Motivation in soccer is as important as skill or expertise. It is more than just getting “up” for a game. Through proper training, players can tap into mental techniques that will not only help optimize performance and give them an edge on the field, but also are likely to translate into all areas of their lives. Coaches need to instill in their players that, ultimately, players need to seek to find those aspects of their makeup that they can actualize for self-motivation.
It’s a common misconception in sports performance, particularly in younger athletes, that there’s a separation between physical and mental aspects of the game. Motivation, that “high motor” to compete, can make the difference in an average player performing like a great player, and a great player performing like a superstar. Even at the highest levels, motivation is extremely important. Professional athletes discover the need to overcome the “grind” of a long season and recognize that “when the lights come on, it’s showtime!”
“Mental Game Training” expert Dr. Patrick Cohn says the first step in improving this aspect of the game individually is to target distractions that can interfere with motivation. (https://www.soccerpsychologytips.com/2013/soccer-motivation/) Typical issues are impatience with improvement, fear of being unsuccessful, and over-training.
All athletes can be impatient if they don’t see improvement quickly. It’s part of human nature. “I want it now” may be an underlying thought, but training is a process and coaches must tap into the proper motivation for each athlete – whether it’s pushing a player or nurturing one until they get a new technique or concept right.
Likewise, some athletes can get so anxious to perform well that they may freeze up and not play up to their potential if they want so badly to win a spot on a team or to work into the lineup. Fear can be an unwelcome motivation in this regard and coaches and players must find a mutual comfort zone to enhance training and performance. Most often, the onus is on the coach to read this situation and find ways to help.
Part of that training process is guarding against fatiguing players not just physically, but also mentally. Athletes are exposed to more likelihood of injury with too much work between games and sometimes the mind simply needs a break to allow for better focus. The best coaches and trainers are adept at meting out rest – both physical and mental – at the right times.
Top coaches and trainers also know motivation is an every-day, every-practice, pursuit and is best conducted with strong interpersonal relationships with players to find what works best. A simple guide to remember is to treat athletes the way you would want to be treated, a soccer “Golden Goal Rule,” if you will. Treat them with respect and compassion to bring out their best.
Be constructive in criticism but always challenge players to do their best. Recognize outstanding effort with compliments and avoid allowing them to equate their self-worth with their performance. Be there for them through good and bad play, great times and tough times. Recognize the differences between positive and negative reinforcement and apply them appropriately.
Never let players lose sight of the “why” for which they’re working and competing so hard. Remind them of hard-working teammates around them and the ultimate goals for the team, and how everyone is a vital part of the success no matter how larger their role. Likewise, set goals during the season, for the team and individually, goals that are attainable through proper work and players will see tangible benefit.
Surefiresoccer.com offers these suggestions for inspiring younger players and teams:
- Celebrate completion of a tough drill
- Celebrate meeting a goal or mastering a new skill
- Celebrate accurate shots on goal or stringing together multiple passes
- Celebrate the learning of a new offensive set-piece
- Celebrate a legal slide tackle
- Celebrate exceptional teamwork or when a player breaks a bad habit
Also, “relentlessly” reward hard work, consistently and often offering positive reinforcement. Players will respond to your cues – the things you emphasize in practice and technique, and perhaps more importantly, the behaviors and effort that you consistently encourage with praise.
At more advanced and competitive levels, it’s so important to understand what motivates each athlete. Success is often a common denominator whether it’s winning, earning more playing time, scoring or earning respect in the game. Coaches likely only learn these triggers by getting to know their players on a deeply personal level, spending time with them and showing an interest off the field as well as on.
Teaching lessons of teamwork is a strong motivator. Knowledgeable athletes understand the greater good of working for team goals. Drills that emphasize teamwork, such as relays and passing are good ways to bond a group. Younger players, in particular, love the comradery of the team and being a part of something larger than themselves, even more than winning.
Finally, players will feed off a coach’s enthusiasm. Make sure players have fun and the work will go easier and you’ll keep their interest. And don’t forget that vital rest for them. Breaks in the rigors of training can help a player’s attitude and are significantly important for team success. Reading and implementing these moments are a key part of coaching.
Soccer Coaching Tips:
- Coaches are the major influence in players developing a true love for the game. Players need to be reminded that just having the opportunity to run around and enjoy the sport is truly significant.
- Motivation is part of the larger psychological component of the game and is just as important as the other demands of the game, including dedicated time, fitness, skills, and tactical understanding.
- Individual techniques for self-motivation prior to games can run the gamut from listening to music, to sitting alone in a quiet space, to everything in between. This can also include “visualization.”
- Motivation is also a component of leadership, by the coaches, by the captains, and by other players, made credible every day not only by words but also by actions.
- Revenge can be a strong motivator, but use of the word has to be handled carefully. Motivation to defeat an opponent who one lost to in a previous match, a so-called “revenge game,” can be very high without having to be stoked. Over-commitment to revenge often results in a lack of tactical focus, fast physical burnout, bad fouls, and possibly fights and injury.
- At the higher levels, “motivation plans” can be developed by coaches for each of their players based on what is essentially psychological profiling of individual needs.
(MICHAEL D. ASHLEY contributed to this article.)
© Copyright, John C. Harves