John’s insight into performance, mindset, and even headspace has developed from his own experiences as a player, exposure to some very impressive professional players and coaches, and his time coaching.
I know you’ll enjoy reading the whole interview—plus some bonus material we caught just as John was about to leave!
At a Glance:
John Sullivan has had years of experience as a football player and coach to really delve into performance and mindset coaching. To him, it’s crucial to address the psychological state of each player and enhance their ability to be in the present moment—alongside teaching technical skills and plays.
When these are instilled in players, they have improved performance and decreased risk of injury and exhaustion.
Rapid Fire Q & A’s:
Zodiac sign: Aquarius
What one or two words best describe you? Sports Development Teacher
Favourite sporting movie or book? Movie-Grand Prix, Book-Pelé O Rey
Favourite sports quote? It’s from the great Pelé. I was able to ask for his advice on teaching and instilling the love of the game to kids. I’ve adopted his reply as my mission: You first teach the kid to become a man, then make him an athlete, then teach him football.
Are you a better coach or player? Coach. I love the perspective on the game and will watch football alone to analyse every aspect of it.
What’s your proudest personal sporting moment or achievement as a coach/player. What sets this moment apart?
It’s hard to pick just one, as there are quite a few. One is pioneering the Luxol Nursery (Note: The Luxol Sports Club is the largest complex of its kind in Malta, offering nurseries in several sporting disciplines). Another is winning all the awards in national group competitions for 7 years straight.
And having a record number of my kids selected for all the age group National Selections and then having a record number of them go on to distinguished careers playing for Premier Division Clubs. Several of those are now coaching or managing top division clubs and National Teams.
I’ve been appointed as National (Malta) FISEC Coach and Selector twice (link), achieved honourable results against top European Nations, and was instrumental in setting up Neptune’s Youth Academy (link).
As a player, my career was cut short by a very serious injury, but I managed a comeback with Valetta and had a good season—winning promotion to the senior division with Msida St. Joseph.
Who inspired you as a young athlete?
Locally, it was a great Floriana keeper named Guzi Alamango. Globally, it was the greatest keeper of all time, Lev Yashin and the great Uruguayan World Champion Midfielder Schiaffino.
What’s your favourite routine prior to a game? Do you have favourite foods, mantras, or any visual cues?
I’m very superstitious. As a player, I had a few routines that I followed religiously. There were certain charms I carried in my kit bag, I wore specific-coloured kits, and I was very careful what I ate—I avoided alcoholic drinks and smoking at all costs.
Tell us about a favourite coach.
It was a great ex-Malta and Valetta FC player, Josie Urpani. Even though I had that very serious injury, he relaunched me into making a comeback for two more seasons.
What do you believe are the three top qualities for a successful coach?
1. Interpretation and intuition
2. The ability to transmit your ideas to young kids.
3. Teaching sports discipline in all the game’s aspects.
How much of ‘total sporting ability’ is based on mindset—the relationship between meaning and performance?
Mindset—which I see as the psychological attitude of a player—is at least 25% or 30% towards a positive performance. Unless a player is correctly focused and geared towards facing a match with the right attitude, it’s likely that poor performance will ensue.
As a coach, do you consider an athlete’s ‘headspace’ to be important in determining performance outcome? By headspace, I mean their mood and ability to stay in the present.
Absolutely. Without maintaining concentration and staying in the present, their performance will be mediocre, and they’ll be more prone to injury.
What techniques do you use in your coaching to improve the mindset and headspace of your athletes?
Motivational lecturing to the team is helpful, but it’s essential to hold one-on-one times with each athlete. It’s also important that they’re having fun and enjoying what they do while being prepared to make sacrifices when necessary. The key is for them to do their thing and get satisfaction out of it.
What are your thoughts about the importance of an athlete’s ability to perform under pressure at a given time?
An athlete who’s well-prepared motivationally will definitely overcome their own self and go beyond their current physical capabilities.
In your coaching, what do you find are the main differences in performance between more experienced athletes and rookies?
More experienced athletes have a professional outlook to playing, and they weigh the runs of play to preserve and dose their energy in relation to what’s required.
How can you tell an athlete has the right mindset?
I can feel it. They have the right ‘head’—their head is there, they’re already set, and it shows in their attitude.
Looking Forward and Back
Taking into account all that we’ve talked about so far, what are your thoughts about how young athletes should be coached and the reality of how they’re actually coached? Is there a gap? Do you have recommendations for improvement?
The current situation is very different from when I started. Much of that is due to the evolution of technology. Coaches have more opportunities to reach higher standards, and statistics tell the story of whether they’re succeeding.
Now, I insist that a nutritionist and a psychologist are—and should always be—an integral part of any kids’ sports preparation and set-up. It’s also important not to let the parents pamper their children. Let the coaches coach!
One thing we have to be careful of is overestimating a child’s ability. We need to remain optimistic and have high standards while being realistic about what children are able to do.
In addition, we need to teach time management skills because there are so many distractions these days.
I also see a tendency to specialise in a sport of choice earlier. For example, water polo requires 60% leg/lower body work, and these athletes must train all year in this discipline to maintain that level. In every sport, there should be a focus on developing the right mindset early on in the child’s chosen discipline.
How do you deal (or have you dealt) with failure?
This is a hard situation, and unless I’m prepared in advance by the right mindset, failure can be detrimental. I’ve definitely had to deal with failure, but my motto is always ‘there can never be meaningful achievement unless there’s failure’.
You have to fall to rise again. Failure motivates improvement and the urge to reach higher, which can only be achieved through hard training and sacrifice.
Another motto of mine will always be, ‘train hard and give your all and you will play hard and give your all’. You play as you train.
“Your first teach the kid to be a man,
then you make him an athlete,
then you teach him football.”
This two-hour interview was such a pleasure. John and I laughed a lot, and he was so clearly passionate about sport and developing the right mindset in young athletes.
As we were ending, I asked John if there was anything else he wanted to share. He proceeded to talk about his brother Ernest, 17 years his junior and a prolifically talented football player. After a tournament in Malta sponsored by Ford and Pepsi Cola, the brothers were invited to a BBC interview hosted by Bobby Charlton and Malta’s own Fr Hillary.
Bobby asked Ernest why he was so good, and Ernest replied, “Because of my coach.”
“Who’s your coach?” Bobby asked.
Ernest grinned and pointed to his brother, John.
“Where do you train?”
“In the cellar!”
As boys, the Sullivans had access to a large wine cellar (kantina) beneath their home. John would draw boxes on the walls with numbers and dot the distance to the penalty spot with bottles. (I’m guessing those were glass bottles!) If Ernest knocked over any bottles with the ball, John would throw them at him!
It looks like you can be a bit more innovative when you’re coaching siblings, but the focus on discipline, mindset, and headspace was always there for Sullivan.