How Do We Develop Psychologically High Performing Players? – By Pablo Toledo, In Response To Bill Berens’ Request.

Pablo Toledo is Rush Soccer’s Coaching Education Coordinator and the Project Lead on the Rush Soccer Blog. Apart from Coaching licenses, he holds an Ms. in Sports Training with a specialization in Soccer.


If we could start every post with a disclaimer, mine would always be: Soccer is as much of an art as it is a science.

This topic is just like that. I can give you the science, but that will only be 50% of the job. The rest is on you coach, it’s your art.

Bill Berens asked us about developing players from the mental point of view, and he was right about saying that this component tends to be mixed or integrated with the physical aspects.

I agree with that. Normally, the psychological part tends to be confused with the development of BMSs, coordinative, and sensorial-perceptive attributes, like time-space perception, differentiation, rhythm, or transformation, but these are actually physical attributes, not psychological.

We know that this last component is (maybe) the most important one for a player… Why?

In Argentina, when you study the 2-year professional soccer coaching course, AFA (the Argentinian USSF) exposes the four essential components to develop a player (psycho, phys, tech, tac) as a pyramid.

I like this approach because it reflects how the mental aspect is the foundation of every possible action you can do on the field. The pyramid is telling us, among other things, that you can only do what you believe you’re capable of.

You’ll never be a great player if you don’t believe you can be one.

You’ll never be stronger if you don’t have the decision and determination to be (psycho conditions physical)

You’ll never control that long pass if you don’t believe you can do it and you have the speed to get in the right spot to receive (technique conditioned by psychological and physical components).

You’ll never overlap (tactical) properly if you don’t have the decision (psycho) to do it, the speed and endurance for the action (physical), and the technique to receive the pass (technical).

So we go back to the main question again… How do we develop psychologically high performing players?

My belief is that the key for U14 & Under relies on having a deep understanding of the maturation stage of the age group.

I’ll present these characteristics based in mainstream theories used in South America, and on the book “Proceso Formativo del Futbolista Infantil y Juvenil hasta el Futbol Profesional”, written by Juan Cruz Anselmi and Enrique Borrelli, CA Independiente de Avellaneda Youth Sporting Directors.

Here, age groups are typically understood as:


  • Infants 1: 6 – 8 years old. From a psychological point of view, this is an egocentric stage. The kid wants the ball for himself, he doesn’t have the capacity to collaborate with others (don’t reprimand him for not passing the ball!) . His attention span is very limited, and he does not understand abstract thinking. It’s so important to understand this last thing: the kid does not understand hypothesis of a player running here or there to do this or that, please avoid! Fun is the center of this stage.


So… What can we “train” from a mental point of view?

Well, clearly it won’t be empathy, but we can help them develop their self-esteem and motivation. How? By becoming a fan of them, by praising them for their good moves, letting them have fun so that they develop passion and associate the sport in the future with good feelings, experiences, and social recognition (develop an internal motivation on the player).

The USSF, when we look at their curriculum by age, moves in the same direction. It is not a coincidence that motivation and self esteem are highlighted.


  • Infants 2: 8 – 10 years old. These phase is psychologically ruled by the kid’s new capacity to collaborate with a small number of elements (now we can talk about passing the ball), and an increasing desire to compete. Then (as the USSF curriculum reflects), the focus remains on motivation and self confidence, but the cooperation and competitive components start gaining ground. It’s not a performance stage yet so let’s go slow, but there will be no sin if we start making a difference between winning and losing.



  • Infants 3: 10 – 12 years old. Through the years of schooling, the kids now start understanding abstractions, and that has a major impact on training as he can recreate physically what he understood verbally. They also a good motor learning capacity. Check how in the USSF curriculum, based on these new capacities, the components of commitment (more than any other), self control, determination, and communication start gaining ground, hand in hand with the increase on the levels of competitiveness and cooperation. Start demanding (especially) commitment now.



  • Youth 1: 13 – 14 years old. From a psychological point of view, there are two major phenomenons we need to address. The first is that the insertion in high school leads the player to be capable of more complex thinking, replacing a concrete way of thinking for an abstract that allows him to elaborate advanced conclusions. On the other hand, the effects of puberty can lead to emotional stress, so we need to be capable of supporting them through the changes they’re experiencing. Now we start demanding a bit more in terms of concentration, communication, self control, and competitiveness, but be careful, because the gap in biological ages of your players might be very big. One of your players might be a fully developed teenager and another one still a kid.


Here, in my opinion, is where the art in football becomes more important than the science.


  • Youth 2: 15 – 16 years old. Looking at the USSF Curriculum, you will not find major differences in psychological aspects from what is demanded or recommended for a 15 year old to an 18 years old, apart from a 1 point increase in communication, competitiveness, and concentration. This was pretty obvious.


Now, this is art based as it’s just my opinion, but I believe this stage is marked by the influence of our surroundings. We are easily influenced during this stage, in which we are trying to figure who we are.

Therefore, my approach to develop high performing players in this age group relies on developing a team culture. To do so, I base my work on managerial theories, promoting the adoption of a vision, mission, values, and rules.

Even if I know what I want these 4 things to be, I include my players in the determination of them. That inclusion collaborates with the adherence. We are all more likely to adopt a behavior that we believe we defined, contrary to one we believe was imposed to us.

Try to focus on ideas and values that have long term positive effects. My favorites normally are Intensity, Effort, and Commitment, and I highlight to my players the challenge of being the best version of ourselves, and avoid comparisons to other. Be who you are, and be the best of that.

This is also the moment in which I would recommend not to hesitate in separating players that you consider have a negative influence on the group. Evaluate the case, and try to recover them first, but if you have to do it… do it. Think long term, even if they are the best players, the others can be highly influenced by them. Don’t let anything ruin the team culture, and promote it constantly on and off the field with concrete things, not just beautiful words.


  • Youth 3: 17 – 20 years old. Now this is really art based.


I have a theory to develop high performing players 17 & Up, and this might be just crazy. That’s ok, it’s just my theory, and it doesn’t have to be yours.

Team culture is still vital, that’s pretty obvious, but now we can go deeper on the very main question: How Do I Develop Psychologically High Performing Players?

Well, my approach derives from 5 different phenomenons and experiences I’ve had:

  • Habit is created by repetition. It’s like going to the gym, we all hate the first month, but once we got used to doing it, it doesn’t really bother that much anymore, because by repetition it turned into a habit.  
  • I once read a book about Jose Mourinho, in which the writer was saying that “Mou” runs sessions that last 90 to 110 minutes at the highest intensity possible, in an effort to replicate the conditions their players will face during competition. I thought why is that so important?
  • I read on a Data Analytics applied to Soccer book that the main difference between the top players and the “very good” players relies on the number of correct decisions they make.
  • When I was studying my degree in Sports Training, I learned that conditioning is based on five principles: Individuality, Overload, Periodization, Specificity, and Reversibility.  Overload, represents the idea that by them our bodies generate progressive physical adaptations to be capable of performing such actions with more ease.
  • One of my best friends is a musician, so he was once telling me that musicians are always capable of playing way more complex pieces than what we see on stage, but they do it to “play safe”, to play what they know they won’t miss.


All of these took me to wonder:

Can we create mental overloads so that our players develop the capacity to solve situations even faster than what they will find during the game? So that making the right decision becomes a habit? So that they can “play safe” during the competition?

Lionel Messi once responded something very simple on an interview, when asked about his capacity to find passing lines among the rival’s back four: “We have just done it so many times during training”.

Based on this, my approach is to create multiple training sessions repeating the same concepts. These sessions have to be at an even superior intensity level than the real game and as specific as possible. Create the habit of making the right decision by repetition. The player deciding has to get used to the level of intensity of the real game so that it doesn’t represent a major stressing factor anymore. Train mental overloads of the real situation.

How can you do that? By progressing from simple to complex till you reach an even more complex situation than the real thing. Once you reach that point, keep training at that level so that repetition creates a habit.

Example: Let’s suppose I want my team to learn to counter press when they lose the ball on the attacking third. The first couple of activities will be rather simple, as I want my players to understand the concepts / coaching points. Once I start seeing patterns of play I’ll increase the difficulty of the drills. How? The key is to understand the effort, physically and mentally they will encounter on the real game. If you estimate that your players will cover “x” distance in every counter pressing action, at “y” pace, with “z” rest periods, you want to ensure that your drills will end up producing this type of effort progressively, not all of a sudden (physical demands shouldn’t increase more than 10% at a time as that would increase the risk of injury). The mental aspect has to be trained through intensity, do everything you can to replicate the stress of the real competition (careful with burning out). Once you reach the competition levels, try to increase another 10% or 15%, take them now to this situation that is even more complex than the real game. Once they start solving this situations properly, keep them on that level for some time, now you’re creating habits.

Bill and everybody that took the time to read this post: first and foremost Thank you! Secondly, I hope you found some valuable insights on this article. Art & Science, take what’s valuable for you, and disregard the rest.