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Psychology dominates in soccer, but not psychologists

There is a lot of talk about psychology in soccer and yesterday we heard Antonio Conte’s phrases on the anxiety of his players, Fonseca’s phrases on his team’s 20 minute blackout and Andrea Pirlo’s phrases on the winning mentality that Juventus must have. Some time ago Alessandro Costacurta had spoken about the emotional intelligence that should guide the players.

These phrases show how high is the sensitivity of this sport world on psychology, but the question is that they are less than the fingers of one hand those who work in a soccer club. Who deals with it in the team?The coach is the psychologist of the team, on the one hand it is a function that is quite usual for those who play a leadership role in any group, on the other hand it represents an additional degree of responsibility that he does not share with anyone because within the staff there is no sports psychologist.

This absence, obviously, is not of today but it is a constant with some exceptions. Currently, to my knowledge, only Juventus and Verona have one working with players.
It doesn’t get any better in the youth sport and in soccer schools where they are quite common but often with marginal roles.

We are very far from the role that the psychologist plays in the US club. Robert Nideffer and Kenneth Ravizza have worked for years with many American football and baseball teams. The coach behavior evaluation system in youth baseball was introduced over 40 years ago now. In soccer in the UK, Chris Harwood proposed a soccer academy coach development program based on psychological characteristics, which is now used by soccer clubs and is widespread in the English-speaking world.

In our country we are stuck with the experiences of individual professionals, few in number, and in any case the interest of clubs is scarce.

How anxiety is influenced by the type of sport practiced

Whiteley, G. E. (2013). How trait and state anxiety influence athletic performance. (Doctoral dissertation). Department of Psychology, Ohio, Wittenberg University.

Some research has suggested that participants in team sports are more anxious, dependent, and extraverted than individual sport athletes (Martens, Vealey, & Burton, 1990). Additionally, individual athletes have been identified as less alert and more sensitive and creative than team sport participants (Cox, 2007). Conversely, Nicholls, Polman, and Levy (2010) examined several athletes of varying experience levels that participated in an assortment of different sports and found that individual athletes displayed lower self-confidence and higher somatic anxiety levels than team athletes.
Often, sports such as track, golf, and swimming are perceived as individual sports, while sports such as soccer, football, and basketball are viewed as team sports. However, research has been largely unsuccessful in providing an accurate definition of how the distinction is made between individual and team sport participants. For example, a track athlete could be concerned about performing well because his/her score affects the team, rather than wanting to improve his/her own personal statistics. Similarly, a soccer player could desire to perform well to impress friends, parents, or coaches, rather than contribute to a team effort. Essentially, an athlete’s team orientation is dependent on how he/she defines his/her participation in sport.

What is the competitive trait anxiety

The competitive trait anxiety is the tendency to perceive competitive situations as threatening me and to respond to these situations with feelings of fear and tension. Martens model includes four elements.

Objective competitive situation,represents the actual demands placed by the context and includes: the relevance of the competition, the characteristics of the opponents, the difficulty of the task, the competition conditions, the extrinsic reinforcements and the presence during the competition of people significant for the athlete. These environmental demands determine what an athlete must do to achieve a positive result.

Subjective competitive situation with the emphasis on how the athlete perceives, accepts and evaluates the objective competition situation.This aspect is mediated by the set of individual psychological characteristics. this dimension of subjective perception of the competitive situation, which refers to individual psychological processes, can be identified through the evaluation of the level of competitive trait anxiety, which is an essential parameter to assess the tendency of the athlete to perceive the objective competitive situation as threatening.

Individual reactions to competition are of three types: behavioral reactions, such as performance appropriate to one’s skill level; physiological reactions, changes more or less appropriate to competitive demands; and psychological reactions, changes in levels of state anxiety or perception of competence.

The consequences of performance, which in sport are associated with the result obtained by the athlete in a competition. Generally the consequences are positive in the case of victory and negative in the case of defeat and knowledge of the subject’s sports history in relation to his or her successes and failures is useful in determining how an athlete will approach subsequent competitive commitments.

The data about the stress from coronavirus

An international study, led by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Spain) spin-off Open Evidence, has revealed that the mental health of 41% of the UK population is at risk as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The research project, which involves the participation of researchers from the Glasgow University, Università degli Studi di Milano, Università degli Studi di Trento, Tilburg University and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, indicates that almost 60% of the UK population require “the government not only to focus on containing the virus, but also on preventing a major economic crisis”.

The data collected in the first survey, which sampled 10,551 people (3,523 in the United Kingdom, 3,524 in Spain and 3,504 in Italy) between 24 April and 1 May, show that most of the population between 18 and 75 years of age report having felt down, depressed, or hopeless about the future at some point during this period: 57% in the United Kingdom, 67% in Spain and 59% in Italy. In the words of Cristiano Codagnone, co-founder of one of the participating entities, UOC spin-off Open Evidence, “the data provides a picture on the impact of the lockdown and we need to be prepared for the associated social and health consequences of that”.

The analysis of this data alongside additional factors such as housing type (full ownership, mortgaged property, rental, etc.), living conditions (square metres of accommodation, number of people living there, presence of school-age children), loss of employment, closure of own business, loss of income and access to COVID-19 testing has provided a general gauge in relation to people’s state of mental health in the three countries. The results reveal that the mental health of 41% of people in the UK is at risk, with figures of 46% and 42% registered for Spain and Italy, respectively.

How to cope with coronavirus angst

Right now we’re training to manage our angst.

The angst is not about anything determined, it has no precise object on its way. The fear but not the angst is always directed towards a situation that frightens or worries and that can be faced with a logical and rational process.

Angst is about a state of mind that isolates the individual from the world and makes them prey to their own deep insecurity. Existential angst is the fear of not being able to live fully what it is committing us to, because there is no guarantee that by virtue of our abilities we will be happy. We must try and try again but without knowing whether our commitment will be enough. The coronavirus generates these same psychological conditions, I do whatever it takes to prevent the virus but I do not know if it will be enough and nobody can say until this war with the virus is won.

We have to wait with patient, developing the disposition of mind of those who accept and bear with moderation a pain or an adversity. It is patient who follows the rules imposed by the government to reduce the risks of contagion; since the rule is a norm, considered valid in every situation and binding, formulated with a logical process of abstraction based on science data and experience. These must be followed with confidence that corresponds to firm moral or intellectual certainty, especially if it has been acquired by overcoming conflicting doubts and reasons.

In short, we beat our angst by following rules with patience and conviction.

Mental disorders and football

We don’t know a lot about common mental disorders of professional footballers, there are few research and scientific information (Gouttebarge and Aoki, 2014).

A recent study published in Journal of Sport Science and Medicine by Gouttebarge, Back, Aoki  and Kerkhoffs (Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 2015, 14, 811-818) investigated symptoms related to distress, anxiety/depression or substance abuse/dependence,  typically referred as symptoms of common mental disorders (CMD).

The aims of this study were “to determine the prevalence of symptoms related to CMD (distress, anxiety/depression, sleeping disturbance, adverse alcohol behaviour, adverse nutrition behaviour) in professional footballers from five European countries and  to explore associations of the outcome measures under study with life events and career dissatisfaction among professional footballers.”

In this study were selected 540 professional footballers from five European countries (Finland, France, Norway, Spain and Sweden) and the method used was an electronic questionnaire.

The symptoms considered by authors were: distress, anxiety/depression, sleeping disturbance, adverse alcohol behavior, adverse nutrition behavior.  Stressors like Life events and Career dissatisfaction were also considerate by authors, The results says that “the highest prevalence rates of symptoms related to CMD were:

  • 18% (Sweden) for distress
  • 43% (Norway) for anxiety/depression
  • 33% (Spain) for sleeping disturbance
  • 17% (Finland) for adverse alcohol behavior
  • 74% (Norway) for adverse nutrition behavior

This study also emphasized that “in Finland, France and Sweden, both life events and career dissatisfaction were associated with distress, anxiety/depression, adverse alcohol behaviour, and adverse nutrition behavior.”

In conclusion, this study is very important and should be supported more with new studies in other countries considering the number of football players in the world involved. Other studies revealed that symptoms related to CMD were as prevalent as in other populations, ranging from 10% for distress to 19% for adverse alcohol use, and 26% for anxiety/depression (Gouttebarge et al., 2015).

(Review by Emiliano Bernardi  from Sports Science and Medicine, 2015, 14, 811-818, http://www.jssm.org)

The mental coaching for the ultramarathons

  • Il prossimo 28 giugno centinaia di atleti parteciperanno alla 40^ edizione della Pistoia-Abetone. Ad attenderli ci sarà un duro percorso di 50 km. Possiamo dare qualche consiglio su come affrontare al meglio questa gara?

La pazienza è la prima qualità che deve dimostrare di possedere un ultra-maratoneta. All’inizio della gara ci si deve annoiare, nel senso che il ritmo della corsa deve essere facile ma non bisogna cadere nella tentazione di correre più veloce di quello che si è programmato.

  •  In una competizione così lunga sono inevitabili i momenti di crisi. Come è possibile superarli?

Nella corsa di lunga distanza le difficoltà sono inevitabili, quindi la domanda non è tanto “se ci troveremo in difficoltà” ma “quando verrà quel momento cosa devo fare per superarlo”. La risposta non può essere improvvisata in quel momento ma deve essere già pronta, poiché anche in allenamento avremo incontrato difficoltà di quel tipo. Quindi in allenamento: “come mi sono comportato, che cosa ho pensato, quali sensazioni sono andato a cercare dentro di me per uscire da una crisi?”. In gara abbiamo dentro di noi queste risposte, dobbiamo tirarle fuori. Ogni runner in quei momenti deve servirsi della propria esperienza, mettendo a fuoco le immagini e le emozioni che già in passato gli sono state utili.

  • Malgrado le difficoltà e i sacrifici per affrontare una gara di lunga distanza, il popolo dei maratoneti è in aumento. Come si spiega questa tendenza?

La corsa corrisponde a un profondo bisogno dell’essere umano. Infatti noi siamo geneticamente predisposti alla corsa di lunga distanza e più in generale si può affermare che il movimento è vita mentre la sedentarietà è una causa documentata di morte. Sotto questo punto di vista la corsa si è tramutata nelle migliaia di anni in attività necessaria per sopravvivere agli attacchi degli animali e per procacciarsi il cibo in un’attività che viene oggi svolta per piacere e soddisfazione personale. Inoltre, oggi come al tempo dei nostri antenati, la corsa è un fenomeno collettivo, è un’attività che si svolge insieme agli altri. Per l’homo sapiens era un’attività di squadra, svolta dai cacciatori per cacciare gli animali; ai nostri tempi la corsa soddisfa il bisogno di svolgere un’attività all’aria aperta insieme ai propri amici.

  •  Cosa non bisognerebbe mai fare a livello mentale in una competizione sportiva?

Non bisogna mai pensare al risultato ma concentrarsi nel caso della corsa sul proprio ritmo e sulla sensazioni fisiche nelle parti iniziali e finali della gara. Nella fase centrale è meglio avere pensieri non correlati al proprio corpo.

  •  Chi è per lei un campione?

Chiunque sia in grado di soddisfare i propri bisogni è il campione di se stesso e deve essere orgoglioso di avere raggiunto questo obiettivo personale. Quando invece ci riferiamo con questo termine ai top runner, i campioni sono quelli che riescono a mantenere stabili per un determinato periodo di tempo prestazioni che sono oggettivamente al limite superiore delle performance umane nella maratona e che in qualche occasione sono riusciti a superare.

  •  Nella sua esperienza di psicologo al seguito di atleti partecipanti alle Olimpiadi, c’è un ricordo o un aneddoto che le è rimasto nel cuore?

Prima di prove importanti i campioni provano le stesse emozioni di ogni altra persona. Spesso le percepiscono in maniera esagerata, per cui possono essere terrorizzati di quello che li aspetta. La differenza con gli altri atleti è che invece riescono a dominarle e a fornire prestazioni uniche. Ho vissuto questa esperienza per la prima volta ad Atlanta, 1996, in cui un atleta che poi vinse la medaglia d’argento, non voleva gareggiare in finale perché si sentiva stanco ed esausto. Questa stessa situazione l’ho incontrata in altre occasioni ma questi atleti sono sempre riusciti a esprimersi al loro meglio nonostante queste intense espressioni di paura.

  • Analizzando il panorama dell’atletica italiana, si ha la sensazione che i risultati migliori arrivino da atleti anagraficamente non così giovani come ad esempio negli anni Ottanta e che il vivaio di talenti stenti a decollare. Quale interpretazione possiamo dare di questo fenomeno e come evitare l’alta percentuale di drop-out sportivo nell’adolescenza?

Nel libro intitolato “Nati per correre” di A. Finn e dedicato agli atleti keniani vengono prese in considerazioni molte ipotesi sul loro successo emerge con chiarezza che la molla principale risiede nel loro desiderio di avere successo.

“Prendi mia figlia, ha aggiunto, è bravissima nella ginnastica, ma non credo farà la ginnasta. Probabilmente andrà all’università e diventerà medico. Ma un bambino keniano, che non fa altro che scendere al fiume per prendere l’acqua e correre a scuola, non ha molte alternative all’atletica. Certo anche gli altri fattori sono determinanti, ma la voglia di farcela e riscattarsi è la molla principale” (p.239).

  •  Si può affermare che la pratica di uno sport svolga un ruolo di prevenzione rispetto a disturbi mentali quali l’ansia e la depressione?

Lo sport e l’attività fisica promuovono il benessere se vengono svolte come attività del tempo libero e per il piacere di sentirsi impegnati in qualcosa che si vuole liberamente fare.  Al contrario quando vengono svolte allo scopo di fornire prestazioni specifiche possono determinare, come qualsiasi altra attività umana, difficoltà di ordine psicologico e fisico. Direi che vale anche per lo sport e l’attività fisica la stessa regola che è valida per qualsiasi attività umana. Il problema non proviene da cosa si fa: sport agonistico o ricreativo ma da come si fa: crescita e soddisfazione personale o ricerca del risultato a ogni costo e dagli obiettivi del contesto sociale e culturale nel quale queste attività vengono praticate: sviluppare la persona attraverso lo sport o vincere è l’unica cosa che conta.

(From Runners e benessere, Giugno 2015)

Self-esteem, performance and training

Every day I realize more and more how the self-esteem of the athletes is challenge during the races. It happens for the high expectations that those who have high commitment have toward their performances. This does not mean that athletes are individuals with a low level of self-esteem.  The situations they face require they test every time the will to do their best. Only the musicians live in situations of this kind or students who want to excel. If these are the circumstances that athletes have to face, it’s necessary that the daily workout is different than in the past, because it’s one thing is to learn/improve the technique, but something very different is knowing replicate during competitions, when the emotional tension can destroy even the best coaching. Are the coaches aware of this difference  and are the athletes willing to get more involved ?

Competition: what anxiety