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Does Mental State now Play a Bigger Part than Physical in Football?

The World Cup is just over a year away now, and with Gareth Southgate at the helm – the fans will be expecting him to achieve the seamlessly impossible, and bring the trophy home for the first time since 1966 (for anyone that had forgotten).

We can all agree that player for player, England don’t have the best team in the world, but more regularly now we see an underdog win a competition – or, have a good run to the Quarter Final and beyond; Greece and Portugal winning the Euro’s springs to mind. With these two teams in mind – is confidence and sheer determination now more important than an individual’s actual ability?

Image courtesy of Mike Cliffe-Jones via Flickr

Image courtesy of Mike Cliffe-Jones via Flickr

On the physical side of football, it has come a long way in the last 20 years – with dietitians, fitness coaches, nutritionists and personal trainers now at every top professional club, no club can say that another team has the curb over them in that factor. Yes, there are some players that are taller, quicker or stronger than others, but with every player’s fitness monitored daily, and clubs having so much information on other teams to nullify any obvious threat a certain player may have over one of their own, that now means pace and power isn’t as dominating as it used to be.

Research has shown that being mentally strong is as – if not more important, than physical ability.  You only have to look as far as Leicester to see that. With mental power taking such a big role in sport now, don’t be surprised to start seeing things like mental coaches, motivational speakers and maybe even hypnotists coming into the game.

If you dig deeper into how much sport is down to what goes on inside your head, do players from a different country and culture, have a certain edge over players from England? As far-fetched as it might seem, for some players, sport is a matter of life and death.

Let’s start with arguably the best player in the world – Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo grew up in Medeira, in a tinned roof house, living in a room with his brother and two sisters, where he has said there was no such thing as Christmas presents or luxuries. Many coaches who worked with Ronaldo at a young age have said he wasn’t technically the most talented player they worked with, but his belief and desire to become the best was so strong – it made him stand out from any other player. Often staying behind hours after training to better himself, whether it be on the pitch or in the gym – Ronaldo worked harder than anyone around him to be where he is today, all so he could lead a better life for him and his family. To name a few others: Dani Alves picked melons with his dad and slept on a concrete bed; Carlos Tevez walked past dead bodies daily to get to school and has said he used to train by dribbling around broken glass and syringes; whilst Neymar lived in a single room with his whole family. Bringing it a bit closer to home, Alexis Sanchez – a player who is highly recognised for his work rate, had no father, played bare footed in the streets and lived in a place nick named “Devils corner”, his only ambition was to give his mum everything she wanted.

There are many more players with the same types of stories, but one thing they all have in common is they came from nothing, and nothing was expected from them. From a very early age, there is a determination that is instilled in these players that is so great, that failure is not an option. Playing professional football was their only ticket out, meaning their focus level to perform at every moment was massively intensified. Even from such a young age, they had to outperform everyone around them and maintain that high level of skill in order to be noticed. Fast forward it to their professional careers, and that same determination and drive to succeed is still there, it’s ingrained in their DNA. These are players that clubs look to when they need a miracle on the pitch, and more often than not, they produce. It’s not to say everyone in England leads a privilege lifestyle, because that’s not the case, but it’s impossible to say anyone in England has had the same rags to riches story. Take Wayne Rooney, regardless of what you think of him as a player now, there’s no doubting he gave his all to every game. Have a closer look at his childhood and you’ll see his dad was frequently unemployed, and his local area of Croxteth was renowned for major issues with drugs and gun crime. You wouldn’t have to search far to find someone you know who nearly made it as a professional footballer, but has gone on to have a decent career in something else, and leads a pleasant life. If you ask any of the aforementioned footballers if they can say that about the kids they grew up with, you might find a different answer. Once every decade you will have a player that is as naturally talented as Messi, but you can count on one hand the number of players that fall into that category of talent.

If you take this theory into other sports, or industries, you get the same story. Many cricket players from India and Pakistan have come from slums, and practiced hitting rocks with sticks or practiced by attaching a ball to a ceiling and hitting it. In the music industry – rappers such as Eminem and Jay Z, rap about their lives, and what they’ve been through, and are two of the biggest household names in the music world.

In a weirdly ironic twist, does England not produce these game changing players down to the fact that the mentality of these players abroad that have had such a rough upbringing means that when it comes to crunch time, they have the final edge over us?

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