Case Study: Executive Coaching a Professional Soccer Player

by Michalis Solomontos

“Imagine getting a public negative review in a newspaper every time you underperformed at work.”

He decided to leave his job at Google to pursue his career as a coach. Michalis Solomontos made this decision after completing the Advanced Diploma in Personal, Leadership and Executive Coaching at Kingstown College in 2017. In this case study he speaks about his work with a professional football player and how the career of a pro athlete can benefit from the personal and executive coaching profession.

Think for a moment about how your life would be without mirrors. Yes, mirrors. That object affixed to your bathroom wall or in your bedroom’s closet. The glass object you look at before you leave for work, before going on stage or before you go out to meet friends. Why do we that? What compels us to look at ourselves in the mirror before any exposure to the outside world?

Well, we all know there are some things that are harder for us to see, unless we use a mirror. Once we become aware of them, we suddenly have the option to take action. You might not see the stain on your shirt that could mess up your job interview, but with the help of a mirror you can see it and change the shirt if you need to. The power of sight opens up possibilities and enables us to use our power of choice. What we call a mirror is a tool to help a system see itself. The more complex a system gets, the more vital the ability to reflect on it’s work becomes. People sometimes ask me what does being a coach entail. “I’m a mirror for the mind”, I often reply.

“… he came to me with the question: “How is it possible to find consistency and extend that level of performance from a few games to the whole season?”

The human mind is the most sophisticated system on the planet. A living, multi-layered supercomputer. An amalgamation of memory and intelligence that determines what we pay attention to,  what we perceive and what we think. You might have noticed already that your mind is not just a simple muscle to be marginalised and dealt with on a side-supplementary practice. It is THE most important tool we possess. However, the very instrument that enables every achievement in our lives can also hinder and interfere with our way to success. The question is, have we paid enough attention to it?

I never thought these words would draw the attention of a professional football player. After all, he was an athlete, making a living through his physical attributes, and yet, he was eager to explore everything to gain an edge. Not satisfied with the occasional peak performance once every couple of games he came to me with the question: “How is it possible to find consistency and extend that level of performance from a few games to the whole season?”

Top footballers in particular can often experience the downside of participating in such a popular and competitive sport. They are constantly in the limelight – on and off the pitch – and every single game is analyzed and discussed extensively on social media by thousands of people. A bad game for a footballer could mean a dozen gloom-ridden reviews by newspapers and websites, fans turning against you or even your own teammates berating you. Imagine getting a public negative review in a newspaper every time you underperformed at work. There are ample factors readily available to get in the way of actualizing your full potential. Take your pick.

When Ι attended my client’s matches, I saw strange patterns in performance levels: hugely underperforming in one game, hitting extraordinary levels of performance in the next. For some games he seemed to be utilizing his full potential, for others, something seemed to stand in the way.

The peculiar thing was, the opposing team had nothing to do it. Actually, his performances were much better when the opponent was aggressive or of higher quality. The challenge seemed to push him to a higher level. Our meetings started a journey of exploration. In his book “Coaching for Performance”, sports coach Sir John Whitmore makes a powerful point:

PERFORMANCE = POTENTIAL – INTERFERENCE.

How do these interferences come about though? Was my client aware of them? But most importantly, would it be possible to eliminate them?

The English word “mind” doesn’t really say much because it’s just one generic word, which fails to describe different dimensions of what it is. When people refer to the mind they usually mean thinking. According to the Indian Yogic lore the mind can be divided into 16 different dimensions that can be simplified further into four categories.

Great yogi and New York Times bestselling author Jaggi Vasudev (Sadhguru) stated them as BuddhiManasChitta, and Ahankara. Buddhi is what we refer to as the intellect – the logical dimension of thought. Manas represents a huge volume of memory and Chitta means pure intelligence which is unsullied by memory (what we might sometimes refer to as creativity). The most important faculty though is Ahankara. Ahankara is the Identity. Meaning how you perceive yourself.

It is how you have internally and mentally asserted the notion “I am [something]”. “I am a man”, “I am French”, “I am the best pianist in the world”. According to Sadhguru whatever you’re identified with, the intellect (Buddhi), memory (Manas) and creative intelligence (Chitta) function only around that so as to protect and keep that identity intact.

In my client’s case, huge expectations were built in his mind with every positive performance, causing him to identify with the notion of “I am a top performer” or “I am the team’s best player”. On the surface this looks like a useful belief system to adopt and fortify. Besides, it is the underlying idea of the “believe in yourself” narrative which became a popular philosophy in the past decades for all human endeavours.

There are good reasons for it of course. One of them being that if you have unwavering belief in your abilities, you exude confidence, people are convinced and you have much higher chances of climbing the ladder of competence and surviving the criticism and doubt when it comes your way. The sheer commitment to maintain that belief can push you forward. That’s good. What we sometimes fail to notice is the other side of the coin. What happens when a few bad performances put the honesty of that self-belief into test? What happens when the integrity of this notion is jeopardised? It most certainly does not disappear into emptiness, in most cases the initial mental notion re-asserts itself into its opposite: “you are not good enough”.

There’s no better example of this “coin flippening” than the group of England superstars underperforming during the Euro 2016 tournament and getting kicked out at the early stages of the competition. Manager Roy Hodgson admitted that: “One of the fears of coaches [is] that their players will take anxiety on to the field with them, that they’ll be weighed down by the thoughts that it might not go their way, they’ll imagine the newspaper headlines when they don’t play as well as they would like. We try, as hard as we can [to] encourage the players to believe; look, you are good enough, you will be good enough, just believe in yourselves”. If only Hodgson knew, that belief in itself is not good enough.

Athletes can get away with adopting such fragile belief systems purely because the surrounding environment has not exposed them, yet. That is more likely to happen at times of stress, when the stakes are high or competition is fierce. Loris Karius’ recent double blunder in the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev is a perfect example. In the space of 20 minutes, Karius gave away, not one, but two of the silliest goals you’ll ever witness, gifting away the most prestigious Cup in Europe to Real Madrid. His manager’s assessment of the two errors was interesting: “once he made the mistake for the first goal, it was very difficult for him to get rid of the thoughts”. Spot on diagnosis. These self-destructive thoughts were a mini-belief system and the product of highly dysfunctional identity. An accident waiting to happen.

So the million dollar question is: What are you identified with? A paraphrase of the perennial enquiry: Who are you? That is a powerful road that needs to be explored. It is about time for that question – usually reserved for spiritual seekers – to infiltrate mainstream society, business and especially sports. Because exploring this question is figuring out the limits of our mental and physical abilities as humans. As a performance coach my aim is not to help my client approach this question from a philosophical perspective. After all, coaching is most certainly not an exercise in dialectical thinking. My goal is to be a mirror for reflection and help my client discover how he has answered this immense question, internally, already.

Because within that answer lies his biggest limitation and largest possibility.

So what happened to my client? Well we transformed his thinking and sports performance. We addressed his emotional blocks, mindset and motivation during games. We set goals took actionable steps to address his mental fatigue and other physiological factors draining his energy. The result of 6 months of coaching sessions has seen him gain huge confidence and energy. His performance has improved vastly and just recently earned a transfer to another team with a 50% increase in his salary


Michalis Solomontos

Michalis Solomontos is a Performance Coach and an Internet expert. He has previous experience at Google as an Online Strategist working in the Advertising space where he consulted more than 1000 SMB’s in Europe, the Middle East & Africa. His passion for coaching led him to launch various Performance & Productivity projects globally as well as mentor young business and sports professionals across Europe to overcome personal challenges and fulfil their potential. In mid 2017 and after 4 incredible years at Google, Michalis left the company to travel and explore the world. Since then he started his own entrepreneurial adventure combining his passion for coaching with his expertise in the Online Industry to mentor people build successful and sustainable online businesses.