In an effort to provide coaches with easy-to-use tools, I have compiled the top five best coaching techniques to foster the psychological development of young players. When applied regularly, the following techniques can promote performance consistency as well as sport enjoyment.
1. Monitor progress by supporting weekly process goal.
When having your players or team set goals for the season, be mindful that there are three types of goals – outcome, performance, and process. Most players and coaches are able to articulate tangible, outcome-based goals, however it is of greater importance to focus on the process that will get you there. From experience, players seem to be more committed to goals when they are taught to compartmentalize the path of development.
For example, many players have the goal of improving their weak foot. This can be quite stressful if it is not broken down into parts. As a coach you can be an extremely valuable resource for your players by clarifying the steps that are needed to reach larger performance or outcome goals. For instance, ‘Are you locking your ankle when you shoot, are you using your abs for power, is your heel down toe up on passes?’ When broken down into its part, a player has more opportunity to experience feelings of achievement, pride, confidence, etc., which is a powerful source of motivation to continue improving.
Working week by week to fix fundamental errors or strengthen techniques and tactics is an excellent use of psychological skills, however, it is important that coaches let errors slide in areas that are not in the week’s focus. For instance, if your team has a goal to improve possession, and the week’s focus is to play within two touches, then refrain from critiquing players who play within two touches but do not connect. By doing this, you can relieve some pressure to be ‘perfect,’ the ‘best,’ or ‘better than others,’ making performance or outcome goals feel more manageable and less overwhelming.
2. Encourage performing a clear role.
Participating in sport is often a way for young players to get involved with peers outside of school. As in the classroom or in social groups, there is a desire to feel efficacious. In sport, there are two types of roles that players assume; task and social. A task role is what the player brings physically to the game. Are they fast, aggressive, smart, technical, resilient, etc.? Furthermore, how does each player contribute through positional play and individual playing style? As for social roles, is the player looked to for support, leadership, entertainment, a laugh, etc.? Young players look to feel unique in some way as a needed part of a bigger group.
As a coach you can be a great source of clarity by emphasizing a player’s task and social role as a part of a team. When providing feedback after training sessions or competitions, be sure to identify how one or two players have impacted the team’s improvement on that given day. By reiterating the performance of roles, clarity is brought to the young player’s sense of purpose and belonging. Ultimately self-efficacy, sport-confidence, and performance are enhanced.
3. Praise the controllables.
It is undeniably motivating to receive awards in a sport. Competing takes time and energy and there is not much greater than to be rewarded and recognized for your efforts. However, outcomes like winning, achieving a certain statistic, being recruited, etc., are ultimately uncontrollable. An athlete can only work hard to improve in the mental, physical, tactical, and technical areas of their sport.
You can help your players by first being aware of your expectations. What is it that you truly expect each of your players to be able to do? Are your expectations within your payers’ control? And how are they being communicated?
Often times the message from adults is interpreted and internalized as having to perform ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ or to do the ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ thing. This black and white style of thinking leads to internal critical judgments about performances that are highly dependent upon uncontrollable outcomes. Thus there is a greater likelihood of feeling like a ‘failure’ after mistakes or loses, when in actuality, effort and performance were somewhere in between. As a coach, you can help your players see shades of grey by reinforcing skills, techniques, decisions, communication, and most importantly effort. Then – regardless of the outcome – players will continue to experience emotions of confidence, pride, achievement, and motivation.
4. Review positive past performances.
Many young players report that they highlight and ruminate their mistakes after competitions. On the one hand, it is good to consider aspects of your performance that need improvement, however it is not helpful to ignore the moments of the competition that were performed well. In fact, researchers have found that bringing attention to positive performances results in increased feelings of confidence, pride, and satisfaction moving forward.
As a coach you can provide help in this process by asking the team and/or individual players two questions after every competition or practice: 1) What are three things the team/you did well today? 2) What are three things we/you can improve? Furthermore, assist your players in developing a WELL, which is a running list of specific positive performances. The WELL can be an imaginary place in ones head or an actual list on paper (The latter has been found to be more affective, especially with youth athletes). Additionally, each play or performance should be memorable with detail so that it can create powerful feelings of confidence and pride during moments of high pressure/stress. As a coach, you can have your players read or recall their WELL before the warm up to enhance pre-performance energy.
5. Visualize success.
Once players have learned to set proper goals, clarify roles, focus on controllables, and build a memory of successes, it is time to learn how to use imagery for each of these psychological skills.
Goals: visualize performing your goal successfully
Roles: visualize yourself contributing to the team’s success through your roles
Focus: visualize emotional control
WELL: visualize past performances that you have performed well
The mind can be a powerful tool as research has shown. Imagery, when used regularly and with detail, can help an athlete learn both physical and emotional skills. As a coach you can teach your athletes to use imagery by having them first recall past performances with detail. Allow the team to share things that they see, hear, smell, taste, sense, etc. By doing this exercise periodically players can learn from one another’s perspectives as well as learn to imagine their goals, roles, focus, and WELL.
Subsequently, as the team develops imagery skills, you can simulate an exercise before a tournament or competition by having your players visualize what they will do to help the team perform successfully. At that point, the players will have a stronger foundation of tools to create a detailed image with a stronger affect.
The psychological game can seem difficult to coach at times, feeling that players are either born with or without ‘it.’ However, that is quite the contrary. Players and coaches consistently report that somewhere between 75% and 85% of soccer is psychological, yet 0% of training is spent on psychological skills. In an effort to help coaches feel empowered with psychological coaching tools, I have compiled the top five best techniques to foster player development. The following techniques may seem time consuming at first, but once incorporated into the typical routine they are easy to use and can have a profound effect on performance outcomes.