The coach plays a very important role at all stages of shaping the player’s personality. His function is invaluable, but also incredibly complex. The coach can act as a mother, father, good uncle, colleague, friend, confidant, advisor, enemy and policeman. It all depends on the stage of the player’s development and problems that the player is facing at a given moment.
Alex Ferguson said that this complexity of the coach’s role is the biggest challenge in his profession, and the ability to play the right role is the key to the player’s development not only in terms of football skills, but above all – his psyche.
My experience in working with very talented young people has taught me that the sooner we start to adapt to the needs of the players, the better they will be able to cope in difficult moments. Usually, it is not lack of talent that makes players give up sport, but rather the pressure they exert on themselves, unable to cope with their failures. In the same way the coach has to perform many roles simultaneously, the player should be able to deal with a number of difficulties.
Therefore, it is worth to realize what challenges we can face at various stages of development. In order to facilitate it, we have divided them according to age groups. Each group has been described in terms of players’ needs and useful tips have been provided on how a coach can help a player get through some turbulent time in his life and enable him to spread his wings.
U5-U7: COACH = FAMILY
The youngest groups of players pose the biggest challenge, and the coach is primarily a family member. At this early stage, women are best in this role because of their protectiveness.
It should be taken into account that children at this age may have problems with concentration, focusing on one task and listening to commands – not out of spite, but due to developmental limitations. At this stage of life, they learn by imitating behaviour. The best solution is to constantly show them patterns and work together. The coach is, in a way, the group’s “moderator” and performs all exercises (including games) with the children.
But what if there is an unruly child in the group? Behaviour of such a child can be influenced by many factors: situation at home, fatigue, sleepless night etc. In this case, the coach should ignore the player and take care of those who work properly (but remember to keep an eye on the rascal). Children at this age need attention and information from the coach that they are performing their tasks properly. Therefore, one should often pay attention to them and reward good behaviour. It is enough to give a high five to a player and tell everyone what we are happy about.
However, if one pays attention only to bad behaviour, the players will interpret the feedback that in order for the coach to get interested in them, they must make trouble.
U8 – U11: COACH = PARENT AND FRIEND
This is another very demanding age group, where the importance and role of the coach in the player’s development is definitely larger. Children can focus on longer commands, their curiosity of the world is growing, but they may have difficulties controlling their emotions, especially anger. One should be patient and not try to play tug of war.
It is important to leave some space for the players to experience difficult emotions, as it teaches children how to deal with them. In case of an outburst of anger, one should wait until the player has calmed down and then talk to him. An attempt to intervene immediately can lead to even greater escalation.
The biggest challenge at this stage may be fear of failure, particularly in front of a peer group, the importance of which is growing. Children want to be accepted by their peers, and being incompetent can lead to rejection by the group. The coach’s role is to encourage players to leave their comfort zone and learn to accept their failures, as at this age group they are especially sensitive to them.
It is worth to focus on activities and not their results, which may come much later. Children differ among themselves in terms of the speed of acquiring skills, so exerting pressure may bring just the opposite results than the ones that we intended. Excessive criticism or making comparisons between players can lead to a situation where the child no longer wants to train.
At this stage, showing patience and understanding to the difficulties faced by the player are crucial. No matter how trivial they may seem, doing so will make players feel safe and comfortable, as well as allow them to learn from their mistakes.
U12 – U15: COACH = PARENT, FRIEND, POLICEMAN
This age group is extremely mouldable. Players enter a very demanding stage of their development, which is a great challenge, both for themselves and the coach.
The importance of peers is increasing, and players start to assess their value through their situation in the team. If they play, they feel valuable, if not, their sense of value will begin to decline. Building up one’s own sense of value on the mere fact of belonging to the team is very dangerous, which is why the coach should redirect players’ attention to action and work and emphasize the value and importance of training sessions, which are more numerous compared to matches. What is also important is the coach’s rapport with the players, especially those who do not play regularly (if we cannot afford to divide the game time evenly).
In order to ensure the best development conditions for each player, the coach must ensure that the players show respect to one another. There may be situations when they begin to talk to each other in a vulgar way or are looking for a weaker player to pick on and vent their frustrations on. One should be alert to such situations and act immediately.
U16 – U21: COACH = “ONE-MAN BAND”
This age group, due to the fact that the players’ personalities are almost formed, is on the one hand the easiest to work, but on the other, may pose greater educational challenges. The role of the coach is therefore the most complex here, as it requires to play different roles, depending on the needs of the player.
What is most important at this stage is the peer group, which poses significant challenges. Players begin to be very loyal to one another and act in a group, which can sometimes make it difficult to make them responsible for something. That is why individual conversations become the best educational tool. If we want to change the group’s behaviour, we must recognize the group’s leaders and work with them on an individual basis.
It can also be a very difficult period due to hormonal changes that young people are not always able to handle (frequent emotional outbursts) and are rarely aware to them. The coach must keep this in mind and avoid open conflicts, especially in front of the whole group. It is worth to set clear-cut rules of functioning in the team, which will bring a greater sense of security. Players must also feel that there is someone they can openly talk to, and, due to his role, the coach is most likely to become such a person.
The coach has therefore a difficult task to perform. He must be sensitive to individual problems of players and take on various roles. On the one hand, when in comes to discipline and upbringing – he must act as a “policeman”. When it comes to other aspects, it all depends on the situation of the player – the coach can advise, support or simply listen to what the player has to say.
ALWAYS TAKE THE PLAYER’S PROBLEMS SERIOUSLY
Referring to what Alex Ferguson said, one should be aware that the coach’s roles are manifold and adapted to the current needs of the players. However, the player’s psyche is also influenced by many factors that we have no influence on, such as the environment in which the player is growing up, school, as well as genes.
Ideally, parents, coaches, clubs and schools should work together for the good of the child, but reality may be different. Players spend most of their time outside the club, where we have no influence on their development. However, this should not deter us from doing everything we can to help the players develop their potential.
The most important thing is to be aware what kind of difficulties players can face at particular stages of life. It is important for them that their problems are taken seriously, even if they seem trivial to us. We are already past that difficult period of growing up, but our players go through it for the first time and sometimes they may be lost and not know what to do. The coach should be aware of it.