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Exploring the key psychological attributes that underpin performance success

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Nick Levett

The Football Association’s talent identification manager Nick Levett* (pictured), says any athlete who dreams of hitting the heights in their chosen sport must be as strong psychologically as they are physically, tactically and technically. Here he details the four behavioural traits he ranks foremost in importance, and explains why it is imperative coaches at every level do not neglect psychological development as part of their coaching practice.

  • Resilience, drive, competitiveness and a learning mindset are four must-have behavioural attributes of high performing athletes.
  • Those who don’t work on their psychological skills are at a massive disadvantage and will struggle to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
  • It is a myth, however, that only elite coaches and athletes need to prioritise the development of psychological skills.
  • The mental qualities (or deficiencies) of young people are often hidden and coaches must make the effort to look for them.
  • Sport is a powerful tool that facilitates the development of behavioural skills which can be put to good use in life as well as on the sports field.

You may consider the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ to be an apt description of the way the talent identification system works.

Not even close. Elite sport’s equivalent of natural selection, where the best are weeded out to leave only the very best, who might one day evolve into fully-fledged professionals, is about a lot more than physical strength and endurance.

Indeed, you can possess the triple whammy – coveted physical characteristics, great tactical nous and superior technical ability – and still not make the grade.

If truth be told, only those with a robust psychological make-up need apply for a career at the highest level of their chosen sport.

As England manager Gareth Southgate puts it: ‘The defining factor in a successful professional is mentality.’

Nick Levett knows a thing or two about talent development. As manager within the Football Association talent identification (TiD) team, he and his staff are responsible for highlighting players who have the requisite abilities to represent England – from Under-15s level right through to the men's and women's senior squads.

Their mission: ‘to identify players who fit the England DNA of how we want to play and the Future England Player.’

Their wide remit also includes coach education and researching best practice around the talent space and TiD.

They are in the process of developing a TiD pathway to train and support coaches, scouts and technical directors of professional clubs, and wrote the new FA Level 1 and Level 2 Awards in Talent Identification, which were rolled out in 2016.

So when Nick states that resilience, drive, competitiveness and a learning mindset are the must-have behavioural skills he values most in performers, his opinion carries weight.

‘If you are going to be an elite athlete in any sport, you have to have a level of technical, tactical and physical ability that meet the demands of the sport,’ begins Nick – whose previous roles at the FA were as Skills Project Manager and National Development Manager (Youth and Mini Soccer).

‘If you are a six out of ten technically and tactically, and a ten out of ten psychologically, then you might be able to have a career as a professional athlete. But I’m not sure you could have a career if it was the other way round.

‘And that is why those four attributes underpin everything from a behavioural perspective.’

The maturation lottery

Of course the psychological elements prized by talent coaches stretch further than those four key attributes.

One coach may place greater emphasis on emotional management and organisational ability, for example, while another may lean more towards adaptability, self-motivation, confidence and persistence.

Some psychological facets overlap and bleed into one another, with belief, focus, passion, desire and self-regulation very similar in nature to some of those listed above.

The differences can be subtle, but distinguishable nonetheless. Take learning mindset and growth mindset.

‘Having a learning mindset is not just possessing the attributes of a growth mindset, it is also about demonstrating a passion for growth and development, which is an even bigger, broader concept than the actual tactics of a growth mindset,’ explains Nick.

‘The maturation lottery – or a birth date carefully predicted by two sensible parents! – will give some people an early advantage, but if people don’t have that learning mindset then I think, ultimately, they use their physical attributes to solve problems rather than their minds.

‘We need to teach them how to use their physical capabilities to deal with the problems that are thrown at them on the pitch but equally their passion for growth and development has to be in there as well so they have the ability to solve problems whatever they might look like.

‘Ultimately, those lagging behind in maturation terms will catch up and what’s between the ears will make a significant difference long-term between two players.’

As for resilience, this is a must-have quality whatever sport you play, and whatever level you perform at, says Nick.

‘Having resilience is vital because sporting setbacks on the way to becoming a high performing athlete are guaranteed. Real life too will throw a whole host of problems in your direction. It is a person’s approach to overcoming those setbacks, and the ability to look forward, that is really important.’

Nick Levett

The perfect storm

That is a lot of boxes to tick for those who aspire to become the ultimate performer.

Nick accepts that, in the world of TiD, there is a perfect storm of different factors that need to come together.

‘Absolutely, and that’s why the issue of talent identification is so complex.

‘A professional golf coach said this week, “well it’s just down to the amount of time you spend on the driving range and block practising”.

 

‘Well, actually it’s a lot more than that. That is really oversimplifying the talent process.

‘The idea is you will have a whole lot of other attributes in there too, but you will have some that may compensate for others. So, if you are massively driven, then that might compensate for you lacking in another area.’

Nick uses the analogy of a graphic equaliser – an ‘old school’ piece of equipment used to overcome deficiencies in sound quality. To get the optimum audio experience from your stereo system, you would simply vary the level of a range of frequencies.

This begs two questions: How do you spot if a performer has those qualities, and can you coach them – in other words, dial up those qualities they are found wanting in, from, say, a 4 to an 8 or 9?

The second question is surprisingly less problematic than the first.

Coaches can help children become better at learning, but the real challenge is making sure that coaches are looking out for these qualities deemed most desirable in a high-performing athlete. Because, as Nick explains, they are often hidden.

Crucially, when scratching below the surface and examining people on a deeper psychological and emotional level, it is paramount that talent coaches – and indeed all coaches – are motivated by more than a desire to unearth sporting excellence that will improve the overall quality of their squads.

Nick explains: ‘You can see the physical outcomes and the technical and tactical ability during a game but it is really hard to observe behaviours, especially if you are not actively looking for them. They are qualities that you can’t naturally see.

‘But I think a lot of these behaviours can certainly be developed, through effective learning strategies. We wouldn’t have schools, and teachers wouldn’t have jobs, if they didn’t help us become better learners.

‘It is then a matter of coaches appreciating the need to develop their participants into better people – and recognise that these traits will help them fare better in life as a whole – and not just focusing on the athlete and the sport.’

An awesome foursome

Puberty brings a whole raft of difficulties for talent coaches, when maturation age and chronological age can be poles apart (see my article on bio-banding and Relative Age Effect). But forewarned is forearmed. At least the changes are easily observable and coaches know what lies in store between those ages of 12 and 16 (and possibly later) when hormonal surges play havoc with teenagers’ physiological development.

I ask if there is an approximate age when perceptive coaches begin to notice traits like resilience and learning mindset and when the psychological deficiencies of those physical thoroughbreds and tactical virtuosos first become apparent?

‘I think it comes at different times from an individual perspective and so we must not rule them out too early if we think they haven’t got it. That is certainly one of the dangers of talent identification, that we are very quick to say what kids can’t do and we don’t notice what they can do.

‘We need to ensure we have talent development programmes that supplement and support the development of these talented kids running about in our playgrounds that have these psychological behaviours that will stand them in good stead whatever they decide to do.

‘If we’ve got a kid who comes out of one of these programmes that has got resilience, learning mindset, drive and competitiveness, then they will succeed in whichever path they choose in life.’

How long talent coaches wait to see if behavioural aspects emerge may depend on the sport and the performance level.

‘But ultimately,’ says Nick, ‘we all need more patience, and making snapshot decisions during the middle of maturation is a very dangerous game to play because you just don’t know what is going to come out the end of it.’

The athlete and the person

While psychological attributes have a crucial role to play in the area of TiD, grass-roots coaches should not be sucked into believing the development of these skills is the exclusive domain of elite performance and that they needn’t trouble themselves with matters of the mind.

Integrating life skills into coaching practice is of fundamental importance to all coaches, as building psychological and social skills in young people can positively impact on their lives outside of sport as well as enrich their sporting experience.

‘I want every child to have resilience to deal with setbacks because life is going to be tough at times. Whether it is losing a grandparent, parents splitting up, or whatever it might be, they are going to need some of those skills. And if we can use sport to foster some of these behaviour outcomes then this is absolutely relevant for grass-roots coaches as much as it is for coaches on a talent pathway.’

And the times, they are a changing, with this attitude towards behavioural and cognitive learning, and enforcing a ‘person before player’ philosophy, now deep-rooted in governing body coach education. As evidenced by the increasing number of revised and reprioritised coaching qualifications. Take the FA’s Level 1 and Level 2 courses…

‘It’s all about the athlete and the person, whereas previously we always just talked about the footballer. We’ve certainly moved a long way forwards in the last five or ten years in our coaching qualifications and I’m sure other sports have too.

‘We spend so much more time now understanding the players’ backgrounds, how that will influence our coaching, as well as how we can use our practices to develop communication skills or confidence or whatever we might be working on [in our sessions]. And we can use the sport to deliver that.’

Preparing for disappointment

The FA Coach Mentor Programme is a grass-roots initiative that has seen 250 mentors work collaboratively with community-based coaches to accelerate their learning and support their development.

‘They don’t just go in and talk about football. It’s about highlighting and helping them develop these behavioural skills that are going to make individuals better people as well as players,’ says Nick.

‘Being an elite athlete is really tough and because the numbers making it to the top are so small, inevitably there is going to be a level of fall-out. We’ve got to prepare young people for that as well.

‘We used to say at the professional club that I worked at [Fulham FC] that the only thing that will unite all the kids is disappointment – whether it is being released, getting injured or not getting picked for a cup final. It’s about making sure they have got the psychological skills to ensure they will carry on playing sport. That’s very important. We see so many kids who drop out at that stage because they don’t have the underpinning skills that will support them in the long term.’

Nick believes it is a ‘cop-out’ for coaches to pin sole responsibility for behavioural learning on schools. Those coaches who see their role as sport specific must evolve their thinking in alignment and in speed with modern coach education, he says.

‘We have a responsibility to help kids get better at learning. And we have a great opportunity to do it because sport is massive for kids. Wanting to read a match report or fill in a fantasy football table will help their literacy and numeracy. So I think we should be smart in how we use sport as this powerful facilitator.’

Is monitoring and improving the mental skills of your participants an important part of your coaching practice? What behavioural attributes do you consider most important in high-performing athletes?

Nick Levett

NICK'S TOP TIPS

  1. Coaching is a two-way process – consider what you can learn from the players as well.
  2. Try not to feel like you should know all the answers – sometimes saying ‘I don’t know, let’s find out together’ can be powerful.
  3. Be brave and ask the players for feedback on your coaching – you may not like all the answers but it will help you improve!
  4. Try and give clues to the player and not the answers immediately – the learning takes place as they try and figure things out.
  5. On match day, leave your ego at home – it is about the players, not you!

 

Next steps

If you enjoyed this blog you might also find these blogs interesting:

  1.  How to inspire positive behaviour in your sessions
  2. Solutions to five common coaching challenges
  3. The power of Emotional Intelligence: Turn a season to forget into a season to remember
  4. Revolutionary research into coaching fundamentals of movement
  5. Top tips for coaching 13-18 year olds
  6. We’ve created our own monster – it’s called talent

 

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

*Nick Levett is now UK Coaching's Head of Talent and Performance.

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Comments (4)

   
AGrant

Excellent article with lots of valuable information for coaches. The emphasis on mindset and psychological strength in talent ID and development is interesting. This is an area that in many cases receives much less attention from coaches than technical, tactical and physical. Really worth noting it's importance for identifying future England footballers.

06/10/17
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DSGEM

Been researching a lot recently on mindsets particular C. Dweck and Frith and Sykes work in Guernsey, Scottish Rugby. Dweck has further created a mindset evaluation tool which breaks down the mindsets further into 5 fixed mindsets and 5 growth mindset categories, which can be accessed through www.mindsetworks.com. Currently i am trying to link quite a lot of goal setting short, medium and long term both individually and team based.

11/10/17
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robertkmaaye

The site does have some great content on there David. Jeremy Frith actually shared a blog ‘Learning and Performance Zones in Sports’ that he collaborated with them on that includes a handy infographic you might like to check out https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/blogs/general/6622/learning-and-performance-zones-in-sports

You might also find Jeremy’s Challenge-O-Meter in this interview with him useful

https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/blogs/general/4247/growth-industry-advocating-a-mindset-revolution-in-coaching

12/10/17
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Frithy77

Hi David. Happy to help out with any questions if you have any. Jeremy

20/10/17
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JimBrown

Great read. So much of youth athlete development focuses solely on their physical skills. I agree that the mental/psychological needs also must be considered. I would add that we also need to integrate emotional and spiritual development focusing on developing the whole athlete.

24/02/18
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lthorp

It is only a good thing that there is more and more focus and emphasis being put on the psychological development of each individual person. It is something I am very passionate about that we as coaches develop the WHOLE individual and that includes many important social skills, too. There has been too much focus solely on the technical, tactical and physical side of sport for too long. I also agree with Nick that it is vital that we do what it takes so that they will carry on playing sport no matter what - as many as possible, as long as possible and as good as possible.

30/11/18
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