If you’ve been involved in youth soccer for 20 years or longer, then you’ve probably seen a couple dozen kids grow up in the game, and you’ve seen how the game has changed them. You’ve seen their skills evolve (for better or worse) and you’ve seen them gain or lose confidence in their abilities along the way. You’ve seen some kids blossom into superstars, and you’ve seen some kids drop out of the game entirely. You’ve also seen some kids who probably should have dropped out, but didn’t, and are mediocre at best, plodding up and down the field at half speed like they have a parental mandate to play (and they probably do).
What you don’t see though, is that every one of those kids is the SAME as the others, and that the fortune of each one of them could be completely different, given a different set of outside influences.
The Shallow Talent Pool
In any endeavor – whether it’s business, medicine, sports, government… baking… whatever – you don’t have the BEST-OF-THE-BEST. Instead, you have the best of what is left of those who stuck it out. Every person is conceived (when the sperm meets the egg) with the potential for greatness, but the majority of that COLLECTIVE potential is lost, due to bad parenting, bad coaching, a failure to recognize potential, injury, tragedy, death.
In American youth soccer, the results are even worse – you end up with the best of what is left, of those who can afford the fees. And as the fees continue to rise, the talent pool continues to dwindle.
The Real Difference in Abilities
Often, parents will ask their player’s coach what can be done to improve their abilities. A common response is, “They need to work on their confidence.” After all, if a child has been playing soccer for 5 or 8 or 10 years, they should certainly be capable of trapping and passing a soccer ball with accuracy, as well as running into open position. The only thing lacking might be the confidence to take a defender on, run through the ball or slide-tackle.
So how does a player gain confidence? Or maybe we should ask, how do players LOSE confidence?
Parenting, Coaching and the Development of a Winning Psyche
Children are BORN with no fear, until they are given a reason to fear.
For instance, children aren’t afraid of heights until they fall, or they witness someone else fall, or are convinced by another person that they should be afraid of falling. Children aren’t afraid of strange animals until they are bitten, see someone else get bitten, or are convinced by another person that approaching a strange animal could result in physical harm. With no outside influence, children are… CONFIDENT. You’ve heard the phrase ‘Ignorance is bliss.” Without knowledge, one is “ignorant”. Basically, too dumb to be afraid.
That means, that children need to be TAUGHT TO DOUBT their abilities or the safety of their situations.
The Confidence to TRY
Feedback is necessary for improvement. After all, if a player doesn’t know what they’re doing right or wrong, how can they improve?
But does an athlete ALWAYS need to know what they’re doing WRONG?
Every youth soccer player wants to be creative, and recreate on the field what they see their heroes do on TV. When they step onto the field, they have visions of greatness and being a respected member of the team. They may daydream of scoring a goal, nutmegging a defender and dribbling to the goal, or making an incredible save that has everyone cheering. Those situations are called “winnable moments” and every athlete experiences them.
Winnable moments have nothing to do with the actual score of the game. They are just what the name implies: Moments or situations during a competition, where the athlete either won or lost a battle for the ball. It can be scoring a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, being stripped of the ball from an opposing player, or making a diving save that was successful or failed in keeping the ball out of the net.
Those winnable moments can also be referred to as “learning moments“.
In fact, years from now, the only real memories any player will have of their athletic career will be of winnable moments that were either won or lost.
Fear of Failure
If a soccer player is scolded when they make a “mistake” on the field, or is told that they should be afraid of making “mistakes”, or they see negative repercussions when a teammate makes a “mistake”, they will lose the confidence to try new moves or make creative plays. They will fear failing so much so, that they will give up on their dreams of “winning” and won’t even bother trying. They will start playing so conservatively, that they become almost invisible on the field.
As parents (and most youth soccer coaches ARE parents) we feel a need to protect our kids from making “mistakes”. However, we ALL know that “mistakes” are how you learn. After all, how can anyone know the actual OUTCOME of any action, unless the action is actually performed? So, if making mistakes is necessary to learning, why do we work so hard at protecting them from them? If making mistakes is crucial to learning, shouldn’t we actually be PRAISING mistakes?
How do you praise mistakes?
Ok, so maybe praising mistakes is a stretch, but it’s not a stretch to praise EFFORT. In fact, praising effort is much better than acknowledging mistakes. After all, if there’s a behavior that we don’t want our athletes to do again, we probably shouldn’t even mention it, so that they don’t focus on it.
So, if coaches and parents aren’t mentioning or acknowledging mistakes anymore, what should they be focusing their energies on instead? They should praise positive behaviors and actions on the field, to reinforce those behaviors.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Every coach and parent feels it necessary to tell their athlete what they’re doing wrong, so they don’t make the same mistakes again. Those actions, of course, can filter down to the players, who may begin to parrot the coaches and parents in giving feedback to their teammates on their “failures”. (When it gets to this point, everyone may as well just QUIT, because nobody’s coming back next year, anyway.)
People have been writing and talking about the power of positive thinking for decades. We all know that thinking and focusing on positive behaviors is more beneficial than focusing on negative behaviors, so why are we – parents and coaches – so critical of our athletes?
Negativity saps the energy and motivation from everyone involved. Being a great athlete requires HIGH ENERGY. Negativity is low energy, so telling a player what he’s doing wrong all the time, will just sap his motivation.
Like negativity, positivity is a virus that can infect everyone around. If you’ve been infected by either, you know that there is a long incubation period- it takes time to infect everyone. Get started today.
Start With This
Try a little exercise with your athlete:
- Praise their effort when they make a “mistake“.
- Compliment SPECIFIC plays they made during the game or at practice.
- Gloat over their athleticism. (After all, they have your good genes.)
- Share this article with your child’s coach. (They probably won’t read it anyway.)
Do steps 1-3 for 30 days, and watch your athlete (and their confidence) improve before your very eyes.