Psychology is one of the most important parts of football players preparation and dr Marijana Mladenović talked with us about that.

She published a number of sports psychology related works and worked with many footballers during different parts of their career. In these troubled times when the global pandemic stopped almost all football activities, we are aware that psychology is more important than ever.

Why are psychologists and psychological preparation important in the footballer’s career?

The psychological aspect is one of the three cornerstones of sports success. There is that strictly sports part which consists of skills and tactics. There is conditional preparation, and then there is psychological preparation. If in the first two cases footballers work with coaches that they consider are experts, it would be completely logical to work with someone who is an expert on your psychological preparation. Not to improvise, or just to leave it as it is.

That would be the same as if footballers cared about their conditional preparations by themselves. Then when they go out of energy, they do things and exercises they think are adequate. That’s often the case with the psychological aspect of the game. Everything is spontaneous, natural, and you expect someone to have his own, natural-born strength. It’s not expected to work on that, like on other aspects of the game.

How the coronavirus situation affects players psychologically?

This is an uneasy situation for all people. Nobody had this experience. There were many troubled times in the past, but this is a specific situation. On one level everything is normal, and many people are feeling good and they are safe. On the other level, people are prevented from doing many things and making plans happen.

Footballers are a specific category that suffers consequences of all this. They have some similar situations in their experience like injuries. When they are injured they are prevented from training and competing by some things that they didn’t want to happen. Then because of that their career is on the line in some way. They maybe have to redefine their career or a part of it because of unwanted events.

Now it’s the same, but this is specific because the situation is the same for everyone. Now it’s not about one footballer whose career suffers. All of them are in the same situation and all of them must wait and see what’s going to happen. An unusual situation for footballers is that they must redefine their training methods. They must adapt to this situation in some way, and do what they can to remain in shape.

If and when leagues continue, what’s the toughest thing from a psychological standpoint for them?

According to my experience footballers now mostly work on their fitness. Now we can’t know in what shape will they be when and if football continues. The main problem is the psychological aspect of it. The season will continue in an unspecific way, at the part of the year reserved for some other part of the season.

Psychological training and psychological preparation is the key for footballers now. And they are prone to neglect that part of training when they don’t train or play. Often they do not work as much as they should on it, but in these times they neglect it even more. Even if they had some kind of psychological training before, in these situations they stop doing it.

On the contrary mental stability and mental readiness for the moment when football restarts will be the key. Sportsmen must prepare on a mental plan for that moment when everything goes back to normal every day. They must be completely ready for it right away. They shouldn’t adapt to it at that moment, they should practice adapting right now.

Dr. Mladenović you talked about injuries in a similar manner on a couple of occasions. You pointed out that sportsmen concentrate on the physical aspect of injury, and that the psychological aspect of injury is different, and maybe even more important.

This situation is similar to injury because footballer goes out of his daily training routine because of something he didn’t want to happen. If we exclude situations in which some player’s health is under threat because of the pandemic, everyone else is in the same situation basically.

Now they are healthy and there are no things that could prevent them to train or compete. That creates some sort of vacuum in their heads, and they turn off from their competition mode. It’s tough to evaluate their form of realistically.

Footballers can feel the psychological side of competition and the game only when found in it. Apart from this situation, psychological preparation and all the things done with a psychologist can be tested and applied only in real-life situations. If someone prepares for a real big game, let’s say Champions League final, he can prepare through talks and mental exercise. But to determine if we managed to make a success, we have to wait for a player to be in a situation he was prepared for. We have to wait for a player to feel, then practice and to apply things we showed him. These situations when there is no competition are crucial. We must prepare now. It’s crucial that footballer changes his mentality quickly, and that he can be competitive right away. They must adapt to a moment when this change will happen.

It’s often said that the hardest transition in a football career is a transition from junior to professional football. From a psychological standpoint, what is the most important thing for a young player when he becomes a pro? Why is this so tough?

As a career in football unravels, there are fewer and fewer people on higher levels. It’s common that junior players that go into the first team are the best, or among the best in the junior team. They often find themselves in a situation that they simultaneously play for the youth team, and make the first steps in the first team.

They find themselves in a tough situation. In one team they are the most important players and are in charge of their team and of the game, they beat their opponents easily. In the first team, they sit at the end of the bench and wait for their chance. That’s a very difficult situation. On one day you’re a star in the team, you make important decisions and do brilliant stuff. On another day you’re last in the line and must wait for a chance to get some playing time. Of course, that’s a situation that tends to repeat in professional football. Often footballers must wait for their chance when they change clubs. But this situation is very complex because footballers are very young at that point. They are in the process of maturing, personal growth and adapting to the situation in which football becomes their job, and not just something they like to do. They become aware that from this point forward, their career depends on their performance in the first team. At a younger age, players know that they won’t play and won’t develop properly if they don’t perform well. But the pressure is much lower than in senior football.

When they step into the first team they are aware that a mistake or a missed chance could cost them a career.

When young football players come to you? What are their most common questions? What are the things that bother one young football player?

Some kind of insecurity bothers them. In youth teams they are stars, and in the senior team, they have a feeling of incompetence, that they are subordinated to their older teammates. That dilemma, that feeling that they must adapt, anxiety that surrounds the question of affirmation in the senior team bothers them. There are many individual stories, but from my experience, I can say that whenever I have done that groundbreaking season with young footballers, I managed to get them through that complicated path. I managed to get them to finish that season when they are added to the first team, and with a lot of work, we successfully shift from some kind of childish approach to the game, to fully professional football. They realize that football is their profession, but it’s very important that they still have some kind of that childish joy because of which they started to play the game.

What is the right age for some young football player to start working with a psychologist?

In most cases that is 16 to 18 years old, when they are feeling close to senior football, and when they think that change could happen. But you can help even younger kids. Maybe not through some continuous work, but certainly through some advice. The best thing for a young football player is to work with someone throughout that groundbreaking season. That season when they are both in the youth team and the first team. With the help of a psychologist, they can learn to adapt to changes, challenges, for all those things they will experience in their career later.

Maybe some players go through this period without any drama, but they experience problems later in a career. Maybe when they change clubs, they experience problems adapting to the new situation. The most important thing for players is to adapt to the situation in which football becomes a job. The second most important thing is for them to learn to react to some situations they don’t like in their careers in a constructive way. Situations like this one with the pandemic, or injuries. It’s important to react in a way that guides you to adapt to the situation.

In sports, emotional and social intelligence are topics that aren’t talked about enough. How important are they?

If we talk about football, children aged 6 or 7 are really serious when it comes to training and other obligations related to football. Because of that sometimes they grow up different than their peers. So as it’s very important to train their bodies to develop properly, it’s important to adapt in a social way and learn to manage certain situations. It’ very important to socially adept in sports today. If someone changes clubs, his task isn’t only to show that he can play. He must also adapt to a group of people and he must get accepted.

Money is a big topic in the world of sports. It’s clear that on the one side it’s tough to focus and train for players who aren’t safe and taken care of. It sounds very logical, but on the other hand, there are so many stories about world-class athletes who came from poverty. It seems that in football that is very often the case.

That gives us hope that it’s possible to take a step forward and jump over a couple of social scales through football, and through hard work and commitment. That gives us hope that through football you can jump from impoverishment to living some kind of rich life. Money is in focus a lot in football, and it happens that thinking about money a lot puts too much pressure on players. Their focus goes from their primary task, which is football, onto something that comes as a consequence of it, and that is the money.

It may sound strange, but the thing that is the best to do is to act like money doesn’t exist when they play and train. And that’s not so easy to do.

The second side of the problem is when a young player makes a big transfer. All of a sudden, his life transforms because of the big money he receives. We have a lot of cases when footballers go broke after careers, or cases where money ruined careers because players concentrated on other things besides football. What’s the advice for them?

Money should be put in second place. It should be a consequence of hard work, determination, and to be some kind of bonus that football gives you. That allows you to live a good life. Especially for young people who can become very successful very fast. So because of that, there are cases that they end up with nothing when their career ends.

Someone should be playing football because of the football itself. Also, the player should be educated by parents, friends and the people around him that money should be something extra, that comes after football.

Then we have a question of career transition. If you can make some money through football, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything after it. If you had been successful in football, you can be successful in many other areas. It’s very important to have your feet on the ground. If not during the career, players should start preparing for something else promptly after it. It can be related to football, but it’s not a necessity.

What could you say about the goalkeeper’s mental preparation? Everything is completely different for them. Position, psychology, place in the team. Goalkeepers tend to be in a situation where they don’t play for years, and then chance pops out. Someone gets injured or has a bad game, and they must grab that chance or stay on the bench forever.

That is the position that is very specific in many ways. Starting from the fact that the purpose of the game is to score a goal, not to defend it, through the very process of someone deciding to become a goalkeeper. In the end, there are 10 more players on the pitch, and it seems all of them can get more chances to play than a goalkeeper. Everything we said about players, is even more important when we speak about goalkeepers. Their emotional stability is important, and that they keep their feet on the ground. To practice to adapt to every possible situation. To grab their chance in that little span of time when they get it. They must be focused and calm enough to exploit that opportunity.

Of course, there are people with innate mental strength, but goalkeepers must work on their mental preparation a lot.  

One last question. What is it that separates someone who is a very good footballer, from someone like Lionel Mesi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

My experience tells me that is not about characteristics someone has. Of course, that is the case to some degree, but these people don’t have some attributes that someone else doesn’t have, in a psychological sense. They are mentally stronger than an average human, but apart from that, does Cristiano look emotionally more stable than other players? Surely he is because we can see that he deals with some situations cold-blooded.

The thing that separates world-class athletes from others is that they are constantly working on themselves. They take care of themselves in every aspect of their life. They do what’s the best for them at that moment, no matter if that part of their personality or their game isn’t in the focus at that moment. They don’t approach problems ad hoc when they appear, they work on themselves constantly. And they have good and healthy motivation.

Look at Lionel Messi, for example. Do you get the impression that he cares about millions, or do you think he enjoys what he does at the moment? To me, he looks like a kid that plays football at the playground with great ease and joy. Of course, there is a great effort behind it, and all of these people are very dedicated to what they do and very disciplined.

So, that was our interview with dr Marijana Mladenović, one of the most renewed sports psychologists in her country. She guided us through all parts of mental preparation that football players do, and now you can see how important mental preparation is for young football players. And why they should have someone by their side who could work on their mental strength in this formative period.

So help us, so we can help young players through Fenomeno, so we can give young people a chance to afford psychological advice, which could help them to reach the stars.

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