Safety may not be the first characteristic we associate with exceptional coaching environments, but, for our players, a sense of security is essential to being able to learn effectively. Below, we draw upon the knowledge of several experts as we explain why safe coaching environments are so important, and how we can engender a culture of trust, security, and enjoyment within our teams and clubs.


In This Article

The Importance of Safe Environments

If we’re to give kids the best chance of enjoying football and thriving, it’s vital that the environments we create are safe. “It’s very closely connected to learning,” explains PDP Coaching Advisor Dan Cooke. “If children are going to learn, they need to take risks and move beyond what they’re currently capable of. And that requires a psychologically safe environment, where they feel like they won’t be criticised if they try something and make a mistake.”

“We want children to be themselves,” adds Lee Hodge, Head of Academy Coaching at Plymouth Argyle FC. “Maybe they’ve spent all day at school and had to mask some of themselves. But, in our environments, we want them to feel safe to express their true selves.”

Building Trust with Players

According to Hodge, forming positive relationships is fundamental to helping players feel safe in our environments: “Building trust is key,” he says. “And for that to happen, we need to connect with the children we coach — to learn as much about them as possible in order to understand them.

“Start by asking questions at training — things like how their day has been and what they’ve been up to. Then, when you have informal reviews, you can delve deeper — for instance, by asking how many siblings they have, or who they look up to.

“Observational skills are vital too; they help you get a feel for the type of day a child’s had, or what kind of mood they’re in. It’s all about gathering information and showing our players that we care about them as people.”

Balancing Psychological Safety and Performance

The right balance between giving our players psychological safety and preparing them for competitive environments can be hard to strike. But, whatever level we’re coaching at, it’s crucial that our environment achieves both.

“There’s a continuum between safe environments and competitive challenges,” says Hodge. “As coaches, we’re constantly moving across it. Again, it comes down to observational skills and knowing our players — knowing what the individuals in our group need at that moment.

“In academy football, for example, we promote that desire to win, but it’s winning our way; it’s developmental, and we still allow players to be creative. It isn’t ‘win at all costs’. On gameday, even though it’s competitive, kids feel like they can just go and play — they’re not playing within themselves.”

“We must be skillful in including consequence in an age-appropriate way,” agrees Cooke. “For example, if a 10-year-old makes a mistake on gameday and we concede a goal, our reaction on the sidelines should be very different to that if we were coaching adults.

“We need to teach kids about the realities of the game. But the age and stage of our players must be central to how we do this.”

Taking an Individual Approach

One of the best ways to help our players feel safe and valued — while also supporting their overall development — is to individualise our coaching. This means identifying the needs and wants of each of our players and then letting this knowledge inform our coaching decisions.

“Start by asking kids what they love about the game,” says Hodge. “Discover what they enjoy most about training, and what they think they’re good at. From there, you can offer a little advice on what they could improve — on what could help them get to where they want to be.”

“That strength-based approach is critical,” agrees Dave Wright, Co-Founder at PDP. “As coaches, we want kids to be attuned to their own strengths. In truth, we probably need more coach education around the individual approach to player development; we need a greater appreciation of the difference between player development and simply getting a team to play well and win games.”

Remembering the Fun Factor

Finally, we must remember to create environments where our players can enjoy participating. “This goes back to the point about kids being able to turn up and express themselves,” says Wright. “Bringing some fun and humour into our coaching environments is so important. Whether it’s under-8s or senior football, there needs to be that enjoyment factor.”

Crucially, Hodge notes, the manner in which we deliver our sessions is arguably more important than the games or activities we plan: “Energy is so important,” he explains. “Every coaching session is a performance; we’re there to entertain the kids — to engage, enthuse, and inspire them.

“I want children to just enjoy the game for what it is,” he concludes. “Ultimately, that’s why we coach. We want kids to have that spirit of football, where they feel that every training session, every game, is the best thing they do all week.”

The Key Points

  • Safe environments are essential if players are to learn effectively.
  • We must get to know our players and build a sense of mutual trust in order to help them feel safe.
  • Introducing consequence in an age-appropriate way is key to balancing the demands of performance and psychological safety.
  • An individualised coaching approach will help our players to feel valued while also enhancing their opportunities to develop.
  • Football is about fun; the enjoyment factor should be central in every coaching environment.

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