“I don’t believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball.”
The first time our children step onto a football pitch is a rite of passage. It can be an exciting and anxious time; at least for the parents. For the children it is play. It can ignite their curiosity and thirst for learning. Over time the sports field provides opportunities for young players to develop character strengths such as teamwork, leadership, fairness, creativity and bravery. The pitch is a learning environment that not only cultivates game competence, but can shape our children into well-rounded sportsmen and women. As we stand on the sidelines watching our young players embark on this journey, how do we know if we are enabling their development, or holding them back? Reflecting on five questions can help us to monitor our supportive behaviours.
If we want to support our children we should measure what matters to their development. As parents we don’t want to fall into the trap of having winning as the only measure of success. The danger of this is that it creates a fixed mindset. “If my child’s team wins then they are good or talented; if they lose, then they are bad or untalented”. If we treat the pitch as a learning environment, then constantly winning is a bit like always giving your child maths problems they can solve easily; they’re not going to learn anything new or grow. Young players have the potential to grow more when faced with opponents who challenge them and push their skills to the edge. For example, in a 1-v-1 situation your child may lose the ball to a stronger player on nine occasions, but on the tenth occasion work out how to beat his or her opponent. Your child may lose the match at the end of the day, but it is a culmination of these micro-successes that leads to growth. It is growth - not winning - that should use to define success on the field.
Research has revealed that happiness leads to success, rather than success leading to happiness. Experiencing positive emotions such as joy, excitement and interest are energizing and can lead to benefits on the field. They can open up the player’s world so that he or she sees a broad range of options: passing, dribbling, shooting, practicing tricks and applying new skills. On the other hand, negative emotions such as stress, anger and fear can narrow the options the player sees and can impede their development. A sign that your child might be playing under stress is if they quickly kick the ball away or kick it out of play as soon as they receive it. This is usually because they don’t feel free to make mistakes. Repeatedly taking such actions denies the player the opportunity to develop their 1-v-1 and dribbling skills. Over time this has a cumulative effect and can prevent players from reaching their fullest potential.
As parents we should seek to create fun environments in which our children can flourish. One way to do this is to pay attention our words on and off the pitch. If we find ourselves constantly ‘telling’ our child what to do, we are probably guilty of quashing fun. Instead we can acknowledge good sportsmanship and good play from both sides.
WHAT DO I Focus on after THE GAME?
Enjoyment of the game can also be bolstered through the conversations we have with our children when they leave the pitch. As you child approaches you after the game, notice what you say to him or her. If you find yourself giving your opinion on how he or she can improve 'fixing' them, then you are sending the message the performance is the priority. Instead, we can simply ask, 'Did you have fun?' and 'What did you most enjoy about the game today?'
If you want to understand why telling and fixing dampen enjoyment you can try the thought experiment at the end of this article.
Do I allow my child to make their own decisions on the field?
Top players can make effective, split second decisions, under pressure. We don’t see Messi receiving the ball and then looking towards Luis Enrique for an answer as to what to do with it. We do see this in children whose parents or coaches are constantly shouting instructions at them from the sidelines. Ultimately, good decision-making is something that we seek to nurture in young players. To get there, players need to be given the headspace to make decisions for themselves. As parents it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that we don’t see the game from the same perspective as our children; our well-intended advice may be in fact be misplaced or not aligned with what the coach is trying to teach. Teaching independence and decision-making can start off the field, by getting your child to pack his or her own sports bag, boots and water bottle.
How do I respond when my child experiences adversity on the field?
It is likely that at some point your child will have experiences that can be construed as negative. They may make mistakes that lead to their team conceding a goal. They may receive criticism from teammates for their mistakes on the field. The referee may may make a call against them that seems unfair. They may miss a seemingly easy shot. A coach may move them to a position that they don’t want to play. All of these scenarios are learning opportunities for our children. They can learn to become resilient through set-backs, to develop forgiveness and self-regulation, to use bravery. In other words young players can develop character when things don’t go well for them. As parents we can adopt a strength-based approach and help our children to see these situations through a more positive lens.
These five questions are designed as a way to reflect on how much we support our young players. They also tell us about the type of environment that can support player development. It is an environment in which players are encouraged to make decisions for themselves, to bounce back from failure, to persevere, to be brave and creative. It is one where players are able to experience joy, pride and excitement; to be their true selves. The adults are not constraining the players, but rather role-modelling good sportsmanship and giving their children the freedom to learn on their own. As Pelé said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do”. Let us keep that love of learning alive in all of our young players.
Imagine you are driving through the countryside with your partner. You are at the wheel. The sun is shining and the traffic is flowing freely. Just as you are starting to think that you are enjoying the drive, your partner yell at you, “Turn, right; turn right”. You see a right turn up ahead and begin to ease off the accelerator. As you start to do so you partner yells at you, “Ease of the accelerator, ease off!!!” Imagine this continues for the next twenty minutes. You are yelled at to maintain a certain speed, to break, to go check your mirrors, to indicate, to steer in a certain way. You decide to pull into a service station up ahead. As you step outside of the car, your partner precedes to tell you everything that you did wrong and what you should do to improve your driving.
Would you describe this experience as enjoyable? What emotions do you think you would experience? What would you imagine your stress levels to be like? Would you be grateful for the ‘advice’ your partner offered? Do you think your decision-making would be improved under these conditions? Would you want to go on regular drives with your partner?
Now imagine that you are on the sidelines of your child’s football game. In what ways do you think yelling constant instructions would affect their game? In what ways do you think focusing on their performance post-match would contribute to their enjoyment?