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Calling all stressed out World Cup players: How to train your brain to win!

Crowd watching a football game at St James Park pitch in Newcastle

By Sophie Cannon, 8 July 2014

For football stars, playing in the World Cup is the ultimate dream.... but nerves, anxiety and pressure can turn the dream into an absolute nightmare.

But there’s good news for all nervous football players out there – new research from Bangor University suggests that you can train your brain to cope with high-pressure scenarios.

Scared? Good! You’re on the path to success

What’s the best way to cope with a high-pressure situation? To relax and stay positive, right?

Wrong! Bangor University research into professional sport shows it actually helps to be aware of the threats you are facing, so that your brain can work out how to deal with them.

The research project was led by Stuart Beattie, Lecturer of Psychology, and Gavin Lawrence, Lecturer of Motor Control and Learning.

Stuart explains: 'We found that elite sport stars who were described as being “mentally tough” by their coaches were more aware of the prospect of negative repercussions from under-performing. These athletes look for threats that could lead to repercussions and deal with them far in advance of their less mentally tough counterparts.

‘In other words, their natural character trait gave them the edge through an inbuilt “early threat detection system”. This enabled them to set in motion coping strategies in order to deal with such threats early and as a result, they performed better under stress.’

So it helps to be a little scared?

Stuart says, 'We have to think counter-intuitively because a perceived threat of any nature is usually accompanied by an emotional response such as worry. Cognitive anxiety is a well-known precursor to poor performance, but this is exactly what we need to induce.’

The team worked with elite cricket stars in a two-year programme to improve mental toughness. The players were told they would have to perform ‘punishments’ – like having to wash the team’s kit or serve breakfast – for failure during pressured training scenarios.

Stuart continues, 'The players were made aware of the likely punishments prior to every pressure scenario, along with clear instructions about what constituted the failure. This gave the players opportunities to experience threats and disappointments associated with performance failure. This sensitises the athlete to the threat that caused performance failure.

'To counteract emotional responses such as worry, the research and coaching team provided the athletes with an array of coping strategies aimed at dealing with the initial performance failure. As a result, athletes regularly exposed to punishment-conditioned stimuli in the training environment, picked up threat early and dealt with it.

’The athletes we worked with showed significant improvement in their coach’s rating of mental toughness and objective performance levels as a result of being in the programme.’

Training with constant stress

As well as training athletes to recognise and cope with threat, it also helps to practice under ‘high anxiety’ conditions.

Gavin explains, ’Regularly training under higher anxiety conditions can help acclimatise players. These conditions should closely represent the movements and emotions of the upcoming event, such as those experienced during competition - for example, ego threat and loss of financial reward.

‘Results of experiments showed that performers exposed to anxiety for differing numbers of practice trials performed better under pressure. Specifically, practising with anxiety in at least half of all training sessions resulted in an increase in performance in the subsequent stress test.’

However, a word of caution to any team coaches – go easy on your players at first, and then gradually increase the pressure over time.

Gavin says, 'When it comes to complex skills, introducing anxiety at a later stage of learning resulted in improved performance compared to introducing it from the start of learning.

‘Training for success in penalties at the World Cup could be the difference between putting the ball past the keeper and scuffing their shots. If teams are to improve their penalty shooting and give their takers the greatest chance of success, our research recommends that a tailored mental toughness programme may just help.’

So next time you’re feeling nervous on the pitch, embrace it and keep playing!

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