Why, in arguably the most informed, analysed and qualification-driven era in football coaching history, are players still being made to learn in a culture of fear? PDP Editor, Dave Wright discusses how coaches can facilitate and environment built on trust.


The role of a football coach should be to facilitate the development and growth of the players under his or her tutelage, in an individual and collective manner. Most importantly, a coach should be a leader, a figurehead who is coaching purely for his or her players.

Acclaimed author and leadership expert Simon Sinek is known for his expertise on cultural anthropology. In his TED Talk ‘Why good leaders make you feel safe’, Sinek discusses the human need to feel safe in their social environment and how trust is critical for co-operation and success.

So how does this apply in football? Think about the environments we as coaches create in clubs, academies and schools. Are they driven by a desire to win, or a desire to bring the group together, create trust and set the tone for long-term player development (LTPD)? Without a doubt, a sense of belonging creates an environment where people can excel. Sinek discusses the idea of what a great parent is and how that equates to great leadership. These things are one and the same when it comes to wanting the best for our children, our employees or, in this case, our footballers.

DW_1_fearfactor_Total Football

Evening training session. Photo: Total Football

Yet in the game of football, we find coaches, clubs, academies and governing bodies using fear as a coaching tool.

It is the fear of rejection that drives the disconnect between many coaches, players and teammates.

Surely anyone who has played the game at any level recalls that as a player they feared losing, feared the pressure of failing in front of team mates, feared not being good enough, feared not performing at their best. Humans have evolved to become socially competitive animals; for many, climbing the social ladder (although perhaps stronger in some than others) is part of what drives us every day in all aspects of life. We can all remember the feeling of being scared of social comparison at training or on game day. Unfortunately the fear of not measuring up, being picked last, getting dropped or being released has become a common emotion. And it is this fear of rejection that drives the disconnect between many coaches, players and teammates.

Imagine an environment where players feel safe to fail – all of the time. In this new environment, there would be no negative consequence for a result where effort is evident; the score doesn’t matter but their performance does. We should be aiming to create an environment where trust is built between player and coach, where players are free to express themselves constantly and, most importantly, where they learn through play.

When a child engages in informal play, there is no pressure. Play is an opportunity for total freedom to make up rules, take risks, test new ideas and master new skills. Most importantly, during play, children are intrinsically motivated, positively charged to have fun and make meaningful connections with those around them.

If the fundamental reason that a child plays football (or any sport for that matter) is enjoyment, then surely the job of a coach is to facilitate this enjoyment and ensure that fun exists at all levels.

There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that to ensure maximum performance, freedom has to exist. This isn’t to say that freedom within structure is impossible. This idea is also different from formalising acceptable and unacceptable group behaviours and expectations (something that I feel is crucial to maintaining harmony within the group) and creating a cohesive culture. But when it comes to performance, the motivation must come from within. No player ever takes to the field looking to fail. While there may be external factors during a game or a training session that affect performance, no player ever goes out to do things that will lead to failure in their eyes. Therefore it’s crucial to understand what failure means for our players or, more practically, what success is for our players.

If you’ve ever coached, reflect on your experience to date. Maybe you’re a grassroots coach who is volunteering with a child’s local U7 team? Maybe you’re coaching high-school-aged players, where competition becomes fiercer as they develop. Perhaps you’re an elite, highly qualified coach with vast experience? Wherever you are in your coaching journey, I can guarantee that at some point, past or present, you have felt the fear of rejection. Whether it was standing in front of a group for the first time, whether it was making a mistake in a session, whether it was mixing up your words and the players looking at you like you’re speaking another language – we’ve all been there.

Now reflect on the best sessions you’ve ever coached, where you were in your element, the teaching flowed and you were effectively, in the zone. Was fear a factor or driver in your performance? Or was it confidence bred through learning, experience and freedom that meant you had the players’ full concentration and their full effort? Without being there I’d be confident in suggesting that perhaps praise was a factor. Fun was likely to have been a factor and no doubt encouragement for your players when they didn’t have success fuelled their desire to try again and want to succeed.

Young Indonesian players train with a travelling UK academy. Photo: UK in Indonesia

Young Indonesian players train with a travelling UK academy. Photo: UK in Indonesia

The fear factor in sport and life exists. It’s an ever-present element of any challenge we undertake. However, surely as coaches we can do everything within our power to reduce it, remove it as a motivational tool, encourage failure and embrace mistakes as tools for learning. After all, if the players are scared of the environment where they go to learn, how can they ever be free to express themselves and develop as players and people?

We need to spend more of our time focusing on creating appropriate learning environments than worrying as much about signing the next technically gifted 11-year-old.

If Sinek is right, perhaps the world of football player development needs to reflect on our own success criteria and we need to spend more of our time focusing on creating appropriate learning environments than worrying as much about signing the next technically gifted 11-year-old. After all, we’ll never know how good that 11-year-old can be unless he or she is put into the right environment, persisted with and encouraged to learn by making mistakes.

Key Points for Creating an Environment of Trust

  1. Do your players trust that you have their best interests at heart? That you care about the person as well as the player? Or are they living in fear of a bad result or performance?
  2. Reflect on the environment you create for your players. Is it a safe place for trial and error?
  3. Consider how free children are when they play as opposed to when they train. Where are they more likely to experiment and why?
  4. Trust that once you create the right environment that your players will naturally want to improve and compete, and perhaps they will trust you.

Cover Image: Total Football.

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