The problem takes hold when you start to think instead of feel. What was once instinctive now feels laboured. Doubt grips you like an anaconda, slowly crushing your confidence. One missed chance quickly turns into seven games without a goal. You can’t switch off the noise. Boos reverberate around the stadium every time you touch the ball.
Your teammates offer some token words of support, but you know they’re simmering with frustration. Your social media mentions hiss with vitriol. You don’t want to sulk at home, but it’s worse out in public. Nothing offers refuge from the unrelenting loop of frustration and self-loathing.
This is the world of lost confidence, a place players might find themselves trapped when they get stuck in a poor run of form. But life comes at you fast in the Premier League and there’s always a chance to change things in an instant. Those who embrace the twists and turns of fortune can add another chapter to sport’s rich history of redemption stories.
The first half of this season alone could fill an opus. Granit Xhaka, Marcus Rashford, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Miguel Almiron are the main protagonists experiencing their own narrative arc tracking the rise of the fallen hero. For these players, especially Xhaka, a U-turn seemed improbable. So, how do elite players bounce back from setbacks? And what can we learn from them?
ESPN spoke to neuroscientists, psychologists and players to find out.
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Rashford made 32 appearances for Manchester United last season, but rarely did it feel as if he was actually present or in a state of flow, tormenting defenders with speed, guile and ingenuity. Scoring just five goals, his lowest-ever season tally, validates this perception.
Missing a penalty in the shootout at the end of the Euro 2020 final, and the subsequent racial abuse he endured, preceded a wretched campaign. He missed the first two months after shoulder surgery and struggled in an underpowered United side when he returned in October.
“I was struggling at times with more mental things,” Rashford later told Sky Sports. “It wasn’t really my own performance but other things off the pitch. Too often last season, I wasn’t in the right headspace for games.”
Talent, experience and athleticism are nullified when the brain is experiencing self-doubt. In some sports, this is known as the “yips” — a sudden and unexplained loss of motor skills as psychological issues impact muscle memory and decision-making. Players in this state have to reframe their thinking, says sports psychologist Dan Abrahams.
“Players stuck in this rut feel helpless because they’re rehearsing failure in their mind and paying attention to factors that are out of their control, like the opinion of others,” he explained. “Focusing on what’s irrelevant makes them feel social anxiety. These feelings are a consequence of how we perceive ourselves in our environment, in relation to our social status within the group.
“When players are going through a bad spell, they can’t escape this unhealthy cycle.”
When Abrahams met Carlton Cole in August 2007, the striker was stagnating in West Ham United’s reserves and weary from poor form and criticism. Cole followed Abraham’s guidance and within 18 months was in Fabio Capello’s England squad.
Arsenal academy graduate Anthony Stokes also credits Abrahams for helping turn his career around. In the first four months of the 2009-10 season, Stokes had scored only four goals for his new club, Hibernian. Within a year of working with Abrahams, he was the division’s second-highest scorer and on his way to Celtic.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all to sports psychology, but by and large I try to help athletes understand a little bit more about how human beings function,” said Abrahams, a consultant for Feyenoord and Forest Green Rovers. “We start by attacking the rehearsal of failure, and I tell them to visualise success, i.e., their best game and strengths, and then we focus on the controllables and the specifics of their game and how they speak to themselves. For example: ‘I’m strong, I’m sharp, I’m on my toes, I’m aggressive, I’m scanning, I’m vocal,’ etc.”
Numerous scientific studies have found that picturing success has proven effects. One such paper found that an hour of mental training a day that incorporates the five major senses — touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste — improved motor skills, muscle strength, confidence and concentration, and in turn reduced anxiety. All of this is driven by connections pinging off in the brain when you stimulate its value areas in the striatum and prefrontal cortex.
Using the mind’s eye — the mental faculty of conceiving imaginary or recollected scenes — to replay your greatest hits or picturing future success gives you a hit of dopamine, the chemical your brain releases when it experiences pleasure and reward. When this happens, different parts of the brain communicate with one another, sparking synapses, which in layman’s terms form connections and, in this context, a pipeline for confidence.
It’s powerful, but not impenetrable. Humans are hardwired for negativity, and players have to be equipped for that battle.
“They have to accept they will always have destructive thoughts, it’s human nature — I call them ANTs: automatic, negative thoughts,” Abrahams said. “Negative thoughts are also feelings and emotions — that’s what it is to be a human being — but you have it within yourself to direct your attention on success.”
Even the most athletically gifted footballer will be less effective without factoring in proper recovery time — as Rashford learned last summer. For the first time in years, he used the offseason as an opportunity to recharge both physically and emotionally.
“It’s been a bit unnatural for me to have such a long break in the summer,” Rashford told the Manchester United website. “I think I had just under four weeks, so I had a long break physically and mentally as well, so it’s an opportunity to refresh and get ready to go again.”
Research suggests that having the courage to take a rest, rather than grind harder, is an investment that pays off. A Journal of Sports Sciences study found that mental fatigue resulted in poor decision-making and tactical errors.
In theory, Rashford would have a sharper mind after a much-needed break that also gave his body, especially his shoulder, time to recover. When we rest the body, it adapts to the demands of exercise, replenishes muscle glycogen (energy stores) and repairs body tissue.
Rest complete, he continued the old-fashioned way — hard work. Rashford’s social feeds were energised with workouts in preparation for Erik ten Hag’s arrival at the club, and hitting the reset button has had the desired effect.
Rashford netted eight goals for Manchester United before the World Cup, a run of form he continued in Qatar, where he scored three times for England. He marked his return to club football with a stunning individual goal during Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Burnley (stream the replay in ESPN+ in the US.)
Having a new club manager has helped.
“It’s a completely different energy around the club and the training ground,” said Rashford in an interview with Sky Sports. “That puts me in a better headspace and I just feel really motivated now.”
Sometimes, a new challenge can get a player back in form. In summer 2021, goalkeeper Lee Nicholls had just finished a wretched season with MK Dons, making a paltry seven appearances in League One. Huddersfield Town’s head of goalkeeping, Paul Clements, had been keeping an eye on the former England youth international and wondered why he “fell off a cliff.” They went out for a coffee to discuss a possible move to West Yorkshire, and Clements gave it to him straight.
“He basically said I was too fat and fat doesn’t fly,” Nicholls said with a laugh, before breaking eye contact over Zoom and dropping the smile from his face. “It all tied back to when Mick died.”
He takes a breath before recalling a moment it pains him to relive.
“I got a phone call while I was playing golf … ‘Mick has died’ … he was my brother-in-law,” Nicholls said. “I took it hard. I was in shock, but I made my way back up to Liverpool to be with my family and then two weeks later I had to start preseason with MK Dons. I never prepared properly. I was drinking too much and not eating right; I was miles behind.”
Out of shape and consumed with grief, Nicholls lost form during a season derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. An erratic display during a 3-2 loss to Oxford United in October 2020 cost him his place, and he never played another league match that season.
“I lost Mick and I had to go back down south, away from home, and all of a sudden I wasn’t playing football,” he says. “The one thing I thought would take my mind off it was taken away from me. It was heartbreaking.”
His loss of form was so dramatic that MK Dons released him on a free transfer after more than 150 appearances for the club. Clements offered him a chance to revive his career; Nicholls accepted, committed to the rehabilitation programme and set about challenging the club’s No. 1, Ryan Schofield.
The season opener was an EFL Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday, and Nicholls saved two penalties as the Terriers won a shootout. A fortnight later he made his league debut, and he hasn’t let go of the No. 1 jersey since.
“The biggest difference now is how fit and athletic I am. I’ve come down from 13% to 11% body fat,” he explained. “We all have a bit of a laugh at my signing day picture. Compare it to the end of last season and it’s chalk and cheese — I’ve lost about 6 kg [13 pounds].”
The 30-year-old was named in last season’s PFA Championship Team of the Year after keeping 19 clean sheets, playing a key role as Huddersfield reached the playoff final.
“Dealing with Mick’s passing helped me become a better person on and off the pitch,” he said. “I don’t use it as fuel; the memory is just inside me. It taught me how mentally strong I could be. It took me a few weeks to get over the loss at Wembley, but I know it doesn’t define my career.”
This simple shift in perspective is the key to unlocking a stable and consistent level of performance, Abrahams said.
“Once players learn: ‘I can’t completely control performance, but I can control a high-performance mindset,’ they’re able to focus on their game rather than the outcome,” he explained. “This is part of being more rational, because you can’t control wins and losses when you’re part of a team. When a player comes back from a poor run of form, they realise it’s OK to fail because they can shift their attention back to what they can control.”
A key example is criticism. Players can’t control what gets said about them, but they can control how they respond. Newcastle United’s Almiron used Jack Grealish’s infamous jibe to fuel a dazzling start to the season, according to teammate Callum Wilson.
Grealish mocked the Paraguay international during Manchester City’s title parade in May when he used a belittling tone to compare Riyad Mahrez with Almiron.
“Someone was saying, ‘Jack said this, Jack said that’. [Almiron is] such a nice guy, he’s happy, he didn’t really comment on it,” Wilson told the Footballer’s Football Podcast. “He just shook his shoulders, and I think internally he’s probably used it as motivation and driven him.”
Rather than speak out, as his tormentor chose to, Almiron has let his feet do the talking, scoring eight goals in 15 Premier League appearances for Eddie Howe’s team, who resume the Premier League campaign third in the table.
Like Almiron, Chelsea’s Arrizabalaga has managed to turn his career around by focusing on what was within his control: values, work ethic and belief.
After enduring a torrid time since his world-record £71.3 million transfer from Athletic Club in 2018, the Spanish goalkeeper was exploring leaving Stamford Bridge. The arrival and initial excellence of Edouard Mendy, who helped Chelsea win the Champions League in 2021, looked to have accelerated that inevitability.
Until, that is, the Senegal goalkeeper picked up an injury and Arrizabalaga took his chance in September. Fans had come to expect nervy, unpredictable performances, but they started to see a reliably assured custodian. During a 2-0 win at Aston Villa, Arrizabalaga made seven saves — the highest number of stops he has made in a Premier League game.
“I’m feeling very well, with confidence,” Arrizabalaga told Chelsea’s website after that game. “Self-confidence, belief in your work, in what you’re doing, and belief in the process is very important. I had really tough moments. I had really good moments.
“In the end, it’s like life. You have ups and downs and you have to be strong mentally, sticking with your ideas and keep working.”
Players can train hard, eat right, sleep longer and meditate on their performance, but individual habits can be superseded by something far more social — human connection, a fundamental need if we are to thrive. Two of this season’s central characters, Xhaka and Mitrovic, have been remodelled under the guidance of new managers.
Xhaka, Arsenal’s combative midfielder, looked set to leave the club after an angry exchange with his own fans at Emirates Stadium in October 2019. The Gunners had surrendered a two-goal lead against Crystal Palace, prompting then-manager Unai Emery to substitute his newly appointed captain.
As Xhaka left the field with jeers ringing around the stadium, he cupped his ears, told fans to “f— off” and threw his shirt to the ground. The Switzerland international was stripped of the captaincy and later admitted he went to a “dark place, feeling alone,” and wanted out — until Mikel Arteta replaced Emery.
The new manager dismantled a toxic dressing room and built a new-look side bristling with youthful verve and unity. Rather than cast Xhaka aside, Arteta put him at the centre of the revolution.
While every other manager charged him with policing the back four, Arteta saw Xhaka’s potential as an attacking threat and deployed him in a more advanced role. The result? Four goals and three assists this season for an Arsenal side that sit top of the Premier League.
“Without [Arteta], I would not be here in this football club anymore,” Xhaka told ESPN in July. “He helped me a lot when I was completely down. He took me aside, helped me with small things, step by step, tactically, as a person, mentality, between the team and the club, tried to help me as well with the fans. I had a lot of coaches, but I have to put Mikel as one of the top ones in my career.”
Mitrovic hit his all-time low in the summer of 2021. He had started only a third of relegated Fulham’s Premier League games, and he missed the crucial penalty in a shootout against Scotland that cost Serbia a place at the delayed Euro 2020.
“You start to question yourself — is it important to play football again? All kinds of things went through my head for seven, eight days. I literally didn’t get out of bed for the first four,” he said. “It’s like I disappointed my people, the whole country.”
But he fired the Cottagers back to the Premier League by scoring 43 goals in 44 games — a Championship record — and his added-time header against Portugal secured Serbia’s World Cup qualification. Nine Premier League goals so far this season, and two more in Qatar, erased any doubt as to whether he could do it at the top level.
Fulham manager Marco Silva has played his part in this comeback. When Silva took over in July 2021, Mitrovic was one of his first contacts.
“I called him to make him feel good on the pitch, with a clear idea,” Silva said. “He knows that he always has someone behind him, supporting him, but at the same time demanding a lot from him.”
This is redemption distilled to its very essence. It demands a lot from the player. There’s no shortcut, no hack, no cheat code. And the best hold themselves accountable to the highest standards. Redemption requires resilience, graft and, above all, humility. The humility to not only accept help but embrace it.
Without support and guidance, all the extra hours logged at the training ground, in the cryochamber and in the analysis room lack that one intangible, powerful ingredient we all need: belief. The “Rocky” movie montage might focus on the grit and the grind, but it’s the arm around the shoulder and “I believe in you” message that latches onto the player’s neural pathways like a set of jump leads, jolting them into life.
For the likes of Dele Alli and Jadon Sancho, players trapped in that world of lost confidence, this feels like the end — but it could be the beginning of their redemption.