Top sports psychologist warns Scotland's players not to get carried away at creating history in Serbia
It’s one of the cliches of football management advice ‘play the game, not the occasion’ – but the oft-used instruction has its’ merits, a top psychologist has explained.
Dr John Mathers, a sports psychologist at the University of Stirling, says it very much applies to Steve Clarke’s Scotland players, who stand on the edge of history tonight with a crucial qualification play-off match in Serbia.
Win, and Scotland will return to the first major men’s tournament for 22 years – but Dr Mathers says players should be more concerned with their own individual performance rather than restoring the country’s seat at football’s top table.
Yesterday defender Scott McKenna warned that it was important that the team does not “get too caught up in it all” and avoids getting “too emotionally involved” and Dr Mathers believes the result could come down to which team best copes with the pressure and expectation of the one-off game.
He said: “There is a strong appetite for Scotland to qualify and renew its acquaintance with elite tournaments. This can come from many sources – such as fans, the media, clubs and the National Football Association, which will be hoping that success may have a positive impact on the game in Scotland as a whole.
"However, perhaps most importantly, there will be an eagerness for each player to reach the finals and improve their own individual and collective legacy.
“The performance of the team in this match will partly depend on the extent to which each player can cope with this ‘distraction’. Elite athletes cope with these distractions by focusing on the present, staying connected with their roles and responsibilities and being committed to their individual and team goals for the duration of the match. The extent to which a player will be able to do this will depend on their individual mentality – or coping skills – which will be shaped by their previous experiences and training, and the extent to which they feel comfortable in the match setting.
“I would recommend that the Scotland players try to play the match – and not the occasion. Fundamentally, each player should choose to focus on their predefined role rather than be distracted by the consequence or significance of the result.”
Dr Mathers said that the players most likely to cope best with the situation are those who are able to regulate their individual stress levels, focus correctly, adhere to their process goals, practice positive self-talk, and recover from mistakes quickly.
Scotland are on a rich vein of form and are unbeaten in a year, while Serbia have only won once – through extra-time in the play-off semi-final against Norway – in 2020.
Kick-off for tonight’s match in Belgrade is at 7.45pm with the winner over 90 minutes – or extra-time and penalties should they be required – progressing to the delayed Euro 2020 championships next summer. The winner will also be handed two games at Hampden in a championship group alongside England, Croatia and the Czech Republic.