As Coaches and Practitioners we regularly use the term ‘Applied Sport Psychology’ and ‘Sport Psychology in Practice’ but in the very real world of youth soccer coaching, with all of the time constraints and restrictions that accompany it, what exactly do these terms mean? Moreover, how exactly can we ensure we expose our young players to the concepts without sacrificing the opportunity to provide them with the technical, tactical and physical foundation many of them (and importantly, their parents) also crave?

In this article I aim to provide simplistic (if not slightly manipulated) ideas that both Coaches and Psychologists can try and apply that help ensure the mental corner of a young player’s growth and development is catered for within a regular training session.

The Environment- The Problem

Coaches have a difficult challenge in front of them when it comes to finding the time and opportunity to educate young performers as to the benefits of Mental Skills Training. Attempting to get parents (and some fellow coaches for that matter) to understand why their child is sat in a classroom or in an auditorium when they are at soccer (football) practice when ‘of course’ they should be out on the field running around is a difficult challenge. How are they learning, developing and improving if they are not on a ball? After all they only get a couple of hours a week to train…….For what it’s worth they have a point.

How then, can we still impart our very valuable expertise in a way that is non imposing and doesn’t interfere with what is still an integral part of their soccer development?

Possible Example – The Solution?

For me, I believe entirely in coaches holding a knowledge of Psychological Skills Training (gained through partnership with a Psychologist or through their own external education) and importantly, believe they should display the willingness to regularly utilize such principles. As a result, in a regular practice session coaches would possess the ability to convey psychological techniques and messages without the players truly understanding that they’re learning or practicing such ideas.

Imagine, how with the use of simple questions (leading questions I grant you) a coach could get an athlete to practice their use of imagery and mental rehearsal in a very real world context. ‘Jimmy’ is stood over a ball in practice placed centrally 20 yards from the goal. He is about to take the free kick he just won. Prior to the next phase of play occurring the coach asks Jimmy what is he thinking about – or, what could he think about that might help him successfully score a goal. When the answer of imagining or mentally rehearsing a positive outcome is offered, reward it, praise it (within ear shot of the group) and step out before letting ‘Jimmy’ try his suggested action.

What about when ‘Jimmy’ is checking to receive a pass. You notice he tries to receive the ball on the half turn but he does it without checking his shoulder first. Again, this provides you as a coach with a wonderful opportunity to reinforce the use of various Mental Skills to increase performance (whilst also addressing the technical ineptitude).

Q. ’Jimmy’ why would it help you to know what’s happening behind you?

A. So I can choose what to do next coach.

Q. And what are you looking at to help you make that decision?

A. Where my teammates are and where the defenders are coach.

“Brilliant, so you’re looking around/scanning the field and focusing your attention on which players may be able to receive the ball so that you can make the best decision possible. Great job Jimmy!”

Jimmy doesn’t know he has narrowed his level of external, attentional focus to only the most pertinent information but reinforcing good habits allows us as Psychologists and Coaches to ensure that our hidden curriculum of applying Mental Skills in the practice environment is being achieved.

Perhaps your attention then transitions to your Goalkeeper. These players normally get left out from lots of coaching points but they are just as integral to your team as anyone else. Perhaps the ball is in the opponent’s penalty area. Nothing is stopping you going to have a chat with your keeper.

Q. ‘Hey Billy, what are you thinking about right now?’

A. The response here could be anything but your challenge is to guide his focus and concentration so that he understands the importance of being completely tuned in when the ball is in his critical area (his team’s final third of the field).

Q. Billy do you think it’s possible for a player, especially a goalkeeper to stay completely focused throughout the whole game?

A. No coach probably not. 90 minutes is a long time and there are lots of distractions.

Q. Okay Billy, so when do you think it’s really important for a GK to be focused?

A. When the other team have the ball near my goal coach.

Q. Great answer Billy. So now I want you try to recognize times where you can relax and give your brain a rest perhaps just for a few seconds so that when the ball starts to move towards our defensive third and I need you on top form, I know you’re going to be completely ready. Can you do that for me?

A. Sure thing coach.

Concluding Thoughts

My point here, as manipulated as it may seem, is to try and provide an example of how Coaches (with the support of Psychologists) can create a culture within which Mental Skills are frequently utilized and accepted as a powerful coaching and performance enhancing tool. But instead of this insight and education coming through a workbook, workshop or Powerpoint presentation the young players are receiving the guidance in a contextually relevant environment. Not only should the players buy-in to the idea increase given how applicable to their real world the points are, but it should also allow Coaches to truly accommodate the often overlooked mental corner of a player’s development into their training sessions.

I hope this article provides you with some food for thought. I would love to further the discussion with anyone interested.