Most Important Principles For Successful Soccer Coaching
Find Your Football Coaching Focus
A few years ago I took over the coaching duties of an Under-12s team in turmoil. Though nobody told me at the time, I was to be the fourth manager in two seasons. And the best three players had just left. Many coaches I have spoken to since then have described similar stories, so it seems being thrust ignobly into the team manager ‘spotlight’ is a common starting point for a great number of coaches.
Under immediate pressure to gain the team’s respect and to develop frequent training sessions, it is easy to reach for results as a measuring stick, as a motivation, and ultimately as a focus. This can reveal itself in the framing of coaching points, “if we play it like this, we’ll win on Sunday” or in the motives given to players, “because you won yesterday, you can…”. With results as the focus, it is easy to justify preferential treatment of talented players or spending practice after practice working on set-plays.
But after losing 11 out of 13 games at the start of the season it was increasingly difficult to motivate players. Then it became harder to develop their playing skills and so, ironically, impossible to win a game! I realised I had to reassess my focus.
Going through this process, though incredibly stressful at the time, was vital to my own coaching development.
It revealed two of the most important principles in coaching:
1) Focus only on situations you can control.
2) Meet your players’ expectations, not your own.
1) Focus On Situations You Can Control
The Poverty Of Results
A coach reveals their motives in almost every action they take; and even the youngest players are incredibly adept at picking up on these signals. They are also easily-influenced by their coach, and before long a coach’s definition of success will become their player’s definition too.
The problem with projecting a ‘results, results, results’ ethos onto your team is what happens if your team doesn’t win?
By your, and therefore your players’ own criteria, your last training session mustn’t have been much good. Some players mustn’t be very good. Or perhaps you don’t know how to coach properly.
But the truth might be that the other team played better on the day, or that your team were unlucky in some decisions, or any of a thousand other reasons which can lead to defeat in a junior football game and which are completely beyond your control.
Every time your team lose their confidence in you wanes. Unless you steamroll all comers you will be forever vulnerable to the whims of chance. It will be impossible to predict how enthusiastic, and how open to new coaching points your players might be from one week to the next.
How To Gain Control
However you can regain control and jump off the results rollercoaster. And by doing so you will maximise your players’ development – you can ensure a positive, receptive group every week of the season.
To achieve this you must shift your focus away from the volatility of matchday results and towards situations where you can control all of the variables: such as your training sessions. I realised that by investing so much in matches I was diminishing the value of my practices. By switching this stance around (now I put no stock in matches at all, only talking about them in logistical terms so the parents can get there) the message to players becomes very clear.
As effort, enjoyment and enthusiasm in training go up the pace of development also rises exponentially. Plus, once the fear of failure – one of Coaching’s most pernicious problems – is removed, players can rarely wait to test new skills in games. The consequence is that (the irony returns) results will almost certainly improve as a side-effect of the new emphasis on training!
So having shifted the focus of your coaching activities to your coaching sessions, how do you decide what the new motivations should be?
2) Meet Your Players’ Expectations, Not Your Own
To send your players home happy is simple. You must simply match their expectations for the session.
A negative approach to training sees the coach as the ‘gatekeeper’ and practice as a ‘payment’ for playing in the next game. But this ‘carrot’ and ‘whip’ approach is matchday-centric. We want to change our approach to give training its own inherent value.
The key is to think about the other reasons why players come to a session, consider what they would do if they were planning their own sessions (what do they do at the park?) and then think about how you can add value to this. (If you don’t add value why should they come at all?)
When The F.A. surveyed hundreds of junior footballers with a simple question: Why do you play football?
The results were overwhelming. The top 3 results were ‘Fun’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Fitness’. If coaches can satisfy these criteria then their players will go home happy. And approach the next session with great enthusiasm. Not incidentally, the survey’s least frequent response; ‘To Win’.
If the focus is on fun we are already swimming with the tide. Applied to training this means playing games not doing drills, setting targets for success not repeating for interminable periods, and offering rewards (continue attacking/another turn/gain a player etc.) instead of threatening punishments (laps/sitting out/going in goal etc.).
The outcome of fun sessions are more energy, less time-wasting and better participation – enabling us to show our value by demonstrating more key points to the group and by finding time to talk to individuals. In short, freeing us to be a Better Coach.