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Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Playing in Stressful Matches

Sam Snow

A youth coach wrote in with these comments and question:

"A few of the boys I coach in soccer (U13) tend to feel the stress when playing highly competitive games in Division I. Despite trying to reassure them and instill confidence, they tend to freeze up and not play fluidly. This causes them to make mistakes, which only makes the situation worse – they then further lose confidence in their abilities and the cycle continues. When they play games that aren’t high stakes they relax, have fun, and play well. That helps restore some of their confidence. I try and use those low stakes games as examples for them but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I've also tried positive visualizations (having them picture in their minds & speak out loud how they will play) which has helped a little at times. Do you have any advice to help reach these boys? I know they can do it – they don’t seem to know it though. Thanks!"

The scenario described with young players who are learning how to compete is not unusual. That the coach is already practicing visualization is a wonderful step toward helping the players cope with game day stress. I suggest adding to the self-talk and team talk the mantra of the US National Teams – respect everyone, fear no one.

Learning to play against quality competition is an ongoing effort with players moving up in the levels of play. Just look at the first day of matches of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup with the successes of Martinique and Panama. In two matches, the lower ranked team knocked off the higher ranked team. This U13 team could draw inspiration from such performances.

Here are a few suggestions to build up the team’s performance and confidence:

  • Play training matches versus older teams. Play three 25 minute periods. In this way the coach can change the lineup and/or formation between each period. The coaches should be the referees during this training match so that they can speak to players during the run of play. Playing against a team that is one or two years older will help the younger team to deal with a faster game both physically and mentally. When they then go back to a match versus their own age group the game speed will seem easier to manage.
     
  • In training sessions, play more two touch and one touch small-sided games (2 vs. 2 up to 8 vs. 8) to get the players accustomed to thinking and playing faster.
     
    • Speed of play is mostly mental (tactical decision making) and secondarily physical (technical speed and physical movement). In training sessions, build the team up to a full field game of two touch for a 10 minute stretch. The coach might have to gradually increase the length of time literally one minute per training session.
       
  • Continue training on visualization. Now add a trigger word.
     
    • Develop a refocusing technique helps to trigger mental focus to a controlled state of mind. The trigger word helps the player to forget about a mistake just made or to calm oneself just before a stressful moment, such as taking a corner kick. Practice the trigger word by spelling it out in one’s mind during the day of the match. Try the word “support”, which is important for all players to do for their teammates whether attacking or defending and regardless of their position in the team formation. Even during the match when a player senses distress then spell “support” out in the mind and/or say it out loud. The use of the word “support” is a great example of the effective use of a self-talk trigger word used to remain focused during difficult moments in the match.
       
    • Self-talk refers to the internal dialogue that occurs in one’s mind, such as the instructions or encouragement that a player gives to oneself. Players’ thoughts occur often and are very automatic; for this reason rather than trying to eliminate all thoughts during a match a coach should try to work with players on managing their thoughts. When players begin to doubt themselves or tell themselves what “not” to do, it tends to lead to poor performances and mistakes. By having a go-to trigger word, it gives the player the skill needed to counter their unproductive thoughts. By replacing the negative talk with their trigger word, they are able to remain focused on the skills needed to be successful.
       
  • During a match, point out to the players the small victories they are achieving:
     
    • A pass well received
       
    • A tackle made for possession
       
    • An intelligent off-the-ball run
       
    • Good communication with a teammate
       
    • Constantly looking around the field for tactical cues
       
    • Tactically good positioning
       
    • Acts of good sportsmanship

 

  • Remind them that their anxiety stems from their competitive drive. That’s a good thing. Now refocus that drive onto individual performance, not on the outcome of the match.

    • Did I make positive comments to my teammates throughout the match?

    • Did I consistently make recovery runs when we were defending?

    • Did I work hard to move to be in the right place to support my teammates?

    • Did I consistently visualize myself making good passes/distribution to my teammates?

 
 
 
 
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