The Mental Side of AFL

Travis Cloke rues a missed opportunity.

By Gareth J. Mole (MAPS)
Head of Sport and Performance Psychology
Condor Performance

Do you want to be the best you can be? Join the queue. Most AFL players set themselves this goal too. However, few players actually become the best they can be which begs the questions “why do so few make it” and “what can be done to increase your chances of making it”.

The mental side of performance refers to psychological factors and in particular how our brain (the organ) and mind (the concept) can influence our performance. AFL players are not robots and their mental state influences performance. 

When we consider why so few players make it we need take a step back and consider whether they have achieved what they set out to achieve. Unfortunately, the focus on whether a player ‘makes it’ is judged on whether they reached the elite AFL competition. If your only goal is to enjoy yourself and see where that takes you then it is much more likely that you will ‘make it’ than if your goal is to win a Brownlow medal. The latter is more like a dream than a goal and can be detrimental to performance.

The research and observations of sport and performance psychologists show there a number of common mental errors made by those that tend not to ‘make it’.  These errors include:

1. Going through the motions

This mental mistake means that what you are doing during training has little or no impact on helping you prepare to perform well during a match. This is probably because the practice environment is much easier and more comfortable than the competition situation. This may be caused by a lack of consequences for errors in training and no distractions or pressure to deal with.

2. Poor choice of goals or no goal at all

Interestingly not having any goals is not as damaging as having the wrong type of goals. Outcome only goals can be detrimental (eg. “I must kick 3 goals today” or “my goal is to be able to play a whole season without injury”. These goals have two major flaws in that they are not totally under your control and they don’t mention how you intend to achieve the goal.

3. Making it up as you go

Very few great decisions get made on the spot. Planning is critical to performance but it is not done often enough and is often done poorly. How you use your time is a critical mental skill and your decision making in pressure situations can improve through the use of routines. Routines make sure we do the right things at the right times.  Routines can relate to your weekly routine, your pre-performance routine. Repeating routines ensures we start to feel very comfortable and develop confidence in uncomfortable of situations.

4. Talking yourself out of it

If you think you will, or you think you won’t…you’re right! One of the hardest psychological skills to master is managing the self-talk or inner dialogue. It also provides an opportunity for those who can master this element to improve their performance significantly. It is important to improve the way in which you analyse your game and manage the self-talk or inner dialogue. Due to the complex number of thoughts athletes have in a day it can be difficult to understand self-talk.  However, researchers have theorised on some of the more common types of irrational thoughts.  These include:

  • Should and musts: These are unnecessary pressure words. They imply if you fail that they’ve underperformed – which may not be the case. Instead use words like “would like to” and “aim to”
  • Perfectionisms: Being perfect is like the Loch Ness Monster…lots of people talk about it but it actually doesn’t exist. Logically, if everything you do can be improved then it can’t be perfect. Perfectionism is not a good trait – it’s a one way ticket to frustration and a mental meltdown
  • Crystal balling: Can you predict the future? No, of course you can’t. So thoughts such as “we’re going to win today” and “away games will always be harder than home ones” are flawed, useless and show an area you can target if you want to be mentally tougher
  • Black and white thinking: Using simple labels such as good, bad, big, small, easy, hard, important, unimportant for complex tasks. The solution is simple; use as few labels as you can. The Grand Final is only a big, important match if you want it to be. It can also be just another game if you choose to think of it that way
  • Mind reading: “I bet my coach thinks I’m not trying”. Similar to crystal balling in many ways, assuming what other people are thinking is not only dangerous…it’s actually impossible

Each of these common flawed ways of thinking could be explored individually. 

Learn more at

5. Doing it for them or the money

Motivation is often misunderstood and over complicated. Motivation can be either driven by external or internal factors:

  • External factors – to get respect from others, to earn money and to win
  • Internal factors – doing it for yourself, to challenge yourself and to see how much you can improve

External factors are not nearly as effective in terms of getting results as internal factors. The challenge is how do you help an externally motivated player become an internally motivated one?

6. Too much practice or not enough

Too much and too little of anything is to be avoided. Players who spend too much time practicing are just as at risk of underperforming as those who spend too little time practicing.

Research suggests that to achieve your potential you need to accumulate 10,000 hours of high quality practice and that this is best distributed over about 20 hours per week for 10 years.

Much less than 20 hours per week and by the time you get close to your 10,000 hours you will be too old.

Much more than 20 hours per week and you are at risk of burning out and you may be too solely focused on your sport that you have nothing else to balance your life and the pressure to perform can impact on performance.

There are dozens of mental mistakes that we, as performance psychologists, come across all the time. 

As no two people are the same then no two sets of mental skills will be the same either. One fact that is undisputable is that practice makes permanent.  Practice cannot make perfect because perfection is unattainable and therefore an irrational belief.

Practice makes permanent is as true for mental skills designed to improve mental toughness as it is for physical skills to improve strength, endurance and flexibility. None of the six ideas above will make any difference to your chances of “making it” until you actually incorporate them into your everyday practice.