We’ve all been there. The nerves and anticipation getting the better of us. Worrying about tactics and whether you’ve trained hard enough. Or if the opposition will throw us a curveball with an unexpected lineup. Nobody likes to lose. It’s the worst. And in many senses, the build-up to the game is and feels a lot longer than it actually is.
Not all of us are Andrea Pirlos, but there is wisdom in that quote. There are obviously established norms for game prep like training, nutrition, rest, and so forth. However, a substantial portion of the game is mental. And the mental prep can vary substantially from person to person. For Pirlo, it was gaming. For others, it may be prayer, meditation, or some other form of relaxation during the game day.
Professional clubs spend a lot of resources in optimizing match preparation for players. And while casual or semi-pro players may not have access to all the resources, they can garner best practices and apply them to their pre-match routines.
Professionals have exhaustively studied the question of how to prepare physically for a soccer game. While there may be subtle differences from player to player, there are standard principles that can be applied across the board.
Most of the energy used during the game will come from food consumed the days leading up to the game. It’s important to load your meals on game day with essential energy-releasing nutrients that will keep you sharp and optimize your performance during the game, and speed up recovery after.
Don’t stuff yourself with Pizza and Coke the night of the match. Hell, avoid Pizza and Coke during the season (and maybe off-season too). It’s actually easy to know what not to eat. Any food overloaded with processed ingredients or sugar that induce heaviness or tiredness should stay away. It’s much harder to identify what you should eat for optimal performance.
A ninety-minute match requires a ton of energy, including sudden bursts of sprinting or movement. Experts recommend players fill up on slow-release carbohydrates in the days leading up to the game. Examples of this include sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, oats, veggies, and fruit.
The lesser the degree of processing on these, the better. These provide the energy that will properly fuel you for game day. Accompany the carbohydrates with a healthy portion of lean protein. This is for longer-term recovery and muscular development. Avoid high-fat foods in the hours leading up to the game, as these may sit in your system and cause discomfort during the match.
Do not play the game on a full stomach. You could either have a light snack before the game or simply play on an empty stomach. Your last heavy meal should be at least 3 hours before the match.
Hydrate! You’re going to be sweating intensely through the game. Make sure you’re adequately hydrated the day of your game.
In addition to your regular training during the week, activate yourself the day of the match with some drills a few hours prior. Besides the warm-up before the game, you need something to wake your body up if you want to play at your peak performance level. I like to do some sprints so that my body gets a preview of what’s coming later in the day.
Warm-up before the game! Do some jogging on the pitch or the sidelines, stretch your hams and quads, practice some leaps off the ground. Starting a game without a warm-up can cause injuries, so definitely do not skip this one. Good examples of warm-up routines include:
- High Knees with a gentle jog.
- Butt Kickers: Jog with your heels touching your butt
- Groin stretches
- Ham and Quad stretches
- Sideways jog
Get adequate rest the night of, and the days before the match. It doesn’t matter whether you are 19 or 36. Yes, you may be able to make up for the lack of sleep when you’re younger, but it is not good for long term performance. 8-9 hours of sleep in the days leading up to the match is ideal. This will allow you to be sharp on the day.
The Boring (But Necessary)
Want to play? Arrive on time! Actually, arrive a few minutes earlier. A few minutes of alone time at the pitch can do you some good. It also gives you time to prepare for the game, which brings me to my next point.
Make sure you have all the equipment you need: jerseys, cleats, shorts, socks, shin guards, a jacket. Back up options for each one in case your first one breaks or rips (I once took a hit so hard that it broke one of my shin guards). This should be a pre-match routine. I find pre-match checklists to be super helpful for this. Print one out, and stick it on your door. Make sure each item is checked off on game day before you leave home.
There’s definitely more ambiguity when it comes to mentally preparing for a soccer game. It really depends from person to person. Nervous people like myself need a relaxation routine. Unbreakables like Pirlo can game for an hour and win the World Cup right after. Here are my tips based on my personal experiences and other players’ experiences on how to up your mental preparation.
Trust the Process
If you’ve studied your opponent, and trained hard, physically and tactically for the game, then you need to repetitively tell yourself to trust the process. It’s happened to me several times that I have brilliant tactical ideas, hours before the game. I have to remind myself that weeks of analysis and preparation will beat impulsive changes, nine times out of ten.
Yes, it’s different if you have to suddenly adapt to a situation, like an injury or an unexpected opposition line up. But for the most part, a team will have prepared contingency plans for such cases. Focus on what you’ve worked on training and how to do your best to execute that plan.
If the nerves overcome you before games, I recommend having a pre-match relaxation routine. Whether this means you meditate for a few minutes, tossing every thought outside of your protective bubble, or if it means listening to music.
For some, it could even include a warm-up routine, as it takes their mind away from the nervousness. It could also be a short prayer. This step, combined with the above-mentioned point, allows you to take your mind away from the anxiety and anticipation.
Obviously, some anxiety and nerves are expected for a big game. And they may even be helpful, as they allow you not to get complacent. However, if they are overwhelming to the point that it makes it difficult for you to perform or function, then you may need a relaxation routine to help manage them.
Visualize the Game Plan
This has been a game-changer for me, personally. As a player, you typically don’t have the bird’s eye view that the audience watching on the telly has.
It is helpful, however, to envision it that way, pre-game. What are the rough positions of your teammates? What are the spaces you planned to exploit? Where are the weak spots in the opposition? If you are a midfielder and receive the ball at the start of a counter-attack, where’s the first place you should look?
Doing this pre-game may increase your confidence in the plan. In fact, the constant visualization has improved my own positioning in the game. Based on my understanding of the game-plan and the opposition’s line up, I visualize the spaces that I can exploit during the game depending on the situation, which helps me take up those spaces.
It is a great mental tactic and works wonders when done the right way. In particular, if you envision the game as you’d be watching it on television, it gives you a big picture view that you will not have on the pitch.
Role Repetition Checklist
Have a mental (or physical) checklist for your role during the game. Things like tracking your man, watching your defensive line, always finding space to receive a pass, scanning the pitch in the seconds before you receive the ball, tracking the opposition defender to time your run, etc.
These checklists can vary wildly depending on your position, team-play style, who the opponent is, what the weather is, etc. But they can help certain players who get overwhelmed during the game. Repeat these roles to yourself before the match and also during. A good player will also have a mental repository for team-mates’ roles. A great player will call himself and team-mates out when those roles are not being performed.
Game Prep FAQs
What should I eat before a game?
You should not eat a heavy meal within 3 hours of your match. If you like a snack, a granola bar or a piece of fruit is fine. Playing a match on a full stomach is not a pleasant experience and will definitely hinder your performance.
In terms of what you should eat in the days leading up to the game, definitely load up on the slow-release carbohydrates. Soccer players need a ton of energy to get them through ninety minutes of constant movement, so carbs are absolutely essential.
Accompany the carbohydrates with lean protein to boost muscle growth and recovery post-game. This includes things like chicken or turkey breast, lean ground beef, salmon, etc. Avoid high saturated fat items, and avoid items high in added sugar.
How do I deal with pre-match nerves?
A key component is acceptance. Pre-match nerves are common and expected. It’s like going for a big presentation or doing an exam. You are worried about the result, about whether your training and preparation were adequate. If you accept that nerves are common, that may already calm you down.
Another tactic is to use nerves as motivation. The fact that you are worried and concerned means you care. And so use that drive as motivation and pump yourself up for the game.
Lastly, if the nerves are too overwhelming, try to adopt a relaxation routine before the game. Have a few minutes in the day dedicated to meditation, prayer, or some activity that allows you to filter out the nervous thoughts.
What is a good warm-up routine?
A good warm-up routine should include movements and stretches that will prepare your muscles for the game’s intensity. Ham, quad, and groin stretches are essential. Knee-ups and butt-kickers loosen up your lower body, preparing them for the sudden movements required during the match.
It may also be a good idea actually to watch a professional game warm-up. Most broadcasts include at least part of the warm-ups for a game. You can also watch substitute players before they go on the field.
What should I do on the day of a soccer match?
As mentioned above, watch your food intake on the day of the game. Adopt a relaxation routine if you are nervous, and make sure you warm up before playing. Get to the pitch on time and gear up. Breathe, and relax. As with most things, the nerves are always higher before the actual event. If it works for you, develop a repetition checklist in your mind, reminding you of your responsibilities during the match.
Soccer games are a mix of excitement, challenge, nerves, and physical & mental strain. You need to manage yourself correctly to control all the aspects that can impact your performance.
This includes taking care of the physical (train, nutrition, rest), the boring (equipment, timing, logistics), and the mental (nerves, game-plan, visualization, relaxation). Whatever you do, do not adopt a passive approach. As with most things, pro-actively preparing for each of these aspects of the game will allow you to be in greater control.
Some of the routines and steps may seem unnatural and unusual at first, but the idea is to make them second nature. The next time you have a game, it feels natural to repeat your roles to yourself or check cleats off your equipment checklist. And as I always say, enjoy the beautiful game!