Recently I have become more and more intrigued by the psychological aspect of coaching. Sure anyone with a playing background and a few years of coaching experience can put on session, and with a few successful drills in mind can get by as a successful trainer. I was guilty of this description until very recently when I developed a sense of purpose while I was coaching. I strive to allow my players to grow organically, and reach their full potential as people and players. The ability to relate and satisfy the players by challenging them to grow not as only as players, but as young people is an aspect of the role many coaches and clubs struggle with. The ability to recognize the developmental level the players you are coaching are currently at is vital to developing a strong relationship between coach and player. By staying a step ahead of the players worldview and mindset, you will strategically allow the player to organically grow as a person and reach their full potential as a player.
This is a very complex topic and I do not know everything about these ideas quite yet. I have read quite a few psychology books regarding the developmental cycle of young people and of course have attempted to apply the ideas to soccer. It has become evident to me that there are clear stages that young players go through. Young players who are first introduced to the game, ages 5-10, start with an expressive, impulsive, and energetic mindset when they approach soccer. The sport is an outlet for them to express their recently developed sense of self or ego in psychological terms. There is little room for restrictions, rules, passing of the ball, or standing around. Thus why US Soccer has worked so hard to rid the youth game of long lines. Every player on the field at that age should have a ball and should be given as little instruction as possible from coaches. The more a coach talks to young players, the less interested they become, their ego driven mindset is not interested in long speeches, they just want to play, express themselves on the ball, earn quick rewards from their play, and be respected by their coaches. They have little time for rules, restrictions, and passing, thus the beehive of players forms in games involving young players and one soccer ball.
This ego driven expressive mindset is very prevalent in the YouTube culture I wrote about last week, and it is a very primitive mindset that if not controlled by a good coach, can lead to serious problems for players in their development. Trust me when I say this, as I believe this attitude was very prevalent in myself as a young player, this egocentric attitude which is impulsive and expressive without care for consequences of the player’s actions will lead to a player who struggles with the authority of coaches and referees. This attitude feeds into the warrior persona that you see in many American Football players, and is healthy to a certain extent to have in soccer players as it is said to lead to higher pain threshold and mental toughness. This attitude can lead to players lashing out, committing fouls and being reckless when tackling. This attitude however is what leads players down the road of rejecting authority, foregoing the consequences of their actions and demanding respect in unhealthy ways. People who have this mindset as their main focus later in life tend to act on impulse for immediate satisfaction, an attitude prevalent in drug and sex addicts and criminals, as they tend to overlook any potential consequences of their actions.
So how does a coach steer players away from this mindset you may wonder, as I hope none of you are interested in developing the next batch of criminals or meth addicts. Like I mentioned in the introduction it is important to stay a step ahead of your players, allowing them the organic opportunity to grow into the next stage of their development. In players ages 10-15 a sense of sacrifice for the greater good develops as the ego is controlled by obedience to higher powers via rules, structure, and consequences given to rule breakers. It is important for coaches to drive into sessions some structure or consequences for not following rules to young players, while satisfying their need to express themselves as youngsters. By instilling a routine, a purpose for their obedience and direction for how the group will benefit from exercising the ideas of the coach. Rewards at the end of sessions or seasons for good behavior, or games which reward players for correct responses to commands (Simon says type of games) are all great ways to satisfy the young players needs, while driving the next stage of ideas into them. Players begin to develop a healthy fear of the consequences of making mistakes, upsetting the coach, or letting the group down.
This idea of sacrifice self now for reward later is a principle found in many religious backgrounds. Thus why you see large levels of obedience generally from players in highly conservative areas of the country. These principles driven into young players in their everyday home life allow for the second stage to be easily accessible for the young individual, and the egocentric attitudes may not ever be very prevalent in these examples. This may be why certain areas of the country develop very similar styles of players, as a youth I remember how committed and tough players from southern states generally were, and also generally speaking of course, how very boring they were as well. Players from these areas may not have spent enough time in the egocentric stage of their development and never grew a sense of self. They may be a great asset to a team, as they are committed to achieving the end goal of the group and will do whatever the team asks. These players however struggle to separate themselves when trying out for new teams, or put into environments like camps or showcases where they are asked to demonstrate their personal ability and skill set.
The balanced player will have spent enough time developing a sense of self as a youngster, developing skills, a style, a sense of self with the ball, before moving into the team model. Thus why there are demands for less direction and tactics at young ages and more awareness of the player’s personal development. It is valuable for players to understand concepts of the game at this young age like passing and receiving , using both feet, shooting techniques, playing to the back foot of their teammate, and other fundamental ideas of the game. The more opportunity the player has to have a ball at their feet the more the sense of self and ego will develop in these young players. It is now up to the coach to allow for this to develop, but also drive the team aspect subtly until the questions that arise naturally about how to be a successful player on a successful team are asked internally by the player.
Parents have a large role to play in this development as well, unfortunately the player’s home life is sometimes the downfall of these developmental tactics. If a parent feeds into the player’s egocentric mindset, he or she will struggle to accept the coach's authority and will reject the sacrifice self for the greater good mindset of a healthy adolescent. Player’s who have little structure at home will be even tougher to push towards this stage as well, as their home life is chaotic and the structure needed to feed into these ideas is not prevalent anywhere besides soccer and possibly school. The influence or absence of the young person’s home “clan” and the rituals and actions they partake in are what lead to young people joining gangs or other negative influences as they seek the structure a family should be providing. These dangers are a reality for coaches who are involved with at risk youth, and their personal influence is that much more important to the young players as many of their players come from single parent homes. These ideas work in the opposite way as well, overprotective and overly conservative parenting can lead to an ego never developing. The player only deems him or herself as a servant to a coach or team, and may struggle to develop the next level where a strategic personal strategy for how they are to be successful personally in the sport is developed.
All of these ideas have worked personally for me in various settings. I have worked after school programs, I currently coach elite level club teams, and have used the more advanced levels which I did not cover today with college age players as well. Recognizing the players developmental stage and mindset is important for all coaches of young players, players who stand in lines, rarely touch the ball and are lectured by coaches are more likely to choose another sport or outlet to express themselves. It is the job of the coach to feed into this egocentric mindset while attempting to develop the ideas of the obedient and sacrificial level of development that is desirable in young adolescent players. Being too focused on one aspect for too long is unhealthy and may lead to issues for the child later in life if negative influences take advantage of these vulnerable mindsets. Figuring out exactly where your players are developmentally is difficult and with every player having a different scenario and background it is almost impossible to pinpoint what the player’s mindset may be. These general ideas in my opinion are applicable to the young players.and will allow for coaches to better reach the young manic 8 year old boy or girl with more of an ease, and hopefully will allow for the coach to see the bigger picture. Coaching is not about winning or losing at this age group, it is about supplying the child with the means to grow as an individual and as a player.