Confidence Snakes & Ladders: Raise Your Soccer Player’s Self Esteem

Following our interview with Skills Coach Peter Glynn, I wanted to look at one of the ways I think about “Coaching The Individual” in my practices – by considering the Confidence Ladder.

Soccer Player Motivation - Confidence Ladder

Confidence Is Everything

In the years that I have coached and played football I have seen hundreds of inspired performances and, sadly, even more sudden dips in form. A huge part of this – as the pundits on Match of the Day will tell us a dozen times this season – is confidence. Confidence is everything.

But how can we get our young footballers playing with confidence? First we need to look at why confidence is so fickle a beast.

Ups… and Downs

Imagine your son is playing in a match on a Sunday morning and he receives the ball; what is the environment like at this moment?

Well, I’ll bet there’s a few adults watching and there’s definitely 14 or more other kids staring at him to see what he does. So at the very least there’s an element of external pressure placed on your child before he’s even had his first touch.

Add to this the even more powerful internal pressure – the expectation he has of himself to perform at a certain level – and we can see plenty of reasons why your son will want to do something useful with the ball.

But if he miscontrols the ball, or if he has his pass intercepted, he will feel those eyes bearing down on him. His self-regard will drop, he might feel like the weak-link on the team and he might decide he doesn’t want to let his team down.

So the logical thing to do is to hide, to not ask for the ball anymore and, if he does get it, to pass it someone else as quickly as possible.

Because of one ‘mistake’ your son’s confidence is gone and he is a spectator for the rest of the game. He has dropped down a rung on the confidence ladder.

The Confidence Ladder

The confidence ladder is the perfect metaphor for describing a young player’s self-esteem.

Imagine instead that your son had taken a wonderful first touch to set himself for a fierce shot into the bottom corner of the goal. The team goes wild and run to congratulate him and he sees the smiling faces around the touchline applauding him.

He feels like an important part of the team and straight from kick-off he wants the ball again.

It’s a great thing to see, but sadly we know that this confidence is not permanent; perceived errors will chip away at it in the same way that positive influence on the game will lift it back up.

Rather it is a cumulative process that moves in steps. Every movement our player makes is an opportunity to raise their self-esteem and every word we lend from the sideline has the potential to drop it.

Making It Work For You

Every football coach wants their players to have confidence. If you value fun you can be sure that your players will enjoy themselves more, if you value player development you can be sure that your players will take more touches and if you value results you can be sure that your players will be more pro-active and motivated when they believe they ought to win.

Individual players act and respond in unique ways so these are not hard and fast rules but key points which you should consider next time you are interacting with your players:

  • Players’ self-esteem is related to their value to the team. Instead of a generic ‘well done’, tell the player why his action was beneficial to the team. For example, “your tackle saved us a goal”, “you opened up the whole field with that pass” or “you created a goal-scoring chance with that cross”. Raise them up on the ladder.
  • Don’t draw attention to mistakes – even saying “don’t worry about it” or “head up” lets the player know you have seen an error and can knock them down a ring on the confidence ladder.
  • Instead accentuate the positive – look for the good aspects of a player’s action.
  • People are conditioned to hear their own name. When offering praise always start with the players name. They will be much more likely to hear it and they won’t doubt that it was meant for them. For example, “Matt. You’re tackle saved us a goal.”
  • Players need lots of good touches to take steps up the confidence ladder. Start your practice or matchdays with easy tasks that your players can complete and grow in confidence before you move onto more challenging activities or a game where mistakes are more likely.
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