Soccer Coaches Series: A Soccer Player’s Attitude isn’t a Simple Choice …
Want to get ahead and really help your soccer career reach the next level? Read Dan Abrahams on SoccerToday. Learn to think, train and play like the best soccer players in the world — learn from the man who works with them and helps them be better.
Dan Abrahams simplifies complex psychological strategies with the aim of demystifying sport psychology.
A global sports psychologist and author specializing in soccer, Dan Abrahams is based in England and works with professional soccer players in the English Premier League (EPL). Abrahams has helped hundreds of soccer players – From working with players at Crystal Palace to QPR, Fulham, and West Ham among others, Abrahams makes a huge difference in a player’s performance. Abrahams has authored several books and has a Soccer Academy as well.
Soccer Coaches: Tips on Dealing With Challenging Players
I’ve recently been talking a lot with coaches about dealing with ‘challenging’ players. This coincides with the latest Sport Psych Show podcast, where I spoke with Dr. Sean Figgins and Dr. Fiona Leggat, two young sport psychologists researching the impact ‘difficult’ players have on teams.
There are many ways that coaches may find players to be ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’. Untimeliness, rudeness, hostility, laziness, constant negativity, selfishness, gossipy – these are the type of challenging behaviours that coaches have to deal with on a daily basis.
I’m very sorry but this is incorrect.
If you feel this way I’d like to strong arm you into understanding that this philosophy, this message, this approach is hindering you as a coach.
One behaviour (or set of behaviours) that coaches find tough to deal with, and regularly want to talk with me about, is a lack of coachability. Understandably, coaches want players to be coachable – to listen to their coaching points, to receive those points with a positive attitude, and to strive to put effort and energy into working on those coaching points.
I get this! Coaching can feel like the toughest profession or hobby at the best of times (and it probably is), let alone when a player isn’t engaging with your instructions, right?
However, as coaches we’d do well to remind ourselves that individual differences will always be present across our teams. We’ll probably never encounter a coaching position where every player behaves in a manner that suits our personal coaching lens.
So what to do when that player you’re trying to coach rejects your ideas, subtly ignoring you or overtly suggesting they know better than you?
Firstly, embrace the push-back. It’s great news! You get an opportunity to coach this player in a different manner. You get an opportunity to engage this player in more of a non-directive way.
Tell me about how you see the game and how you see your game?” could be your opening gambit.
If you are coaching at a level that offers video resources, sit in front of film and ask the player to take you through what they’re thinking as they watch themselves. And then keep quiet. Listen!
Take some notes. Be a student of your student. Be curious about their lens of the game – the language they use, the behaviours and actions they believe are important, and evidence of the coaching they’re previously had. Players and their skills come loaded with history, and at this juncture your job is to be a historical detective.
Reflect back to them what you hear. Have them affirm that you’ve heard them correctly. They’ll feel listened-to. They may even feel valued (and these might be new experiences to them).
At this point you have a choice. You’ve started your case file, that’s a start, it’s time to let them go play in the way they want to play. Or…now’s the time to put your coaching points across. Now may be the time to do so, or a little time in the future – either way, when you do deliver your points make sure you firstly point out the positives related to their way of seeing the game:
“I really like what you were saying about why you’re looking to play off the shoulder of the defender there. I think that’s really insightful and I can see that working against a lot of opponents in so many different systems…”
It was Brendan Rodgers, Leicester City manager, who said that he imagined every player has an invisible tattoo with the words ‘help me feel great’. Help this ‘uncoachable’ player feel great about their perception of the game.
Listen to them, then help them feel great!
But now’s the time for you to reinforce your coaching points. Do so in as evidence-informed a way as possible. Relate your ideas to the logic of the game, the rules, and principles of play. Whilst these can still tend to be subjectively perceived and appraised, they have a greater objective quality about them, and they can offer greater persuasive power as a consequence. Layer logic with the geometric qualities of principles of play where applicable. Again qualities that have a subjective element to them, but also hold greater objectivity.
But Still Don’t Insist. You Insist, They Resist!
Make your coaching points ‘suggestions’, and I would even go as far as to strive to get permission to give a suggestion (I’ve done this with coaches at Premier League level – it can be necessary in even the most autocratic coaching climates).
“Do you mind if I make a suggestion here?” And then give your suggestion…
…and then ask them on a scale of 1-10 how useful they think that suggestion is (with ‘10’ being so useful that they’ll do it straight away…and ‘1’ being they think it’s an awful idea).
Scaling takes the emotion out of the exchange. It gives you an accurate idea of what they think of the coaching point you want them to engage in. And it gives you the opportunity to find out what they do like about your instruction:
“Ok, so you’ve said 7. Why as high as 7? What do you like about the idea?” And wait for them to respond. This can give you the opportunity to follow up with more reasons why it’s such an important instruction for them to adhere to.
You can use this scaling process to ask them what it would take for them to get to ‘9’ or ‘10’ and subsequently go and practice your coaching point. Yes, get them to tell you what needs to happen. Get them to tell you what is required to help them be coachable. And then execute what they need from you. As long as it’s reasonable, as long as it’s logical, then there’s no reason why you can’t follow this player’s lead (rather than you lead them).
Listen to Them, Help These Soccer Players Feel Great
Ask permission to suggest, scale their belief in what you’ve suggested, be curious about what it takes to get them to try your suggestion, then follow their lead – the psychology of influence, right there in a few steps!
An overarching theme here is patience. Don’t give up on this player.
Be patient. Such self-talk is as important for coaches as it is for players. Privately talk your way through the process to avoid feelings of frustration or anger. Manage your coaching behaviours in order to model the kind of learner you’d like this player to be. Patience, patience, patience!