“Football shouldn’t feel like a job to 8-year-olds."

My daughter was recently informed that she was a surplus to the roster requirements on our local Under 12s team. The league only allows for the registration of 14 players and the coach isn't prepared at this time, to have other girls train with them. He's concerned that this would have a negative impact on the performance of the team and his stated priority is to do well in the league. So, this means that my daughter can't play with her local side with her friends (at least half of the team come from other communities).  

She's realistic about her soccer abilities and knows that she doesn't quite cut the mustard - yet. I've explained to her that he's only twelve years old and that one day she may well leapfrog her peers. I've also explained the possibility that she may not, and she understands that. She knows that she might never be a particularly good football player and she doesn't really care. She loves the game and she just wants to play. Isn't that what's great about soccer? Anyone can play.  

Luckily, I was able to get her a place with another community team, only about a 20-minute drive from home. This team embodies all that can be really good about youth coaching. They are entirely inclusive. Anyone who comes to training gets to play in the matches. They have opted out of their local competitive league to focus on training with the occasional friendly match. Their coaching sessions are of an extremely high standard. The players (and coaches and parents) clearly have a great time whenever they get together. My daughter is happy. She's making a new set of friends and she is improving rapidly as a player.  

The coaches who run this team are an example to us all. Their priority is to give the players who come to them an education in football. They want their players to have fun and improve. They are not interested in how well they do in the league. For these guys, it's about the players - not the coach.

Recently, more people have been questioning the integrity of coaches or teachers educating their children after hearing about reports of sexual, physical and verbal abuse by youth sport coaches around the world. Most of, if not all of, these reports contain one potentially harmful identifier: the first coach I discussed to open this blog.

Filling the Emotional Tank

There’s a rather interesting Sport Psychology concept that has been floating around recently pertaining to players and their “emotional tank”. As coaches we need to recognize that every person, including ourselves AND our players, has an “emotional tank” that fills up and drains.

A football player with a low emotional tank is irritable, less coachable and unable to deal well with tough situations.

A football player whose emotional tank is filled is cheerful, more coachable and better able to deal with tough situations.

Research has shown that a “plus/minus ratio” consisting of praise to criticism at a 5:1 ratio or better is ideal for children’s learning. When the ratio drops below 5:1, children become discouraged (their emotional tanks become drained!). When fans are cheering for a team, those players experience their tanks filling up.

We, as coaches, should want to coach in a way that will fill the tanks of our players so they can play their best at all times. In addition, we should also want our players to learn to fill each other’s tanks.

All forms of positive coaching, including praise and criticism, instruction and correction, as well as a little harshness; when needed, are all different types of fuels that can be used to regenerate your player’s emotional fuel tanks. Children contain the uncanny ability to detect small amounts of indifference that wavers in either direction, according to joint reports released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Consumer Reports.

Determination is often the factor that identifies an excellent player from a good one - someone that never gives up no matter what odds are stacked against them.

Whether or not these aforementioned findings are reason for concern is unclear. Negative Coaching is a poisonous element found naturally in the arrogance of some who possess a whistle and a clipboard. It is odorless and tasteless. In high concentrations, it can cause emotional pain, loss of confidence, low self-efficacy, fear, hesitation and self-doubt. Smaller exposures over time, typically in concentrations higher than found in the run-of-the-mill Negative Coach, increase a player’s risk of future problems in the development of their game. Negative Coaching is also known to affect the psychological nature of children.   

Employing 8-Year Olds  

How are we going to create players of the future if the future players are churned out like one big supermarket churns out ready-made meals?  

That’s not only my opinion, but it is also one shared by many others, most with more pedigree than I. One such football manager who also shares this same opinion is ex-Watford Youth Team Coach, Tom Whalley. I met Tom during a trip to Europe and even though the distance between us has been rather large; we still keep in touch and go out of our way to connect with each other when we have opportunity. He believes young players are not given enough time to enjoy the game, and they are not looked after in a way he thinks is important. In the words of David James, the England goalkeeperFootball shouldn’t feel like a job to 8-year-olds." 

After doing some research, I have found that some of the clubs in the English Premiership have up to 250 eight-year-olds on their books. That is astonishing. How on earth do they keep up with 250 players? Don’t miss the fact that those are just the ones from England. When they get older they then have to compete with the players that are brought in from abroad. Players like Frederico Macheda, who came over from the Lazio Youth System. He has gotten ahead of the young strikers who have been at Manchester United since they were eight.

So, I pose the question: what happens to all these bright young players? Of the 250 eight-year-olds that start out how many get left behind along the way?

 

With all of the recent talk on both sides of the busy street pertaining to what is becoming a firestorm of conflict; the United States Developmental Academyvs. High-School Soccer, I have close friends who head-up high school programs that have lost a player or two who chose the academy route. Some of those coaches have had some of those players return, but when they have returned, they returned as only a shadow of the player they had once been. They were low on confidence and low spirited. They hadn’t made it - it wasn't much fun, they said.

 

The numbers that now go through the system in England are huge, and they are all under pressure to perform or they will not make it – I just hope these players are enjoying playing football as much as I did when I was 8.

 

No one really knows the level at which this pressure becomes harmful. There is no football coaching limit for any age. The only limits in place have to do with the length of seasons, what days you can train or play, how many matches can be played and even when during the calendar year you are allowed to train or play. While there may be some inklings of “having the player’s best interest in mind” when looking at the afore-mentioned list of a few of the imposed limits; however, these limits are not for the player, but rather for the benefit of administrators. Organizations such as the NCAA, NAIA,NJCAA, NCCAA, USYSA, SAY, ECNL, etc… all impose some types of limits, but almost all of these limits are legislative-based and any correlation with the best interest of the players is by happenstance.

"BUT, they're better than us!"

I woke my daughter up one morning and said: "Come on we’ve got a match to play." She pulled the covers back up over her head. “Must I? I don’t want to play this match today,” she retorted back.

Why not?

They’re top of the league, dad, they’ve scored over 100 goals and let in 3, I don’t want to play,” she answered from underneath the warm and cozy confines of her blanket.

This opposing team that we were scheduled to play that day was a team playing in a division below themselves. They really shouldn't have been playing down in the division we were in, but we were cool with playing them. We were a good team and we gave as good as we got, so I was a little surprised by my daughter’s reaction.

I eventually learned why she had that unexpected reaction. Her teammates and she had been talking about the game in school and how many they would lose by – from a mental standpoint, half the team had already lost the game before it even kicked off.

As my daughter ate her breakfast I spoke to her about Andy Murray playing against the “unbeatableRafael Nadal at tennis. She and I had watched Murray put up a great fight the previous night and made huge progress in his tennis even though he lost. “Next time Murray will win,” I told my daughter. “And even if we lose the match today we will learn a lot and next season we will beat them because we will be the ones who have progressed.”

She bought into this and was more agreeable to playing the game. We played well and only lost by a single goal. Now, the players can believe that next time they will beat them and all that they learned in that match will help them to win.

Compared to other alternative choices she could’ve made, the choice to play, have fun, learn and believe in herself and her teammates was the best choice to make.

If Your Players Can Think Ahead, Then They Will Be Ahead

Visualizationis something that it used in the Sports Psychology arena to help athletes prepare for contests, get out of a slump, overcome performance anxiety, etc…It’s something that anyone can do regardless of age. When used in conjunction with positive feedback, it can become a phenomenal learning tool.

Visualizationis simply the process of creating a scene in a player’s mind of what they want to happen and what they need to do to achieve it.

It is used by athletes in many sports to help them focus on an outcome and the route to achieving it.

It is an effective way of getting individual players to concentrating on the task at hand. In a game like football, visualization can be greatly beneficial in helping players think about where they might need to play a ball in certain situations like trying to advance play, for example.

Other practical examples of how visualization can be used at any level and for any age is when the goalkeeper needs to look up the pitch and visualize where their kick is going and what will result from it… or getting your players to run through your team’s dead-ball situations (i.e., goal kicks, throw-ins, corners, etc…) without a ball. This allows them to concentrate on their angles, movement and timing without having to worry about controlling a ball and making accurate passes.

Visualization also creates a mental image for the players of what their movement should look like and their individual role in it.

This gives them further insight into how they should move, works and how each player’s actions affect everyone else.

Regardless of a player’s age, we need to be using every possible tool to ensure every player is enjoying themselves, learning something and developing a passion for the game. These young players are the future of the game and they should be treated like Princes and Princesses.

Tell Them They Did Well

Filling your players’ emotional tank isn’t as easy as it sounds. The first fuel commonly poured into young athletes’ tanks is “Praise.” Praise contains the lowest concentrations of negativity, and if offered correctly, carries well below the levels of negativity considered hazardous to athletes.

So, if praiseand constructive criticism is the best approach to filling players’ emotional tanks – if done properly – then what is the proper way of offering the most effective doses of praise?

Earlier, I mentioned a 5:1 ratio of praise to criticism. Now, I’m sure we’ve all heard of the “sandwich method” of speaking to your players? This well-known method of teaching requires a positive comment, then a negative comment and then another positive one. The negativecomment is in between the two positiveones and thus is “sandwiched.” The methodology behind this is sound, but I have learned that this is not as effective as it once was or it needs to be.

First, the phrase “negative comment,” or simply the word “negative” needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary when talking about this topic. The word ‘negative’ should be replaced with the word “criticism.” Even better, we should try and always add the adjective, “constructive”whenever we use the word "criticism.”So, let’s replace the phrase “negative comment” with the phrase, “constructive criticism.

Secondly, the Sandwich Method only has a 2:1 ratio of praise to constructive criticism. This ratio is also skewed because the Sandwich Method requires that we finish with a positive comment. Always ending with a positive comment isn’t always the best way to get your message across to your players. The reason we have any sort of ratio of praise to constructive criticism is because we have something constructive to tell them, teach them, motivate them, etc… Because this is the foundation of why these ratios exist, and also so coach and player communication and relationships aren’t overly negative, then it is vital that the message not get lost or suppressed, even by a positive comment.

That is where my ratio of 5:1 of praise to constructive criticism comes into play. Notice that I don’t designate exactly where the constructive criticism should be in this ratio. That is up to the coach whom is trying to get the message across. However, I have learned that two positivecomments isn’t enough to soften any sort of constructive criticism and that it takes at least FIVEpositive comments to ensure the players listen (not just ‘hear’), understand, process and be able to respond. Ironically this is sometimes more pivotal when dealing with older players as opposed to younger ones.

When we incorporate five positive remarks, it becomes irrelevant where the constructive criticismgoes. However, against logical thinking, five positive remarks does not suppress the important constructive criticism the way the Sandwich Method does because of the way the human mind functions in relation to short and long-term memory. The human-mind is only capable of recalling three pieces of information in the long-term. This is referred to as the “Rule of Threes.” Anymore than three and the info is forgotten once the short-term memory transfers to long-term. Even two comments, or rather, less than three is forgotten rather quickly, as well. Our memory needs some way of correlating what we are hearing with something else. This is identical to the way we use pneumonic devices to help us remember important things. The subconscious brain uses a pneumonic device in the memory process, which is why it needs additional information in order to store and then recall what it has received.

While the Sandwich Method is successful in grouping pieces of input into a single group of three, it is the final piece of information that is the basis for the correlation of the other two. Thus, the first thing that is recalled when using the Sandwich Method is a positive comment. While there is nothing wrong with that, that is not the piece of the three that we really want the player to recall. Rather it is the middle piece of the Sandwich, the constructive criticism, that we want the player to recall process and manifest.

The 5:1ratio also groups information inn sets of three. In fact, it is comprised of two sets of three. The reason this ratio works better than the Sandwich Method is two-fold: First, it opens up the door for the coach to put the constructive criticism anywhere they choose, even at the end; which for the aforementioned reason is usually the best location. Second, there are five different positive comments to suppress any negative connotation a player may take from the conversation. This may seem like a lot, but if the right types of comments are made, the constructive criticism will stand-out on its own making its impression on the player’s memory stronger, which will imprint it and thus, make it much easier to recall when needed.

In order for this to be as effective as possible, we need to take a look at the types of comments that should be used in the five side of the ratio. In order to not supersede the message of the constructive criticism, these positive comments need to be short, concise and to the point. If you have to take more than one breath to make the comment, then it is probably too long or wordy. Here are some good examples of the type of positive comments we’re looking for:

“You’re on the right track now.”

“That’s right.”

“You’re really working hard today.”

“You’re very good at that.”

“That’s coming along nicely.”

“That’s much, much better.”

“I’m happy to see you working like that.”

“I’m proud of the way you worked today.”

“You’re doing that much better today.”

“That’s the best you’ve ever done.”

The effect of this low-level positive reinforcement on Developing Players is quite impressive, especially when the players manifest it for the coaches to see or when observing how it works from the outside. Simply put; just tell them they did well!

Confidence Killers

With all of this focus on how to communicate with your players, it’s also important to recognize what else can have a detrimental effect on their development.

One of the biggest kickers that will hold back the development of players is anything that will chip away at their confidence. Confidence Killers are just that for the development of any player. What are Confidence Killers? Confidence Killers, for any athlete, are their personal beliefs that they hold on to that undermine their confidence.

Examples of these self-beliefs include, but are by no means limited to:

High expectations: a basketball player believing their success comes in the form of scoring 20 points in a game. The self-belief manifests itself, as “I need to score 20 points in the game today.”

Negative names: These aren’t names an athlete is called by anyone else, but rather what they call themselves - “I’m not quick enough to play on the wings.”

I can’t” statements: These types of statements MUST be eliminated from an athlete’s personal vocabulary at all costs. One seemingly trivial use of the phrase, “I can’t” can kill a player’s confidence in a split second. The damage done by these two simple words can be almost irreversible. - “I can’t shoot well from outside the box.

Goofy beliefs: Many times we, as coaches, flick these off our shoulders as casual and chuckle at these comedic parts of our player’s personality. However, be aware that these beliefs of self-fulfilling prophecy are reliant upon something that has no direct bearing on the outcome desired. - “I only score goals if I don’t wash my socks.

Hopefully, your athletes don’t wear dirty socks, but I’m extremely confident your players have displayed some, if not all, of these tendencies from time-to-time.

If they haven’t, that's great news!...and they’re in a very rare and exclusive group.

For everyone else, here’s the good news: You can help him or her identify and overcome these beliefs.

First, they need to look at the types of beliefs that fall into the above Confidence Killer categories. Then, they should identify how are some of the ways their thoughts and feelings fall into these categories.

For example, your players might admit that they “…definitely have the ‘I can’t statement’ problem. I’m always telling myself I’m not quick enough to play defense…

That’s the first-step, self-identification of the problem. Once you’ve helped your players identify these Confidence Killers, you want to help them replace these beliefs with more positive ones.

Here’s another example; your players might tell themselves, “I’m too small to be a starter.” That’s obviously not what we want our players telling themselves. That is called “negative self-talk” and it is something that all coaches should work with their players to cease. The best way to cease negative self-talk is by changing the context to a more positive tone. The Negative Self-Talk I used as an example above (“I’m too small to be a starter.”) can become a highly powered asset to a Player’s Development if we can get them to change the context to something much more positive. Here’s an example of how the previous example can be changed into positive self-talk: “I’m really quick and have good balls kills. The team needs me for these abilities.
Once you start your players on changing the context of how they speak to themselves, it can become something you both emphasize in training. You will need to make sure they stay tuned in to their negative beliefs, because they need to remind themselves to replace them with more positive, realistic ideas.

For most players, this process may take some time. So, it’s important to encourage your players to be patient. They can’t change their thinking overnight!

The amount of confidence in players varies widely depending on how old they are, how they are trained, how long they have played and the competition level they have faced. Generally, the highest concentrations of confident players are found within the top football programs, clubs and organizations worldwide. However, the level of confidence a player has does not depend on what club, team or program they play for.

"Do you want your players to do something they want or something you want?

Another very important aspect of your player’s emotional, mental and psychological well-being is how and how well, they are motivated. Motivationis what actually drives the player to want to fill up their emotional tank. Have you ever coached a player that lost his or her motivation to play football? It happens all the time with older athletes, and that's when their mental toughness is truly tested.

That is great to know about our older players, but what about the younger footballers? They can't be expected to have the mental fortitude to continue working hard without motivation. Yet, the ironic twist is that it's VERYimportant for young kids to stay active and exercise.

The American Heart Associationrecommends that "all children age 2 and older should participate in at least 30 minutes of enjoyable, moderate-intensity physical activities every day. These activities should be developmentally appropriate and varied."

Now, of course, that doesn't mean every child has to be involved in football, but if those who want to entertain the game and see if it’s something they may like, then why not let them? This will afford you a chance to encourage them and it will also allow them to get their exercise. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some ways to motivate your players to keep playing.

 

Empowerment

Sometimes, let the young player choose where he or she plays on the field. It's easier for children to be motivated when they're enjoying the sport. If you ask children what position they want to play and they're not sure, ask them what part of the game they enjoy and then go from there. For instance, if you have a young player who likes running, then playing on the outside might be the right spot. If you have a young player who likes to use their hands, then try them at goalkeeper. Don’t assume, but rather, ASKyour young players what he or she likes about the game and proceed from there.

 

Parenting guru Ronit Baras asks a poignant question when talking about parenting that is also quite relevant in the coaching world. Baras asks, "Do you want your kids to do something they want or something you want?” The reason I pose this question is because the first option Baras offers is motivating, but the second option is not. If you want YOUR players to do something YOUwant, then you are trying to manipulate them and you’ll need to USE manipulation tricks. However, if you want to encourage YOUR players to do something THEY want, you are AFTER motivation tricks. Many coaches do not distinguish between the two. They feel that because they have good intentions they can mix between them. Unfortunately, the USE of manipulation is a formula for disastrous coach-player relationships.

Observe
 

Another good way to motivate young players is to take them see others play the sport. This is a good thing for parents to do before they sign their child up, but an even better thing for you, as a coach, to do once they’re signed up. It doesn’t matter what level you observe or what level your players are at. Don’t hesitate to take them to pro and collegiate matches, if you can. However, every once in a while, it is important for them to see a sporting event at their own level and levels just above them. This affords the child the opportunity to see players they can better relate to enjoying themselves as they play.

Another great way to keep that emotional tank full is to assign your players homework. Nothing too major, as they will have enough from their school studies, but just simple little, fun and enjoyable assignments such as reading a book or watching a movie about sports. Children are often very interested in what they are familiar with and as they learn more about a sport, it will usually pique their interest to either start or continue playing. Honestly, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of it all, I really think that my 36-year-old brother, who played college football, started his interest in sports by watching football on TV with my dad and I. That was all the motivation he needed to want to get involved.

Be Human!

One thing I learned early on in my coaching career, I learned by accident. When I was younger, much younger, I would look for almost any opportunity to get out on the pitch and play with the players. Besides getting in my daily fix of playing, I was learning an important lesson about motivation that I would come to realize later in my career; ironically at the same time in my career as I also stopped being able to hold my own on the pitch…but, I do digress… What I’m trying to get at is quite simple: Play with your players. Not just to teach skills, but to just have fun. Let your players see that you’re human and not some “robot machine, terminator like coach.” You don't have to always be coaching your players on how to strike a ball or receive it. Sometimes, it's just better to be silly with them and let them experience the fun of the game with you.

Valuable Praise

Earlier we discussed praise and how valuable it can be. However; ironically, the praiseneeds to HAVE value in and of itself in order to be as valuable as it can be. Coaches need to be careful and not use a hollow type of praise. We can’t get away with praising just results. Kids are not stupid. Regardless of their age, they can identify hollow-praise much easier than grown adults, sometimes. So, we need to make sure we always praise the player’s efforts…and…NOT the results! If you want to offer a reward or some type of incentive for good effort, that's up to you. If you do, however, make sure the reward or incentive is an experience for them — i.e., a special themed training-session, play their favorite game in training, etc… Under NO circumstance should the reward or incentive be a material one.

Learn

As coaches, there are so many opportunities to influence our players and unfortunately most of us miss many of those. The simple, trivial things they do that could be the spark for a conversation; the mundane, routine actions that could open the door for a question. Coaches too many times are too busy teaching and not learning. We overlook the simple things that make who we are and what we do tick. We’re so busy with everything we have to do as a coach that too often we glance over the tiny pieces that are yearning to teach us. I’m not talking about Coaching Education and Professional Development, but rather what coaches can learn from their players.

I have some high-level coaching licenses and my resume is pretty extensive, however, all of those licenses and all of my experiences do not hold a candle to what I have learned from my players over the years. I just had to open up my eyes, clean out my ears and be willing to watch and listen. Once I did that, I felt as if I was followingSocrates.

Sometimes, it’s more beneficial to everyone to just step-out on the pitch and play with your players; and learn together. Coaching License courses be damned!

Play with Friends

Football is a team sport and no one will ever argue that. However, there is nothing wrong with letting players pair-up with friends every once in a while during training, even if it means that you have to change your training session plan. Kids are flexible because they don’t know any better, let’s not allow ourselves to be so rigid when we know better. Look for opportunities for your players to pair-up in training with their friends. Allow them to play with their friends and they will better play for you.

We hear all the time about how our training sessions need to be better structured and organized. This is true and most of the time these suggestions have great merit. However, when coaching youth players, sometimes it is better to just let them play on their own, without any rules and just “free-play.”If you give them plenty of free time to play and experiment on their own, you will be surprised at the rate of their development. I’ve been told many timers that “less is more.” That definitely applies here. Too much emphasis on competition and structure at a young age can put a player on the early path to burnout.

Fun

Another area that coaches can improve on and an area that I know I still need to continue working to improve; is our training sessions and how ‘enjoyable’they are for the players to participate in. Not every session is going to be fun. In reality, we all know that there will be more sessions that are drudgery than there will be that are a party. I have a phrase that I often use about this very topic: “You don’t win because you have fun; you have fun because you win.” Regardless, the younger the age you are working with the more important the “fun” element becomes. If you make football training a fun event; like maybe devote half of a session to playing different versions of “tag”or other active games, you will get even more out of your players than you could ever imagine. Think about it this way: sometimes, plan your session the way you would a birthday party, but without the guests.

Family Time

Are your training-sessions closed-off? Do you train in a location that is at the back of the park and as far away as parents as possible? If you’re like almost every other football coach I know, you shutter at the thought of parents interfering with your training sessions. Yet, I implore that that may be exactly what your players need.

Sometimes, make your training-sessions a family event. Plan a session where your player’s parents and even siblings can join in and not only experience what their child goes through at training, but also have fun. You can even invite other friends and family along to make it even more fun.

We all know that no matter what we do or how hard we try, we can never MAKEour player’s care. Unfortunately, there will be many players that we’ll come across in our coaching careers that just won’t share the same passion for this game as you. We can't give just them a motivation pill.

I know you’re familiar with the generations-old saying: "You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." Well, you may not be able to force your players to drink, but you can make them thirsty.

The levels of participation in football are high in the U.S. because football is a game that anyone can play and a game that is very active. It is possible that the current supply of youth players may be contaminated with Confidence Killers and other football pesticides from their exposure to the old, inept and sorry coaches that are still involved in the game. Never-the-less, I believe that the number growth will persist in the same direction despite the fact that it has been decades since any changes to the youth football coaching culture were last implemented. Negative Coaching is still found in certain areas and there are still clubs that encourage that style of coaching. Fortunately, for not only our youth, but also the future of the game, they are very rare and are dwindling their way into history.

UEFA states there is inadequate data to recommend blanket changes regarding the confidence of players or how they are motivated. In the coming months, however, UEFA will be evaluating up to 1,200 different youth players in order to draw an even better conclusion.

While waiting for more evidence based guidance, the directors at several major clubs and Player Development Academies are taking this bull by the horns themselves. While there have been some major improvements to youth Player Development Systems over the last decade, these have been isolated and unfortunately still have yet to encompass the entire football world. Never-the-less, these proven successful theories, philosophies and methodologies are being opened-up for the entire football world to observe and learn from. The rest of the football world is responding with genuine curiosity and eagerness to improve. Hopefully that will continue to grow.