How to get the best out of your players

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” – William A. Ward

If you’re coaching four and five-year-olds, this article probably isn’t for you.

Your players don’t need motivating to play the game to the best of their ability. They will run, tackle and shoot until they drop because they’re having fun and totally unaware of the pressures that lie in wait for them as they get older.

But it won’t be long before they become more and more aware of parental/coach expectations and the differences in ability between individuals. That’s when fun can begin to be replaced by fear of failure. And worried players won’t perform well in matches or give 100% effort in training.

At that point – usually when players are seven or eight years old -their coach faces a big challenge: How to remove the fear and motivate his players to work hard in training and play to their potential in matches.

The four motivational techniques I describe in this article are simple and pretty obvious – when you understand why children want to play football in the first place.

Why children play football

An Athletic Footwear Association Survey of more than 20,000 young football players found that children want to play football:

1. To have fun

2. To improve their skills

3. To stay in shape

4. To do something they are good at

5. The excitement of the competition

6. To get exercise

7. To play as part of a team

8. The challenge of the competition

9. To learn new skills

10. To win matches

Other studies have found that:

  • 71% of the young football players surveyed said they wouldn’t care if no score were kept in their games.
  • 41% said they have woke in the night worrying about an upcoming game.
  • 90% said they would prefer to be on a losing team if they were able to actually play rather than warm the bench on a winning team.[1]

How to motivate your players

These findings suggest that we can satisfy our players needs – and thereby motivate them to work hard and play to their potential – by adopting the following strategies.

Well-planned, varied and competitive training sessions

Disorganised and poorly thought-out coaching sessions can demotivate even the most positive of young players.

You need to plan your sessions in advance and plan activities that are:

a) Competitive.

b) Mentally and physically challenging.

c) Within the capabilities of all your players.

You should also bear in mind the preferences of your players. If they like playing small-sided games (SSGs), (which they almost certainly will) then you should accommodate their wishes.

Setting objectives

Every player, no matter how skilled, will be motivated to give her best in matches if she is given an easily understood, achievable objective.

Your objectives should not include the word “win”. Winning is often out of your player’s control – an injury, poor referring decision or one small mistake can cost a good team the match. Instead, the subject of your objectives should be entirely within your player’s control. For example:

  • Block an opposing goal.
  • Make two throw-ins with both feet on the ground.
  • Make three shots on goal.
  • Make one good pass to a team mate.

Only set one or two objectives per game, praise your players for trying to achieve their objectives and change objectives from one game to the next as your player’s skills change.

Give feedback

Young players are usually not very good at assessing their own ability so they rely on parents, coaches and team mates to tell them how they are performing.

Out of all these, the comments made by the coach are the most valued and you will make a significant impact on your players’ enjoyment and self image by giving honest, regular feedback on their performance.

Try to give specific feedback as soon as you notice a player doing something well, e.g. “Excellent! I like the way you kicked that with your laces”. Telling your players exactly what they are doing well encourages them to repeat the action they were praised for.

If you need to correct a mistake, use the “sandwich” approach to giving feedback. For example: “That was a great shot (start with a positive). You would probably have scored if you had taken the shot with your first touch (a negative in the middle) but you made the keeper pull off a great save” (a positive to end with).

Don’t forget that feedback is a two-way process. You may well find it instructive to ask “on a scale of one to 10, how much fun did you have in today’s coaching session?”

Every player plays!

Finally, the best motivator of all: Playing time.

Children join a football team because they want to play, not sit on the bench watching their team mates have all the fun.

So please make sure that every one of your players gets a meaningful amount of playing time in every match, regardless of the game situation.

If you can’t promise to do that, then be up front about it and offer to release players who aren’t going to get their fair share of time on the pitch.

[1] Troubling Signals from Youth Sports,

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