Why is it that England’s footballers lose so many penalty shoot-outs? And what is it about some players that they always seem able to rise to the big occasions, while others go missing?
Harley Street practitioner Mark Bowden works with professional footballers and says it’s literally all in their heads, or, to be more accurate, their brains.
For strikers, it means a hot streak of form or a goal-less run isn’t down to luck or chance, but to neuroscience. And when people say “confidence breeds confidence” they’re right – but it’s only made possible by the brain and the way we harness it.
Mark, 38, is a brain performance specialist who has helped professional footballers across England, from the Championship down. He’s just written a self-help book for players called Use Your Brain Raise Your Game and offers a 12-session ‘Top Form’ course from his practice.
Mark, a qualified clinical hypnotherapist, says that psychology in football has largely failed to inspire players like it should do because players in the most part just haven’t bought into it. “This is different,” he said. “The science is clear. It’s all about the neuroscience of the brain.
“From a football performance point of view, there are two broad parts of the brain involved – the more modern part, which is the intellectual part of the brain, and the primitive part of the brain, which hinders us from a performance perspective. The intellectual brain and the primitive brain are fighting for control in our brains. The primitive brain can have a lot of benefits, but not when it’s in control. The intellectual brain has to be engaged and dictating what the primitive brain does, not the other way around.”
So what does this mean in simple terms? “With footballers, a lot of the habits they do on and off the field are actually the worst possible things they can be doing for them to be on the top of their game. It’s about training the person to harness the best out of the brain. That’s through a number of different techniques including conditioning their thinking and through creating habits that engage the right parts of the brain to improve performance.
“So we have a choice. Either we use the brain the right way, or we us the brain the wrong way. One way helps, the other way hinders and often, footballers hinder themselves without even realising it.
“If you’ve just scored a hat-trick, naturally your intellectual brain will be there and you’ll be full of self-belief so when the ball comes into the box you’ll stick it in the back of the net. Your game is going to be really high.
“If you’ve missed a couple of chances, your natural instinct is to engage the primitive brain with your default thoughts and actions. You’re going to be thinking anxious thoughts, your self-belief and confidence goes down. But more than just a feeling, this also has a detrimental physiological impact. So when the ball comes to you, you’re much less likely to put it in the net. Same scenario, different result – and it’s all down to how our brains are engaged.
“A lot of people think it’s just down to chance but it’s not. It’s your influence upon your brain that’s causing you to be the way that you are.
“Every single thing that we do is controlled by our brains. With footballers, this includes passing, shooting, tactical awareness, vision, creativity and the list goes on. If they can get their brains doing all the right things, then they’ll find the improvements are huge. Footballers train their ability to a high standard throughout their lives, but it’s the performance side that is what can cause them to have good game or a bad game, a good season, or a bad season. Even a good career or one that peters out without achieving what was truly possible.”
Mark believes that even players enjoying the form of their lives can perform better if they tap into the brain science: “They can still be doing better by understanding how their brain works so they can influence their performance and avoid slipping into an unhelpful way of thinking that would cause their performance to deteriorate.”
Mark says most of the players he has worked with “get” the science very quickly: “In the first session, I’ll briefly go through the neuroscience specifically to how it impacts on football performance and this is the light bulb moment. They say ‘yeah, that’s exactly what happens’. This is where they see the evidential side of it and understand that how and what they’re doing affects their performance on the football pitch. It’s also where they start to see the possibilities ahead when the do put this into practice.
“Then it’s about conditioning their behaviour, which they start to do straight away. It’s just little incremental changes and improvements, taking small steps further each time. The real changes start to take effect at around about sessions 4, 5 and 6.
“The early work gets them to think differently, behave differently and move differently. Now that the new habits have become more of an automatic behaviour, it’s connecting with the intellectual part of the brain more consistently, and because of that, they’re starting to play better more often. And rather than just superficial changes to the way that they feel, they are changing the infrastructure of their ever-changing brain to assist them to perform better as a matter of course.”
Mark’s specialism with footballers stems from his work as a solution-focused hypnotherapist: “The hypnosis part is very normal and very natural. It can be accurately described as relaxed, focused and directed thinking. It’s nothing like stage hypnosis that portrays a mystical and magical persona. Nothing could be further from my work. There are no zombie like states and it is all about the player concentrating their thoughts on where I direct them to do so. They are always in control and it’s very much like being engrossed in a movie or a book. The specific hypnosis part takes up about 20% of the book and 30-40% of the sessions that I do. The other part is very much about getting the player to get a real understanding of how the brain works; what it’s doing at any one time; why it’s doing it and the best way to influence it to ensure they can play on top form.
“I’ve worked with footballers for a number of years and these techniques have worked extremely well, which is why I’ve written the book. I want more players to know about it.”
The good news for players of all levels is that they can benefit from the brain science just as much as top players: “If they are able to put what’s in the book into practice, then it’s very similar to what I do in a one-to-one session with professional footballers. It’s a very powerful book.”
Use Your Brain Raise Your Game by Mark Bowden, published by Rethink Press, RRP £11.99, available on Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Use-Your-Brain-Raise-Game/dp/1781332681/ref=sr_1_14?ie=UTF8&qid=1502175306&sr=8-14&keywords=use+your+brain