When Negative Thinking Actually Helps

By Dan Abrahams

In my first book, Soccer Tough, I recount a story about former West Ham and England striker, Carlton Cole.

One of the most important questions I asked him before every match was this:

“What will you do if it’s going wrong?”

Over time Carlton got into the habit of telling me in precise detail exactly what he’d do. He’d use his athleticism to bring the defenders in deep or drag them out wide. He’d make sure to stay on his toes and keep moving, keep running, keep working hard.

To begin with Carlton thought I was asking a very negative question. Why would he want to think about the game going wrong? Why would he want to even contemplate the defenders getting the better of him?

But eventually he began to realise that asking himself this seemingly negative question enabled him to strategise for every eventually. He grew to understand that by asking himself this question he wasn’t being defeatist, he was being realistic.

Everyone has tough times during a game of soccer. The match doesn’t always go to plan and form isn’t always found. It isn’t negative to acknowledge that things can go wrong, provided you take the time to think about what you’ll do during the game to put things right.

This is what I’d like you to do if you’re a player. And this is the question I’d like you to ask your players (for coaches) or children (for parents).

“What will you do if it’s not quite working out for you? If the opposition are playing really well or if you’re not quite finding your best form?”

What you are doing is giving yourself (or your players) a better opportunity to think proactively on the pitch, as opposed to reactively. Mentally skillful players are proactive rather than reactive. When things are going wrong they are able to think flexibly in the moment. They are able to find solutions.

By asking this ‘negative’ question a few days before the game you’re priming your mind (or the mind of your players) to be able to find solutions in the moment. You’re priming the brain to be proactive.

Of course there are fun and simple techniques you can use to get even better at being a great problem solver on the pitch. At my online Soccer Academy I teach players, coaches and parents about developing a ‘Game Face’ and using ‘Controllers’. Both techniques are fun, powerful and very effective.

Dan Abrahams is a global sport psychologist, working alongside leading players, teams, coaches and organisations across the world. He is known for his passion and ability to de-mystify sport psychology, as well as his talent for creating simple to use techniques and performance philosophies, and he is the author of several sport psychology books as well as the founder of the Dan Abrahams Soccer Academy. You can order his books and contact him at

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