Mental Toughness: Soccer

In the second of our 6-part series on mental toughness, we examine soccer. We have previously written on mental toughness in running and in tennis.

By way of introduction, here is how we define it:

What is Mental Toughness?


Mental Toughness not hard to identify but difficult to define. Inc magazine provides an interesting starting point in “4 Excuses Mentally Strong People Don’t Use“. These are:

  • I’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.
  • You only live once.
  • I don’t care what anybody thinks.
  • I deserve to be happy.

While these sayings aren’t necessarily bad, when used as excuses they tend to have deleterious effects. When mental toughness is defined as one’s ability to consistently demonstrate outstanding results in the most critical circumstances, then an excuse designed to shirk one’s responsibilities is counter-productive. In addition to the cliches above, we would humbly propose the following addendum:

  • Whatever will be, will be.

Now, there is probably a time and place for this. However, the mentally strong don’t use this as a way to avoid follow-through but rather as a comfort that when he has “worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted one the field of battle – victorious.”Not necessarily a victor in the  battle itself but a victor in knowing he has done all that he could. (h/t Vince Lombardi)

Mental Toughness in Soccer

In recent years, it has seemed that mental toughness in the most popular sport in the world has been characterized more by a stunning lack of it than the presence befitting professional athletes. The image above shows one of the most talented Italian soccer players of his generation, Roberto Baggio, missing a penalty as his team succumbed to the yellow shirts of Brazil in the 1994 World Cup Final shoot-out

It wasn’t like Baggio simply had his spot kick saved; he totally missed the target. This is a guy who had been kicking a ball his entire life, taken thousands of penalties, and scored many many goals. And yet he couldn’t hit the frame of the goal from 12 yards out.

Then take a more recent example – England. A collection of youthful talent highly paid stars, and poster boys lost to a team from Iceland that had few if any recognizable faces in the Euro 2016 competition. On paper, England should have won handily. Their players should have had the toughness to compete at the highest level just as they did all season for their club teams. Instead, it was Iceland who demonstrated remarkable resiliency, coming from behind and then holding on to escape as 2-1 victors.

So, when we look at mental toughness in soccer, it is different than any sports. For examples of toughness writ large, we must look at the minnows rather than the big boys. There are a couple common threads:

  1. Buy-in from all where all are working to a common goal. Working with one’s teammates where there is a unity of purpose and an absence of selfish ambition is key. For Iceland’s players, this was the biggest match of their lives. And while I’m sure England felt some honor playing for the country, it is difficult to replicate the same “last-chance saloon” feel that befell the Icelanders. When club soccer pays the bills and takes the majority of the year, you simply can’t get up for a national team match with the same singularity of purpose. Even in larger national teams that are successful, there tends to be a passion borne out of “the biggest game of their lives”. Look at Germany’s World Cup triumph in 2014 and Mario Gotze’s heroics – a previously unheralded kid whose time had come.
  2. Servant leadership where the stars sacrifice. When the stars use their experience to rally the troops and inspire them, it helps to bring forth the buy-in from the rest of the team. Witness the 2006 World Cup when an aging Zinedine Zidane led France to the final. Not until the infamous headbutt did France really look like losing. He sacrificed himself for the team throughout the tournament, playing with the energy of a kid and the calming influence of a father. He realized that the team wasn’t all about him but he showed his team just how much the matches meant.


So, England – bring back Bobby Charlton…and build a team, not just a collection of highly paid individuals.


(Image credit: New York Times, Sports Corner)

3 thoughts on “Mental Toughness: Soccer

  1. Pingback: Kazi & Mental Toughness: Bowling – The Kazi App

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