positive reinforcement in football

Mental coaching

Since 2000 we have been in the business of mental coaching. Our focus has been specifically on severe psychiatric cases like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), depression and phobias. Our method has been used by pro-golfer Vince Bredt and the Boeve marathon speed skating team. Since 2012 we track statistically how well the people we work with are doing and this research shows that people’s lives improve in 79.9% of the cases.

Currently the Aubrey Daniels Research Institute for Behavior Analysis (ADRIBA) of the VU-university of Amsterdam, ranked #73 in The Times International University Ranking, is reviewing and scientifically researching our method for mental coaching.

Mental coaching and neuroscience

Most managers and mental coaches in football try to give their players more confidence, help them to create a strong belief in themselves and increase their inner motivation. The issue here is that neuroscience has shown that when we look in the brain there is nothing like inner motivation, beliefs or confidence to be found. The only thing neuroscience finds, are brain cells, neurotransmitters and hormones.

Motivation, belief and confidence are abstract concepts. They are constructs that we use to communicate. Nevertheless, we have become so spellbound by our of own communications that we have come to belief in their true existence in the same way that we believe that rocks and stones exist.

Instead was is really happening is that footballers display external and internal behavior. Their external behavior is of course their play on the pitch, but also how they behave in the locker room and off the field. Internal behavior is what they feel, imagine and think. What mental coaches and managers try to do when they talk about confidence, belief and motivation is to make sure that players get into the right kind of feeling, make the right kind of mental imagery and think the right kind of thoughts. Because when players are in a “winning mood” they play better than if they lost all faith in a good ending. Yet a “winning mood” is nothing but the right kinds of feelings, mental imagery and thoughts.

Personality Neuroscience

Besides internal behavior there is also the physical brain structure to take into account. In the same way that your body looks different from my body, but that we can still classify people according to body build (long people vs. short people for instance), we can also look at brain structure. As it turns out people Personality Neuroscience has shown that people with the same results on a personality test also have the same kind of physical brain structure.

The model for Personality Neuroscience that we have developed since 1997 is called The Neurogram®. ADRIBA is also reviewing the Neurogram® favourably. Within the Neurogram® there are nine different personality types. Everyone has four types they have a natural connection to, one type they have an initial negative reaction to and four types that are neither positive nor negative but very neutral. When it comes to selecting team in almost all cases you see that the decision making is not based on what is best for the team, but instead is based on people’s personality type. If people, like managers in football today, are in a position to decide who they work with, their decision making in this regard is mainly driven by their personality type. They will select mainly people with whom they have a positive connection and sometimes even where they have a negative reaction. Because for people it is important that they feel something.

What this means for football teams is that often the manager disregards players because of personality issues rather than their play. Case in point is the defender Tete from Ajax who has repeatedly said on TV that the current manager of Ajax, Peter Bosz, doesn’t appreciate him. Looking at the graph of Tete that we have in our database of the 1600+ players that we analyzed we see that Tete is a very good defender. Tete has a high Overall Efficiency and a high Defensive Efficiency. Even his Passing Efficiency and Attacking Efficiency are quite high:

Tete statistics

Tete’s spot in the team is being taken by Veltman. Veltman who is a lot less efficient than Tete as can be seen of Veltman’s graph:

Veltman statistics

Veltman has a considerably lower efficiency in all regards: Overall, Defensively, Attacking & Passing. It is highly likely that Peter Bosz his preference for Veltman over Tete has in large part to do with the personality types of those three people: Bosz, Veltman & Tete where Bosz and Veltman have personality types that go easily together and Tete has a personality type with a neutral connection to Peter Bosz. The decision by the manager is then rationalized by talking about strategy, systems and skills. Yet, the primary thrust of the decision is likely being made on personality types. At the volleyball club Inter Rijswijk they are now using the Neurogram® model to overcome these issues.

The ABC of mental coaching

Neuroscience has shown that there are three ways that our brain learns. When we are born there is a kind of one off imprinting process that initializes our brain. From then on the only two learning methods are associative learning and instrumental learning. WIth associative learning we learn to derive the likelihood of a second event happening based on our sensing of a first event.

This is mostly what is happening in football. During practice and in matches players’ brain learn to associate certain patterns of their own team and the opposite team with the likelihood that they can pass, assist or score. Players are called intelligent players if they see and react to these patterns a lot faster than other players who are then called slow players.

Yet, neuroscience also shows that the third way of learning, instrumental learning, has a much bigger influence on how we behave than associative learning. In instrumental learning we learn to how our own behavior increases or decreases the likelihood of punishment or rewards happening. Instrumental learning is mostly known in sports as positive reinforcement. There is a lot of positive reinforcement happening in football, or at least that is what many mental coaches and managers like to think. In reality, everything what happens is either a reinforcer or not.

The science of Behavior Analysis has demonstrated that instrumental learning is based on the principle of the ABC-model. In this model B stands for Behavior. In this model A stands for Antecedents which is defined as everything that happens before the Behavior. C stands for Consequences which is defined as everything that happens after the Behavior. In football most of what is happening in terms of training and mental coaching is being done before the Behavior, that is playing football in a match, is being done. In other words most of what is done in football in terms of training and mental coaching is part of the Antecedents. Yet, scientific research has shown that the influence of the Consequences are four times stronger than the influence of the Antecedents. Antecedents gets Behavior going once. It is used to initiate behavior. Consequences make behavior sustainable. That is, Consequences make sure that the Behavior keeps on going.

Punishment and reward in football

There are two kinds of Consequences. If the Behavior diminishes then that Behavior is highly likely being punished. If the frequency of the Behavior increases then that Behavior is highly likely being rewarded. Or to put it the other way around: if you, as a manager or mental coach, want to increase positive behavior on the pitch, what you need to do is reward this positive behavior.

Now, all mental coaches and managers will say that that is exactly what they do. And in fact, positive reinforcement is applied in football a lot more than in other areas of our society. Nevertheless, in many cases positive reinforcement is applied wrongly. By this we mean that players, managers and mental coaches think that they are positively reinforcing desired behavior where in fact they are positively reinforcing undesired behavior.

positive reinforcement in footballThe most obvious example of this, is where a player gives another player thumbs up for passing to him even though the pass is wide and the player did not stand a chance of actually receiving the pass. We all see players do this:

But what they are actually reinforcing is passing the ball wide, which is undesired behavior. What they are also reinforcing is thinking of them, which is undesired behavior for the manager, but desired behavior for the player himself. In fact, when there is a key pass then there is no positive reinforcement because the player is then busy taking advantage of the pass rather than giving thumbs up for the player who passed the ball.

The same goes for when a player is substituted. Almost all managers then try to uplift the spirits of the substituted player by complimenting him for his play and patting him on the back. Yet, most of the time the reason for substituting the player had to do with his lack of performance of the desired behavior. Again, what is being reinforced is undesired behavior.

This reinforcing of undesired behavior is then amplified because the same failing footballer is still positively being reinforced for his undesired behavior by the thousands of his fans and the his big salary. This is the main reason why you see up and coming young players improve and improve match after match until they have made it. Then the next season, when they think they have made it, undesired behavior gets positively reinforced because of their new status and suddenly the efficiency of this young superstar is dropping considerably.

Overestimation and underestimation

Which brings us to one of the biggest problems in football: overestimation and underestimation. The main reason why big teams lose from smaller teams is that the players overestimate themselves and underestimate their opponent. This is how our brain work. Subconsciously our brain is working hard to solve expected future problems. In football this means that the unconscious mind of footballers is busy preparing for the next big match and skips over matches that it deems easily winnable. When the manager then starts to press the point to not UNDERESTIMATE the next opponent, chances are the manager means well, but formulates badly. Our unconscious mind has a lot of difficulty processing negation. So if the manager says “don’t UNDERESTIMATE the next opponent” our unconscious mind gets the message to underestimate the next opponent. So learning what to say and how to say it, is very important for managers and mental coaches.

The solution lies in going back to the internal behavior of the player: how does he feel, what is he imagining and what is he thinking. In preparation to the next match what the player imagines is all important. Our brain makes future scenarios in the form of little mental movies that we play for ourselves. Consciously, we think of these movies as thinking about the future. Unconsciously, our brain takes mental movies about the future as instruction videos. Our unconscious mind takes these mental movies as instructions sets of what to do in the next match. That is why visualizations work so well in sports. During the match if players start to think consciously they are too distracted and act too slow for optimal performance. The trick is to shut off the thinking process by mentally preparing before the match and then get into the right kind of feeling during the match.

The problem is that most mental coaches and managers want players to visualize themselves as winners and as being very successful. This indeed works. But only if the team is actually winning. A much better mental preparation lies into visualizing that things are going badly for the team, but that player keeps relaxing, making the right decisions and overcomes the problems in the match automatically and without thinking. This sounds counter-intuitive. Why would you have players visualize a struggling team in preparing for the next match. Yet, the reason behind is crystal clear. If in the next game the team is very successful the unconscious mind is with a situation that it did not prepare for. Yet, given that the team is having success this is a very easy situation to deal with and the brain easily adjusts.

If we look at what happens if players sees themselves as winners before the match and during the match they are struggling, we have the same situation but now reversed. What is the same, is that the unconscious mind did not prepare for this situation. What is different, given that the team is now struggling, is that this is a very difficult situation to deal with for the brain. The player starts to feel bad and starts to consciously think about the situation resulting in slower actions on the field and bad decision making.

Our ABC solution

With the Football Efficiency Monitoring System we can see which players benefit from mental coaching. Some players are unphased by what is happening on the pitch and have no need for mental coaching. Other players though you can see their efficiency drop in the face of things going wrong. These players benefit a lot from mental coaching. So in our approach we would work with these players. We can then use the Football Efficiency Monitoring System to measure whether the mental coaching is actually working or not.

We use the Neurogram® model to approximate the physical structure of the brain of the players. We double check to see if there are any choices for players by the manager that are “suspicious” in terms of the Neurogram® model and discuss this with the technical staff. We then train the player one-on-one to learn to get into the right kind of feeling, make the right kind of mental imagery and shut off thinking during matches.

Given that it is very hard to overcome the strong reinforcement of players by the compliments made by their fans and the financial rewards they get for playing football at all, we use the ABC-model of Behavior Analysis in an innovative way. The only thing that has more influence as a Consequence of their behavior on the pitch that could overrule the Consequences of the adoring fans and they money they make, is their perceived value in terms of a transfer fee.

With the Football Efficiency Monitoring System we calculate immediately based on how efficient a player has been in a match what this means for their transfer fee. Through immediate feedback we train the brain of the player by using instrumental learning that his transfer fee increases when he plays well and decreases when he plays badly. This sets up positive reinforcement that reinforces the right kind of behavior: excellent football rather than something else.

For an overview of the research we do in mental coaching and mental training, please see: mental coaching research.

Start a Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *