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STEP UP! Mental preparation for higher-level struggles in team sports (Episode 1)

Summer is over, autumn has begun, and national championships and cup series have started across Europe. The summer preparations have been made, everyone has put their best knowledge into physical and mental preparation as well, and we are slowly getting to the first checkpoint when it comes time to consider where the teams are. All of this is especially true for those teams that have been promoted to higher leagues, as their start determines their destiny in a given season.

Mental preparation for the rookies

We can clearly state that starting a new, higher-level championship, regardless of country or league, is one of the biggest challenges in team sports. While there are fundamental differences between a team moving into a more elite division for the first time and a team that has recovered from relegation, whichever is true for that club, the challenge of the new season requires very serious preparation. Physically, the cornerstones of preparation are the same for newcomers and teams that have already been tested, but mentally it is a completely different test of strength for everyone. So, there are basic rules that need to be followed in preparation, as the new league will punish you very quickly and spectacularly if someone makes a mistake. As the most important principles in physical training can be followed quite easily – such as increasing the amount of training, changing its distribution and rhythm – the biggest challenge is always mental preparation. Mental preparation itself is completely different in every case. Moreover, let’s say the shift means that the given team has moved to the top division/league, where the best of the country and of course well-known international stars can be found. In addition, experience shows that the difference between dropping out of a higher-level league or barely avoiding relegation is extremely small from a human perspective. In mental preparation, however, great care must be taken not to get caught up in the momentum of the new league, as it is very important that we judge our team realistically based on their abilities in that particular sport. According to best professionals working in the sport, perfect and effective mental preparation can improve results up to 25-30% at the national team level and 15-20% at the club team level. This in itself sounds very good, and this is exactly what all sports professionals expect when they place an order for mental work, but we also need to emphasise the “maximum” sign in front of these two figures. Because no mental preparation will be able to improve the team’s technical and strategic skills. It is often said in professional circles that a given player that can handle crises perfectly cannot score a huge goal from an all-decisive penalty kick if he has no physical opportunity to kick the goal because he has never played football before. Of course, the example is striking, but everyone understands what we mean.

Move away from home

In the case of mental preparation, the exclusive use of traditional methods is not successful. There are custom modules that are definitely worth incorporating into the work, but for other teams, such as those that are regularly in the top tier, who want to finish at the top of the league table, it is not necessary at all. Moreover, it would be confusing if they took part in mental preparation. One such critical aspect is the need to be aware that divisions have significantly different mental circumstances within different leagues. If a team is new to a particular division, the most important thing is to prepare them for the new psychological, social, and generational environment that awaits them. After all, the environment they come from was already familiar to them. In fact, they loved it very much since they won the championship. Now, however, they have to face new things in almost every way, which is not easy. This is especially true for teams that have started their march in the first division or have seldom performed on the largest international stages. The effect of this change is pretty much like moving out of our home, our environment, after a long time. Of course, different characters are affected differently, but an interesting factor in sports is that at the beginning of the struggles at the new level, all personality types find negatives in this new situation. Even a character who is a competitive type and can’t wait to start a higher level, even she will fall into a mental pit more easily if she doesn’t quickly achieve what she wanted to achieve with her momentum.