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Mind games: Touchline psychology

By Chris Murphy CNN
  • Sports psychologist Andy Barton says self-belief is key for any manager
  • Alex Ferguson is a master of the mind game, according to Barton
  • It is vital under-fire managers take one game at a time, he says
  • Inter boss Jose Mourinho provides a great example of positive body language

(CNN) -- The latest round of Champions League matches finds a string of top European managers on the verge of being dumped out of the competition - a failure that could cost them their job.

Bayern Munich boss Louis Van Gaal and Rafael Benitez at Liverpool are staring an early exit in the face after a disastrous run of results, while Manuel Pellegrini at Real Madrid and even Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho are in danger of crashing out of the money-spinning tournament at the first hurdle.

So how do coaches cope with the unique pressure that comes with a high-profile job in football, and are the skills needed to be successful in soccer applicable to other areas?

Andy Barton, a mental performance consultant at The Sporting Mind clinic, says the first, and fundamental, characteristic all proficient gaffers need is self belief. "All the top managers have different styles but the common denominator is the confidence they have in themselves," he said.

"You need a true understanding of the game but also people. You need an ability to motivate players to get them geed up just to the right level, you need to know that certain people need a certain kind of attention."

The skill-set top level coaches display can be adapted to almost any workplace, Barton claims. "In business, you need to be able to man-manage and inspire people, set goals for them, help them overcome obstacles, give them self-belief and to give them a kick up the backside when they need it. There are a lot of parallels between high-level sports coaching and people who are successful in a business environment."

If a coach is thinking two games ahead, or about the consequences of winning or losing, he's not going to be effective.
--Andy Barton

Barton says the beautiful game has recently woken up to the benefit that sports psychology can offer, and the key to success is to keep things simple.

"You have to concentrate on the moment, one game at a time or one half at a time. If a coach is thinking two games ahead or about the consequences of winning or losing he's not going to be effective. If coaches can't get themselves in the right frame of mind they're not going be able to do it to their players."

The mind games between coaches can be fascinating viewing for fans, but Barton says the verbal volleys are becoming an increasingly important part of the game.

He points to Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez and his infamous rant about Alex Ferguson, the manager of rival side Manchester United.

Benitez convened a press conference where he criticized Ferguson's supposed "arrogance" in wanting match-scheduling and refereeing to suit his team in England.

"When Benitez attacked Ferguson it bounced off as if nothing happened and had a really detrimental effect on Benitez. He appeared agitated, frustrated and stressed. Ferguson just swatted him away as if he was an annoying fly. That suggests Ferguson feels far more in control and that's going to ripple down to his players - they feel more confidence because their coach seems the more dominant of the two."

Barton also stresses the importance of touchline body language as a measure of control for managers, and the trust they must have in their players to carry out their demands to the letter.

"Players do respond to body language," he added. "Jose Mourinho has very positive body language, even when he was sitting back with his arms round the back of the chairs. It's something that says to the players "I'm in control."

"But trust is very important too. If you don't trust your players you're probably not going to get that much out of them anyway, so you do have to get to that level where you can let them get on with it."

Andy Barton is a mental performance consultant at The Sporting Mind clinic.