Lionel Messi is considered one of, if not the greatest player to set foot on a soccer pitch.
A World Cup winner and seven times voted by his peers as the best player in the world (the Ballon d’Or), the Argentine is headed to Inter Miami in the MLS and faces one of his greatest challenges yet – taking the world game to new heights in one of the world’s most crowded sports markets.
So, what makes Messi one of the greats? Known for his clinical passing, incredible vision and composure in front of goal, the 35-year-old is considered a footballing god, but what is often overlooked is the mental side of his game.
Writing exclusively for Optimize Mind Performance, Geir Jordet, a Sport Psychology Professor specialising in soccer and coaching at the at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, shares insight into Messi’s psychology and what makes “the G.O.A.T” so good.
Messi obviously has a wonderfully sensitive and powerful left foot. His touch on the ball, his precision in passing and shooting, and his drive while running with the ball are all unparalleled in soccer history.
However, I would argue his most exceptional body part is his brain.
A key to Messi’s performances is his ability to pick up critical information in his surroundings, process it lightning-fast, and flexibly adapt his actions to the events unfolding around him. This is most striking when he has the ball at his feet and opponents are moving in on him to try to tackle. Messi seems to register the opponents’ actions just early enough that he can react to them and move away accordingly. He sees what the opponent is doing, then acts based on it to functionally adapt. Every time.
This display of cognitive flexibility is indicative of a marvellously effective brain process, which psychologists usually label Executive functions. These Executive Functions also typically involve processes such as cognitive updating – the ability to constantly revise old memories and situational representations with new ones, and cognitive inhibition – the ability to stop an already begun thought or action. Although I doubt anyone has ever tested Messi’s executive functions, his movements on the soccer pitch suggests he is outstanding at them, particularly in soccer specific situations.
In our studies of Messi’s cognitive-perceptual skill, we have followed him with a video camera in games, to produce full-figure, close-up videos of him in action. Here we find that Messi visually scans his surroundings for information prior to receiving the ball, with a scanning frequency that is just a little bit higher than other elite players in his position.
Basically, he constantly looks around, seemingly collecting information that can guide his upcoming actions. Messi starts this process early. When a new situation arises, as for example the ball is passed from left to right, we can observe Messi starting to prepare for what will come by scanning just a little bit earlier than those players around him. This suggests again that he looks for, and then picks up information, faster than others.
Finally, Messi often engages in what we call micro-scanning. This means that he doesn’t always turn his body or head around to pick up information, but sometimes just uses small micro-movements of his head or just his eyes. He can do this unbelievably fast and because the opponents aren’t aware of such microscopic movements, they are concealed from them, which makes Messi even harder to read and predict. All together, these details that characterize Messi’s information gathering and processing, are his real superpowers.
Performing Under Pressure
One of the things making Messi so special under pressure is that he doesn’t do anything special under pressure. He consistently delivers the same displays of skill under pressure as he does under less pressure. Just like for many absolute top sport performers, for Messi, normal is enough.
This is not as easy as it may sound. To act “ordinary” under “extraordinary” circumstances, Messi relies on his truly exceptional soccer skills and the experience he has of delivering over and over under pressure. This gives him sufficient confidence in these skills. This confidence will most likely protect him from the threats inherent in pressure situations that take down so many other athletes – the thoughts about consequences, negative expectations, and anxieties. For Messi, it seems that he just lets his skills run the show. There’s no need for extra, he does what he always does.
That’s for his performance in open play. As for Lionel Messi’s penalty kick performance, this has never quite matched his extraordinary levels of performance in other parts of his game. Across his career, Messi has scored on only 77.9% of his penalty kicks, which is just UNDER average for all players in the European top leagues. Yet in the 2022 World Cup, under extremely high pressure on him personally, he scored on 6 of 7 penalty kicks which most certainly helped Argentina become world champion (86% goals).
Did he do anything different with his penalties in the World Cup? Yes, more than in the past, he relied on a penalty technique that probably makes him get more out of his unique cognitive-perceptual skillset. For the majority of his World Cup penalties, Messi used a goalkeeper dependent strategy, where he looks at the goalkeeper’s movements, lets him make the first move to left or right, and then places the ball in the other direction. With this technique, he steps up to the ball while looking at the goalkeeper, waiting for him to make the first move. There is a big risk to this technique, because you basically have not decided where to shoot the ball while you lift the foot to kick it, and unless you have complete composure and cognitive control, you will miss it. Sometimes, with some players, this may look foolish, but executed well, these shots are very difficult to stop. Essentially, the goalkeeper makes the decision about where to shoot. The cognitive flexibility required to execute this shot is extreme. Several elite players now use this technique, but Messi is the only one who has done it under the immense pressure in a World Cup final, which he did in Qatar, twice.
Goalkeepers are on to this strategy and perform counter measures. However, Messi has the answer to this too, he alternates technique. Sometimes, he uses a different strategy, the one he has predominantly used in the past with mixed success, the goalkeeper-independent strategy where he has decided in advance where to shoot the ball. Alternating from penalty to penalty makes him very difficult to predict for the opponent goalkeeper. In the World Cup, he used both these techniques, but his only miss came from the goalkeeper independent technique – where he had decided beforehand where to shoot.
Messi was the captain of the Argentina team who won the 2022 World Cup, and the undisputed leader. Messi is not a big leader with words. His leadership is built on actions. One example is how he led his team through two World Cup penalty shootouts, in the Quarterfinal against the Netherlands and in the Final against France.
Messi scored both his kicks, but more interesting was how he connected to his teammates.
When Messi’s teammates scored their shots in the penalty shootouts, Messi could be seen far outside the mid circle, walking towards his teammates as they walked back to the team, congratulating them and getting them back into the group. Given that the rules clearly state that you cannot walk outside of the mid circle during a penalty shootout, Messi showed that it was worth taking a risk of a referee sanction for the benefit of his teammates.
Perhaps more importantly, Messi also did this when his teammate (as this only happened once) missed. When Enzo Fernandez missed his shot, it was Messi who stepped away from the group to greet him and receive him back into the warmth. This sends a powerful message to the rest of the group: If I miss my shot, our leader, Messi, will still welcome me into the group. In addition, immediately after the win in the penalty shootout against the Netherlands was secured, all the Argentina players ran over to Lautaro Martinez who scored the last and decisive penalty. Messi, never one to follow the group, ran in a completely different direction. He ran to their goalkeeper Emi Martinez, who obviously had been instrumental in securing the win.
Messi sees the big picture and shows this with his actions, even when constraints in the situation coerces people to behave in another way. That’s character. And that’s leadership.