The psychological components of coaching have a huge impact on the development of our players — both on and off the pitch. As coaches, we have a responsibility to understand these components, in order to provide supportive and constructive learning environments for the kids we work with. In this article, Dr. Suzanne Brown, Clinical Psychologist and Lead Psychologist at Sunderland AFC, explores some of the most important aspects of psychology in football, as she discusses emotional control, how to develop positive attitudes to mistakes, and helping young footballers to form healthy identities.

In This Article

Understanding Emotions

Coaching is an inherently human activity; our capacity to help players develop is contingent upon our ability to work with them as people. Understanding how people feel and process emotions is therefore central to supporting player development. “We often hear comments about individuals being too emotional, as if that’s a negative thing,” says Brown. “But that interpretation lacks an understanding of what emotions are. Emotion means to evoke motion; it drives our behaviour. I often tell people that there is no such thing as a negative emotion.”

To emphasise her point, Brown provides the example of players experiencing anger — an emotion typically characterised negatively: “If you’re a centre-back and you lose the ball in your own half, you want to use that emotion to drive you to win the ball back; you don’t want to feel sadness at having lost it — that wouldn’t be healthy or productive.”

Conversely, Brown explains, it’s okay to feel sadness at other times, such as after a defeat. The significance lies in how we encourage players to process that emotion. “It’s when we don’t allow people to feel emotions that we cause issues,” she says. “We must be more deliberate in our use of language — and give individuals permission to express their emotions.”

The Power of Effective Communication

Further to helping kids develop healthy reactions to their emotions, we must be considerate in how we influence their attitudes towards mistakes and failure. “It’s important to give kids permission not to know,” says Brown, who notes that many coaches only ask questions or seek input from their players when things go wrong. “We also need to have a more open dialogue, founded upon constructive feedback and curious questioning, in order to help children become self-organising individuals.

“We must encourage kids to think and contribute, and try not to see things solely from adult perspectives. That will, in turn, create more cohesive environments, where everybody feels comfortable to learn and develop.”

Helping Kids to Form Healthy Identities

As kids progress in their footballing journeys — particularly during their teenage years — it can become difficult both to help them stay grounded, and to prevent them feeling overburdened by pressure or expectations. According to Brown, we should start by encouraging them to form a healthy sense of themselves.

“How often do we only see the player on the outside, and not the person underneath?” she asks. “I frequently hear players say that adults — coaches and parents — only ever ask them about football; not about themselves or the other things going on in their lives. But football is just an aspect of their personality; it isn’t the whole of them.”

Ultimately, Brown says, we must help kids to develop identities that are founded upon more than perceptions of themselves as footballers. This requires us to take interest in the other areas of their lives, see them as people, not just players, and show that our support is unconditional — not dependent upon their sporting achievements.

Creating Constructive Learning Environments

One of the best ways to reframe mistakes, failures, and notions of self-worth is to acknowledge our own shortcomings and potential areas of improvement as coaches. “Be mindful of how you can improve,” advises Brown. “I’m a big advocate of filming sessions, so that you can notice things that you might be doing completely outside of your awareness. For example, maybe you only ask questions when things go wrong, or perhaps your communication methods are overly-reliant on praise.”

Furthermore, we should model the behaviour we wish to see in our players — particularly when addressing our own mistakes. “How often do we acknowledge our mistakes or say ‘sorry’ in the adult world?” ask Brown. “How are we modelling that to the children we work with?”

As coaches, we should put our egos aside and acknowledge that we, just like our players, will inevitably make mistakes. “They are how you learn,” says Brown. “It’s through hard work and determination, and having resilience when you don’t make it, that you achieve greater things. This message is far more realistic than one that demands you never make mistakes.”

Finally, Brown recommends giving children more autonomy as they progress through their developmental journeys: “As they get older, children’s evolutionary instincts drive them away from adults. But it’s important that they still have positive role models. So can we create more crossover between the younger and older age groups within clubs? After all, they’re living a shared experience; they can learn from one another.

“In fact, adults could learn from teenagers too, because this is the time when kids are creative and pushing boundaries. As adults, we need to remember that we don’t know everything. It’s by embracing that realisation, and fostering cultures where everybody has permission to keep developing, that we can create great learning environments.”

The Key Points

  • There are no negative emotions. We must empower kids to express their emotions and react to them appropriately.
  • Through effective communication, we can help to create cohesive learning environments.
  • We can reframe our players’ attitudes to failure by acknowledging and embracing our own mistakes.
  • It’s essential to give kids autonomy during their learning journey — especially as they grow older and seek greater independence from adults.
  • We must always be prepared to learn from other people, including our own players.

Image Source: Bulat Silvia from Getty Images

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