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Soccer and Confidence Tricks

Why the San Jose Earthquakes look like a completely different team 26 games into their season

Joe Nuxoll / Center Line Soccer

Having your head right is a huge component in the winning of soccer, or any other, games.

On Friday, August 28, 2015 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose California two teams, both on winning streaks, faced each other in one of the bitterest rivalries in MLS.

The San Jose Earthquakes had won three straight games including two away from home, one of which was the 5-0 dismantling of Sporting Kansas City. The LA Galaxy was on a four-game winning streak in regular season MLS games, including a 5-1 thrashing of NYCFC.

The final whistle at Avaya Stadium saw San Jose 1-0 winners in a game in which they pretty much comprehensively outplayed Los Angeles.

In the postgame press conference I asked San Jose Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear how he had managed to keep his team grounded in light of the recent three-game winning streak.

"We really didn't have to say a whole lot. Just kind of prepare them as you would for any other game. Obviously, LA is coming off a great win the week before against New York. So for us it was just showing them, 'Hey this is what can happen if we don't put the hard work in. I think the guys were all up for the game anyway"

Kinnear also described MLS as a "league of streaks". So just what is the right frame of mind players need when writing a winning streak or conversely trying to break a losing streak?

Obviously, when you’re losing you need to somehow maintain confidence going into each game. This is why I think the so-called locker room clichés that we hear from players about approaching the season one game at a time and only being focused on the next game are not really clichés. Players are using the occasion to verbally re-enforce out loud to themselves that despite past results confidence going ahead was where it needed to be.

The other side of the confidence balancing act is not to get too complacent when your team’s on a winning streak. It’s possible that this is what happened to the LA Galaxy at Avaya Stadium, given their four MLS game winning streak was also coupled with two comprehensive CONCACAF Champions League victories

There were two examples of other psychological confidence tricks players need to play on themselves in the Quakes versus Galaxy game.

Shea Salinas scored for San Jose in the 18th minute. There’s an old saying in the world of sales that the best time to make a sale is immediately after you’ve made a sale. The same is true for scoring goals and, given that teams are not sucker-punched with counterattack goals, the impetus of the game often moves in favor of the team that has just scored.

What you don’t see, certainly not as often as head coaches would like, is that impetus being used to bang in another quick goal or two. The psychological confidence trick needed here is to not relax because you scored, but to use the goal as fuel for your desire to immediately score again.

It’s fair to say that, certainly compared to performances earlier in the season, the Quakes looked like a completely different team in the game against LA.

But why would this be, the group of players is admittedly slightly different but it’s not as if any of these players could suddenly magically run faster or have miraculously better technical skills.

Al that changed was the team getting their level of self-confidence and belief right.

Dominic Kinnear might well infer that this sudden unity of purpose and confidence is somehow not his doing but, having watched certain head coaches cause this transformation in teams over the last 50 years, I don’t believe a word of it.

I believe Dominic Kinnear is exactly the reason 26 games into their season the San Jose Earthquakes look like a completely different team.