how to get your players ready for a big match

We all have "big matches" to prepare for occasionally.

Cup finals, local derbies and relegation/promotion deciders are exciting for players and parents but they pose a number of problems for coaches.
  • Should you treat them just like any other match?
  • Or should you be doing something special or different to prepare your players for the big day?

Five and six year olds don't play in league matches or cup competitions anyway (yes, I know some very young children do play in leagues and cups but they shouldn't!) so all coaches whose players are eight and older need to have a big match plan.

1. Pre-match preparation

All young football players look up to their coach and, for many, he's a significant influence on their lives, perhaps the most significant after their parents/carers, so if they are worried about anything to do with football it's you they are going to look to for support.

While a little nervousness is good “the adrenaline rush sharpens reflexes and focuses the mind" if a child is allowed to worry about an impending match, their performance will almost certainly suffer.

The good news is that you can do a lot to help players getting too worked up before a match.

The first positive action you can take to reduce the pressure on your players is to speak to their parents. Make sure that they don't build a match up to something it isn't - whether it's a cup final or a relegation decider, it's not the end of the world if your team loses!

The best advice you can give parents is to try not to mention the match at all. They should treat it like any other game and if their child brings the subject up, their parents need to emphasise that they will be proud of them regardless of the end result.

On the day of the match (see below), you can do a lot to calm any players who are liable to get so nervous that their performance will be affected.

In the run-up to the game it's no good telling your players not to think about the match because they will. And it's no good telling them to treat it like any other game because they won't. What you have to do is give them some advice they can actually use.

If you feel that some of your players are worried about your big match, ask them what they are worried about.

They will probably tell you that they are worried that they won't play well, that the team will lose, or that the other team is better than them.

What they won't tell you is they are worried that their parents will be disappointed in them on the day. That's their big, secret fear and one that, hopefully, you will already have done your best to counter by talking to their parents as described above.

Even if your players are only eight or nine years old, remind them that everyone feels nervous before matches - some famous pro players are physically sick before walking out on to the pitch! - but if they worry too much they won't play very well.

Tell them:

  • Don't think about the match result - you can't win or lose a game on your own.
  • Don't think about the opposition - you can't affect the way they're going to play.
  • Don't worry about what others will think about you - you can't influence the way other people think.
  • To only think about what they can control - what they do on the pitch.

Then tell them, individually and specifically, what they do well on the pitch. E.G. "Alex, you have a great shot", "Joe, you can tackle really well". This means every player can take away a positive thought they can turn to if the nerves start to bite.

As far as training routines are concerned, stick to what you normally do and don't try to change the way your team plays a few days before the kick off. It's too late for that and it will only confuse them.

Finally, make certain that everyone knows how to find the ground. You don't want anyone getting lost and turning up late.

2. On the day of the big match

Make sure the team arrives in plenty of time for the warm-up but not too early that they will get bored or restless.

If you have a regular warm-up routine, don't change it but try to make sure that it's fun, energetic and designed to give your players lots of touches on the ball before kick off.

For example:

Thirty minutes before kick off: greet your players by name, check their kit and ask if they are feeling OK. Check for any injuries.

Twenty minutes before kick off: some dynamic stretching followed by passing in pairs.

Five minutes to kick off: make sure everyone has a drink, announce your starting line-up then spend a minute or two helping your players visualise what they are about to do on the pitch. It's a great way to calm any last minute nerves.

Tell your players to shut they eyes and count backwards from 10 while breathing in with their stomachs and out through their nose.

  • Keeping their eyes shut they should picture themselves doing something really well - a shot that hits the back of the net or a good pass, tackle, save or throw in, etc. They need to play the move all the way through, as though they are seeing it through the viewfinder of a video camera.
  • Now they open their eyes and share what they've visualised with the rest of the team. This builds trust and makes it more likely they will do actually go out and do what they've just seen themselves do in their mind's eye.
  • Thirty seconds to kick off: a few final words from you along the lines of 'go out there and have fun', a big smile, high fives all round and send them on their way.

That's it. There's nothing more you can do to help your players so you might as well sit back and try to enjoy your big match.