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EXCLUSIVE interview with Dan Abrahams, the man behind ‘Soccer Tough’

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1. How would you describe what you do in a nutshell?

As a sport psychologist I work with sports people to help them be the very best they can be. I help them develop quicker and I help them high perform, more consistently, under pressure. I work a little in business/industry as well but primarily I am a psychologist.

2. You worked with the West Ham squad under Alan Curbishley, in particular helping Carlton Cole. What main tips did you give him?

Let’s be clear. I worked with Carlton and then, some other players asked me to work with them. I didn’t work for West Ham as such. Perhaps most notably I worked with Anton Ferdinand for the 6 months prior to him getting a move to Sunderland. was another to approach me and we worked for a month or so to help him break into the first team.

With Carlton there was a range of things. Perhaps most notably I helped him think better off the pitch about his game and taught him how to rehearse success (rather than failure) leading up to matches. On the pitch we worked on a number of things related to intensity of performance, performance confidence and focus. We finished working together just after he won his first couple of England caps – I’m unsure if he’s kept the stuff going. My book Soccer tough details some of the work we did and how that applies to all footballers.

3. What team/player would you say has improved most under your guidance?

The most dramatic was probably Anthony Stokes who called me in December 09. He had scored just 4 goals in a season and a half. We did a session beginning of December and he scored 6 goals in that month, which included the fastest goal in history. He went on to finish second highest scorer in Scotland that season and get a dream move to Celtic. Again Soccer Tough devotes a chapter to the work I did with Anthony.

5. If you had to pick, what team in the Premier League would you say is most in need of your help?

I believe what I do makes a small but important difference. So I believe I could make a small but important difference to any and all clubs. If I didn’t I would be in the wrong profession.

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6. You recently said that ‘on the pitch, to gain control you must lose a bit of control.’ What did you mean?

It’s vital that a footballer, no matter what level he or she plays at, competes with fun and freedom. If you are tight and tense, if you play with fear and try to control everything then your awareness will lessen, your anticipation and decision making will slow and your coordination will be shot to pieces. I want players to play with fun and freedom. I want them to give up a bit of control and loosen up. An example of an extreme of this is the England team. Very tight, rigid and tense. They play not to lose rather than to win, on the back foot rather than the front foot, with fear rather than with freedom. Against I saw a player receive the ball with his back to goal when ordinarily in the Premiership he would have received it on the half turn. That’s not a technical problem because he does it correctly week in week out for his club. It’s a mental problem.

7. Do you think visualisation is just as important as physical skill when it comes to improving your play?

Not at all. I’m not one of these loony psychologists who thinks that the game is 90% mental. That’s ridiculous and if a psychologist says this it does my industry more harm than good. Imagery or visualisation, or ‘pictures’ as I like to call it complements the technical and tactical work coaches do. The brain can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined so it is a real neuroscientific construct. But it doesn’t replace training nor is it as important as training.

8. Would you say fan/player communication on sites such as twitter is a key factor in making/breaking confidence?

It’s funny – I used to read a lot of West Ham forums when I worked with Carlton. This helped me get a fans perspective on his performances. I knew he was doing very well (apart from using my own eyes of course) when fans, who had been his harshest critics, started praising him. Fans on forums and on twitter are harsh because they are emotionally wrapped up in the game. They can’t effect play as such so it’s stressful being a fan to some extent. If players choose to view comments then that’s at their risk. They will see some pretty horrible remarks at times. I’ve never met a player who wants to lose. I’ve met a lot with low confidence and a lot who have been unable to deal with criticism from the coaching staff – but not really any who don’t care. I think a player CAN lose confidence through yes.

9. Finally, your chance for a plug. Sum up why people should buy your book in one sentence.

It’s a number one seller on Amazon for soccer coaching books in the U.S. and the UK – my passion is to de-mystify this subject so you get NO boring theory – just great stories about great footballers overcoming mindset challenges and very simple techniques to improve your game or the game of your players or kids.

4. What teams/players are you currently working with?

I work with about 20 or footballers from the Premiership down to non leagues. Most are confidential relationships – but one guy I can mention (because he’ in the book) is Richard Keogh who plays for Derby County. What a great he is. He has won 4 consecutive player of the year awards. As for clubs – I’ve just finished a 2 year contract working with the Academy and development squad for QPR. I’m looking for fresh challenges at a club.

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