For most, though, that is not the case. In the past several years I have observed an overwhelming majority of lifelong soccer players hang up their boots and leave the game. In fact, my current team has 2 to 3 post collegiate players, including myself, while the undergraduate population cycles through every 4 years.
When I try to compare my experiences to the younger generation, I believe there are multiple external factors that contribute to the post collegiate drop off, however, even in their time competing, there is an observable disparity in attitude. For instance, when arriving to a winter pickup session to play for fun I walked in to a group of 12 college-aged girls sitting relatively quietly waiting for someone to tell them to take the field. My initial reaction was of disbelief that all of these girls are here because they have to be – because my fellow captain and I wrote an email.
There is a sense that sport participation is a mandated experience and that attendance is required, as opposed to desired. Unfortunately when this mindset is adopted, players have a greater tendency to go through the motions. Practice is not perceived as an opportunity to improve and play, it is more of a responsibility to perform or an instance to prove worth. Unfortunately when sport is looked at as a means to feel successful, a player cannot fully immerse oneself in the experience of performing and competing. As a result, potential is never truly reached and the joy of the game is lost.
After much thought on this topic, I continue to wonder how this generation of coaches can help restore the genuine intrinsic motivation to play soccer – or any sport – with passion. When considering what is needed to accomplish such a task, I have come to the conclusion that we, as coaches, need to remove structure in strategic ways. In a world nearly devoid of unstructured play, training sessions must become a place where young athletes can problem solve and make decisions with minimal control.
Wondering where to start? I began to implement this theory by considering what I learned from playing sports with my friends in the neighborhood:
- Dividing into 2 fairly even teams
- Refereeing as a group
- Desire to win with no real award
- Gaining respect and respecting others
- Learning skill through observation and trial-and-error
Now when I design my practice sessions, I try to create an environment where at least one or two of these lessons are available for the athletes to embrace. My final advice for coaches is to be creative when planning and don’t be afraid to try new ways of communicating and teaching young athletes. From experience, some methods will fail, but keep persisting and you will find what promotes intrinsic motivation for your unique group.