How Do Professional Footballers Deal With Setbacks?

Throughout your career, you will have more disappointments than you’ll ever be able to remember. They can vary from injuries to individual errors, to relegations, to being out of contract. Disappointments are inevitable and some will be out of your control, so how can you deal with setbacks?


Common setbacks in football

Setbacks! I’ve been through them all:

  • Injuries
  • Mistakes
  • Bad form
  • Relegation
  • Not in managers plans
  • Unsuccessful loan spells
  • Losing important games

You are not alone when you face a setback. Even the best players in the world go through them and make mistakes but the best can turn that negative into a positive. They can leave it in the past and move on to the next challenge that is always waiting. A positive and determined mentality is key to overcoming disappointments and setbacks. Those who dwell on the negative and allow it to consume their thinking will struggle to shake that disappointment off.

Overthinking leads to overcomplicating the problem. The best way to deal with a setback is to acknowledge it and accept that it has happened, learn from it and leave it where it belongs, in the past. You can’t change what has already happened but you can focus on the future and use the disappointment to drive you forward. 

It always seems worse in your head than it is!

Setbacks on the football pitch

Football is always moving. There isn’t time to dwell on negatives, or positives, because the next training session or game is always just around the corner. Within a game, you have to be switched on throughout, so if you are thinking about that mistake you made 5 minutes ago then you are likely going to make another mistake. We have to be ready for the next pass, the next obstacle and the next challenge. Focusing on past disappointments will only take your mind away from what is coming next, which will leave you in a place much worse off than when the original setback occurred.

An example of a disappointment, albeit small in the grand scale of setbacks, is giving the ball away in a game that leads to a goal for the opposition. Allowing this to consume your mind and affect the rest of your game, will only lead to a bad performance.

You can’t allow your mistakes to affect your game. It is easy to let mistakes consume you and put you off of your game, but you need to rise above that disappointment by putting it to the back of your mind and refocusing on what is important- what comes next.

In despair because we had just thrown away a lead in the dying moments away to Yeovil. Image by Richard Blaxall

Setbacks off of the pitch

Disappointments that occur off of the pitch can be more difficult to process. Although they are the outcome of what has happened on the pitch, here are some examples of setbacks that can affect us off of the pitch too:

  • Injuries
  • Team selections
  • Contract situations

With these setbacks we aren’t always on the pitch to correct them, instead, we have more time to dwell on them.

It’s easier to allow yourself to become obsessed with the disappointment and become frustrated, but focusing on the problem for too long won’t change what has already happened.

Once again, you can only control how you choose to react and what you do next. It would be easy to become disheartened and allow your standards to drop, but the only person who will suffer from that is you! 

I hated football. I was ready to give up.

Setbacks that pushed me to the brink

I’ve been told that I wasn’t going to make it into a manager’s starting 11, that there were players ahead of me and that I could go on loan for the season, with only a year remaining on my contract.

I knew as I left the manager’s office, that my time at the club would come to an end at the end of that contract.

This news wasn’t out of the blue, deep down I knew that I wasn’t the manager’s cup of tea and that he felt I wasn’t good enough for his team. I suppose I was naive in thinking I could change his opinion.

The thing with this situation was that I had become so disconnected from football over this period which lasted the best part of a season. I loved watching it, but the way I felt I was treated made me hate playing it.

  • I had given my all every day
  • I had asked for reasons as to why I wasn’t playing
  • I had professionally conducted myself and was never a disruption to the rest of the team
  • I wanted nothing more than to change his opinion

Despite all of that, I still couldn’t get in his team but this was first-team football. You don’t have a career for solely being professional and having talent, sometimes things have to “click” and work out in your favour. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

“You don’t lose if you get knocked down, you lose if you stay down”- Muhammad Ali. Image by Graham Scambler

This was a setback I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back from.

Yet I found it within myself to use this setback as fuel, to go and enjoy my football because I never wanted to feel that way again.

Fast forward a couple of months and I was at a new club and back in love with the game. I went on to have one of the most enjoyable seasons of my career, yet only 9 months earlier I was ready to pack it all in.

From a big setback came something extremely positive. At first, I couldn’t see past the anger and disappointment, but I had no time to feel sorry for myself, so I made sure that I left the setback behind me and instead focused on my next challenge, which was finding that enjoyment.

Best way to deal with setbacks: Take control of the situation

Without the setbacks, you wouldn’t appreciate the highs as much. You can’t always control what will happen on your journey, but you can control how you react to those disappointments.

When you suffer a setback, find it within yourself to get back up and continue fighting. 

When you are out of favour with your manager, keep on training hard and prove them wrong.

When you are staring at a lengthy layoff with a serious injury, focus on your recovery and getting back on the grass.

When you give the ball away, go and get the ball again and show everyone what a good player you are.

You don’t have the time to play the victim and feel sorry for yourself!

Disappointments are sent to test us and through these hardships, we end up learning more about ourselves than we ever would have done if it was all plain-sailing. They are an important part of our development as players and people.

Persistence and the ability to keep on moving forward will bring you immense pride and satisfaction.

You have to find it within yourself to be able to leave things in the past. Image by Graham Scambler

You need to embrace the challenges of setbacks and show determination and resilience throughout your career. It takes time to get to the stage where you know how to leave things in the past, but the sooner you can focus on the controllables, the better you will perform. When you are struggling to see a way out of the problem, remember that you will get through it and that you owe it to yourself to keep going. You’ve come too far and invested too much of your life into this to allow a setback to derail your career.


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