Sunderland players must remain tough psychologically

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SPORT at the top level requires huge mental strength.

Sunderland’s task to stay up this season is looking incredibly difficult, and the players will have to remain tough psychologically if they hope to retain their Premier League status.

I believe Sunderland can do it.

Remaining fixtures against Spurs, Everton, Man City, Chelsea and Man United, mean it’s certainly not going to be easy for the Black Cats, but it’s still possible. Mentally, every one of those fixtures has to be anticipated as a victory.

Belief, optimism and conviction is key if the players want to achieve anything, and this squad has shown they respond when called upon in the big games.

Gus Poyet is a very good manager, having led the team on two impressive cup runs and the double over Newcastle this season. I’m a big fan of the Uruguayan, who, in my opinion, has the tactical and coaching ability to guide Sunderland to great success and I’m sure he’ll be motivating his players, filling their minds with confidence and belief.

None of the opposition are invincible and Sunderland have some quality Premier League players in their ranks. It could well be a case of “mind over Mata’” when they travel to Old Trafford, which is definitely not the fortress it once was.

Spurs seem rocky at present and the prospect of playing at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad should be enough motivation to gather some more precious points, with of course, the added incentive of returning again next season in Premier League.

The gap from safety isn’t a huge margin, neither is the difference in the quality of Sunderland’s squad in comparison with its relegation rivals – bearing in mind they still have Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea to play.

Nowadays, English clubs consider themselves forward thinking and highly advanced when it comes to sports science and nutrition.

Sports psychology, however, still tends to take a back seat, not everywhere, but at the majority of clubs nationwide.

With such a large and vital role in the professional game, why is the psychological aspect sometimes overlooked and even ridiculed?

It’s common knowledge that in elite sport, huge amounts of concentration, nerve and emotional control are needed in competition.

Whether you are putting for par at the Ryder Cup or stepping up to take a penalty to avoid relegation, it’s psychological strength that determines success or failure.

At the top level, athletes already possess the physical ability to carry out the task in hand, but having strength mentality will enable them to carry it out to their full potential.

This is why we witness penalties going way off target, sendings-off after red mist descends and players under performing as a result of nerves or lack of discipline.

Football clubs spend large amounts of money on the latest training and recovery facilities and best nutrition to ensure their players are in prime condition for competition.

At most top clubs too, there is no doubt that sports psychology is on the list, but it’s often undervalued by both managers and players, never being received with full backing or an open mind. I believe it’s this closed off, football bubble that prevents psychology from entering on a larger scale.

I have been involved in numerous team building, bonding exercises, which have gone down like a lead balloon. Unfortunately many external sports psychologists cannot adapt their methods to the very unique football environment.

Respect must be gained before any psychologist even has a chance of attempting to influence a player. This might sound achievable, but it’s nearly impossible to quickly gain the full respect of a group of footballers.

Sports psychology encourages individuals to open up, identify their weaknesses and come face to face with what is troubling them.

This is not something footballers find easy to do; we feel threatened (as many people would) and exposed at the prospect of being labelled weak or seen to appear vulnerable in front of team-mates. Ridiculous as it may sound this is why many players disregard psychological help, as they fear it may harm their reputation and in some cases their celebrity status.

It does frustrate me when psychology isn’t given a proper chance in the world of football, especially when in so many other sports it’s used extensively with obvious beneficial effect.

Like so much in life, it’s down to the individual, what works for us, and personally, if it can help me to perform better and accomplish my goals, I’m all for it.

For Sunderland, I believe that with positive thinking and a strong, disciplined mental attitude the possibility of Premier League survival remains achievable. During the next few weeks, we could witness them re-writing their destiny.

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