How to help your players cope with mistakes

All football players – even top professionals – miss shots on goal, mishit passes and make poor decisions occasionally.

Professional players know that mistakes are a part of life and can put these minor disappointments behind them without too much trouble. Children, however, sometimes find it harder to ignore the mistakes they make on the field.

Mistakes often make young players upset, frustrated and even angry with themselves and these negative emotions can have a damaging effect on their game. One common reaction to what they perceive as letting their team mates down is to hide on the pitch, to stop wanting the ball and to stop making runs into promising positions for fear they might fail again.

So it’s important that you know how to pick players up after they make a mistake and help them to understand that, in the words of John Wooden: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”

Who makes mistakes?

The short answer is, of course, everyone. Teachers, parents, policemen, judges… even youth football coaches sometimes make mistakes!

Young players are no different but some are more affected by mistakes than others.

Most teams have at least one player who is a “football perfectionist”. They work hard at training, listen to every word you say and are regularly the “player of the match” on match days. But they often have unrealistic expectations of themselves, their self-esteem is low and they are prone to being overly self-critical.

For these players, making a mistake, especially during a match, is a big deal. Even the smallest mistake is seen as confirming their worst fear: That they aren’t very good at football.

In contrast, children who have learned that mistakes are unavoidable and expected, will be more resilient and have more confidence in their own ability.

These tips should help you get all your players to that level.

Stay composed

How we respond to our players’ mistakes will teach them how they should respond to their own.

If your striker sees you shaking your head in despair when she misses an open goal, don’t be surprised if she hesitates before “pulling the trigger” the next time she has a goalscoring opportunity.

If your goalkeeper sees you throwing a drink bottle to the ground when she fumbles a catch (and yes, I’ve seen that happen), don’t be surprised when she doesn’t even try to save the next shot.

In matches, nothing should cause you to lose your composure and in training you should take the attitude that “it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s the effort that counts”.

Don’t use words such as “what on earth were you thinking?” or “you can do better than that!”. And please don’t tell players “to try harder” when they are probably already trying as hard as they can.

Even saying that “it was just bad luck” or “you did OK, they just didn’t understand”, can confuse a player who knows full well that they did make a mistake and it wasn’t someone else’s fault.

Make mistakes a learning point by acknowledging errors calmly and explaining to your players what they should do if they find themselves in that position again – not what they shouldn’t do.

Encourage realistic expectations

You can help minimise the importance your players give to their mistakes by giving them sensible objectives.

Players who go into a game thinking that: “I must score today”, are setting themselves up for failure.

Talk to your players about what they expect to do when they step onto the pitch and replace any hard-to-achieve outcome objectives with more sensible, process objectives such as:

  • To tackle hard.
  • Get into the box for every cross.
  • Move into a good position to receive a pass.

Share the mistakes of famous players

YouTube has dozens of video clips of famous players making some really amazing mistakes.

Goals missed from 2ft, goalkeepers throwing the ball into the back of their own net, defenders scoring stunning own goals… the list is endless.

I have some of the more amusing examples downloaded onto a laptop that I take to training sessions and show them to my players during drinks breaks. It does their self-esteem no end of good to see famous players falling on their backsides!

Conclusion

Persevering when the going gets tough and being able to bounce back from mistakes are not just important skills for a young football player to possess, they’re essential life skills.

Your players are going to encounter many setbacks before they’re much older: College rejection letters, failing exams, not getting the summer job they’ve set their hearts on and more.

You can do them a massive favour by teaching them, in the words of FIFA female World Player of the Year and ex-USA star, Mia Hamm, that “failure happens all the time. It happens every day… what makes you better is how you react to it.”

For more soccer coaching tips and products visit Soccer Coaching Club.