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5 tips to win a final: A sports psychologist's guide

5 tips to win a final: A sports psychologist’s guide

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

When you’ve worked really hard all season, making it to finals is a great feeling. You feel like all the hard work was worth it, and you’re excited to fight one last time.

But along with that excitement come the nerves and pressure of playing in the final. So how can you prepare for the game and ensure you can put on your best performance when it matters most?

4 tips for playing at your best during a final

1. Aim to reach a clutch performance

This is basically the opposite of choking; it means performing even better under pressure. Our top tips for helping athletes reach clutch performance are:

  • Increase your confidence – Identify your strengths and remember your previous successes.
  • Change your outlook – Athletes should view pressure situations as a challenge rather than a threat.
  • Practice performing under pressure – This can be created using an audience, rewards / punishments, creating competition and creating situations where the athlete only has one shot.

2. Create a game plan

You need to have a clear but flexible game plan. When athletes feel unsure of what to do, they can become anxious or stressed. Hope is a poor strategy. Developing pre-prepared game plans often helps alleviate some of these feelings.

That said, athletes do need to bear in mind that no game plan is ever fault-proof. All eventualities cannot be planned for and in some cases, they will need to be flexible to ensure that their approach best fits the needs of the situation. There is a thin line between having a clear vision and sticking stubbornly to an idea that isn’t working.

3. Control your emotions

To maximise performance, it is important that athletes don’t get wrapped up in the excitement of the occasion, but instead are able to control their emotions and focus. One way to do this is by setting yourself or the team challenging but realistic goals to achieve throughout the match or competition.

4. Focus on the right things

Focus is something we work on with our athletes a lot as sport psychologists. If your attention is in the wrong place, it can really impact your performance. When you are playing in a final, you may be feeling even more pressure, so it’s even more important to ensure your focus is where it needs to be.

This includes focusing on what you can control. As we say to our athletes: focus on “controlling the controllables”, which means accepting certain situations that they have no influence over. This will help give you a sense of certainty and confidence.

Along with this, you need to be process focused. As an athlete, you should think about the process and what you want to achieve when you are performing. Getting emotional and focusing on the outcome can throw you off and lead to a drop in performance. 

Three ways stay focused on the process is to:

  • Ask yourself: “What do I need to do to play at my best?”
  • Focus on your strengths. Remind yourself of what you are good at and use this.
  • Use visualisation to imagine what you can and want to achieve. Effective visualisation means using all your senses to create a mental image of what you want to achieve.
Train your mind as well as your body. Unlock your full potential with sport psychology coaching.

3 tips for substitutes taking penalties

We’ve noticed that in the Premiership and Euros finals, a lot of substitutes who come on to take penalties miss. So, we looked at the psychology to see what the research actually says about substitutes taking penalties. Some ways to improve your ability to take a penalty include:

Have both a physical & mental warm-up

A physical warm-up is important to ensure you are not coming on cold, and a mental warm-up will ensure you feel cool, calm, and collected. The mental warm-up consists in thoughts and feelings about the things you can control, things you need to focus on and what matters now.

Make decisions in advance

If a player is going to come on only to take a penalty, it’s really important that this decision is made way in advance of that happening, or even before kick-off itself. This is because it helps the players know their role in advance, helping them to focus on the process of taking a good penalty as opposed to the outcomes or what-ifs.

Change Outcome Bias

In football, Outcome Bias happens all the time. This is when we judge the quality of our decision making based on the results, rather than the process of how we got there. A substitute taking a penalty and missing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad decision. If you can weigh up the quality of your decisions based on the information you had at that time, this will help improve performance and prevent outcome bias.

Final thoughts

Making a final is a big moment for many athletes. By creating a game plan, learning to control your emotions and focusing on the right things, you’re sure to perform at your best!

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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