The tension that is placed on games is false. It is all a state of mind and more often than not it seeps down from the adults in the game. Players then get trapped and brainwashed into thinking about the significance of the event and instead lose focus on their own performance and abilities. As fear creeps in, joy gets pushed out. Players need to play with the same joy and freedom that they do in games as they do in training and this is where adult input becomes so important.
Coaches and parents can manage expectations and be a model to our players as to how to think and act about the game in those in between moments. Those pre and post match car rides, the warm-ups, cool downs and huddles, those sideline reactions and those post game debriefs are opportunities for us to show idealistic behaviours.
Ultimately the game is for the players and our role as adults is to give the players every chance to enjoy themselves and play true to their potential by being a calming and encouraging influence at every possible moment.
Here are my top 10 tips for getting players to relax and play their game:
1) Remind them of what they control and what they do not
There are some things we cannot control. The referee’s decisions. The weather. The state of the field. The sidelines. Just to name a few. However, there are certainly a whole host of things that we can control. Our tactical decisions. Our technical decisions. Our quality of actions. Our movement before and after actions. Perhaps most important of all our mind-state. Remembering this throughout a performance and being able to control this is key.
2) Have players reinforce positive self talk when things go wrong
Linking into the point above regarding mind-state it is important that players are able to keep working towards their desired actions. A few sentences should be remembered and repeated mentally or even verbally by players in the face of expected unfavourable scenarios that may play out on the field. For example, rather than beating themselves up over a misplaced pass, a player could turn repeat; ‘It’s OK, I was trying the right idea, I’ll get it next time.’
3) Focus on what could go right not what could go wrong
Linking to positive self talk, allow players to understand that what they think about will likely show itself. So if they are getting caught up with negative and fearful thoughts before or during a game then there is a greater chance that this may well unfold. Instead inspire them with ideas and images of them succeeding and experiencing their own individualized great moments before they go out to play.
4) Remind them of the greatness in the moment
We are working towards big team goals. The season is a collection of games. One game is an independent event. Each game consists of two halves. These halves have several phases within them. At youth level each phase lasts (approximately!) a maximum of two minutes. These phases will have perhaps one key initiation (defence related) or finishing (attack related) action. Basically the season is defined of the sum of our positive moments. Looking at how to win the small actions will help us achieve big goals.
5) Do not judge them for any below par performances
Players are not consistent. Even the best ones in the elite game are not able to shine game in and game out. So it is all the more important to remember this and bare this in mind when we deal with our younger players. Make room in your high expectations for them to stumble and fall and play below their own individual high standards. They are human, young humans at that. So allow them the space for mistakes.
Signs of the Sturridge Dance means it is likely going to be a good day for Daniel
6) Be a cheerleader while they play
As an adult involved in youth sport, once the ball is rolling we must pick up our metaphorical pom-poms. Every positive intention and action must be applauded. Give the players full backing and support off the field when it is deserved and learn to withdraw from getting caught up in the finer details of their play at least while they are playing. There will be time for that but while the ball rolls, give them their space to play and just be a positive and infectious influence on the sidelines.
7) Focus on the performance
Results is the name of the game right? At youth level, leave that mentality aside and focus on getting them playing like they have been working in training. Ideally there should be no huge disconnect between training and games. The style of play of the team and the individual player’s decisions and actions should be judged based on how they last performed in their latest session. You are only as good as your last game!
8) Allow them to have their own personal routine
Encourage players to have their own individualized routines. Something that they can copy and paste from training into game day. The familiarity of going through certain pre game actions will allow them to feel that connection to training and stop that disconnect in their minds as mentioned in the previous point. The feelings that players usually have when playing in training is one of a relaxed state. If this can be taken into games then players will be better prepared mentally to play their game as they wish.
9) Encourage experimentation
Usually when someone is experimenting in any walk of life it comes from a place of curiosity, having curious players is a very good sign. This means you have engaged players who want to know and understand their craft. Use this and encourage this at every opportunity. The difficulty will be having the patience to account for the messy out-takes before a final desired quality action. But, there will be a lot of learning and happy learning at that taking place on that cutting room floor.
10) Use humour
Break up the tension of a match day with some light relief. Allow players to laugh at you, one another, and see the lightness in the situation. Yes we should focus and go out with a competitive mentality but do not allow this to become a hostile environment where players are afraid to comment and question. The floor should be open, and it should allow for all players to have their voice and speak freely and humorously, to a degree.