Have you ever had to yell, “Quicker decisions,” “Know what you’re doing before you get the ball,” or “Play with pace.” These are common phrases used by coaches that target a player’s tactical knowledge of the game, however many young players are unaware of actually how to make the most effective decisions at a high pace.
Before delving into the psychology of decision-making, it is important to differentiate the tactical and psychological pillars of the game. When learning how to master the tactical game, players must be able to answer two critical questions quickly and continuously:
What are some of the decisions that I can make?
- Pass, dribble, shoot, tackle, delay, clear it, etc.
What do I need to know in order to make the best decision?
- Where am I on the field, where are my teammates and the opponents, what is the score, how much time is left, who am I up against, etc.
As coaches we try to incorporate parameters into training – like touch restrictions or you can’t play back to the person who played you – in an attempt to challenge players to be more aware and focused. To be successful requires ability to process the most important environmental information from moment to moment and commit to a choice based on what you have learned about the game.
Here is where the psychological game comes into play – in the form of distractions. Since decision-making is quick and continuous in the game of soccer, it is vital that players are primarily focused on assessing their environment. There is no time for confusion, hesitation, or self-doubt. As a coach it is difficult and time consuming to address each and every individual player, however it is possible to proactively address mental skills while teaching the tactical game. Below is an outline of how psychological barriers impact a player’s quick and effective decision-making as well as some tips on how to teach mental skills.
Clarify role responsibilities and tasks to eliminate player confusion and hesitation
The first task of being a good decision-maker is to be clear about what your role is on the field. A simple way of doing this is to bullet point a player’s responsibilities both on attack and defense. For example:
Role of an attacking center mid:
- Check to the ball
- Play through balls
- Take shots outside the box
- Man mark
- Intercept passes
Often times players report feeling confused during competitions, which leads to hesitation and mistakes. Additionally, they report that there is a right and wrong decision, which contributes to the development of a black and white style of thinking.
A player’s role is based upon position, the coach’s style of play, and the qualities they bring to the field. When a player is clear on these factors then the process of gathering information becomes less overwhelming. Essentially they begin to develop consistent “if . . . then . . .” options. Furthermore, when responsibilities are outlined it is important that they are rather broad, controllable, and can be applied to various situations.
For example, a center forward is responsible for dribbling on the attack, shooting, and being the first line of pressure on defense. In these three examples there is room for variation and creativity, meaning that there is no right or wrong decision. So if a center forward attacks 1v1 and loses the ball, a coach can highlight her effort and help her focus on the next attempt. On the contrary, if a coach criticizes the center forward, she will most likely hesitate to attack 1v1, thinking it is the wrong decision and feeling disappointed prior to even receiving the ball.
Because soccer is so dynamic and creative, the bulk of the game consists of challenging situations where no right or wrong decision exist. As a coach your communication and feedback is a critical determinant of how your players make decisions. In your sessions, be sure to clarify how you would like each role to be executed on the field and focus your feedback on your players’ effort to perform a role regardless of the outcomes. As a result, you will be happy to see your players with greater focus and ability to commit to decisions quickly and effectively.
Minimize coaching distractions so players can focus on gaining the most valuable information
During the decision-making process it is important that players are primarily focused on assessing the most valuable information from their environment. Although coaches, teammates, and parents are a part of the environment, what they may be shouting is actually a distraction. Take for example a player who commits to a decision as the ball is traveling to his feet, but just as the ball arrives the coach yells to do something different and he ends up hesitating and losing the ball completely.
As a coach, allow your players to make their own decisions and pick and choose when it is a good time to coach. When a player is involved in a play, it is not valuable to be giving instructions because you are directly taking away his ability and control over making decisions. When this happens continuously over time, the player learns that he must do what the coach says; as opposed to do what he thinks is a good decision.
Another common example is when a parent instructs their child from the sideline and contradicts the coach’s instructions. When this happens, players report feeling confused and disappointed in their ability to please both parents and coaches. There is no easy solution to this dilemma because most young players are performing in an attempt to make someone proud – primarily their parents or caretaker. So when they are conflicted in this way, a player’s focus is distracted from assessing the most valuable information and the response is often hesitation or stagnation and ultimately poor performance. As a coach you can help your players by creating strict guidelines for your parents, being sure to explain why their instruction is detrimental to their child’s performance.
The psychological barrier that I am presenting here is one of the easier ones to recognize because it is communicated by the word ‘should.’ For example, “I should have dribbled instead of passed,” or “what should I do with the ball?” Thinking in terms of “should” indicates that players are trying to please an outside source by performing in a pre-determined desirable way. The problem with this style of thinking is that, players who perform in an attempt to please someone, do not – or cannot – focus on the tasks of their role and are distracted from making quick and effective decisions.
When trying to eliminate this psychological barrier, the process starts with you – the coach. Try to avoid using the word ‘should’ in your instructions and replace it with “you could. . .” or simply ask the player “what could you have done differently and why?” Although it is a simple change in vocabulary, the emotional response to ‘should’ (disappointment) versus ‘could’ (interest/determination) is paramount to performance. So instead of telling players exactly what to do, remind them of their role and responsibilities and be sure to do this while they are not involved in the play.
Build confidence in player’s capabilities to diminish self-doubt
Many players will reveal that they do not feel capable to meet the demands of the game. For example, an outside midfielder will get the ball with space to attack, but chooses to pass instead. When the role is clear and the focus is on performing, then why choose to pass?
Playing with confidence is a more difficult mental skill to develop because it is often a result of a deep-seeded style of thinking. The thoughts in this case include phrases like “what if…?” So in the example, the player receives the ball and quickly thinks, “what if I lose it?” and she decides to pass instead. The content of her focus is on potential outcomes and praise (or criticism) as opposed to effort and enjoyment.
The fundamental skill for players to master the psychological game is to control thoughts and emotions as they happen naturally throughout the game. The objective is to fill your mind with confidence, determination, pride, and happiness, which can be accomplished with thoughts that convey the message ‘I love to play,’ ‘I am working hard,’ ‘I tried,’ and ‘I had fun.’
When a player has thoughts like “what if…?” their focus is on potential negative outcomes and the resulting emotions are typically fear and disappointment. As a coach it is difficult to target individual needs because players don’t always verbalize their thoughts or accurately display their emotions. Instead, you can help your players build confidence by highlighting when they successfully perform their role both in training and competitions. Emphasize the quick and effective decisions that players make both on and off the ball and be clear about how they contributed to the team’s success. For example, “Did everyone see how when Emma dropped back she opened up space for Nicole to receive the ball?” Then when you need to make a correction you can add to your feedback, “I like your decision to make the long pass, next time try to lead her into the attack.”
In addition to positive feedback, when you are teaching the tactical game be sure to acknowledge the potential for players to think “what if” – even if it has never been said. By bringing this mental hurdle into awareness, you are helping your players take the first step towards change and development. You can either come up with your own examples and ask “who is thinking what if I…?” Or you can simply ask, “what are your fears or concerns when making a decision in this situation?”
The next step is to help your players change their focus and self-talk by saying “I will.” Again, as a coach you can start the transition by eliminating ‘what if’ from your vocabulary and continuously ask your players, “What do you want to do in this situation?” – provoking the response, “I will.” If repeated enough, the phrase ‘I will’ results in emotions like determination and focus and can be the final key to making quick and effective decisions.
When coaching youth players remember to provide tangible skills for mastering the tactical game. By continuously asking 2 key questions (What are your choices? and What do you need to know to make the best choice?) players have something measurable to practice. Specifically they are working on gaining the most valuable information from the environment and doing so at a quicker rate.
Additionally, by bringing awareness to the tasks of decision-making, a player may recognize that he distracted from performing quickly and effectively. Such distractions are observable through a player’s hesitation, stagnation, confusion, and ultimately poor decisions. This is when you as the coach can help to identify and teach valuable mental skills, which are often times the key to overcoming barriers for quick and effective decision making.