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PASSION OF THE PLAYOFFS

MLS Cup Playoffs: Soccer psychologist explains how to thrive under pressure

We speak to soccer psychologist Dr. Brad Miller about playoff pressure, in-built pessimism, and the importance of having fun.

Update:
How to play under pressure
Jayne Kamin-OnceaUSA TODAY Sports

There are few things in sport that can match the drama and the excitement of the playoffs. It’s a period of high stakes and high pressure that can make or break a season and define a player’s legacy.

For sports fans the agony and the ecstasy is all part of the drama, but for the players on the field the immense pressure of playoff competition can be crippling.

For decades the mental side of soccer was largely ignored. But in recent years there has been a rethinking of the role that psychology plays in elite sport and athletes are increasingly viewing it as a new frontier of self-improvement.

At the forefront of that change is Dr. Brad Miller, founder of sport psychology platform Soccer Resilience. Miller and co-founder MLS Cup winner Wells Thompson are on a mission to help players realise their full potential by unpicking the brain’s evolutionary wiring.

Miller was a Division One college soccer player in his youth and, although he competed at a high level, struggled with self-doubt.

“I never had it as a high school player, it was like my therapy as a kid, but when I got to college that flipped upside down,” Miller explains. “On the outside I looked pretty calm but I was suffering in silence, thinking that I was weak. I had that thought of ‘Why can’t I just pull it together?’”

The pressure of elite competition can be overwhelming, even for the most seasoned professional.
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The pressure of elite competition can be overwhelming, even for the most seasoned professional.OLI SCARFFAFP

After completing his psychology degree and hanging up his boots, Miller began working in sports psychology and quickly realised that the mental health of top athletes was often ignored. Five years ago he founded Soccer Resilience and now works with professional players in both the men’s and women’s game to help them optimise performance.

As part of our Passion of the Playoffs series, we sat down with Miller for a conversation about dealing with the pressure of the post-season...

Are there any traits that you often see in successful playoff teams?

“In my experience the teams who do best in the playoffs are those who have the ability to have some fun. Bill Beswick, a sports psychologist from the UK who worked with Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, said that when he worked with teams he could usually tell by the end of the first day how things would go. If he saw a team that couldn’t even laugh in training, they typically would not go very far.”

“Of course, there’s a time to be locked in and focused but you have to be able to have some fun. Our brain essentially has two modes: threat and challenge. When teams are having fun they are in challenge mode, it helps the brain settle so we can lock into what we’re doing.”

How should coaches approach crucial playoff games?

“Coaches that walk into the locker room before a game and are so serious, all that does is make the players more tense. They said ‘Woah, coach is really stressed? This must be a big deal.”

“Our brain is then wired to go into threat mode because it is always anticipating things going negatively. So if coaches can be a bit more light, that can be a big help in going far in the playoffs.”

Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson was often praised for the relationship he fostered with players.
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Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson was often praised for the relationship he fostered with players.PAUL ELLISAFP

What mental challenges do players face in high-pressure situations?

“Everybody – you, me, Lionel Messi – are hard-wired from birth to have 80% of our daily thoughts be negative. This means that we have four negative thoughts in our head for every one positive thought.”

“So if I’m a pro player in the playoffs, the night before a game my brain will put in four thoughts of things that could go wrong for every one thing that’s going to go well. During a game, maybe we go one goal down early. Again, my brain will give me four reasons why this is a disaster for every one reason why we can come back.”

“That’s what we’re up against. When we don’t have mental training that’s what will take over.”

“Teams that thrive in the playoffs will have players who understand that fact and can manage their emotions. When they are under pressure and their brain gets hijacked, they know how to get back to that calm, clear mind. Teams that have that capacity have a huge advantage.”

How important is routine to keep players relaxed during the playoffs?

“If you have routines developed across the season then you can bring that with you wherever you go. You train your brain that this is simply just another game. Now the brain settles because this is familiar and familiar things aren’t dangerous; unfamiliar and unexpected things are dangerous.”

“A lot of teams will have similar rituals, things that they bring with them everywhere they go during the playoffs. Teams often play better at home than they do on the road because some of those routines are just must simpler to do at home. I think that the difference between playing home and playing away often just comes down to how familiar you can make the experience.”

How open are professional players to working on the mental side of the game?

“We actually say to pros, ‘Look, you can do what you want to. But if you ignore the mental side you’re putting yourself up against such a big thing.It doesn’t matter if you’re Messi or Ronaldo, everyone knows that feeling of being hijacked by your brain. That feeling that you’re not able to do something that you know that you can.”

“Everyone has felt that, so when we bring that up it’s something that people can relate to. Most pros that we encounter are very receptive, because everyone knows that it’s true. I think the hook for a lot of pro athletes is just, ‘Is this going to make me play better?

Los jugadores argentinos celebran su victoria en la final del Mundial ante Francia. Campeones del Mundo.
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Argentina were under enormous pressure to win the 2022 World Cup.Clive BrunskillGetty Images

How can players deal with nerves before big matches?

“We can take the power back by saying ‘Of course you’re going to be nervous!’. Whenever you’re doing anything that is important to you - whether you’re about to propose to someone or play in the playoffs - you’re going to feel nervous. That’s just your body’s way of saying that this thing matters to you.”

Embracing pressure is crucial for players. It’s something that we call the triple Ps: accepting that there is going to be pressure; having a plan; and then working on it with practice. The tennis player Billie Jean King said “Pressure is a privilege”. We tell players that playing in the playoffs is a privilege. If you feel nervous, that’s just because you’ve achieved something to get to this position.”

“If you’re in the playoffs that means that you’ve earnt that right. You’ve won games, you’ve pushed yourself; you’ve showed persistence and resilience to put yourself in this position. So celebrate that!”

What have you learnt from working with professional players?

“I’ll be honest when I first started Soccer Resilience I was a bit star-struck, but all of the pros that I’ve talked to have struggles too. They have anxiety and stress, a brain that’s wired to go negative just like you and me. So the playoffs put an incredible amount of pressure on them.”

“The Navy SEALs have a saying that is ‘Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.’ So if players havent received any training before being put in this high stress situation it’s completely understandable that they would struggle more.”

“For a fan, when your team isn’t doing well and a player struggles you think ‘Oh they’re lazy, entitled…’ but they’re just people, who happen to be very skilled at something. I hope that this conversation can also serve to humanise them a little, for people to realise that they’re dealing with the same things that you or I deal with.”