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World Cup 2022: how a mid-season tournament could affect players psychologically

A Qatari player sits on the pitch adjusting his sock.
There are concerns that this World Cup’s timing could have a greater psychological impact on players compared to previous ones. TOLGA BOZOGLU/ EPA

For the first time, we have witnessed a mid-season men’s football world cup. As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp put it, this is going to be a “really long season” for players.

With previous world cups, players usually got two to three weeks off before starting their pre-season training for their respective clubs. This allowed for a cushion of several weeks before they started Premier League play. But this year, Premier League fixtures will resume on December 26, only eight days after the World Cup final. So for the teams who advance further in the competition, they will have very little time off before they return to Premier League play.

It’s been reported that many Premiership managers are often apprehensive of players going on international duty due to the risk of injury and the knock-on effect this has on their club’s performance. It’s no wonder, especially since research from previous Fifa World Cups shows these tournaments increase the likelihood of injuries to players. It’s thought that a mid-season Fifa World Cup may cause an even greater increase in the likelihood of players suffering injury and over-training.

But physical injury isn’t the only concern for players participating in this year’s World Cup. There are also concerns it could have a greater psychological effect than previous World Cups because of its timing.

Mental rest

Former England international footballer Karen Carney has recently written about how Fifa World Cups take months to recover from psychologically. Part of the reason for this is the non-stop schedule that players have. But the emotional investment that many players put into the tournament is also a reason some may feel drained when they return.

Time and time again, we hear football players say it’s their childhood dream to represent their country at a Fifa World Cup. But what is less often talked about is how devastating it can be if you aren’t selected for the team, if your team crashes out of the tournament prematurely, if you suffer an injury early in the tournament or if you end up on the bench for most of the World Cup.

We know that experiences of injury or de-selection in elite club football can result in feelings of shock, anxiety, fear, depression, anger and humiliation. It can be inferred that similar emotional disturbances may happen for players who experience similar things at the World Cup.

A player from the Tunisian teams lays on the pitch holding his shin in pain. A Denmark player is trying to hand him his shoe.
Suffering an injury during the tournament lead to poorer mental health. TOLGA BOZOGLU/ EPA

Although at youth World Cup level, a finding in my PhD research was that de-selection at the youth World Cup led to high levels of frustration, homesickness and boredom due to having the same training schedule for weeks and no games to break it up. It was even reported that arguments broke out among international teammates because of shared frustration felt by players who found their days to be repetitive when they weren’t getting a chance to play.

Another concern is whether players will be able to psychologically rest during the tournament or when they return home before competitive games resume. Even players who are first on the team sheet are probably shouldering huge pressure to perform which can lead to mental fatigue. This psychological state happens as a result of prolonged periods of demanding activity. Symptoms include tiredness and a lack of energy which manifest both physically and psychologically in football players.

This can lead to impaired physical, technical and tactical performance as mental fatigue can change how players focus, make decisions and react in the moment. It can also make it harder to achieve optimal performance.

Psychological rest from constantly thinking about football is crucial for optimal mental recovery and therefore a player’s overall recovery too. Not recovering mentally can contribute to the onset of overtraining syndrome, which can lead to fatigue, performance decline and mood disturbances.

A key way to achieve psychological rest is through something known as “wakeful rest”. This involves an athlete being able to switch off from thinking about their sport or competition during the day while they’re awake. But this is going to be tough for players to achieve, given the limited time available to do so after the World Cup. This means that some players may find themselves out of form when they return to regular-season play.

Read more: World Cup 2022: how injuries could affect the rest of the domestic and Champions League season

A way of supporting players returning from the World Cup is for their respective clubs to have a decompression plan for them. In future, it will be important for Fifa and clubs to consider not only physical recovery but psychological recovery of players when planning for the aftermath of these tournaments.

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