A Chinese proverb goes: "If you don't know where you're going or how to get there, chances are high you're never going to get there". It is a very accurate description of situations I frequently experience during work with young players. If you strip down this seemingly simple piece of wisdom to its component parts and translate it to the world of football, many things will turn out to be complex and interrelated. This is the case of motivation and self-confidence - two of the many elements of mentality of a player (and others). Motivation might influence self-confidence and self-confidence might influence motivation - in a both positive and negative way.
How do you motivate a player?
To answer this question, you need to realise that self-confidence and motivation are not features we are born with, but... skills that we develop. In this respect players might differ from each other - some can be more self-confident, others are better motivated. This, at a first glance, leads to difficulties, but when you reflect on it, you quickly start seeing the obvious benefits. This gives us coaches the opportunity to shape specific mental skills in the same way we shape technical, tactical or motor skills.
The first part of the Chinese proverb illustrates motivation. I frequently use metaphors at work, so that the player understands what I'm saying. "If you don't know, where you're going..." - this is motivation (Latin: motivus - "moveable", motus - "movement") understood as action aimed at a specific direction. Put simply, you ask for their Goal - why they play football. When I work with young players, this is the most frequent mistake I see. The players are frequently unaware of their goals. Inappropriate targets are another very serious mistake, which might have a negative effect on motivation. A goal needs to meet several conditions to make it appealing to your mind (after you meet the objective, your brain produces dopamine, so people repeat the actions that lead to its production).
How do you teach a player to set goals?
In order to correctly motivate a player and start building their self-confidence, you first should teach them to set their own goals. You should use SMART method - the most popular concept, very effective in many areas, not only sports. It is a set of five features of a correctly formulated goal. Let's see what it should look like in case of a player:
A goal should primarily be specific. You should avoid generalities, e.g. I want to be a better footballer. A coach might help players by giving them hints on what skills they should develop. You can help each player set a number of goals, but let's limit the number of goals to 3 - a greater number could be difficult to remember.
- I want to improve dribbling with my weaker leg.
- I want to improve taking penalties.
- I want to improve my ball trapping technique.
It is important that such specific goal is also easy to measure, because our brains like numbers. They let us know the degree, in which we meet goals. This is why you always should set a specific number of trials or repetitions, so that you can see the progress. On the other hand, it is not advisable to set the bar too high, especially at the beginning. Unrealistic goals might discourage the player and turn out to be counter-productive. It is better to start with smaller numbers and increase them gradually. It is more attractive for the brain than failing to meet a goal. How can you then formulate a measurable goal?
- I want to make 10 shots with my weaker leg at each training session.
- I want to take 5 penalties after each training session.
- I want to juggle with my weaker leg only for 30 minutes twice a week.
A goal should also be achievable. If you fail to meet your goal for a long time, you will soon become disheartened. This is why you should concentrate on tasks rather than results (especially in junior football). You should also avoid target-oriented goals such as "scoring 3 goals in a game" as they are difficult to meet, depend on many factors and the entire team's work. Let's replace them with something that the specific player can influence, such as: a precise shot on goal (as such shots might translate to goals).
- I want to make 3 precise shots on goal in every game.
- I want to attempt dribbling 3 times in every game.
- I want to take 10 penalties and 10 free kicks after each training session.
It is also important that goals are adapted to the needs, position and capabilities of each player. You should regularly inform players what skills are required at each position, then relate that to the specific player's skills. This is why setting goals should always start with a conversation with the player and defining their strengths and weaknesses jointly with them. You should, however, remember that goals should be individual and adapted to the specific striker or defender. A player with poorer technique could additionally work on juggling, ball trapping or dribbling, whereas a player with better technique could work on their shots, free kicks and penalty kicks. Of course, each of these elements should be broken down into specific tasks. Some of them might be performed by the player individually, others require a group or assistance of the coach. Anyway, it is your duty to help them define and plan it all.
At the end, you should set the starting date and the deadline for each goal. You should require a deadline and avoid phrases such as: sometimes, later, in the future, soon etc. A goal should always have a starting point and a deadline. This gives you a framework necessary to meet the goal.
When you have discussed with your players and formulated the first goals, you should ensure that they are recorded. To this end, you can ask them to write them down and put them in a visible place (at home or on their locker). The main point is that they should see their goals, think about them and, of course, meet them.
What happens if a player has an incorrectly set goal and does not know why they train?
The answer to that question is the second part of the Chinese proverb: "...chances are high you're never going to get there". In simple terms, if you don't know your goals, you will probably never meet them. This means a decrease in commitment, i.e. your motivation to meet the goal and efforts made for that purpose. How long can you bear difficulties without visible effects? Your brain will avoid situations like that and it is highly likely that you soon give up trying. This is why correct formulation of your goals is so important - because they let you know what you're pursuing.
Self-confidence is another, very important issue which influences your commitment. I frequently work with players who state that their self-confidence decreases when they don't play. They evaluate themselves in a binary way:
I play = I'm good = I have a lot of self-confidence.
I don't play = I'm not very good = my self-confidence declines.
This mindset is wrong as it leads to frustration in the latter case. It might lead to a decrease in commitment in the long term, which in turn translates into less motivation. Conversations with players frequently show that they don't know how to deal with this. This has several reasons:
- Their goals are incorrectly set or unrealistic - they expect immediate effects and forget that meeting their goals is a process.
- They don't have a plan B - they think everything will go as planned (as we all do 😊).
- They forget about training sessions - there are far more training sessions than games and they are more valuable for them in terms of their skills.
- They don't know their strengths – so it's difficult for them to plan how they manage their weaknesses.
- They don't make use of the available resources – for some reasons they have a hard time asking for help or advice, although every player has had several coaches or teachers in their lives willing to provide help whenever necessary.
How do you contribute to a player's self-confidence?
When you work with young players, you need to be aware of the processes that take place in their heads. This, in particular, refers to those, who stopped developing, are in the middle of a crisis or don't play regularly. Even if nothing is visible at a first glance, you can help them with your attitude. You should, however, remember that shaping mental skills is a very long process and building self-confidence consists in one-to-one conversations and a constant process of setting and meeting goals. The coach here performs the role of a psychologist, a teacher and sometimes even a father, who has a large role to play in the player's development. Their patience and correct approach can help the player realise their strengths, areas to develop and to focus on to meet their goal. The effects of this work can be amazing - so how can you do that? Here are some tips:
- Exercise setting goals.
At the beginning ask your players to write down their strengths (they should do it at home and read out in the locker room). Then each of them should set their specific goal. It might depend on the subject of the training session. If you plan exercising forward duels, the players might select e.g. a number of attempts they try to make during a game. It is important, however, that it is the player who decides how many attempts they want to make, because they are more willing to take responsibility for their own choices.
- Ensure regularity.
Ensure that players always set specific goals while planning training sessions. You should, however, remember to help them do it. Asking questions helpful in correct goal setting, in line with SMART method, is going to be very useful here. Check if the goals are set correctly and regularly. Encourage the players to leave their comfort zone: you have met your goal, how can you increase the difficulty now?
- Use positive messages.
Appropriate communication might shape self-confidence, in particular if it is based on mutual respect. Use positive or neutral messages. A praise and information meet these conditions and are completely sufficient during training sessions and games.
- Praise and appreciate.
Appreciate the players' work. Praise the players for their hard work and attempts to meet their goals. You absolutely should ask how you can help them. It is very important. They don't have to use your help, but the very awareness of having someone they can rely on has a very positive influence. Avoid criticizing the players. Instead, try to ask questions: what could you do better when a similar situation occurs. This way the player will understand more and quickly learn how to solve their problems.
- Separate tasks and duties.
This shows your players that you trust them, which will strengthen their self-confidence. Choose assistants to help you at each training session (correct behaviour should be key) or with other duties.
- Focus on good behaviour.
Coaches frequently focus on players who behave badly. What does it teach the players? I need to behave badly to be the centre of the coach's attention (the human is a social being and learns by imitating behaviours). Appreciate the ones who work hard, do it while everyone hears and specify which behaviours you praise. Praise the player when their parents are present and be specific.
- Be patient.
Every tree grows at its own pace - if a player is trying to meet their goal, chances of success in the future are high. This is a unique process, so avoid looking at everyone from the same perspective.
Why is mental coaching necessary?
Mental skills are the most overlooked element in football training, but this does not have to be the case. Basic knowledge is necessary to add them to your tools. You should not be afraid of doing something wrong. Your awareness and reflection on your work is important. Skills with come with time.
You should also remember that most players have never encountered "head" training before, so do it in the natural environment of the young footballer - in the locker room and on the pitch. Let's start step by step - from setting the goal to define where you're going, so that you don't get lost on the way, lose your self-confidence or motivation.
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