Now that the power of attitude on performance for both male and female players has been established, coaches need to identify strategies that reinforce that process. My experience recommends the following:
Step 1: Recruit the right players. Recruit players with the character to win and a track record of commitment and success. In addition to looking at players in successful clubs, check the better players in losing teams; they may have the stronger character. Try to get at least three character references, including a lifestyle appraisal, along with a more objective evaluation of physical, technical, and tactical talent.
Step 2: Be the model for the attitude you want. Players, especially younger players, take their behavior lead from their coaches and often imitate their actions. So it is important that coaches model the attitudes and behavior they expect from the players, especially when times are difficult. Coaches should also surround their players with positive adults—assistant coaches, trainers, administrators, parents—who encourage the drive to excellence while offering a warm, supportive environment.
Step 3: Create an inspirational vision. Soccer is the stuff of dreams, and coaches can create an enormous amount of attitude and energy if they are able to inspire. As Napoleon said, “Leaders deal in hope.” Good coaches work every day to give their players a reason why it is important and worthwhile to maintain a positive and optimistic attitude. Coaches should work from the desired end backward and paint a picture for the players of how much they can achieve if they commit to the journey. Many coaches make the mistake of believing this is just a start-of-the-year exercise, but players need constant reminding, and every so often coaches should hold a quick meeting (on the field is okay) outlining these points, which is an approach of shared ownership and constant communication:
- Remember where we are going.
- This is where we are now.
- This is what we need to do.
- And this is why I believe together we can do it.
Step 4: Give purpose and direction every day. Coach John Wooden always recommended that coaches should “make every day a masterpiece” and underlined that the practice session is the key to building mental as well as physical excellence. Players respond positively to well-planned, well-organized, and well-coached practice sessions that have challenges, learning, interest, and variety. It is in the everyday adaptation to the stress and competitive challenge of a well-planned session that players build positive winning attitudes. Coaches must set individual goals for their players as well as offer them the best competitive challenges every time they come to practice.
Step 5: Coach the complete player. The profile of each player is a combination of talent and attitude, and while coaches operate through the development of talent—physical, technical, and tactical—they must not ignore the building of attitude. Ensuring the development of winning attitudes is not a classroom exercise but rather runs parallel to the players’ response to the daily competitive challenges they must face and overcome. Physical and mental development go hand in hand; and coaches must see beyond the function of a drill and appreciate the commitment, focus, decision making, and resilience involved.
Step 6: Teach responsibility. A key element of a winning attitude is the player’s ability to take responsibility for actions on and off the field. Once coaches have spent time with each player teaching a particular job in the team’s tactical formation, they must take a step back and expect the player to take responsibility. Too many coaches struggle with trusting their players—and living with their mistakes—and thus deny them an opportunity to mature and build a powerful intrinsic motivation. The great players self-manage much of their development, and coaches should begin this process from an early age.
Step 7: Encourage player leadership and peer group pressure. Finding player leadership is not easy these days, but coaches must work to give players the chance to offer positive leadership to their teammates. When one such individual is not available, I recommend coaches develop a core group of player leaders who can set a positive tone in the locker room and on the field. There is no doubt that the presence or absence of positive peer group pressure has a profound effect on player and team attitude.
Step 8: Deal with setbacks well. Soccer is learned through trial and error: There will always be mistakes, setbacks, and defeats. Players need an environment of psychological safety if they are to build the courage to make things happen on the field. Nothing destroys this quicker than a coach out of control. Coaches must develop the emotional intelligence to deal with setbacks calmly and thoughtfully and not react emotionally. This mature sense of control will pass from coach to players and ensure that setbacks do not damage player attitude. Coaches must teach that failure, while disappointing, offers valuable feedback and a positive learning opportunity.
Step 9: Balance work with rest and recovery. Coach Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Overtraining is a major cause of attitude decline as players first physically and then mentally and emotionally burn out. Clever coaches know there is a time for players to switch on to the hard work of soccer, but there is also a time to switch off and let the body and mind recover. An understanding of the need for this balance differentiates between those coaches who can manage a game and those who can manage a season. The latter understand the importance of a winning attitude, and that attitude and energy go together.
Step 10: Build a PMA club. Put all these suggestions together, and we have a soccer club that promotes Positive Mental Attitudes. Although positive psychology emphasizes optimism, affirmation, and responsibility, it also stresses a realistic but optimistic interpretation of setbacks. Coaches who can deal with these issues create a motivational environment and surround their players with reasons to succeed rather than reasons to fail. Also, coaches should remember that soccer should be fun—the pleasure always defeating the pressure—and that humor loosens up players physically and mentally and helps create a winning attitude of relaxed readiness.
Read more about Focused for Soccer, Second Edition.