Soccer is the most watched sport in the world, with billions of fans and online sports betting enthusiasts glued to their screens as they try to keep up with the “Beautiful Game,” as the legendary Brazilian player Pele dubbed it. At the highest levels, soccer demands that players perform at their peak, not only in terms of physical stamina and skills, but also mentally.
Even the toughest, most talented players can fold under pressure and miss opportunities to score, bringing the dreams of their teammates and fans crashing to the ground. That’s exactly what happened to Italian players Roberto Donadoni, Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio at the World Cup in 1990 and 1994, who missed their kicks and caused their team to lose in the semi-finals and finals. They were absolutely traumatized. To get back into the game, they booked themselves into the “Mind Room,” the pioneering soccer psychology laboratory that helped the AC Milan soccer club to unprecedented success. Let’s take a look inside.
The eye of the tiger
Soccer has more than its fair share of dramatic soccer betting moments, but the most nail-biting of them all has to be the penalty shootout. If the score is equal at full time, teams take turns taking five shots at the goal until one of them comes out ahead. A single mistake can result in defeat, no matter how well the team played throughout the match. Here’s how one Italian player described what it’s like to step forward to take a spot kick in a World Cup penalty shootout:
“I put the ball down and took three or four steps back. If I score, we are champions of the world. And then a little thought crossed my mind: what if I miss? That hit me. I started looking at the ball like it was a tiger. Then I looked at the coach: another tiger. Then I looked at the players and my teammates: another 21 tigers. Then I thought about the people watching at home. In a moment, I had four billion tigers looking at me. I was shaking. I felt confused. I almost felt like crying.”
Deploying skills under pressure
The player was quoted in an interview with Dr. Bruno Demichelis, who founded the AC Milan soccer club’s Mind Room back in 1986. The way it happened was that the new AC Milan owner, Silvio Berlusconi (who went on to become president of Italy multiple times,) was looking for ways to propel his club to the top of the league. Something that no other Italian team had at the time was a dedicated sports psychologist, and Berlusconi wanted AC Milan to have one.
With a background in sports psychology based on overcoming defeat in martial arts, Dr. Demichelis was the right fit for the job. After nearly blowing the interview (he told Berlusconi that he wasn’t a fan of AC Milan!) Dr. Demichelis built a 430-square-foot lab containing up to eight zero-gravity chairs for players to relax in while being hooked up to equipment, including polygraph machines, used to monitor indicators such as blood pressure and breathing rates. This set-up allowed Dr. Demichelis to measure attention span, stress level and other variables. This was where Baresi, Baggio and Donadoni came to talk about the trauma of missing the goal from the penalty spot.
In the words of Dr. Demichelis, “We improved skills that are very well-defined: recovery, attention, stamina and speed in analyzing situations and making decisions. The difference is that our players were able to deploy these skills under pressure. As a player, you need to have this ability if you’re going to take a penalty in the World Cup final.”