“The most important thing is to remember it’s not about you, it’s always about the players first.”

John Van’t Schip, Former Ajax player and coach.

If we put ourselves in the shoes of young people coming to training, we have to consider their context.

Some may be playing school and club football. Some might be in academy programmes that demand 3-4 sessions per week. Others might purely be passionate about playing with their friends and social connection. Players may have had a tough day at school or have challenges in their home life.

Often children enter organised sporting environments at 5 or 6 years old, and for many, this could be their only experience of play. So we need to be mindful of the priorities here. For me, it’s simple, developing a love of the game, a love of the ball and ensuring the players have the most enjoyable experience possible.

At times, perhaps we expect that every session we deliver will enable improvement. We expect that kids will turn up wanting to learn, to take information on, and to make progress. But we know this is not how development works.

There is a lot of talk among coaches of game models, philosophies and curriculums. But perhaps our focus could shift towards play, joy, connection, autonomy.

I know in my own planning this season there have been moments where I feel that to improve the performance of the team, I need to ensure the fun factor is constant or simply plan some practices where fun is the focus.

The outcome? Players laughing, competing and enjoying time with each other playing the game they love.

In my mind, there is no doubt that 99% of coaches have positive intentions. They volunteer or get paid very little to turn up to every session and game to help others and to provide a positive experience for the kids. The army of youth coaches around the world deserve so much credit, but we’ve got to ensure that regardless of the weekend’s results, we put the players first when planning and delivering our practices.

Three things to consider.

  1. What activities do you implement in your sessions that are focused purely on joy?
  2. How can you give the players ownership of their environment?
  3. Remember that kids don’t need to be overloaded with information from us in order to learn.

One thing for you to try this week.

Plan an entire training session where the principles of self-determination theory (autonomy, competence and relatedness) are the pillars of the practice.

One critical resource on the topic.

Check out this top article from Welsh Rugby Head of Player Development and PDP contributor, John Alder on the impact of values on team culture.

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