Take the pressure off

Being a youth soccer coach involves a lot more than taking a bag of balls and cones to your soccer coaching sessions and teaching children how to pass, shoot and tackle.

You are also a counsellor, psychologist, first-aider, secretary and diplomat. You also need to have eyes in the back of your head, be a superb organiser and be an expert at tying laces that are only two inches long and coated with mud. Additionally you have to be able to read minds.

It’s not sufficient to prepare your players technically and tactically to play in matches. You need to understand that their performance on the field is determined, to a surprisingly large extent, by what is going on inside their heads.

Are they feeling confident? Do they really believe they can perform well? Do they feel that they have to win? That losing would let down their significant others – you and their parents?

No matter how skilled a player is, if he is thinking about how other people are reacting to how he plays, he won’t be able to perform to his potential. It’s similar to stage fright and it affects thousands of youngsters every week.

A clear sign that this is a problem for your players is the difference between how they play in coaching sessions and how they play in matches. If you have players who shoot on sight and tackle without fear during training yet when match day comes, they are quiet and won’t take the slightest risk, they are being adversely affected by pressure. And you have to do something about it.

Pressure on young football players comes from two directions – parents and coaches – but most of it comes from parents.

Pressure from parents

Parents are, on the whole, well meaning. Unfortunately they often don’t realise what effect the little chats in the car on the way to matches that they have with their children have on their performance.

Comments like: “Score five goals for me today, John” (to a striker). “Let’s keep a clean sheet” (to a goalie). “No mistakes today!” (to a defender) and “it’s an important game today… let’s make sure we win” (to any player), won’t motivate their children to do well.

Instead, the parents’ words will be rattling around in your players’ heads while they’re playing and if they don’t look like meeting expectations, they will become frustrated and scared to take risks.

What can you do about it? Well, you can’t be in the car with them on the way to the match. But you can take the time to meet with your parents and explain how they can best prepare their children for match days.

Instead of putting pressure on their child to do well (the “or else” is unspoken) it would be better to talk about school, what they’re doing on Sunday, where they’re going for lunch after the game… anything except what they want their child to do on the pitch.

If parents feel they must talk about the game, they need to remind their child the result is not as important as playing their best for the team. That everyone makes mistakes and they will be their most loyal supporter no matter what happens. Exhortations to score goals, avoid mistakes or win the match almost always backfire and must be avoided.

All this might seem pretty obvious to you and me. But, sadly, it isn’t to most parents. So you need to tell them how to talk to their child before matches.

Pressure from coaches

Criticism is an essential part of coaching but it needs to be done in the right way. If you constantly nag at a player: “Joe, I’ve told you loads of times, aim at the corners of the goal when you shoot” or are harsh with them: “Lucy, that’s a terrible pass”, they will carry your words like a millstone around their neck on match days.

Joe will be too scared to shoot at all and Lucy will be tempted to kick the ball anywhere rather than attempt – and fail again – to make a decent pass.

You should always:

a) Focus on what a player does well rather than what they are not so good at. b) Help them to get better by teaching, not criticising. In Joe’s case, that would mean watching him shoot straight at the goalkeeper for the umpteenth time then taking him aside, praising him for getting into a shooting position then showing him how to strike the ball accurately.

Lucy needs to be praised for spotting passing opportunities then shown how to strike the ball more effectively. But even if you consciously avoid unhelpful criticism of your players, there are other ways you can put them under pressure.

  • If your players feel that you want them to win matches rather than try to win them, they will feel as though they are letting you down if the other team scores more goals than they do.
  • If your pre-match talk consists of dire warnings not to make mistakes, that they MUST WIN TODAY or includes the words: “Don’t let me down boys… “.
  • If you prowl the touchline during matches, kicking the ground in disgust every time a player makes the “wrong” choice.
  • If you substitute a player immediately after they make a mistake.

If you do any of these things your players will be too scared to shoot on sight, go for a tackle or try a long pass.

So make sure your players know that you value effort more than achievement, that the way they play is more important than the final score and you like players who take calculated risks. Impress on your players that the worst shot is the one that isn’t taken and they won’t get better unless they make some mistakes.

Take the pressure off and you’ll free your players to be the best they can be. And that’s what youth football coaching is all about.