break the glass ceiling to your own limitations.
What does it mean to be a mentally tough striker?
Football is an intensely mental game; it embodies resilience and determination. Mental toughness in football means more than just becoming great at drills for soccer. There are specific attributes of your character that make you tough in moments of high stress:
- You need to be able to channel both good and bad energies that contribute to your performance.
- You need to able to use those energies to develop as a striker by way of confidence and motivation.
- You must have excellent self-discipline and control regarding your attitude on and off the field but also your cognitive discipline in asserting the right visual control and accuracy under pressure.
Tips to become a mentally tough striker.
Recovering from mistakes: Bill Cole, the Mental Game Coach from the United States, said it perfectly when he said, "stop trying to figure out why you make errors… the biggest problem [many players] have is that they attempt to figure out the reasons for their mistakes in the actual game, while the ball is live. Of course, when they do this, they are busy thinking, and they miss the next play and the next… my advice is to stop analysing what went wrong and keep playing. Making a big deal of mistakes is a sure-fire performance killer."
Mistakes – particularly for strikers – are all part of the game. In fact, even Messi and Ronaldo make mistakes, and often too. But what even the best strikers do is learn from their mistakes, not focus on them.
You might make a mistake on the field and get so frustrated with yourself that you bury your face in the palms of your hands. Instead, look at how your idol reacts on the field when they make a mistake; there may be some frustration there, but they've learned to move on very quickly.
Reacting to a win: It’s important to celebrate victories, no matter what position you play. But if you become too comfortable in your achievements, you're ignoring the fact that your skills might eventually stop developing. Helping your team win a game does not mean you should ignore your shortfalls. Immature strikers walk away from a win thinking there's nothing they need to improve on, but developed strikers know there's always room for improvement.
An excellent way to make sure you continue to improve is to put aside some time with your parents for a post-game debrief to map out all the positive and negative aspects of your plan and make an effort to work on them for the next game.
Confide in a mentor:
It’s also important to learn from a mentor – whether they’re a parent, grandparent, coach, senior player or friend - who can provide an outside opinion and give feedback you may not have thought of otherwise.
Thierry Henry is perhaps one of the world's greatest strikers. In his early career, he was recognised as a significant talent in France, but he struggled to find his path to excellence after a struggle at Juventus. He was signed by Arsene Wegner, who took a chance on the hungry striker and his performance took off. He is today recognised as being one of the greatest strikers to play in the premier league. His story proves that great mentors can provide support, encouragement and guidance in times where you need it the most.
Take all opponents seriously: the second you consider an opposing team as an easy target, you'll mentally sign yourself up for failure. All you'll do by saying to yourself things like, "this will be an easy win," or "this goalkeeper is weak," is put yourself into a mental hole, which will take a long time to dig yourself out of.
By resigning yourself to an "easy win", you're essentially telling yourself you don't have to try as hard as you usually would. A mentally strong striker is determined not to let assumptions get in the way of performance.
Instead, try setting yourself some unique challenges for the match ahead and take advantage of what you've learned from your soccer development into real-life situations. For example, how many people can you stop in their tracks? How many goals can you score? How many goals assists can you set-up? How many steals can you make from pressing the defence? Setting yourself your own game goals will distract you from relaxing into it.
Know that real success takes time: When you first started playing football, did you notice improvements in your technique every week? A striker's performance usually develops relatively rapidly at the beginning of their career but teeters off as the player gets older and matures. That's because young strikers tend to develop the fundamentals of football from a young age. It's the advanced skills that take time, discipline and diligence. You might be dreaming of mastering the art of certain drills for soccer, chipping and bending balls but know that these advanced skills aren't quickly learned.
Consider signing up to an elite soccer coaching organisation or soccer development program for boy’s and girl’s youth soccer, that will help you perfect your striking skills over time.
Dealing with injury: No one likes getting injured, but it’s unfortunately inevitable in the sport of football. Sometimes you might hate yourself for twisting your ankle, but by speaking positively to yourself, you can coax yourself away from the kind of despair that eats at your love for the sport and your self-confidence.
Use injury as an opportunity to toughen your mind. Instead of saying things like "I have had enough of the sport," or "my knee's going to take too long to heel," start saying things like "I was injured, but I'm recovering quickly," or "this won't stop me from getting on the field once I'm fully recovered." That way, you'll continue to be honest to yourself, but you won't let that injury interfere with your motivation.
Look after yourself: Mental rest and relaxation are vital for athletes who are striving for peak performance. Relaxation skills can help you reduce mental and physical anxiety, both in the mind and body and help you to concentrate during training and matches.
There are several techniques you can perform to stay calm during play and at home. Things like breathing exercises and mantra meditation are great examples of using your mind to control feelings of nervousness and anxiety.
To perform breath-controlled relaxation properly, you need to practise it over and over. Try doing it for 20 minutes each day as you’re going off to sleep. Steps include:
- 3-4 minutes of focusing on your breathing.
- 2-3 minutes of concentrating on the sound of your breathing and be sure to relax.
- 3-4 minutes of focusing on how your chest rises and falls each time you take a breath.
- Ten minutes of focused relaxation and controlled breathing with your eyes closed. Count down from 5 seconds to 1 and open your eyes.
If you're losing the mental toughness battle, and you need support, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a parent or adult. There are several organisations dedicated to providing mental health support and emotional assistance, like Lifeline and Better Of With You.
Learn from your idols: Take note of and learn from how the Alex Morgans and Sam Kerrs of professional football conduct themselves. No doubt, you'll notice a big difference in how they act in the face of adversity, compared with some of their less mature teammates.
Alex Morgan is another excellent example of a striker who uses her mental strength to optimise her performance on the field. She once said, "A lot of people think soccer is physically taxing on our bodies, but it's actually just as taxing mentally."
One way that Morgan prepares before a game is to move into a state of calmness and focused before she runs out onto the field. “I never get too hyped up before a game – I feel like that leads to having restless legs and mind. I do a lot of mental visualisation and use breathing techniques just to calm myself down before a game.”
The top-performing strikers are almost always humble, gracious and headstrong. Like David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo was the centre of public distains in a major international tournament as a striker for Manchester. What made him overcome this hostility was his motivation and resilience to become the best in the world, and he achieved what he set out to do.
Take Didier Drogba of Chelsea – the underdog forward who arrived as a player in his mid-twenties in 2005 to become Chelsea's Best Ever Player in just seven years. Under the watchful eye of Jose Mourinho, he's shaped a handful of big matches in his career by his mental focus and inherent determination to "win".
Daniel Sturridge, an English professional striker, has been shaped by Drogba's mental toughness. He said in an interview with The Mirror “Being strong mentally is the one thing that can separate you from anyone else… When I worked with Didier Drogba at Chelsea, the one strength he had above everybody was his mental strength." Proving that even professionals learn from exceptionally strong strikers.
Think positively: When a player doesn't perform to the standard that he or she wished they did, it can have a negative impact on their own self-worth and image. It's common for young strikers to put themselves down after minor errors, but the effect negative affirmations can have on their wellbeing can be dangerous.
Research in football shows that positive self-affirmation – or self-talk - reduces a striker's defensiveness and has proved to minimise stress responses and boost performance on the field.
So how can we reduce these negative messages?
In sport, the goal is to swap out negative self-talk with more positive messages.
Here are some positive self-talk affirmation examples:
- I refuse to dwell on bad plays! I’m ready and focused on the next play!
- When I miss one shot, I’m already focused on making the next one.
- I am 100% dedicated to becoming a great striker, and I will do what it takes.
- My coordination is steadily improving, and it shows in my game.
- I am becoming a fantastic dribbler.
- I am a very mentally tough footballer
A mentally tough striker can remain calm and stable under pressure. They can stay in control of their emotions and keep focused on the task at hand, even when their opponent is giving them grief or in crucial moments of the game. A mentally tough striker learns from mistakes but doesn't let their mistakes control them. They can keep their confidence without getting affected by bad calls, the time on the clock or the numbers on the scoreboard.
Mental toughness is not a one-size-fits-all solution to becoming a great striker. As you develop, you'll be required to work at your techniques and adapt to change and unexpected circumstances on the field. You'll find that your process of mental toughness will change as you get older and mature as a striker, so it is not a "set and forget" method for excelling.