TAKE 5 with US Youth Soccer's Michael Duggan


Play Positive TAKE 5 Youth Sports Mental Preparation

US Youth Soccer Michael Duggan sports mental preparation

In sports, there is one given – expect the unexpected.

As fans, this excitement of not knowing what will happen next is a big reason why we attend, watch and talk about sporting events. For athletes, the unexpected, while thrilling, demands proper preparation to be successful.

Michael Duggan

Michael is currently the Director of Coaching for Carlsbad United F.C. He formerly played in England and has had success as a coach in youth soccer, most recently with Carlsbad United F.C.


1. How do your athletes prepare mentally for a big game?

The best part of playing and coaching is playing in the big games. Whether the game is a championship or the first game of the tournament, the excitement and competition are always intense. The first thing is to know all we can about our opponents: who their big game players are, what their style of play is and how they handle set pieces. We also want to know any weaknesses they may have. Once we have all this information we can better prepare our players on the practice field.

Mental toughness is also one of the most important parts of our preparation. Some players have all the skills in the world, but if they are not mentally prepared they will not be able to implement their skills through the duration of the game. One of the best ways to be mentally prepared is to practice visualization. Visualization can be very helpful the night before your big game. Think about what you want to do during the game. Imagine the shot you want to take, the pass you want to deliver and the defense you want to play. Soccer is a team sport, so think about your role on the team and what you hope to do to help your teammates. Every player can think of a time that they were disappointed with their performance in a soccer game. Decide how you can avoid your previous mistakes and play better the next day. On the other hand, imagine the best goal or pass you’ve ever made and think of how you can recreate it. 

2. What do you think is the key to good preparation?

We always tell our players, “You will not perform well if you don’t prepare." Education on nutrition, rest, and pre-hydration get your body ready before a game. Clear and concise instructions and focus during practice also helps your team’s preparation. You need to prepare yourself mentally and physically for competition. Training and practices are key and thoroughness is vital. Good preparation involves many aspects:

  • A Good Diet: Food is energy. Everything you put into your body in the 24 hours before competition will influence how you play. Carbohydrates (pasta and grains) are very important because they provide long-term energy. Soccer is an endurance sport and carbs help you run longer without tiring. Stay away from fatty and fried foods. You should avoid eating large meals within four hours of your soccer game; you want to be fully digested by the time you take the field. Also be sure to stay hydrated. Start drinking extra water at least the day before your game, not just a couple hours in advance.
  • The Night before the Game: When you go to bed, think about success, not failure. Think about the best games you have played. Concentrate on the positives you bring to your team, not the negatives. Your mind and body are one unit. Also remember the importance of sleep. Try to get between eight and nine hours of sleep the night before your game to rest your body and mind.
  • Stretching: the importance of stretching cannot be stressed enough. Tight muscles are responsible for countless injuries that are easily avoidable. Thoroughly stretch your legs after practice, before you go to bed and after your pre-game warm-up.
  • Routines: The best athletes in the world have specific routines that they follow every game day. You need to know what works for you. Find a routine for each game. Not only does this discipline put you in the zone before each game, it also helps you avoid being affected by outside distractions.
  • Talk to your coach: To play to your full potential, you should speak with your coach before the game. Your coach can tell you what he or she expects of you and what you should expect of yourself. A good coach can give you the extra push that you need to be successful in the game.

If you properly prepare yourself for big soccer games, you will be much more successful in each of them. Being nervous for these big soccer games is not a bad thing. The secret is converting that nervousness into motivation and excitement. We always tell our players, “Every good soccer player should love playing in big games because there is no better feeling than winning in one.”

3. When a member of your team doesn't feel like they have their "A game", what do you do?

We always remind our players that hard work is key. If a player feels that their game is not going well, we tell them to try and work themselves into the game by being organized and disciplined. Focus on getting back to the basics, doing the simple things well.  Connect with passes, maintain good communication and then build upon that.

4. How do they prepare for the unexpected?

As a coach, you try and prepare your team for every eventuality but obviously you can never cover it all. Anything can happen in soccer; a team can be up 3-0 before halftime and end up getting beat 4-3. That is why it is such an exciting sport. Being defensively organized and well drilled can certainly help offset conceding goals, but when a player strikes a ball from 30 yards into the top corner you just have to accept it. Those things happen in games and it is how your team adapts after the fact that really matters. When you’re working to achieve your objectives as a team you will encounter obstacles (injuries, in-game challenges, etc.). Some of these can be anticipated and planned out but some will not. In these situations, we work with our players to help them through it. Everyone has a job: players, coaches and managers. We are in in it together. 

5. What is your advice to youth sport parents to help their kids prepare for the unexpected?

One of the essential skills children must learn as they are growing up is how to adapt when life throws them a curve ball.  It’s easy to get knocked off course when things don’t go as planned.  I believe that if my players have a framework to deal with the most common unforeseen events in life and in sports, they’re much more likely to succeed. A player may be the starter in the team but this can be temporary.  Next year, someone better may come along and they may find themselves on the bench.  Players need to understand that there will be setbacks - they are a part of life - as long as you try your best. Usually when you try your best, you find that you will see results.

Come back next month for another exclusive TAKE 5 Interview.

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