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Motivational tools promote positive changes

By Roy Rees, Cor van der Meer

Extrinsic motivation has no simple, standard approach. What turns on one athlete may turn off another. Some of your players may have low self-esteem, whereas others might have inflated egos. Even those who are cocky and who display much bravado may actually be covering feelings of self-doubt. Athletes with true self-confidence are rare.

Athletes perform in a competitive environment where challenge, risk, and uncertainty are facts of life. Succeeding in sport competition takes courage, confidence, high self-esteem, and trust in oneself and teammates. Motivation must therefore start with the development of these personal qualities. To help me succeed in instilling such confidence in my players, I rely on several tools:

  • Relaxation
  • Imagery
  • Self-talk
  • Goal setting
  • Reinforcement

The most enjoyable part of coaching is motivating players. It is rewarding to see a timid, self-doubting, mediocre player turn into an assertive, confident, well-functioning athlete. By using these tools, you as a coach will find it easy to promote positive changes in your players.

Among the numerous relaxation techniques I have experimented with, I have found that progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) seems to work best for athletes. To perform it, the athletes lie down or sit in a comfortable position while a prerecorded cassette tape instructs them to tighten and relax major muscle groups in a certain sequence. After the muscles are relaxed, the tape instructs the athletes to concentrate on the feeling of relaxation.

The benefit of this exercise is the ability to control tension and anxiety. When players are alert, they can make decisions more quickly and more accurately during a match. My own team does PMR as a group before each match.

When players have a low opinion of their collective or individual abilities, they will find themselves unable to compete successfully. To help players see themselves more favorably, I recommend they practice positive imagery techniques. Through imagery sessions, athletes can improve their performance substantially—that is, if the exercise is specific and if the athletes are in a state of total relaxation. When players are relaxed, they can use imagery to rehearse a variety of aspects, such as focusing on overcoming a weakness, embracing strengths, or mentally preparing for a match. Allow me to take you through a typical imagery session.

After relaxing through PMR, players imagine themselves in action on the soccer field. They picture the scenes vividly. They hear the fans, the whistle of the referee, the shoe hitting the ball; they smell the grass, the popcorn’s aroma coming from the concession stand; they see the colors of the uniforms, the sky, the buildings in the background; they feel the warmth of the sun, the tug of the wind. Still in their mind’s eye, they enter the scene and play. They focus on the positive, and they eliminate the negative.

Imagery sessions lasting 5 to 15 minutes per day can cause dramatic changes in athletes. After a few weeks, you yourself will even notice your athletes experiencing increased intrinsic motivation. With it, they begin to realize that their dreams can come true.

Imaging Specific Performances
Once your athletes have developed the habit of imagery, they can start working on their specific problems. For example, they can work on their shooting, heading, passing, ball control, or any other soccer techniques. The more specific they are, the better.

Imaging the Match
As a result of our location, we must travel no less than 300 miles to most of our away matches. I think it is important to have the time and opportunity to visit the opponent’s field and its surroundings, so when possible, I like to have the team arrive a day early. Our visit lasts about half an hour. We walk the field, and time permitting, we pass the ball around a bit. This walk-through makes our imagery about the next day’s match more vivid and therefore more effective. We are more comfortable and motivated on match day because by that time we have already played on their field—in our minds.

I often tell my players, “Listen to what you’re saying to yourself.” I give them this instruction as a means of making them more aware of what they’re thinking about themselves, whether positive or negative.

Like you and me, athletes talk to themselves all the time. This self-talk influences their emotions, mental pictures, physical states, and behavior. How they are functioning is a product of what they think. Sad to say, many athletes think of themselves negatively and their self-talk reflects this poor self-image. Like an unchecked infection, these types of negative self-statements fester and spread throughout each athlete. These put-downs serve no other purpose than to reinforce pessimistic attitudes, low self-concepts, and eventually, resignation.

Once players have become aware of the importance of positive self-talk, however, they can begin to regulate it. They can listen to themselves, catch the negative self-talk, challenge it, and change it into a positive conversation. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. Once mastered, the results are astounding.

When I help players improve their self-talk, I like using an exercise designed by Tom Kubistant, author of Mind Pump. It’s a simple exercise. Many scoff at it, but to these skeptics I say, “Try it, what have you got to lose?”

During the first 12 days of practice, we give the players one basic affirmation each day. They memorize the affirmation and then repeat it to themselves as many times as possible. At the end of the 12 days, they must be able to recite all 12 affirmations. Afterward, they use the recital regularly, almost like a mantra.

  1. Every day, in every way, I am better and better.
  2. I like myself.
  3. I am the captain of my ship; I am the master of my fate.
  4. I trust my abilities.
  5. I am relaxed.
  6. I forgive my errors.
  7. Sure I can.
  8. I enjoy what I do.
  9. I am on my side.
  10. I always do the best job I can.
  11. I am proud of my efforts.
  12. I can do anything I choose to do.

Adapted, by permission, from Tom Kubistant, 1988, Mind Pump, (Champaign, IL: Leisure Press), 105.

This is an excerpt from Coaching Soccer Successfully, Second Edition.

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