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Coaches Blog

Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Playing in Stressful Matches

Sam Snow

A youth coach wrote in with these comments and question:

"A few of the boys I coach in soccer (U13) tend to feel the stress when playing highly competitive games in Division I. Despite trying to reassure them and instill confidence, they tend to freeze up and not play fluidly. This causes them to make mistakes, which only makes the situation worse – they then further lose confidence in their abilities and the cycle continues. When they play games that aren’t high stakes they relax, have fun, and play well. That helps restore some of their confidence. I try and use those low stakes games as examples for them but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I've also tried positive visualizations (having them picture in their minds & speak out loud how they will play) which has helped a little at times. Do you have any advice to help reach these boys? I know they can do it – they don’t seem to know it though. Thanks!"

The scenario described with young players who are learning how to compete is not unusual. That the coach is already practicing visualization is a wonderful step toward helping the players cope with game day stress. I suggest adding to the self-talk and team talk the mantra of the US National Teams – respect everyone, fear no one.

Learning to play against quality competition is an ongoing effort with players moving up in the levels of play. Just look at the first day of matches of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup with the successes of Martinique and Panama. In two matches, the lower ranked team knocked off the higher ranked team. This U13 team could draw inspiration from such performances.

Here are a few suggestions to build up the team’s performance and confidence:

  • Play training matches versus older teams. Play three 25 minute periods. In this way the coach can change the lineup and/or formation between each period. The coaches should be the referees during this training match so that they can speak to players during the run of play. Playing against a team that is one or two years older will help the younger team to deal with a faster game both physically and mentally. When they then go back to a match versus their own age group the game speed will seem easier to manage.
     
  • In training sessions, play more two touch and one touch small-sided games (2 vs. 2 up to 8 vs. 8) to get the players accustomed to thinking and playing faster.
     
    • Speed of play is mostly mental (tactical decision making) and secondarily physical (technical speed and physical movement). In training sessions, build the team up to a full field game of two touch for a 10 minute stretch. The coach might have to gradually increase the length of time literally one minute per training session.
       
  • Continue training on visualization. Now add a trigger word.
     
    • Develop a refocusing technique helps to trigger mental focus to a controlled state of mind. The trigger word helps the player to forget about a mistake just made or to calm oneself just before a stressful moment, such as taking a corner kick. Practice the trigger word by spelling it out in one’s mind during the day of the match. Try the word “support”, which is important for all players to do for their teammates whether attacking or defending and regardless of their position in the team formation. Even during the match when a player senses distress then spell “support” out in the mind and/or say it out loud. The use of the word “support” is a great example of the effective use of a self-talk trigger word used to remain focused during difficult moments in the match.
       
    • Self-talk refers to the internal dialogue that occurs in one’s mind, such as the instructions or encouragement that a player gives to oneself. Players’ thoughts occur often and are very automatic; for this reason rather than trying to eliminate all thoughts during a match a coach should try to work with players on managing their thoughts. When players begin to doubt themselves or tell themselves what “not” to do, it tends to lead to poor performances and mistakes. By having a go-to trigger word, it gives the player the skill needed to counter their unproductive thoughts. By replacing the negative talk with their trigger word, they are able to remain focused on the skills needed to be successful.
       
  • During a match, point out to the players the small victories they are achieving:
     
    • A pass well received
       
    • A tackle made for possession
       
    • An intelligent off-the-ball run
       
    • Good communication with a teammate
       
    • Constantly looking around the field for tactical cues
       
    • Tactically good positioning
       
    • Acts of good sportsmanship

 

  • Remind them that their anxiety stems from their competitive drive. That’s a good thing. Now refocus that drive onto individual performance, not on the outcome of the match.

    • Did I make positive comments to my teammates throughout the match?

    • Did I consistently make recovery runs when we were defending?

    • Did I work hard to move to be in the right place to support my teammates?

    • Did I consistently visualize myself making good passes/distribution to my teammates?

Comments (1)

 

Interview with Tom Sermanni

Sam Snow

 

Coaches, administrators and parents please take a moment and watch this video interview with Tom Sermanni, head coach of the USA Women’s National Team. 

 

Comments (0)

 

Consistent Performance

Sam Snow

"My son plays soccer well, when he wants to. The issue is that he is like a roller coaster and has great days, and lackluster days. How do I get more of the great days out of him?"  - Soccer Dad

Consistent match performance is a never-ending effort for players. One can watch a professional team and see dips and rises in the performance of highly talented players. This ‘ebb and flow’ of performance is a natural human characteristic. One must also consider the age and soccer experience of a player. The younger and/or the less experienced player will naturally have more obvious peaks and valleys in game day performance. Research in expert performance, in a variety of fields of endeavor, shows that it takes about 10,000 hours of training and playing to become an expert performer. The clock on the 10,000 hours toward expert performance starts ticking once a basic foundation is laid. That foundation is laid in the U6 to the U12 age groups (Zone 1 of the U.S. Soccer player development pyramid). The expert performance time line begins roughly at the U13 age group; so 10,000 hours is about 10 years of training and playing on a very consistent basis every week. This means a soccer player begins to achieve expert performance in their twenties.

Working toward consistent performance requires a player to go through trial and error as a part of the development process. To an extent ignore poor performance, but praise good performance. This is the behavior we want a player to repeat. Ask the player to replay a good move or a good training session or a good match over again in their head. This will help them imprint the performance in their mind. There is now a chance of it occurring again.

To achieve consistent performance a player must be self-motivated.  Only intrinsic motivation leads to expert abilities!

A soccer club can help establish the right environment for peak performance by continually educating the coaches, administrators and players’ parents on a proper developmental soccer culture, by providing free play (pickup game) opportunities at the club, by hosting skills school evenings, by playing small-sided games, etc.

A parent can help guide a player toward peak performance by teaching and modeling best off-the-field practices; i.e., good eating habits, proper sleep routines, deep hydration habits, personal exercise routines, etc. The parent can encourage the child to practice soccer skills at home. Parents and/or siblings can get out in the yard and play soccer with one another to deepen the passion for the game. Encourage the player to watch soccer on TV and to attend high level soccer matches in person.

But the most important motivating factor for parent to child is for the parent to let the child know that you love watching them play soccer.

Comments (2)

 

The Coachable Moment

Sam Snow

The questions that I receive from coaches across our nation provide good thoughts for us on the game.  Here are the comments and questions from a volunteer coach and my thoughts in reply.

I am a volunteer coach in a league coaching kids from U7 to U11. I have taken several coaching classes run by my state youth soccer coaching association. These classes have been very useful, but I continue to struggle with identifying the right coaching moments. I want the kids to be able to play as much as possible, but I also recognize that just choosing the right drills is not enough. I have a few questions.

How do I work on choosing the right coaching moments to interrupt? I don't want to interrupt the flow too often, but I often feel like I have spent too much time talking. How do I work on seeing the bigger picture? I often find myself focusing on the ball and fixing the issues around the ball while missing the problems further away that may have caused them.

My reply:

Finding the right coaching moment is an art. A coach will perfect that art when one reflects on each training session and thinks about those coachable moments and how did you interject with the players. With practice and personal evaluation, your skills at using the coachable moment will improve. I also suggest that you follow the steps outlined in the Coach’s Toolkit from U.S. Soccer.  The excerpt below comes from the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model.

When using a games-based approach during training much can be accomplished, through the use of guided discovery and the coach’s toolkit. The toolkit is a vehicle that allows coaches to teach, correct and influence the learning process of a player without taking away their creativity and killing the flow of the game or activity. The following are tools that can be used to progress from individual to group to team interaction:

  • Coaching in the flow – Coach from the sidelines as the training session goes on, without stopping the activity.
  • Individual coaching – One-on-one, pull a player to the side while the activity goes on.
  • Make corrections at a natural stoppage – Free kicks, ball going out of bounds, injury, etc.
  • Manipulation of the activity – For example, a four goal game to teach the players how to look both ways, switch the point of attack or shift defensively.
  • Freeze – The least desired way to teach; stopping the session to paint a picture kills the flow of the activity.
     

Determining which of these tools is best suited at a certain time of the training session is the key to making the session enjoyable while still being able to teach and learn.

Your issue on focusing most of your coaching to what is happening on or near the ball is not uncommon. You simply need to force yourself to watch the off-the-ball players during a training session. I often tell coaches that if you want to know what a player knows tactically about the game then watch them when they do not have the ball. Where are they positioned on the field? What’s their posture? Does their head move (indicates them scanning the field or ball watching)? You’ll need to also look away from the ball during matches in order to see if the team is staying compact and if the players are reading the game. You need to understand that you cannot watch the game or even a training session as a spectator would. You’ll simply miss too much of what is going on.  You will have a big impact on the players’ performance on and near the ball when you start to coach them off-the-ball.

Comments (3)