A winning mentality – the importance of mental preparation

I still remember watching my first ever international football event on television. It was the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

At the age of eight, I surely did not know anything about psychology or mental preparation but whenever I see a footage of that specific tournament, and in particular the final match between Italy and West Germany, immediately I realise which side was mentally stronger.

Italy overcame the tension of a missed penalty and the loss due to injury of a key player in the early minutes of the game and still won the cup impressively.

As a norm, the final match result is what states who has won and many times the records determine the triumphs of players and teams.

However, the result surely does not tell the process involved in creating winners.

The most renowned athletes are in general the winners and people hardly remember those who are second best. People may ask what do winners have in common and why are they generally successful in whatever they do.

The answer could be very simple, a winning mentality. Technical, tactical and physical skills are essential for success, but mental skills are considered to be equally important.

Nowadays it is widely being acknowledged that every top football player must adopt a winning mentality to perform successfully (Looij, 2015).

Psychological characteristics have been considered an important component for performance quality and well-being in a number of life domains.

In sport, coaches, athletes and the media refer to mental toughness as the psychological factor which defines a ‘good’ and a ‘great’ athlete (Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2008).

It is also stated that an athlete in order to excel must be hungry for success, hungry to become a better athlete, hungry for results. Somehow, and in most times, it all starts with a dream but in order to reach a goal, one has to be inspired and be mentally strong (Dahlkoetter, 2012).

It is a known fact that the Maltese do love sport and more or less all sport disciplines are in a way or another represented and recognised by means of an official federation.

Surely football in Malta is the most popular but when competing at international levels winning is somehow still considered by many an unrealistic desire.

However, in recent years the chant we always overhear when the Malta national football team plays, ‘it does not matter whether we win or lose’, is becoming old fashioned. The obsession with success, the drive to win, the belief in being the best and most powerful have abolished the fact that athletes compete for pleasure, relaxation, and recreation (Clifford & Feezell, 2010).

Lately, progress was also registered in terms of results, both for the national team and also at club level when competing in European competitions.

The Maltese national football team played 215 matches between years 1997 and 2020, out of which 26 ended with a win and 156 were lost. An interesting fact is that 19 games out of the successful 26 were all friendly encounters.

Do these statistics show that the players are psychologically more tensed when playing competitive games?

Moreover, few Maltese players remarkably went to play abroad in the past 20 years. Could it be that the lack of mental toughness in Maltese football players and the wrong psychological approach in training are part of the reason for these failed achievements?

An important element could also be that the players experience lack of self-belief and motivation. A most common cliché in sport is that 90 per cent of performance is considered to be mental and it is impossible that it is played without psychological competencies.

Players need sharp mental skills to complement the physical capabilities to succeed (Stadler, 2007).

In a very similar context, let’s take an example of two football players who are both gifted with the same ability, same high level of skills, and same fitness and think of what would differentiate the better player between the two.

The one who possesses the right attitude and a winning mindset is more likely to perform better.

Nowadays, the majority of top football coaches choose to develop and transmit a winning mentality that drives the achievements and success of their players.

It is a proven fact that it is not just the physical abilities that can make the difference in sport but as well the mental skills (Tamarkin, 2014).

In modern football, a footballer would never play a competitive match without a week of physical conditioning so why not mental conditioning too if nowadays the football game is considered to be 50% physical and 50% mental.

Mental conditioning helps every footballer to become mentally stronger, more resilient, and able to bounce back from setbacks whilst improving the consistency of performance.

Development of mental skills requires that football coaches, players and administrators pull the same rope and recognise the importance of adopting a winning attitude.

If coaches incorporate mental training in their training programmes, the players would obtain a competitive advantage over their opponents and improve considerably the individual and team performances.

The positive outcomes that are gained through mental training include; increased level of concentration, ability to bounce back from failures, ability to think and act fast, increased level of team fighting spirit, intensify sense of self-confidence and self-belief, and effectiveness of positive self-talk.

If administrators, coaches, and players work together to achieve all these psychological abilities subsequently Maltese football will take a step closer to a successful outcome.