I have elaborated on the discussion about the lack of the winning mentality in football minded Holland here: http://believeperform.com/performance/creating-winning-mentality/. In this article I will apply my thoughts into practice: how do we create the winning mentality?

I believe every young football player wants to win; football is a game and we want to win games. One shows his or her winning mentality through emotions (e.g. joy after a goal / cry after a loss) whereas another shows it through behavior (e.g. coaching teammates / cheating), and others don’t show it. Not showing doesn’t necessarily means that they don’t want to win. Some don’t show because it is just how they behave and have developed to be. However others don’t show it because their main focus might not be on winning, although they want to win. For example, think of a new player in professional football who has been bought for a great sum of money. He is due for his first appearance at the new club, with his new coach, new teammates and his new fans. Of course this new player wants to win the first game with his new team. But he can act quite egocentric during his debut. In front of the goal he tends to go by himself instead of playing the ball to one of his teammates. Does this sound familiar? I bet it does. Based on this behavior, can we say that this new bought player is an egocentric player? We could say that. Although at his former club he has been known as a team player. So another explanation could be that his main focus is to achieve his spot in the team by proving his worth. This is key, I believe, in developing the winning mentality.

Every person, be it in football, be it in corporate business, be it in school, has the need to belong. We all crave to belong to someone, something or some group. Because belonging gives us our identity and makes us feel safe. The need to belong is a biological process which happens in our brain – specifically the limbic system. For more on this I’d like to recommend ‘Start With Why’ from Simon Sinek. Anyhow let’s make our players feel they belong!

When do we feel we belong when we are in a group of people? Do we feel we belong with people who share our values and interests? Or do we feel we belong in a group with people who have different values and dislike what we like? I’d feel more belonging in a group of people who share the same values as I do. In football we are all connected, at least we should, by our passion for the game. That is the foundation which connects us. And that is a good start, but it takes a lot more for a player in a team to truly feel he or she belongs.

First of all, a team needs to share the same values. Do we value respect for one another? Do we allow every individual to be him or herself within group norms? Do we believe every person is equal? If we share the same values, we create a feeling of belonging to the team. As a consequence we will behave according to those shared values, so we will behave alike. Behaving the same as others is what our limbic brain likes, we like people who are like us. For me it to form group norms together and have the children themselves speak up to each other if not behaving as we have agreed upon. In doing so it gives us all a clear sense of how to behave and we feel we belong to the group.

Next to sharing values we need to share the same goal. What do we want to achieve as a team? Do we want to win the league, do we want to play for positions 3 – 6 or do we want to make sure we stay in the league (outcome goal)? Consequently, do we want to be an attacking or a defending side? Do we want to kick and rush or do we want to play tiki-taka (process goal)? What is most important to us: results or the way we play football? If questions like these are answered and clear for every player then we are thereby partners. Because we are aiming for the same goals we need to work together to raise our chances in achieving them. We are getting more alike as a team! Together with my boys we have agreed that it is our goal to develop ourselves the best we can become. I am there to help them develop, but they know they’re also responsible. So normally they give 100% effort during training sessions and practice a lot at home. We know: the better we develop the greater our chances to become a professional football player in the long run. We hardly ever talk about winning, we talk about improving.

However the most important part is about to kick in. We share values and a goal, are we there yet to create a winning mentality for all of us? I don’t think so. We also need to have a clear sense of our role (responsibility and tasks). This resembles need 3 and 4 of Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchical needs – the need to belong and be acknowledged. This is most challenging for a coach I reckon. It is most challenging because every player will have a different role on the team. It is in acknowledging every player’s role that a coach can distinguish him or herself as a coach.

By default football holds different roles for every player in a team. For example, take positions on the pitch. A striker has other tasks to fulfill than a goalkeeper. These positions are most extreme in differing from one another. But also the two central backs can hold different tasks – one has to stop the opponent’s striker, where the other has to take care of build up play. This means that some positions and thus players have more influence on the match result than others. This is the reason why clubs pay loads of money for strikers and centre backs/goalkeepers are often undervalued. Everyone sees the direct influence of a striker – he scores goals and often is the difference between win or loss. Whereas defenders have less a visible influence on the match result. Retrieving a ball is not worth a goal in football. And this is a possible danger to the coach, especially if he’s focused on winning matches.

What will happen if I’d want to win a game? I will convey the (unconscious) message – verbal and non-verbal – that I value the boys who are important to the match result more than the others. One clear way: I will use the players who, at that moment, have the most positive influence on the match result. The others will play less minutes. Do children feel this? Of course they do! This is one of the reasons why I want all my boys to play the same amount of minutes. That sends the message that I value none of them more than another. The boys themselves know who are the best players at that moment, look at the social hierarchy they have formed. Almost always the better players are the leaders. As a coach I don’t have to emphasize that. Because then the boys who I have made feel less than others will first want to feel more, feel they matter to me, matter to the team. And then their focus is primarily on need 3 and 4 – to belong and being acknowledged – and not on the highest need – to win.

So whereas some players influence the result less than other players, partly due to their position, we need all of them. We need our right back to stop the opponent’s left winger from crossing the ball inside our box. For every time he stops the attack we don’t get awarded a goal, but we do retrieve the ball. The ball that gets to our striker who then scores: one up. So we need every player in every position on the team. It’s simple math: we need 11 players to play the game! Or in my case: 6 players. Therefore we should accept those different roles and value every player for executing his role, not for who’s role is more important. We should value a striker for how he’s executing his task and our right back for his. We’d do a better job not comparing players with each other, especially when they’re not playing on the same position.

A coach can excel in guarding everyone’s important role in achieving the team goals. Because then every player feels he is being acknowledged and belongs to the team. Let’s compare players with themselves or their performance on the tasks of their position. Consequently we will evaluate players for what they should and are able to do, and not so much for what they shouldn’t and are not able to do. So if we can make it clear to our players that they all have unique (developed) qualities which we need on the team, then we can raise the feeling of value and beloning of every player (need 3 and 4 of Maslow’s theory). Then the players will go on to the highest need – winning (self-actualization in Maslow’s theory).

When we are being acknowledged for our role and (developed) qualities we will feel responsible for our tasks. And those tasks are derived from the goals we have set together. Those goals, at least in the end, often have to do with beating the opponent, because in football we all want to win the game. So as a team we will feel responsible to win the match, to win the league. Thus we have to make sure we acknowledge every one of our players and his or her role on the team. If we do, all our players will want to win and act like that!