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Psychology of Elite Footballers

Introduction

Research on expertise in sport has highlighted the importance of various factors that influence its development and maintenance. The quality of training and coaching afforded to the athlete (Ericsson et al, 1993; Cote et al, 1995) and psychological skills (Gould et al, 1992) have all been identified as factors that influence the development of expertise in elite athletes. Despite developing an understanding of the development of expertise in sport, further research is required to understand the maintenance of expertise among elite athletes (Housner & French, 1994).

Given the importance of research on elite athletes there has been a notable increase on research on elite football players. Previous research on elite football players has examined coping skills (Kristiansen et al, 2012; Kristiansen et al, 2019; Holt & Hogg, 2002; Hofseth et al, 2017), mental skills (Jordet, 2005) and decision making (Feigean, et al, 2018; Tedesdqui & Orlick, 2012). Previous systematic reviews on the psychology of football have examined the psychosocial factors that influence talent development in football (Gledhill et al, 2017). Despite the individual research on elite football players no systematic review has been undertaken that has synthesised the research examining the psychological factors that influence elite football players. Research on elite athletes can inform a better understanding of the psychological processes required for success at elite level of competition (Swann et al, 2012) and can be transferred to sub-elite populations aspiring to progress to the elite level (Swann et al, 2015). However, it can be problematic to transfer findings from sub-elite populations to elite populations as these populations differ on cognitive, strategic, and perceptual aspects of behaviour (Calmeiro et al, 2014; Rice et al, 2016). Summarizing and synthesizing the qualitative research from individual studies that have examined the psychological factors that influence elite footballers can provide a more comprehensive description of the psychology of elite footballers. The synthesis of knowledge can identify areas of challenge for elite footballers, potential areas for intervention and areas for future research.

As part of my professional doctorate I explored the gap in the research by carrying out a meta-synthesis of research on the psychology of elite footballers. Specifically, the purpose of the current study is to: (a) provide an overview and critique of the methodological and theoretical underpinning of the psychological research of elite football players, (b) systematically review and evaluate the key findings that impact the psychology of elite footballers, and (c) and synthesize the findings that are perceived to influence the psychology of elite football players.

Method

A qualitative meta-synthesis approach was utilised in this study (Paterson et al, 2001). This design was utilised to aggregate the findings from studies that have examined the psychological characteristics of elite football players in order to develop new insights into the literature on elite football players. The aim of the research is to understand the psychological characteristics of professional football players playing in open age grade or senior international football.

Inclusion Criteria:

Studies were eligible for inclusion if they met the following criteria: (1) A clearly defined sample must be playing or have played professional football at an open age grade level and/or have played senior international football. The participants can be current or former professional footballers as long as the focus of the study is on their time as a professional football player; (2) Examines a psychological outcome measure related to playing professional football; (3) Studies that qualitatively examine the athletes experience of playing professional football and the psychological characteristics required were included. Mixed method studies were included but only the qualitative data was utilised in the synthesis; (4) the studies had to written in the English language.

The Steps Involved:

Step 1 – analysis of research methods:

 The meta-method procedure was utilised with the aim of understanding how the methods utilised to study the psychological characteristics of elite football players have influenced current knowledge. For this article the results of this will be excluded. 

Step 2 - analysis of theory:

The purpose of this analysis was to identify the theory underpinning the primary research studies and to understand its potential impact on the subsequent findings.

Step 3 – analysis of the data:

The analysis of the data involved the examination of the findings from the primary research studies (Paterson et al, 2001). The data captured related to the psychological factors that influence elite footballers and quotes were extracted from the studies and was carried out by the lead researcher.

Step 4 – bringing the findings together:

This step brought together the results of the methods, theory analysis and data analysis in order to compare and contrast themes across studies and to integrate them into a coherent account of the psychological characteristics of elite football players.

Results and discussion:

Underpinning Theory

The theoretical analysis aimed to identify the underpinning theoretical approach of the articles included in the study. In total seven studies examined stress and coping. The Transactional model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) was utilised in six studies to examine the coping process. In addition, one study utilised the Cognitive Activation Theory of Stress (CATS) (Ursin, 1988). One other study examined shame and coping utilizing Lazarus conceptualization of shame and coping (Lazarus, 1991, 2000). Two studies examined the preparation process of elite footballers utilising the theory of Deliberate Practice (Ericsson et al, 1993). Team coordination was examined in two studies, with one study utilising an enactivist approach to teamwork (DeJaegher & Di Paolo, 2007) and another utilizing Shared Mental Models (Eccles and Tenenbaum, 2004). Three studies examined mental skills. One study utilised Gibson (1979) ecological approach to visual perception to examine imagery. An alternative study utilised Pavio (1985) cognitive and motivational functions of imagery. Goal setting was also examined utilising Locke & Latham’s (1985, 1990) theory of goal setting. Other theoretical approaches utilised to underpin research included: transition and youth to senior transition (Stambulova, 2003; Pummell et al, 2008); Game Location Framework (Carron, Loughead, & Bray ,2005); Contingency-Competence-control Model (Weisz, 1986; Weisz & Stipek, 1982); Eriksonian Hypnosis (Geary & Zeig, 2001). Two studies did not state an underpinning theoretical approach.

Stress and coping have been a primary focus of the research carried out on the psychological characteristics of elite football players. This work has primarily been underpinned by the Transactional model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) with six studies utilising this theoretical approach. The transactional model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) provides an understanding of how stress and coping with stress evolves over time depending on the interaction between the individual and the environment. Lazarus (1993) states that transactional model of stress assumes that coping under stress should be measured separately from outcomes. This assumption enables an understanding of the evolving stress and coping process in context, however elite sport is a goal directed activity with performance being the desired objective. In contrast the CATS (Ursin, 1984) conceptualises stress and coping in relation to achieving an objective in terms of outcome expectancy. The study included in this meta-study examined stress and coping during the World Cup where the goal for the team was to win the World Cup (Pensgaard & Duda, 2002). This theoretical perspective provides an insight into the cognitive mechanisms which underpin the stress and coping process in specific situations and in relation to goal directed behaviour. With six out of sevens studies examining stress and coping utilising the transactional model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) as the underpinning theoretical approach there is the risk that the research provides an insight into the coping process over time but not the relationship it has on goal directed behaviour. One additional study examined shame and coping utilising Lazarus conceptualization of shame and coping (Lazarus, 1991, 2000). The study of emotions with elite football players is limited to stress and shame. There is an absence of study regarding emotions relating to the experience of success and how players cope with success. The focus on a limited range of emotions experienced by elite football players results in an understanding of the negative aspects of being an elite footballer. Future research which broadens the underpinning theory utilised when studying emotions and elite footballers would help broaden the knowledge of coping and emotions. 

Other theoretical areas explored in the research studies include the Deliberate practice approach (Ericsson et al, 1993) and approaches to team coordination. The theory of deliberate practice put forward by Ericsson et al (1993) provides and understanding of the cognitive processes elite football players engaged with, in preparation for and while playing at an elite level. However, there was no insight into the social aspects that may influence the development of different cognitive approaches being utilised by different players. In contrast the two studies which have explored team coordination have examined it from a different perspective. The enactivist approach (DeJaegher & Di Paolo, 2007) utilised by Feigean et al (2018) provides an understanding of how decision making unfolds with action in real time. From a social cognitive perspective, the Shared Mental Models approach (Eccles and Tenenbaum’s, 2004) utilised by Gershgoren et al, (2016) provides an understanding of how teammates coordinate and adapt to dynamic competitive environments. Although from different theoretical approaches the enactivist approach and social-cognitive approach provide alternative perspectives on the factors influencing teamwork. The comparison between the deliberate practice approach and team coordination emphasises the importance of researchers adopting alternative theoretical perspectives in order to broaden the knowledge of the psychological characteristics of elite footballers.

Data Analysis

The data analysis identified 86 codes in the literature reviewed that were perceived to influence the psychological characteristics of elite football players. The 86 codes were categorised into 10 concepts: (1) flexible coping, (2) challenges, (3) stressors, (4) preparation, (5) practice, (6) process focus, (7) support, (8) confidence, (9) performance and (10) task focus. The 10 concepts are discussed further below in relation to 3 categories: coping, support, and performance.

Coping:

Elite footballers face challenges associated with their occupation which can create stressors. In response to stressors elite footballers utilise a range of flexible coping strategies.

Challenges:

Being evaluated constantly was highlighted as a challenge associated with being an elite footballer (Kristiansen et al, 2019). The constant evaluation is a result of the daily competition for places to be in the starting line up (Kristiansen et al, 2019; Holt & Hogg, 2002). This requires players to perform consistently (Freitas et al, 2013) despite the opposition trying to put them off (Holt & Hogg, 2002), travelling long distances for games (Kristiansen et al, 2012; Fothergill et al, 2014) and uncertainty over their future contract (Kristiansen et al, 2012). In order to cope with these challenges’ players have to sacrifice time in order to prepare to deal with these challenges (Kristiansen et al, 2012).

Stressors:

With the players being challenged to perform consistently, making mistakes (Holt & Hogg, 2002; Hofseth et al, 2017) can result in criticism where “here it is much more ‘you made a mistake, don’t do it again’ and if you do it again, you get continually criticized for that which puts you under pressure” (Morris et al, 2017 p531; Fothergill et al, 2014; Hofseth et al, 2017). This can be compounded by negative coach communication which can bring the player down further (Freitas et al, 2013; Holt & Hogg, 2002). There is a pressure for players to perform (Holt & Hogg, 2002) and preparation is important to cope with the pressure. If preparation is “wrong, any element of it is wrong, I’m in trouble” (Horrocks et al, 2016, p677). This can result in pre-game and in-game anxiety (Holt & Hogg, 2002). Poor performance can result in a feeling of embarrassment (Hofseth et al, 2017) with fatigue also affecting players ability to train consistently (Holt & Hogg, 2002). A lack of perception of control over situations can result in stress (Freitas et al, 2013) and can result in a fear of getting injured (Holt & Dunn, 2004).

Coping strategies:

Developing a strong sense of self (Kristiansen et al, 2012) was identified as important to cope with the challenges that players encounter. Having multiple identities beyond football (Larsen & Engell, 2013) can help players cope flexibly to “confront it… with my support group… let some stuff go… defend yourself… a very strong sense of self, and a very strong sense of you are the only one that is going to, that cares about you” (Kristiansen et al, 2012b, p218). Developing a strong sense of self facilitates players developing a range of coping strategies such as problem focused coping (Kristiansen et al, 2019; Kristiansen et al, 2012; Holt & Hogg, 2002; Hofseth et al, 2017; Horrocks et al, 2016; Freitas et al, 2013; Kristiansen et al, 2012a; Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012), rational thinking (Kristiansen et al, 2012a; Holt & Dunn, 2004), emotion focused coping (Kristiansen et al, 2011) and avoidance coping (Hofseth et al, 2017) in response to the challenges they encounter.

Support:

To cope with the challenge’s players encounter and to perform at an elite level, players require open communication in their environment, teamwork and task-orientated communication.

Communication:

The informational support a coach provides in preparation for a game can help players prepare for performance (Horrocks et al, 2016; Kristiansen et al, 2012a). If a player has a “manager and coaches who can explain to you how you can win that match before you’ve won… I think you are in a far better state of mind as a player” (Horrocks et al, 2016b, p678). The players within the team can provide social support when a player experiences setback (Holt & Hogg, 2002; Gershgoren et al, 2016) and informational support in terms of the tactics and culture of the team (Tod et al, 2017). However, in order to cope with the emotional demands of elite football they receive support from their partner (Kristiansen et al, 2012a), family members (Holt & Hogg, 2002), sports science staff (Morris et al, 2012) and ex-coaches (Pensgaard & Duda, 2002).

Although the communication environment provides support to the athlete, the athlete also influences the communication environment. The athlete can “respect the other team… pay attention to the other team, you don’t talk about them” (Horrocks et al, 2016b, p678) which facilitates the team focusing on what they can control. The athlete can activate themselves and their teammates through yelling (Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012) instructions to their teammates (Holt & Hogg, 2002), however it is important this is constructive (Horrocks et al, 2016b). The athlete also communicates with themselves “when things aren’t going well… I talk to myself to keep calm and reduce my anxiety levels” (p851, Freitas et al, 2013).

Teamwork:

For the individual player to perform they require the team to work together in order to perform. Teamwork requires appropriate team goals “because if the goals are inappropriate, lack proportional to the human sources that you have, it kills the chemistry. It kills it” (Gershgoren et al, 2016, p134). In addition, teamwork requires the clear roles for the players to facilitate coordination and belief in the team (Gershgoren et al, 2016).

Preparation:

“Preparation for a match has been key to my career. If that’s wrong, any element of it is wrong, I’m in trouble” (Horrocks et al, 2016, p677). In order for a player to be prepared for a match they must plan their preparation (Horrocks et al, 2016b; Flack, 2011) which consists of opposition analysis (Woods & Thatcher, 2009) imagery (Freitas et al, 2013), tactical preparation, having a routine (Horrocks et al, 2016a) and having a good warm up (Fothergill et al, 2014). In order to prepare effectively it is important the athlete develops awareness of “all the small aspects that occur during the day, become aware of why it happened and what influence it has” (Larsen & Engell, 2013, p67; Jordet, 2013).

Practice:

In order to develop as an athlete an elite footballer must develop a focus on constant improvement (Horrocks et al, 2016b; Holt & Dunn, 2004) where they are “daring to fail” in order improve (Hofseth et al, 2017). This requires motivation (Morris et al, 2017) to consistently (Flack, 2011) maintain the focus required (Kristiansen et al, 2019) to do the work required to become and sustain playing at an elite level (Holt & Dunn, 2004).

Performance:

Performance consists of a present-moment focus (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015; Kristiansen et al, 2011) and a feeling of excitement (Holt & Hogg, 2002). To develop the present moment focus and the feeling of excitement necessary to perform, the athlete must maintain a process focus, task focused attention and have the confidence to perform.

Process Focus:

In order to develop a process focus the athlete must develop the ability to reflect and improve so that if an opposing players “made me look a bit stupid there, next time I’m not gonna do that” (Horrocks et al, 2016b, p473). This require the player to develop problem focused coping strategies so that when “you fail and it is very visible… I choose to believe there is something to learn from this” (Hofseth et al, 2017, p120; Flack, 2011). Self-talk can provide the athlete with direction during the game (Freitas at al, 2013) in order to utilise avoidance coping (Kristiansen et al, 2002; Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012) to block distractions (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015) and maintain emotional control (Freitas et al, 2013).

Emotional control is where the athlete has “control over how I would play regardless of how I was feeling” by developing an ability to leave “everything else (implicitly personal issues) where it was at the time… rather than dragging it all into training” (Flack, 2011, p11). This can be achieved through imagery, breathing exercises and/or listening to calm music or psyching each other up (Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012). When things are not going well on the pitch, self-talk can be utilised in order to reduce anxiety levels (Freitas et al, 2013).

The crowd, mistakes, teammates, and coaches can all distract elite football players during a game. Having the ability to ignore distractions (Holt & Hogg, 2002) and focus on the next task at hand helps facilitate task focused attention and remain process focused (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015; Flack, 2011).

Task focus:

To execute the correct decision elite footballers utilise “self-talk to execute defensive moments. It is a strategy I use to perform my defensive tasks as accurately as possible” (Freitas et al, 2013, p851). Self-talk helps players identify “where am I supposed to be? all the time so I can get that edge” (Holt & Hogg, 2002, p261) in relation to the positioning of the ball, the opponent, their own teammates, individual players and their own role in the team (Feighan et al, 2018).

Confidence:

In order for players to be confident in performing their tasks, they require preparation and specifically “repetition in training gives you the sort of comfort in the game that when it comes into that situation you know you’ve done it before” (Horrocks et al, 2016a, p678; Holt & Hogg, 2002; Gershgoren et al, 2016). Preparation and practice provide positive past experiences which facilitates confidence (Holt & Hogg, 2002; Larsen & Engell, 2013) which in turn develop competence (Jordet et al, 2006) and routines which give the confident feeling (Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012). Elite players utilise self-talk in order to “tell myself that I am the best, and when I am not playing a good game… reframe it, consider it a bad day” (Kristiansen et al, 2016a, p178; Jordet et al, 2006).

Bringing the findings together

The findings from the of all of the previous steps are synthesized to present a model of the psychology of elite football players. By bringing together the findings from twenty-one studies that have examined the psychology of elite footballers, a model is presented which represents the main findings from the research. The current synthesis brings together qualitative research based on 135 players who have played professionally or represented their national senior team. The synthesis provides a framework for practitioners to understand the athlete experience, the challenges they encounter and identify areas to intervene.

Based on the model, it is proposed that there are three underpinning aspects that influence the psychology of elite football players, the environment, the individuals coping skills and process focus, which both influence the subsequent performance. The model proposed is dynamic in nature and changes over time through the athlete’s experiences, and through interactions between the individual athlete, their performance, and their environment.

A flowchart to illustrate the factors which influence performance

The extent to which the environment provides the appropriate level of preparation and practice required to perform, the number of challenges the athlete encounters within the environment, and the level of support provided from the environment, interacts with the individual to influence subsequent performance.  

Within the environment the athlete is located there are challenges they will encounter such as competing for a position on the team, travel, being evaluated and having to sacrifice in other areas of their life in order to perform (Kristiansen et al, 2019; Holt & Hogg, 2002; Kristiansen et al, 2012b; Fothergill et al, 2014). To facilitate the athlete in overcoming some of these challenges the environment must provide some resources to support the athlete. The athlete requires social support outside of the team environment (Holt & Hogg, 2002), informational support from the coach on their development (Horrocks et al, 2016a), emotional support from teammates and coaches (Holt & Hogg, 2002; Pensgaard & Duda, 2002), and informational support from fellow teammates (Gershgoren et al, 2016; Morris et al, 2012). In addition to providing support the environment also provides the practice opportunities to improve (Horrocks et al, 2016b), remain focused and consistent (Kristiansen et al, 2019; Flack, 2011), and to maintain motivation (Morris et al, 2012). The environment also influences the preparation of the athlete in terms of being able to implement a pre-performance routine and prepare tactically for games (Horrocks et al, 2016a), developing awareness of the opposition strengths and weaknesses (Larsen & Engell, 2013; Jordet, 2003), engaging in opposition team and player analysis (Woods & Thatcher, 2009), and being able to visualize the performance prior to the game (Freitas et al, 2013).

The individuals coping skills are key aspects of being able to perform at an elite level in football. In order to deal with the challenges associated with being an elite footballer and the stressors associated with this, the athlete must have developed their coping strategies to be able to flexibly choose the strategy most appropriate to the challenge (Kristiansen et al, 2012b). Athletes can utilise problem-focused coping to be proactive in dealing with the challenges and stressors they encounter which can facilitate the athlete in overcoming some challenges (Horrocks et al, 2016a). However, there are some situations the athlete has little control over and this requires a different coping response. An example would be one where the athlete makes a mistake resulting in a loss for the team, although they can be problem-focused in terms of improving their skill set for future games, they cannot change the previous mistake. This requires the athlete to have developed and engaged in alternative coping strategies such as rational thinking, emotion focused coping and/or avoidance coping. The basis of being able to cope with the challenges that are encountered as an elite footballer is the individual’s development of multiple identities to develop and utilise flexible coping strategies (Larsen & Engell, 2013). The development of an individual’s coping strategies provides the context to engage in the process focused attention required to facilitate subsequent performance and development as a footballer. 

The extent to which the athlete can remain focused on the process of improvement as an athlete over time and maintain this through positive self-talk will influence the individual’s short term and long-term performance (Horrocks et al, 2016b; Holt & Hogg, 2002; Freitas et al, 2013). This is facilitated through the individual developing and utilising a range of coping mechanisms such as emotion-focused, problem-focused and avoidance coping (Kristiansen et al, 2019; Kristiansen et al, 2012; Holt & Hogg, 2002; Hofseth et al, 2017; Horrocks et al, 2016; Freitas et al, 2013; Kristiansen et al, 2012a; Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012; Kristiansen et al, 2011; Hofseth et al, 2017).

The practice, preparation, support, and challenges within the environment interacts with the extent to which the individual is process-focused and has developed their coping skills, to facilitate an individual’s response. The response is comprised of the individual’s confidence, task focus and the perception of stressors. The extent to which an athlete is confident about their performance is based on the self-talk they engage in (Kristiansen et al, 2019;  Jordet et al, 2006), their past experience as an athlete (Holt & Hogg, 2002; Larsen & Engell, 2013), and the individuals perception of their own competence at that moment in time (Jordet et al, 2006). The athlete’s confidence is influenced by the practice, preparation and support provided within the environment, and the individuals process-focused self-talk. To maintain an elite level of performance they must consistently engage in correct decision making on the pitch. The athlete must be aware of the opponent, their own role, the position of the ball, the teams positioning and opposition positioning, their direct opponent and engage in constant scanning of the pitch in order to make the correct decision (Feigean et al, 2018; Holt & Hogg, 2002). Externally the environment provides challenges for the athletes, which in turn create potential stressors for the athlete (Holt & Hogg, 2002; Hofseth et al, 2017). The extent to which the challenge is perceived as a stressor is dependent on the coping skill developed by the individual. The individual’s perception of the challenge can create stress depending on the individuals coping resources which influences the confidence, decision making and consistency of performance for the athlete.

Performance in the model presented is characterised by the athlete developing a present moment focus and a feeling of excitement about the performance. This performance state is developed through the interaction between the individual and the environment. The model highlights the importance of defining performance beyond the lens of the individual to understand the two-way interaction between the individual and environment in subsequent performance. When players are performing at their best, they are disconnected from everything and only focused on the task at hand (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015). This is coupled with a feeling of excitement about the game that facilitates task focused attention (Holt & Hogg, 2002). Excitement and task focused attention arise from a feeling of confidence and correct decision making which is facilitated by the support provided by the environment in which the player is located. Although the environment provides support, the individual must also develop the coping mechanisms to respond to the stressors they encounter within the environment. An example is where avoidance coping is utilised to avoid distractions in the build-up to a game and during a game to maintain confidence and subsequent task focus (Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012; Kristiansen et al, 2012a).

Previous research on coping has examined coping as a process influenced by the individual and environment interaction (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). An alternative perspective has been to examine coping in relation to goal-directed behaviour from a cognitive perspective (Ursin, 1984). The model presented proposes that coping is a process that is based on the coping mechanisms available to the individual which evolves over time and in relation to the individual and environment interaction. The model also recognizes that coping is also goal-directed for the elite athlete with the aim of performing to their potential. The model presented recognises that coping is both a process and goal directed.

Conclusion:

The aim of the meta-synthesis was to provide a systematic review of the qualitative research on the psychology of elite footballers. The study (a) provides an overview and critique of the methodological and theoretical foundations which underpin the research on the psychology of elite footballers; (b) analyses the literature on key factors identified that influence the psychology of elite footballers; (c) synthesizes the findings on the psychology of elite footballers. 

As identified in the meta-method review there are several methodological considerations for the development of the literature examining elite footballers from a psychological perspective. Firstly, the most predominant data collection method in the research was individual interviews. The over-reliance on interview as the method of choice could potentially result in opportunities being missed to understand the experience of elite football players. Kristiansen et al (2012) carried out individual interviews with players on how they coped with stress and the results identified self-belief as being important. In comparison, Pensgaard & Duda (2002) examined stress and coping utilising audio diaries and found that the player experienced self-doubt and coped with this through speaking with their club coach. The findings from individual interviews may provide an insight into what people say they do, or in this case what is important, rather than what the participants engage in. Secondly, the most common trustworthiness methods utilised were member checking and the use of a critical friend. Despite all but one study reporting some trustworthiness check, only one study reported the researcher engaging in a bracketing interview prior to undertaking the research (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015) while a second study explicitly stated the criteria on which the research should be judged (Morris et al, 2017). The absence of the utilisation of bracketing interview by researchers may influence the individual researcher carrying out the research due to a lack of awareness of the biases they may have to the research question. In addition, the absence of an explicit statement on the criteria on which to judge the research, does not facilitate an understanding of the coherence between the research method and the method utilised to ensure trustworthiness. Future research on elite footballers should ensure methodological rigour through an explicit statement of the epistemological position of the study, the aims of the study and reporting of the criteria on which the study should be judged. Thirdly, the research questions investigated most within the studies were around stress and the coping process. Of the eight studies which examined stress and coping, five utilised one-off interviews, which may not capture the process of coping (Kristiansen et al, 2011; Kristiansen et al, 2019; Kristiansen et al, 2012; Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012; Hofseth et al, 2017). The additional three studies which examined stress and coping using semi-structured interviews, diary entry, audio diary and observation (Pensgaard & Duda 2002; Holt & Hogg ,2002; Holt & Dunn ,2004) all had a researcher who was also engaged as a practitioner. The engagement of the researcher within the context can facilitate the use of methods that provide further insight, triangulate and/or enhance the understanding of elite football players.  

The meta-theory analysis identified that the most prominent underpinning theory to be the Transactional model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) with one other study utilising the Cognitive Arousal Theory of Stress (Ursin, 1988). Despite both theories providing an insight into the stress and coping process, only one other study examined the process of coping with shame (Lazarus, 199, 2000). The limited insight into the range of emotions experienced by elite footballers limits the understanding of coping to stress and shame. This results in underpinning models that have limited account for the broad range of emotions experienced by elite footballers. More research utilising a broad range of theories on emotion and coping can provide a greater insight into the coping process. 

The meta-data analysis in this study, identified 86 codes that influence the psychology of elite footballers. These 86 codes were categorized into 10 concepts: flexible coping, challenges, stressors, preparation, practice, process focus, support, confidence, performance and task focus. The 10 concepts were grouped into 3 categories: coping, support and performance. The meta-data analysis provides researchers with an in depth understanding of the variables which have been identified to influence the psychology of elite footballers. It provides researchers with the opportunity to identify areas that require further study in order to extend literature on elite footballers. The meta-data analysis also provides practitioners with an understanding of the factors that influence elite footballers and the opportunity to help them identify factors that are influencing their performance.

Through a synthesis of the findings from the meta-method, meta-theory, meta data analysis, a model of the psychology of elite footballers was produced. Based on the synthesis of the findings it is proposed that coping is both goal orientated towards performance and process orientated in terms of managing stressors in the environment, that the interaction between the individual and the environment creates the individual’s performance state, and subsequent performance is influenced by the performance state of the individual, and the coping process evolves over time. The model represents the main findings of the psychology of elite footballers and provides a testable model of future research to explore and develop further. 

The new model extends the current research on the psychology of elite footballers in two ways. First, the transactional model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) views coping as a process, while in contrast Ursin’s CATS (1988) model views coping as goal orientated. The model presented incorporates both the process and goal orientated perspectives of coping which both dynamically influence performance. Second, the model identifies the importance of the interaction between the individual and the environment in developing the individual’s performance state. The environment provides the individual with challenges and support which interact with the individuals coping to create a performance state. Based on the findings of the meta-synthesis future research may utilise a broader range of qualitative research methods in order to understand the psychology of elite footballers. In addition, future research may examine how the individual and environment interact and its influence on subsequent performance for different individuals. This research could be useful in designing individual and organisational specific interventions to support clubs, teams and players in developing the psychological characteristics required to perform at an elite level. 

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