As coaches, our priority should be to engage every player and facilitate enjoyable sporting experiences for all. But this can be challenging in mixed-ability settings, where the needs of different individuals within our group are often more wide-ranging. Below, we discuss how coaches can manage the difference within teams, in order to give all players an appropriate challenge, and keep them involved, enthusiastic, and motivated.

In This Article

Connecting with Players

To engage players, we must first appreciate that every child we coach is different, build connections with each of them, and learn what motivates them to play football.

“I try to discover as much about each individual as possible,” says Lee Hodge, Head of Academy Coaching at Plymouth Argyle FC. “After sessions, I might ask them questions regarding what they liked, what their key takeaways were, and what they love about football.

“It’s also important to ask what they didn’t enjoy. For instance, maybe they loved working on a specific skill, but then lacked confidence when they were placed in a competitive game. It’s common for individuals who are low on confidence to struggle when playing the competitive part, and then not enjoy the experience.”

“It’s vital that coaches learn about how their players are feeling and identify the right kind of support for them,” Hodge continues. “During 1v1s, do they play against the same individual every time? Is it too tough? Do they need more shadow defenders and a bit more safety? And which children are ready for that competitive 1v1?

“Working this out can be difficult, but also really beneficial. Start by getting your players to express what they like, what they don’t like, and what they’re enjoying at that moment in time.”

Helping Individuals to Build Confidence

Helping players to feel confident is often the key to facilitating enjoyable sporting experiences. It’s likely that all groups of players will contain some individuals who strive to be the best, and others who are nearer the bottom of the group, and it’s important that we don’t neglect children who might be falling behind.

“Find out what they perceive their strengths to be,” advises Hodge. “And then pick moments within the session to make those players feel ten-feet tall. For example, I was recently coaching a child who was low on confidence, but who had been working on his turns over the summer. So I included that in the first part of our practice, and ensured that I praised him and got that smile on his face.”

“This touches on the human aspect of motivation nicely,” adds Player Development Project Co-Founder Dave Wright. “It’s great advice. We should always endeavour to understand what our players are working on, how they’re doing, and what they need.”

Giving Players Opportunities to Succeed

Crucially, we can also influence the confidence and motivation levels of our players through our session design.

“If you have a player who is low on confidence, I’d suggest putting them in positions to gain it,” says Wright. “For example, in a positional game, a target player will often have more success than a pivot player — as the middle of the positional game is the hardest place to play. Or if a kid is struggling technically, put them in a situation where they’re under limited pressure.

“Likewise, place the individuals who want greater challenges in difficult scenarios. Potentially, our feedback can be more demanding too; if they want to be pushed, we can also have those harder conversations.

“It’s all about managing the difference and ensuring that everybody, across the group, receives an appropriate challenge.”

Harnessing Joy

Finally, we should design our practices with enjoyment at their heart. One of the best ways to achieve this is simply to learn which activities our players like the most, and find creative ways to include them in our session plans.

“Can we let joy guide our first activity?” asks Wright. “Whether it’s small-sided games, rondos, or something else, can we do something that our players love? We want to find an activity where all of our players can be involved and feel connected before getting into the work.

“Starting with joy is so important. Ultimately, joy underpins the motivational climate.”

The Key Points

  • We must manage the difference within our teams, and accommodate players of all abilities and motivations.
  • By connecting with our players, we can identify why they participate, and which aspects of our sessions they enjoy.
  • While some players require more confidence and encouragement, others need more demanding challenges and feedback.
  • By tailoring our practice activities, we can give individuals increased opportunities to succeed and build confidence.
  • We should harness the joy in our sessions, creating practices that engage players and motivate them to come back.

Image Source: Photo by Emilio Garcia on Unsplash

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