Playing football at the highest level implies significant stress for players. In the 2018/2019 season, F.C. Barcelona competed in 60 official matches; in other words, a match every 4 ½ days. In addition, for the most outstanding players, we also have to add friendly matches as well as international fixtures to the total. This number easily exceeds 70 clashes per season. The number of training sessions during a season is also significant – completing over 250 preparatory sessions per season is not unheard of. Players simply train and compete a lot and we know that there is a high risk of injury and of physical fatigue when players train and compete too much. But there are other aspects that we must keep in mind. The importance of the matches towards the end of the season means that players’ stress levels tend to increase significantly in the final months. Every match becomes a finale, resulting in a high risk of mental fatigue. This mental fatigue can be defined as a psychobiological state caused by a prolonged cognitive demanding activity1 period.
A recent study suggests that mental fatigue can negatively influence player performance in various ways2:
- Disengagement from the group and its objectives
- Decrease in motivation and enthusiasm
- Isolation and difficulties to express emotions
- Loss of discipline
- Less attention to details and being focused
The causes of this state have much to do with the pressure from the media and players’ commitments to them, the excessive repetition of the same exercises or work routines, players’ over-analysis of every match, rival or opponent, the time needed for work commitments, and instability in their personal environment or the time spent thinking about their sport. All of this entails a very high risk of suffering from mental fatigue.
A relevant aspect of mental fatigue is that it doesn’t develop suddenly. Its effects accumulate progressively and visible to the player near the end of the season. A player’s experiences and personality can also act as a modulator: younger players can be more prone to suffer from this state.
Recommendations that could help clubs prevent or reduce mental fatigue
During holidays: prevent or completely eliminate exposure to the media, maintain good physical fitness by doing exercises or activities with little connection to football, keep in mind that mental recovery is as important as physical recovery, achieve stability in the player’s environment with friends and family and allow enough rest before the season begins.
During the season: in addition to maintaining the above measures, it is suggested to break up the work routine with tasks or activities that provide variability and avoid excessive repetition of tasks.
For Matveev, the loss of players’ peak physical condition in the interim period is a necessity in order to reach an even better state during the subsequent season. Holidays are very important. They should help players disconnect from football as well as the routines they keep up for 10 months. Preventing or reducing players’ mental fatigue is one of the goals for the holiday period. One should not start a new season without having disconnected from the previous one.
Carlos Lago Peñas
Job, R. and Dalziel, J. (2001). Defining fatigue as a condition of the organism and distinguishing it from habituation, adaptation, and boredom. IN: Hancock P.A. (Ed.). Stress, workload, and fatigue. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Russel, S.; Jenkins, D.; Rynne, S.; Halson, S.L. & Kelly, V. (2019). What is mental fatigue in elite sport? Perceptions from athletes and staff. European Journal of Sport Science, in print.