RYSA strives to provide a positive experience for developing players and coaches who have the desire and commitment to excel in the sport of soccer. Our goal is to make it fun, and instill in young players a lifelong passion for the sport.
RYSA Way: Psychology
This section is written for soccer players who are U13 and older. Consider this as an introduction to sport psychology and managing the mental or psychological side of the game.
Your Soccer Memories and Moments
By this time in your life, you already have lots of memories and moments to remember. Some of them are undoubtedly pretty great, and some you might feel like you could do without. Whether we like them or not, our memories and experiences stick with us. In a sense, we are products of our history. So, at least for soccer (and maybe more), you might want to pay attention to those great moments in your soccer training or game, and remember them.
- Try This: Keep a Soccer Journal
Your soccer journal is yours and yours alone. It can be as private as you want, kind of like a diary. There are several important things you can write in your soccer journal that will likely help you enjoy and hopefully improve your game.
The first topic you might write about is an answer to a question: “How do you want to be known?” This is a pretty big question, and in thinking about it, you might consider how two good friends would describe you ten years from now. Put another way, when these two friends got together and talked about you, what do you hope they’d say? What words would they use to describe you? How would you like to be described as a soccer player, a daughter or son, a student, a brother or sister, a friend, and so on? Take a few moments to write your thoughts in response to that question (How do you want to be known?) in your soccer journal. You’ll use what you’ve written when it’s time to set goals for your soccer, or maybe even other parts of your life.
The second topic you might write about is your experience during training or games.
Write down what you did well after each training session or game. This is really important for you to remember. Athletes can too often become critical of themselves and undermine their own performance. Getting in the habit of recalling what you did well makes it more likely that you’ll do it again.
- Write down what you’d like to add to your game or improve. Notice that this is written in terms of “adding” to your game or “improving”…the emphasis here is on making you better. Be vigilant for even partial improvements (because you’ve already found out that you don’t learn soccer all at once!) and write down the partial improvements.
- Write down those special moments and memories. Like when you set a personal juggling record, or you learned how to do that trick with the ball, or had that great pass in training or the game, or made that great move. Whatever it was…write it down! And try to make a picture with your words. Write down how it felt for your body to do that, what the ball felt like, how you moved, what the field looked like, where your teammates were around you, where the other teams’ players were (you could even sketch a diagram of who was where on the field), what the weather was like. In a sense, you are writing down and IMAGE to remember. IMAGES aren’t just visual, but they also involve memories of how your body felt as it moved, what you heard, etc. So be sure to write down how things FELT, too.
- Set Goals.
Remember the writing you started in your journal? About how you want to be known? Go back to that, and circle or make a list of the important words that you’d like to be used when you are described. When you look at these words consider if they describe a thing that you do and actually finish. Or, are they words that describe aspects of you that you keep working on. Common examples are words like “committed” or “dedication.” These kinds of words describe values that we are always pursuing…like moving in a direction (ex. going West). These are beliefs that guide you in your valued direction. Your goals are things you hope to achieve while moving along the “path” of your valued direction.
So your goals are achievements made in pursuit of your values. For example, you might hope that someday your best friends think of you as “committed” and “a great midfielder.” So, if you valued being the best midfielder you can be for the sake of your team, you might set goals of improving your short and long passing, your ability to deal with any ball coming to you (which you could break down into even smaller goals), etc. Your coach can be a good source for helping you refine your goals as you review your own soccer development.
A useful goal setting method is often referred to as SMARTER. Each letter of SMARTER stands for an important step in goal setting.
S: Specific. Your goals need to be defined well enough so that you know when you did or didn’t accomplish them. For example, if you wanted to improve your ability to cross the ball from wide areas into the box, you might define where on the field you want to cross from, and where you want the ball to come into the box. You could define the pace of the ball and trajectory of the ball. So, you could say that you want to improve your ability to cross a ball from outside the penalty box within three yards of the end line so that it takes a driven (not lofty and slow) and bent (not straight, but curling) direction to a point in the box that is at the level of the penalty spot (12 yards). You can be even more specific and define this as the ball coming into the box in front of the near or far post, etc. This is specific enough so you’ll know whether you’ve accomplished the goal you set out to perform. A less complicated example is a shot on goal, which means it has to be on the frame of the goal.
M: Measurable. By making your goal definition specific, you’ve really made it possible to measure your goal achievement. In the examples above, you would be able to count how many times you accomplished the goal out of a number of attempts.
A: Attainable. You need to set goals that you have a chance of achieving. Otherwise, you’ll be in a situation that isn’t exactly rewarding or fun. Here are some guidelines. Goal Levels. There are levels of goals to work with. You might consider these as Consistency, Development, and Rock-Star goal levels. Consistency goals are the things you already do well, and can probably do at least 7 out of 10 times without working too hard at it. These are the kinds of skills for you to use to build up your confidence, and build the rest of your game on. Development goals are (you guessed it) things that you can’t yet do consistently 7 out of 10 times. So, there may be a skill (like striking the ball to drive it and make it curl) that you can do 5 out of 10 times, but not 7 out of 10. That would be a skill to develop and turn into a “consistency” level skill. Rock-Star goals refer to the skills that would indeed put you at Rock Star status. These would be moments that belong on the highlight replays, and they don’t happen all that often. Like taking on a defender 1 v 1, flicking the ball over your shoulder, and before the ball can fall to the grass driving it into the far top corner of the goal from 20 yards out.
It turns out that world-class athletes set lots of consistency goals for themselves. They set a few development goals, and even fewer Rock-Star goals. So, when you set attainable goals for yourself, build from the bottom up. Keep your current skills consistent, add to them by developing skills that are nearly consistent, and keep one or two Rock Star goals out there to work toward.
R: Relevant. The activities you include in your soccer training need to fit with what you need to work on or fit the game. The older player working on conditioning is not going to work on being able to run thirteen miles in a six minute per mile pace because that kind of conditioning isn’t relevant for soccer. Your coach, who will probably see aspects of your game that you might not be aware of, can offer good guidance concerning relevant goals.
T: Time-limited. When working on goal achievement, you need to limit yourself to a certain amount of time. This is important in any athletic activity so that, if nothing else, you avoid injury. Standing out on the pitch and crossing balls all afternoon will put you at risk for an over-use injury. So, you might limit yourself to twenty crosses in a certain amount of time (maybe thirty minutes), not counting a fifteen minute warm up and fifteen minutes or so to goof around and juggle the ball, play some pick up soccer, and stretch.
E: Evaluate. When you’ve trained or played your game, you need to evaluate your work and goal attainment. If you made your goal setting specific, measurable, and attainable, then you probably have some attempts to count up and see how you did.
R: Re-Evaluate. As you start setting up your next goals, consider if your last attempt at goal setting used attainable goals. It may be that you have to take a step back if your original goals were attainable only a small (and unsatisfying) number of times. This is pretty common even among high-level athletes. And, consider whether your next goals are relevant, and if you can pick some development goals that you might move a little closer to consistency goals.
- Dealing with Self-criticism
Athletes can be very driven and self-critical. These two qualities don’t have to occur together, however. Consider this question: Can you point out where you need to improve without being self-critical or harsh? Or this question: If your best friend asked you where she or he could improve their soccer performance, how would you answer in a way to build them up, let them know what they need to work on, and let them know that you believe they can improve?
So, how can you be your own best friend? Can you talk to yourself about what you are already doing well in your soccer, what you need to improve on, and believe in your ability to improve? If you do, then great! If you tend to be pretty hard on yourself, you can gradually change this. Often times, people who are self-critical have built up a habit of noticing every single thing that they do “wrong”. Once they’ve focused their attention toward noticing “wrong” actions, their attention is taken away from things that they are doing well. When people have a habit of being self-critical, they’re sometimes surprised to find how many things they’ve done well once they start noticing. So, part of dealing with self-criticism is to notice what you do well. World-class coach Tony DiCecco and world-class sport psychologist Dr. Colleen Hacker wrote a book titled Catch Them Being Good. The book is for coaches, but in a sense, you can be your own coach. And to be a good friend and coach to yourself, you need to “catch yourself being good.” When you do, write it down in your soccer journal to remember.
- Work Towards Consistency. Develop a Routine.
Developing a routine helps you create consistency in preparation. That consistency helps you realize when something is out of place and needs attention.
The routine is kind of like a checklist to help prepare you, but it is not meant to be a superstitious ritual. This is an important distinction. There are stories of elite athletes (including soccer players) who have taking a pre-game routine and turned it into an elaborate ritual of activities that have to be done in a certain way in a certain order…or they think they can’t play well.
The best routines get you into a good habit of preparation, so that you have everything you need to train or play. So, you determine the routine to prepare. The routine does not determine your later performance. Your reaction to the routine, or when something is out of place, needs to be flexible enough, so you can adapt to the circumstances. For example, you might consider having your bag organized before you go to bed, or have a certain time before training and games when you sort out your equipment. Be sure to set this up, so that you or others (your parents, maybe?) would have some time to act upon anything that needs to be dealt with or corrected.
- Understand Your Mindset
"Mindset" is a term that has been popularized in the last few years; it refers to your general view or set of beliefs about your abilities. And, it turns out that your mindset can have a pretty big impact on your performance. The main aspect about your mindset has to do with what you truly believe about your soccer ability. In general, beliefs about ability can be grouped into “fixed” or “growth” perspectives. This comes from the research of Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University. It turns out that people with a “fixed” idea about their ability tend to believe that ability is “fixed,” that they have only so much ability and that they can’t do much to change that. On the other hand, people with a “growth” mindset believe that their ability is strongly affected by their effort, and that they can improve their ability through study or practice. When students who had a “fixed” mindset were shown how they could change their performance through their own effort, their mindset moved to a “growth” orientation and their performance improved.
So once again, look for improvements in your performance. And notice how your effort made a difference in your performance. You might be surprised at the kinds of soccer skills you can learn.
As a youth coach, you have more impact on the future of your players than you might think. You might have a team of twelve to eighteen players depending on their age, and you’ll train the team twice a week with a game during the week. That’s around three to maybe five hours a week of contact at an adult to child ratio that is much lower than most school classrooms can provide. Your relationship with your team will contribute significantly to an environment that will help determine whether your athletes continue to play soccer into the future. So, what you are doing is pretty important to the well-being and future of your kids. Thank you for working with them.
Motivation. Many people will give you many definitions of motivation. When motivation is studied in psychological research, it generally refers to the direction, frequency, and intensity (or amplitude) of behavior. The soccer player who is commonly in the back yard juggling and working with the ball might be an example of this. Human motivation has three key factors: Autonomy, Affiliation or Belonging, and Competence. If you enhance these three components, you will greatly increase the likelihood that your soccer players will maximize their intrinsic motivation to be involved with soccer.
Let’s take a moment to consider intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic refers to “coming from within,” and so it is motivation that is internally driven through desire, joy, or love of the game. Extrinsic motivation has to do with behaving for the sake of gaining an external reward. Real world examples of this are being given a dollar for scoring a goal, going to get ice cream if your team wins, and on and on. And, when it comes down to it, extrinsic motivators include objects like trophies and medals. Trophies and “hardware” for winning are not “intrinsically” bad (yes, that was a play on words). However, what can very easily happen, especially to our young players, is that the trophy itself takes the place of the memories, pride, and joy of playing the game.
Extrinsic or tangible rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. Again, motivation is defined as the direction, frequency, and intensity of behavior. Here is a much-used story to illustrate the effect of extrinsic motivation on behavior. Here’s the story:
There was a cranky guy who lived next to a vacant lot. Each afternoon, some kids would show up in the vacant lot to play soccer. Occasionally, they’d smack an errant ball off the wall of his house. The cranky guy would come storming out, yell at the kids, and tell them to get lost. The kids would fade away, and come back into the lot to keep playing soccer once he went back in the house. And this would be repeated several times each afternoon; practically every day.
One day, the cranky guy had an idea. When the kids showed up, he had a roll of dollar bills in his pocket. He gave each of them a dollar for showing up to play. If the ball bounced off his house, he didn’t say a word. But, he made sure that every soccer player left with a dollar bill. Each day, a few more kids were showing up, and he was doling out a few bucks.
This went on for a few days and the kids would regularly line up for their dollar before they started playing. One day, the cranky guy said, “sorry, no more dollars”. The kids didn’t know what to make of it. They had lined up for their dollar as dutifully as they had on other days. They didn’t know what to make of it, and drifted off being rather disinclined to hang about if there wasn’t a dollar in it for them.
This is a bit of a thought experiment, and illustrates how an activity pursued out of joy and intrinsic motivation can be made less interesting by combining it with an extrinsic reward. Once the extrinsic reward is taken away, the behavior (which has become dependant on the extrinsic reward) ceases. In short, a child (or anyone really) who engages in an activity for the sheer love or interest in it can lose interest in the activity if they are put in a situation where they perform the activity for a tangible reward.
The Components of Motivation:
Autonomy. Autonomy boils down to the chance to determine what you are going to do, and how you are going to do it. It has to do with having a sense of control and choice. So, we want to give our soccer players that sense of control and choice in a developmentally appropriate way. Just like our game, this can be simple to complicated. When training your soccer players, it might be something like letting them choose between kick-ins and throw-ins to restart the play. You could let them set up their own game with a few cones and bibs and give them 15 minutes of their own time to play a game. Of course, the choices you give U8s might be different than the choices you give U18s. At the older age groups, you might be surprised to find that the older players sometimes choose a training topic that is very demanding because they know that they need to work on it.
Affiliation. The need to affiliate is a strong one in many mammals and even non-mammals. Most of us humans have some need to belong in a relationship and feel cared about. From a coaching standpoint, this will change developmentally. Younger players, like U6s, will likely experience this sense of belonging in the relationship they have with their coach. Older players will still experience that sense of being cared about from their coach but start to feel part of a team, and the relationships with their peers take on more importance.
Competence. If we don’t feel like we are at least somewhat good at an activity, the odds of pursuing that activity over the long term are low. Training our players with the right level of challenge for their level of skill, as individuals and as a team, is our challenge. When we find that right mix of challenge for skill level, our players will feel like they are learning and performing well. We can improve their sense of competence when we need to point out to them something they’ve done well. While we do have to occasionally correct players, we need to be aware that our mix of comments needs to overwhelmingly notice what they do well, and ask them to add something to their game rather than point out their failings.
Beware of the automatic overuse of the conjunction “but.” We automatically join two declarative statements that may be sound facts with “but,” and often this use is not logical. More than that, our use of “but” often detracts from the message to our soccer players that they are competent, that we believe in their ability to add to their game, and that we care about them. The English Football Association Handbook includes "Psychology for Football", which explores coach instruction and feedback to a player demonstrated in the following example. It might be common to say something like, “Jimmy, that was a great run with the ball, but you need to pass next time.” With the “but” in the sentence, the coach has negated the positive comment about Jimmy’s run. Consider instead: “Jimmy, that was a great run with the ball, and next time see if you can get your head up and see if you’ve created a chance to make a pass.” In this second example, the coach is complementing Jimmy’s action, and asking him to add something to what he has already done well.
Generally, coaches need to strive to find ways to ask players what they would like to see them try. Often times, coaches will point out errors made by players. The look from the soccer players usually emphasizes that she or he already knows about the error, so we typically aren’t telling them something they already know. Again, it seems that much of our language tradition has to do with pointing out what is wrong as opposed to what is right. Our soccer players are more likely to develop and feel challenged in a positive way if we can take on a mindset of showing our players where we would like them to improve.
We all want our kids to do well in whatever they try. Our affection and caring for them normally means that we want them to do well, to learn, to thrive, and to succeed. Success in some settings is fairly clear or at least defined in terms of test scores and grades. When it comes to soccer, however, success might be a little harder to define, and depending on the definition of success, it might be pretty hard to come by.
However success in soccer might be defined for kids, one thing is fairly clear, they’ll have to be motivated to participate if they’ll have any success at all. Motivation can be boiled down into two types depending on the “source” of motivation.
Motivation that is driven by external factors that are typically tangible rewards is called extrinsic. Motivation that is driven by internal factors, or motivation that “comes from within,” is called intrinsic. Over the years, research has consistently demonstrated that long-term effort is sustained by intrinsic motivation. If you’ve been around soccer or watched professional games, you’ve probably noticed soccer players who seemed “highly motivated” or “driven.” You’ve probably seen athletes in other sports who seem to have this internal passion. So how do we help our kids develop intrinsic motivation to play soccer?
Intrinsic motivation comes from three major factors. This is based on the Self-Determination Theory of Motivation, which has been well researched. The three factors that go into developing intrinsic motivation are autonomy, affiliation, and competence.
Autonomy refers to the opportunity to make choices and have freedom in what to do and how to do it. Soccer is a great game for this. Kids get to decide everything from how fast to run, where to run, to keep the ball, to pass, to shoot, etc.
Affiliation refers to the sense of belonging to a group or to be cared about in a relationship. Again, soccer provides lots of opportunity to affiliate with teammates. How this need is met might change depending on the age of the child. For example, younger children (e.g. under 6 or U6) may meet this need mainly through their relationship with the coach. As kids grow older, their relationships with their peers become more important.
Competence refers to a sense of being good at something. While soccer can be challenging, the game offers lots of opportunities to feel competent at different skills within the game.
Parents can maximize the effect of these factors by providing their kids with opportunities to play soccer and give them as much autonomy or decision making as is appropriate for their age. For example, you might nag them to be sure they are dressed for the weather, especially when they are younger. On the other hand, telling them or “coaching” them from the sidelines (or after the game) actually reduces their autonomy. Letting them make choices in the game is a key way of letting them have some autonomy, and at the same time you’re showing them that you care about them. Ways of showing them that you care about them without diminishing their autonomy might be letting them know how much you enjoy watching them play. If treats after games or training are common in your family, be sure that something good to eat is available regardless of winning or losing. And, letting them decide if they want to talk about what happened at training or in the game will give them some sense of control and let them know that you care about them.
You might have noticed that this discussion doesn’t include much about competence in soccer and the role of parent. While parents are naturally concerned with how their child is performing, the improving of the child’s sense of soccer Competence is generally left to the role of the coach.
The Basics of Cheering. So when you watch your child play soccer, what kinds of things do you say, and when do you say them? If you “cheer” and yell things that you want your child to do, you risk diminishing their autonomy (because you are limiting choices by telling them), their competence (if they knew what to do and when to do it you wouldn’t be telling them, and they’ll figure that out), and ultimately diminish their sense of your caring. So, this can be frustrating for a parent who wants to show support and cheer on their child.
- A cheer is something said that is positive. You obviously want to show your support and your approval, so when you cheer, you emphasize and praise what has gone well. Your child will likely appreciate a lack of critical comments during his or her game.
- A cheer doesn’t tell a child what to do. Because we don’t want to diminish a child’s sense of autonomy and creativity while playing, we want to avoid telling them what to do, where to do it, when to do it, etc. We want our kids to think for themselves in this game, and develop some flair and creativity.
A cheer happens after the fact, and is for something that is obviously good. Have you ever been to a soccer game and heard fans cheering and yelling their approval just for the ball being kicked? Even when it goes to the other team? Soccer is a fairly complex game, and the kids realize early on that getting that pass to your teammate is tough to do every time. Passes and touches on the ball go wrong even at the highest professional levels of the game. So, when we cheer our children’s soccer play, we want to cheer for something that has obviously gone well. This might mean delaying the cheer for just a moment or missing it. Waiting and missing a moment to cheer might be better than cheering for a pass or kick that turns over possession of the ball. As our kids grow in the game and become more experienced, they also know when your cheering is accurate.
Copyright 2010 Max Trenerry, Ph.D., LP