On Sunday, I heard a coach shout out to one of his seven year old players “why didn’t you just pass it to Johnny, he was wide open!?” The coaches’ voice was steeped in disappointment and frustration. I dare say that kids motivation sank much like my heart at hearing this.
I have for a while understood academically that kids respond far better to praise than criticism, and the FA Youth Award courses I’ve attended really highlighted this. However I think that to really learn a concept like this you need to experience it, and I have experienced it twice recently.
I am assistant manager of the team that my 7-year-old lad plays in, and a few weeks ago he was playing in a match when the ball flew towards him. He brought the ball down, and dispatched a lovely strike into the bottom far corner. Parents and coaches cheered and clapped, only for my son to walk up to the ref and admit he had handled the ball before scoring. I was literally bursting with pride! Visions of Robbie Fowler going over the top of David Seaman in the area at Highbury, and then getting up to tell the referee it was no penalty flashed across my mind.
I praised my son far more enthusiastically for his honesty than I would have done had he scored a goal, probably because it is a behaviour that I respect deep within me and a quality I wish I saw more of in the professional game. His teammates looked a bit bemused at my passionate praise at the time, but sure enough they had picked up on the message that honesty was a good thing. A few minutes later, the ball went out of play and it looked to everyone a throw-in to our team. One of our little lads said otherwise though, and looked towards me as he said it. He said the ball had clipped him on the way out of play. I am not even sure it had, but he had seen a chance to be seen to be doing something good, and he jolly well took it. Later a similar situation happened again with a different player.
My second example of how the words ‘well done’ can influence how a player behaves was a deliberate coaching ploy with a different team of U8’s that I manage. I wanted to encourage players to pass, without actually telling them to pass. I tell my lads that they have three choices whenever they get the ball, which are to either shoot, run with it or pass. I don’t want to tell them what they should decide to do, because I believe that to have a chance of producing creative players you need to give them the freedom and the environment to make decisions for themselves, without fear of failure or criticism.
That said, coaxing some players that would otherwise run with it 100% of the time to at least consider the possibility of passing was important to me. One player in particular has exceptional dribbling skills, and has trained with a Premiership pre-academy program where they are always encouraging the youngsters to beat the player, rather than to pass.
So I put on a training session in the week in which a 10×10 yard area (scoring zone) was marked in front of each 5-a-side goal, and the only rule different to a normal match was you have to be in the scoring zone to shoot. I praised players who passed to a teammate more than the goal scorers though.
The following match day, I waited for my opportunity to enthusiastically praise a good pass in the final third. The boy I was particularly interested in dribbled, and dribbled and dribbled some more … until finally it happened. He broke down the right, got his head up, saw his teammate running through the middle and slid a lovely ball through to his mate. My enthusiastic, heart felt praise for his decision to pass put a smile on his little face, and two or three more times more in that game he opted to pass, rather than to run with it. I hadn’t shouted for him to pass, or even suggested that he should. As I said before, I make it very clear to all my players that the choice is theirs and that the rest of the team should always support whatever decision the player on the ball makes. What I did is I made a fuss of him, more than I would for a goal, when he displayed the desired behaviour so that he knew that he had done well. Genuine praise makes kids want repeat what they are praised for.
What I have learnt and now experienced tells me you should say nothing when they don’t get success, and praise them to the hilt if they try to execute something that you are trying to coach them on.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic?