“He must score!”
“She needs to play well today!”
“We were awful today!”
I have been involved in coaching football for approximately 15 years (9 years in academy football) and if you excuse the tired cliché but if I received a pound for every time I uttered a statement like the above then…. well, you know the rest!
If truth be told, I would not have batted an eyelid at catching myself or anybody else for that matter make such a statement. Why would I? Anyone working in a football academy will be no stranger to hearing that they are working in an “elite environment”. Surely laying down non-negotiable demands on performance is just par for the course. Surely, demanding athletes perform would make them more likely to perform well. What is wrong with that?
Had it not been for my introduction to Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) during my MSc studies, I would most probably be oblivious to the potential problems with using such extreme and rigid utterances. You see, these statements, if internalise and held deeply by athletes, can be counterproductive for mental health and wellbeing, and may hinder goal attainment. However, I learned to skilfully challenge and dispute rigid and unhelpful beliefs, with a view to encouraging healthier emotions within the athletes I work with. Since learning about REBT, I have been thinking about how I could incorporate REBT into my coaching.
My issue was, whilst my learning benefitted from engaging in reading materials and message board discussions on a university portal with likeminded peers, I was not convinced such a similar approach would be as conducive for a group of teenagers! A further challenge was that due to the COVID pandemic, indoor spaces such as classrooms that would normally provide an ideal setting for REBT application were off limits. Therefore, any REBT work required some practical adaptability and creativity to engage the young athletes.
Fortunately, whilst reading for a particular University assignment I encountered a study conducted by Vertopoulos and Turner (2017) which, through a more novel application of REBT, managed to reduce the irrational beliefs found in a sample of Greek male adolescent athletes. The intervention consisted of applying REBT, combined with another intervention: personal-disclosure mutual-sharing (PDMS). PDMS is essentially an intervention that provides an opportunity for athletes to share a story from their personal or sporting lives that illustrates something about their character, motives or desires that were previously unknown to teammates (Holt & Dunn, 2006).
The prospect of incorporating REBT and PDMS (REPDMS) as joined forces as it were, was something I viewed as an exciting opportunity: an opportunity where all athletes would be encouraged to reflect on previous performances and for some athletes to step outside their comfort zone and speak up in front of their teammates and coaches. The group of players chosen to undertake the REPDMS would often use awfulising statements (e.g., “I/we have played terribly today”) to evaluate their own or the team’s performances, whilst others in the group showed very high frustration intolerance (e.g., kicking the air or throwing arms towards the ground indicating high levels of anguish).
What I did
The athletes were given a brief (20 minute) introduction to the principles of REBT, where the ABCDE model was explained. I provided a hypothetical example of how a striker who has not scored for 5 games may experience beliefs that, “they must score” and further explained how a more healthy belief may be, “it would be great to score but if I do not, I can still work hard for myself and my teammates and contribute to a performance”. At the end of the session athletes were handed an A4 printout with some very brief instructions regarding a task that they were asked to prepare for, in time for the next session. The instructions asked them to be prepared to speak for up to 2 minutes about a time they felt they had performed badly or a time they felt very annoyed or frustrated with themselves. Prompts to help them prepare included:
- What sort of emotions do you remember feeling?
- How did you perform immediately after you felt these emotions?
Lastly, the athletes were asked to consider how they would adapt their thinking to help manage their future emotions and performance if a similar event occurred.
As expected, there was an element of awkwardness to begin with. I had to fight every urge to say, “never mind, we will try again next week”; I stubbornly allowed for some awkward silence as the sheepish eye contact from all the athletes to one another started to intensify. Thankfully, one athlete did step forward and offer to read what he had prepared from his phone. He was applauded respectfully by the group which made the task of the next person, and the person after him, to step forward a little easier. In total, across two separate sessions we heard from 8 athletes.
What did athletes say?
A common theme that emerged in most of the accounts was around feeling intense frustration at making a mistake. This resulted in a belief that that they had let themselves and the team down. Similarly, others referred to these feelings of intense frustration and anger at themselves would result in further mistakes later on but it felt like a viscious circle they struggled to break out of.
It was widely recognised within the group that the low frustration tolerance experienced and the subsequent awfulising beliefs that followed had an adverse effect on performance and if in a similar situation again they would appreciate that whilst a mistake is bad there will still be further opportunities in a game or a season to produce more positive moments.
After the REPDMS, I collected some feedback from the athletes. Some of the feedback is as follows:
“I felt a little nervous to start but that eased once underway – it has given me more confidence if asked to do something like it again”.
“My confidence was boosted after speaking in front of everyone as everyone wanted to listen and it encouraged more to speak out. At the start I thought people would laugh at me, however they did not. I am pleased I did it and would do it again”.
“I think it was good because it gave us more confidence after speaking out in front of the group and giving our honest opinions. It helps us to be better when we are older and we if we ever do make it as a professional to speak in front of people with confidence”.
“It felt good to have an opportunity to speak on a more professional level rather than it be more informal when we talk about general stuff. It was more of a step up to talk to the group about issues and points that normally you may not talk about. It also helped to develop confidence to speak up in front of the group because it can be quite nerve wracking to do that”.
The feedback provided quite a profound moment for me. As a coach I realise the importance these boys place on being involved in an academy but I also momentarily forget how this perceived importance can manifest in very rigid and demanding beliefs. I am consciously aware of my role in helping provide moments of adversity to help prepare the boys for a future career in football. I am also better versed now at how important developing the mind is with regards to helping our boys achieve a better mental health and subsequent performance.
This task has helped to pre-face further conversations I have had with individuals around how disputing certain unhelpful and rigid beliefs is more likely to lead to them not showcasing the best possible version of themselves. It has also helped certain boys consider the ‘next best scenario’. For example, our strikers will have an unrelentingly strong preference to score. However, on the occasions they have not scored or have missed a chance they can take pride in helping the team through the effort and intensity in which the defend from the front or indeed the purposeful and aggressive running to catch the eye of a defender and create space for other team mates to exploit. Ultimately, as a coach I plan my coaching interventions or team talks with a greater focus on the language I use when speaking with the boys, perhaps more so than how big or small certain areas will be or indeed which formation we may use leading into a certain game.
Lastly, there is consistent acknowledgement within REBT based studies (Turner et al, 2014; Turner & Barker, 2014; Wood et al, 2017), to run further sessions to help create longer lasting effects from the intervention. Turner and Barker (2014) recommend 5-12 sessions helps clients to understand, practice and reaffirm the principles of REBT. This also provides opportunity for sessions to be delivered at a pace to not overwhelm recipients. It has taken me a substantial period of time to appreciate that REBT does not lessen competitive ambition more so it helps to appraise a pressured situation in a more adaptive way. Therefore, I think future recommendations around providing education to other key stakeholders in athletes’ lives such as coaches and parents would be beneficial in creating a shared and more helpful language around performing under pressure.
Written By Adam Batstone
Adam is currently the lead U13/U14 coach at Coventry City FC Academy. He is a UEFA A Licence coach and an MSc graduate in Sport and Exercise Psychology and will be working towards achieving HCPC status with BASES SEPAR in August 2022.