Dave Wright discusses the power of play and how a learning environment that allows play and creativity but challenges players to grow through adversity and failure is key to long term success.

In issue 1 of Player Development Project Magazine, I wrote an article called Fighting the Fear Factor, challenging the environments that many coaches still create despite the knowledge we have in modern football and coach education. It’s an absolute passion of mine to develop environments for players where they can be free, to learn, to play, to fail, to succeed, to develop and grow.

Having worked in the English Academy scene for almost 5 years, I’ve regularly seen players who struggle mentally with pressure or at times, seem to lose their love for the game. This appears more often than not to be a result of pressure they put on themselves, or as the players themselves have said, pressure that comes from parents. As coaches, we are constantly trying to remove this pressure so they can express themselves. Seeing this, made me reflect on what changes we could make to bring the buzz back to the players.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in competition, I believe in educating young players about the realities of winning and losing, (I love to win and as a young player used to beat myself up if I lost because I found failure hard to accept as I didn’t understand the benefit of it as I do now). I want all my players to take self belief on to the pitch and understand that every opportunity to play is an opportunity to grow. However, it scares me as a coach to see young players who seem unhappy at training or during their games.

In previous discussions throughout our Masterclass Webinar series with my good friend and colleague, James Vaughan, we have often touched on motivational climates and ‘the why’. In James’ research, he defines the why as, “The reason you do what you do: the silent, often subconscious agenda that leads us to think, act and behave in certain ways”

This why, or the purpose for why we do anything is crucial to keep in mind with your players. If you have a player who is regularly failing (in their own eyes) or not meeting his or her own expectations, you have to step in and guide that individual. As a coach it’s critical to help your players in these moments. On top of that it’s a good idea to help redefine success for that player. For example, if you have a player who has exceptional physical attributes, moves well, beats players 1 v 1 but struggles with their receiving and passing skills and as a result becomes frustrated or disenchanted with the game if they turn the ball over or shows a consistently poor first touch, set that player targets within the game to help them. It might be as simple as suggesting to the player in question, that during the next match at training or on game day that they focus on getting their first touch out of their feet and completing ten passes. If they can achieve this within their team performance, then the next week, raise the bar – make it fifteen passes or add in another element like encouraging split passes or a degree of risk/challenge.

Of course this player might fail at the challenge and at this point it might be good to strip back the issue, look at technique and design a session that enables them to work opposed but with numbers in their favour, semi-opposed or in an interference setting. This will enable the player to get success at something they struggle with therefore building confidence and resulting in more enjoyment in their environment.

I was recently working with a group of U11 players. Prior to the match we spoke about 2 team objectives for the game, one in possession and one out of possession. Each player was then tasked with coming up with one individual challenge they must work on within the game. This gives players a focus outside of the result – and given they all want to win anyway, they don’t need me to tell them to do so.

Finally, before they took the field, we got together, sat quietly in the changing room and I said to them, “Despite all of these individual and team challenges, my overall objective on the day was for them to go out and enjoy the game, to play freely, attempt to make the best possible decisions and show desire.” The question I then posed to each of them as we went around the room was, “Why do you play football and what do you love about it?”

I had a range of answers from “I feel free when I play” to, “I love scoring goals!” Other answers like, “I simply love playing football with my friends” or “I love the challenge of working on something every week!”

As these young players looked around at each other and candidly answered this question, I reminded them to keep that in the forefront of their mind when they made mistakes, things got tough or conversely, when it went well – try to maintain a balance, stay in control of their emotions and ensure enjoyment was the focus. The outcome of the game was a fantastic performance where all players were challenged, had ups and downs, met the team challenges in and out of possession and they came off the field happy, knowing they’d benefitted from trying to maintain a focus on why they play the game.

Positive Psychology expert and PDP contributor, Lara Mossman explains the importance of fun and play in a child’s development “Our goal should be to create environments for youth players that not only motivate them to push the limits and be creative, but to also grow through adversity. Positive emotions are a key driver for personal growth and resilience, so facilitating environments that are fun and psychologically energising is paramount. Coaches cannot achieve this alone. The entire youth system – from governing bodies, to clubs, to parents, to players – requires a paradigm shift.”

Even at the highest level, some of the best coaches are those who create relationships with their players that go beyond just knowing what their attributes are. Ask yourself, how well do you know your players? Do you understand what your players need individually in order to excel? Do you take time to ask them questions about topics other than football? For me, Jose Mourinho is someone who has always put himself in the firing line for his players and created special bonds with them, but more so, Jurgen Klopp has made a huge impact in the Premier League recently with the affection and enthusiasm he shows for his players. It’s still early days in Klopp’s tenure, but there is a clear shift in his players belief and the way they are playing mirrors that.

It concerns me to see statistics coming out like those cited in Todd Beane’s recent article about player retention rates in the USA as I fear adults (whether it’s coaches or parents) are often the cause of this. Beane’s article suggests 75% of young players drop out by the age of 12 citing the lack of fun, pressure or not being technically competent as the top three reasons and that of course, all of those issues are challenges that can be helped by good coaching. Through pressure, expectation, living vicariously through kids, or focusing on nothing but the score board, we are complicating the environments that our young players are in – taking the fun away and making it more than a game – and it is a game.

Players will develop through play, they will develop through failure, and adversity, taking risks and learning in game based environments. Some will make it to the top, others won’t but the main priority is that using the power of play they get to maximise their potential and enjoy it along the way. It’s important that if we are the facilitators of children learning to play the game we all love, then we show them a bit of love on their journey.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia / Diego Cupolo

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