PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright & Positive Psychology expert Lara Mossman discussing how to control emotions in sports.

We can’t expect youth soccer players to show great emotional control all of the time. It’s sometimes easy to forget, but they’re not mini-adults — they don’t have the same capacity to control their emotions as we do, and we shouldn’t expect them to. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help.

We can still teach our young players how to understand and manage their emotions. And this education is just as important to their overall development as the tactical and technical sides of coaching.

Below, we’re going to explain how you can help your players recognise their emotions and cope with them when they arise while playing sports.

In this article

How to help young athletes with emotional control

Know your emotions: Encourage mindfulness and awareness of self

Create a positive environment and talk to your players

Promote great behaviour, not just great performance

Understand the physical aspect of emotions in sports

The key points

How to help young athletes with emotional control

Know your emotions: Encourage mindfulness and awareness of self

Practicing mindfulness is becoming more mainstream in sport, even seeping into performance-focused environments with the increased emphasis on sports psychology. It essentially means becoming more self-aware and noticing your emotions and thoughts before acting on them.

When players get frustrated, their performance often suffers. But practicing mindfulness, as Positive Psychology researcher Lara Mossman explains, “ helps them to buy a split-second to think before they act.”

Mindfulness programs have worked well with kids as well as adults, and there are many good apps by organisations like Smiling Minds that are specifically designed for young players in a sports context.

With kids, the key is helping them to notice negative thoughts and emotional responses, not judge themselves for having them, and then be able to separate themselves from those thoughts — encouraging players to become aware of their feelings before they become behaviour.

They won’t manage it every time, but that’s fine. Mindfulness is a skill we can develop with practice.

Create a positive environment and talk to your players

The environment we create for our players can have a huge impact on their emotions and mental wellbeing. For instance, ask yourself what your players’ learning environment is like when it comes to mistakes; if players feel like they’re in a high-stakes setting where winning is everything, the pressure can lead to frustration, and that can affect their reaction to setbacks.

Coaches can reduce this pressure by creating a mastery environment that prioritises development over athletic performance. Ensure that all of your players are given clear development goals and regularly receive feedback on their progress.

As with all aspects of coaching, good communication is crucial. Reed Maltbie, Founder of the Raising Excellence coaching development platform, acknowledges that coaches face more competition for their players’ headspace than ever before, and stresses the importance of keeping communication on-mission, upbeat, and closely aligned with our team’s values.

It’s also essential to remember that no two players are the same. We should dial down any dialogue that involves comparing our players to other individuals. PDP’s Lead Researcher, James Vaughan, touches upon the dangers of social comparisons in his article on competition and collaboration, in which he explains the pitfalls of coaches over-emphasising extrinsic rewards and competition at the expense of teamwork.

We must always remember to treat our players as individuals and demonstrate empathy by being considerate of their emotions in all of our coaching interactions.

Promote great behaviour, not just great performance

We want our players to be competitive, but we also want them to be good humans. As coaches, we can help them get there by clearly defining the unacceptable, acceptable, and ideal behaviour within our team. Well-defined boundaries make it easier to reinforce good behaviour, and consistent standards will engender a sense of fairness that in turn aids emotional balance.

On the FA’s Advanced Youth Award, coaches learn that their interactions with their players should be frequent, consistent, repetitive, and unconditional. For example, if a player behaves poorly, are you consistent with your message (“in this team, we do this…”) but also unconditional with your support? It’s about challenging the behaviour, not the individual; the message and support stay the same for everyone.

The real skill (which we all improve with experience) lies in knowing when to enforce boundaries and when to highlight the good. When it comes to coaching teenagers, PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright advises trying to “catch them doing the things you want them to do.” 

The coach’s default setting is often to correct things, though this approach doesn’t always work with behaviour. But if you see someone displaying good behaviour and encourage it, that behaviour can steadily become the norm.

As Professor Stephen Rollnick explains in his article on the benefits of positive affirmation, “the use of affirming is an expression of a different approach to improvement, focused on developing strengths not just rectifying weakness.”

We should also try to be process-focused and not fixate on results. One reason players’ emotions go up and down is that they’re competitive and want to win. But we can reframe what winning looks like and help them understand that, while they can’t control things like the referee or the score, they can control their reactions, and that is what’s important. 

For example, you may have a player who dribbles the ball well and regularly gets fouled; can they just get up, take the free-kick quickly, carry on with the game and accept that these things happen? By redefining success like this, we can go a long way to helping players stay focused in game situations.

Understand the physical aspect of emotions in sports

As coaches, we should appreciate that there’s a physical component to feeling frustrated. When players feel agitated, their heart rate increases, they may be more out of breath, and this often leads to worse decision-making. They will know what it feels like in those moments just before making a poor choice. 

So can we teach them to recognise that feeling before acting on it? And then can we help them overcome it?

There are physical responses we can encourage our players to take, such as counting to ten or taking a deep breath. In situations with rolling subs, we can also use substitutions to take someone out of the game for a few minutes if we feel like they’re about to boil over.

“The language of ‘ice-cool’ is something I’ve used a lot with players,” says PDP co-founder Dave Wright. “Can we just be ice-cool? Can we play ice-cool today?” Players can remind themselves of this kind of mantra as games heat up and they feel themselves losing control.

We can also reduce the emotional intensity of these occasions by trying to make games more like an extension of training. Through the representative design of our training sessions, we can make them resemble the demands and pressures of games more closely. This will not only help players to stay calm on match days but also develop them more as soccer players.

We can make training more competitive by turning drills into mini-competitions — for example, 2v2 games with the losing teams putting away equipment. This introduction of controlled pressure should then make game situations feel easier.

A great example of representative design can be seen in James Vaughan’s session plan and video Problem Solving in Practice.

The key points

  • Encourage your players to practice mindfulness. It’s not about suppressing or feeling ashamed of our emotions; it’s about recognising them, taking a second to think, and not letting them dictate our actions.
  • Alleviate the pressure on your players by creating a mastery environment that emphasises development over results.
  • Good communication is crucial. When you talk to your players, keep it on-mission and upbeat.
  • Treat your players as individuals and avoid social comparison.
  • Clearly define the expected behaviour within your team and look to normalise great behaviour through positive affirmation.
  • Our behaviour as coaches matters too. We must be consistent in our messaging to players and always be supportive.
  • Understand the physical side of heightened emotion. Players can remove themselves from the heat of the moment with something as simple as a few deep breaths. Rolling subs are also great ways to help players who might be losing their cool.
  • We can reduce the build-up of emotions on matchdays by making our training sessions more representative of in-game pressures and situations.

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