With the existence of two leagues that operate simultaneously, the youth player of today is competing with multiple teams in multiple leagues during a single season.
On the one hand, teams and clubs are able to attract talent and develop a competitive training environment that parents and players are seeking. Many look for the best opportunity to compete at the highest level and those opportunities are more accessible today.
However, consider what player movement indirectly communicates to the participant – ‘I need to be on the best team, the most winning team, and the team playing in the x league.’ Such a mindset is indicative of an athlete who judges and perceives achievement with an ego orientation. Goals, in this case, are focused on what a player can do to show superiority. This is most easily accomplished by obtaining impressionable statistics.
An ego orientation towards goal achievement can increase psychological stress because it is largely dependent upon uncontrollable factors, like scoring a goal, winning a game, getting onto a certain team, etc. On the contrary, an athlete with a task-mastery orientation will set goals that aim to improve the technical, tactical, physical, and psychological skills of soccer. Since all facets of soccer skill development are controllable, a player has more opportunities to feel proud and successful.
As a coach today, it is important that your players are balanced with both an ego and task-mastery orientation, where they are motivated to improve skills in a competitive environment. In the table below I aim to present the mindset of both orientations while considering the distinctiveness of player judgment versus perception.
Psychological Mindset of Goal Orientation
Judgment of Competence Compare to those in Compare to previous
proximity of age and skill level performances
Perception of Success Statistics; scoring a goal, Improvement; new skills, better winning a game, getting onto a tactics, quicker, etc. Feelings
certain team, etc. Feelings of of pride and satisfaction
2) What is your ratio of practices to games?
A player’s motivation to participate in soccer is largely dependent upon the experience of rewards. On the one hand, positive reinforcement is readily experienced from extrinsic factors like scoring a goal, wining a trophy, or being praised. However, consider what happens in the face of unfavorable outcomes – motivation fluctuates and psychological stress increases. Subsequently, it is important for a player to be intrinsically motivated by enjoying the process of acquiring skills and feeling accomplished after working hard.
In today’s landscape, the youth player experiences an excess of extrinsic rewards. With teams registered in multiple leagues and players traveling with multiple teams, there is upward of 3 organized games per weekend, which is equal, if not, more than the number of practices in a given week. Not only is there more opportunity to win/lose, score, be praised, etc., the organized game itself is a steady reward. As a result, a young player can lose site of inherently pleasurable reasons for participation, regardless of his or her consciousness.
How many of your players juggle in the backyard or kick around with a friend? As a coach, a major indicator of motivational style is whether your players are driven to spend time with a ball on a day off. If you notice that love of playing soccer is being undermined by the prevalence of games, reemphasis the joy of gaining skills and performing advanced tactics. Naturally, coaches want athletes who are competitive and driven to win, however the most powerful motivator to perform and perform successfully is drawn from autonomous rewards, which can be experienced whether in an organized game, practice, or while playing in the yard.
3) Are your players being recruited?
It is widely agreed upon in the psychology literature that adolescents are in a time of identity exploration. They are constantly questioning, “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” Now consider a player who is asked to expedite the journey and decide the next step in life by 16 years of age. The stress can become overwhelming, especially since the decision is largely determined by academic and athletic performance.
When college coaches are watching, a player may have unrealistic performance expectations and may imagine the worst possible outcome. For example, internal thoughts like “I need to play my best!” “Don’t mess up!” or “The coach won’t like me!” are common in those who desire to be recruited. Such thoughts shift a player’s attention away from the process of performing and place a heightened emphasis on the outcome of his or her performance. Although a subtle difference, when the focus is on performing your best and being noticed, there are two possible emotional outcomes: success or failure.
With this style of black and white thinking a player’s confidence is constantly at risk. Imagine a player who misses an open shot or gets beat one on one. When attention is focused on outcomes, perceptions of failure thrive and self-worth is questioned. However, if attention can be refocused on the performance of specific tasks and skills, a player is more likely to problem solve in unfavorable situations and emotions are likely to remain balanced. As a coach, you can be a great source of relief by reminding your player of three key components to having a task focus:
1. What have you done in the past?
Remind your players of performance strengths by communicating some skills or plays that he or she has done well in the past. The recollection of positive past performances has been found to enhance confidence and optimism in future performances.
2. What is your role?
Reminding your player of his or her role serves two purposes. First, it seems that the recruiting process strikes a fear of not being noticed. However, a player may do more harm than good when trying to play outside of a skill set. Second, a role provides a player with a clear focus towards performing the tasks of his or her position as well as the skills that he or she has to offer to the team’s overall success. In essence, having a clear role helps the player stay focused on what is needed to have a good performance – in contrast to – being noticed.
3. What is within your control?
If something is out of your player’s control, they have to let it go. Energy is a limited resource and can be exhausted on thoughts about coaches watching, bad refs, or a rainy day. My college coach would say, “Control the controllables!”
The landscape of youth soccer will continue to evolve throughout the years. Whether there is player movement, an excessive amount of organized games, or pressure to standout, players will always be faced with psychological barriers that are unique to an individual’s situation. In this article I have presented three possible areas at risk of psychological stress in today’s youth soccer environment, including goal orientation, motivation, and attention. Altogether, it is most important that young, influential players are taught to examine from within in the face of external noise and judgment. As a coach, you can be a great resource to your players with the power of awareness.