Critically acclaimed and widely accepted as the most effective performance enhancing mental skill by high-performance athletes, CEOs, actors, public speakers and authors, ‘visualisation’ is often undeveloped and largely under-used in player development settings, as well as other educational environments. But why is this the case? PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan discusses.


Similarly, while ‘vision’ is regarded as the cornerstone of organisational, leadership, or long-term development structures, minimal emphasis is placed on players’ vision for their own future. American author Stephen Covey sees vision as an essential development tool at the heart of personal leadership, suggesting that we must learn to ‘begin with the end in mind’ and maintain a clear vision of what we want to achieve. But as players, coaches and parents how many of us have a clear vision of who we are and who we want to be?

In Olivia Fox Cabane’s ‘The Charisma Myth’, she explains that significant change comes from the inside-out. Changing the way we see the world or re-interpreting the information around us, not only changes our behavioural responses to stimuli, but also fundamentally changes which stimuli we notice and respond to. Covey believes you can literally create the world around you: this is the power of visualisation and a key prerequisite to the development of the perceptual skills needed for creativity in football.

Further to this, Cabane teaches high- performing clients to hold counsel with famous role models of their choosing. Clients are taught to visualise a ‘Jedi counsel’ of role models and consult this counsel whenever problems arise or guidance is needed. Embody in our belief in these techniques, the founders of Player Development Project would often ask what would Ken Robinson, Steven Covey, Elon Musk, Tim Ferriss or Simon Sinek do in a certain situation? Imagining our role models (for us, the game changers who walk the talk) helps us find our way and embody our values.

The barriers to creating personal vision and using visualisation, mirror those discussed by Sean Douglas in his article exploring self-reflection. Youth players need practical techniques to formalise vision and practise visualisation. The development of these psychological constructs requires engaging applications that inspire buy-in and self-direction. The design, development and pursuit of a player’s unique playing style within the Playmaker App is aimed to provide buy-in and self-direction to remove any such barriers.

Players choose, study and emulate their role models within an app which provides simulating and engaging content designed to enhance visualisation and reflection. Players’ ability to visualise and identify with their role models becomes the cornerstone of long-term player development (LTPD): the integration of role models’ characteristics creates our vision, our dream playing style. Our ability to identify with role models becomes important when fostering the belief that we can and will emulate them on the pitch, and it gives confidence.

Let’s use a practical example: when selecting a dribbling mentor, players may need to choose between two of their heroes – let’s use Cristiano Ronaldo and David Silva. While both players may be equally appealing to watch, they have distinct styles. Physically imposing, with electric pace and power, Ronaldo is distinctly different to the wonderfully balanced, elegant David Silva. Therefore aiming to emulate Ronaldo’s dribbling style would result in a very different LTPD pathway to that of Silva, with physical attributes for power and pace required and emphasised during training.

Consider that these attributes may be more attractive to certain coaches and clubs, and they may result in players experiencing different positions within various team playing styles and club philosophies. The awareness of who we are and how we want to play is crucial in modern player development, and with the globalisation of world football young players can seek out preferred environments, cultures and playing styles. For example, the Scottish 18-year-old Ryan Gauld sees his £2 million move from Dundee United to Sporting Lisbon as a clear step along a pathway of his choosing: ‘Abroad you see more players who are smaller in stature,’ Gauld said. ‘In England, it’s more athletes. Me being a smaller guy, I need to think about what’s best for me and what’s best around me, and I think being abroad is the best culture of football for me. When I’ve been growing up, I watched the Spanish leagues and prefer the style of that. Getting the ball down and being patient with the buildup play.’

While choosing our mentors is important, these choices can be re- assessed and changed over time. Just as the playing styles of professional players evolve as their physical attributes change, so do the styles of developing players and the role models that inspire them.

Ryan Gauld. Photo: Heart of Midlothian Football Club

Ryan Gauld. Photo: Heart of Midlothian Football Club

It’s important to note, however, that although players without Ronaldo’s physical prowess can emulate certain areas of his game, like his quick small steps and deceptive techniques, at some point most of us have to accept that we may not have physical attributes to develop the same power and pace as the Portuguese star. Therefore, choosing a player with similar physical attributes may allow a more natural identification and foster a greater belief in emulating their playing style.

Our ability to identify with role models becomes important when fostering the belief that we can and will emulate them on the pitch, and it gives confidence.

This natural identification may explain why Messi is such a fantastic role model for junior players. Often the smallest player on the pitch, young players can identify with the situations Messi finds himself in – they can visualise themselves with the ball, surrounded by bigger players. But they can also watch his every move, trying to understand which skills and techniques he uses in different situations. Perhaps most importantly, when watching Messi young players can see how he behaves on the pitch and subconsciously internalise the values he embodies. While many skillful dribblers ‘go to ground’ or dive (as Arjen Robben recently admitted at the World Cup, to be discussed in next month’s issue) Messi dominates with dignity and integrity, attempting to stay on his feet and rarely complaining after enduring the repeated fouls of desperate defenders. With these values, he is a true role model for our next generation of players.

Perhaps most importantly, when watching Messi young players can see how he behaves on the pitch and subconsciously internalise the values he embodies.

Remembering that ‘who we are is how we play’ makes character development an essential part of the Player Development Project. We aim to give players the tools to develop as good people first and good players second. To do this we use a modern spin on the age old development tool of storytelling. By digging beneath the media hype we’ll highlight PDP role models, real development stories, tales of trials and tribulations, failure, rejection, illness and injury. Looking at the cultures, values and experiences that shaped the best players, we aim to understand and emulate their creative genius.

Perhaps most importantly we aim to understand the real people behind the players. Reflecting, understanding and celebrating elements of their development history will help our players construct not only a playing style, but also an identity founded on the values required to maintain self- motivation, help reach their creative potential in football and make a meaningful contribution in life.

Cover Image: 

Messi, visualising his free kick. Photo: Rob Jacobs

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