How we try to motivate our players is often misunderstood, in particular prior to playing in a game. Most coaches spend years searching for an epic, hair-stand-on-the-back-of-your-neck style speech like Al Pacino’s famous one in Any Given Sunday.

These kind of forced speeches however never really live up to expectation because of one simple reason – they are forced. Human nature dictates that when you speak passionately about a subject – any subject – people naturally gravitate towards you and listen to you speak. Their body language will tell you – they will lean in, make eye contact and hang on your every word. Alternatively if what you are saying is void of that passion and natural intent, it can come across quite hollow.

What you say to your players and how you say it will vary on what mood the players are in, rather than what mood you are in. The best way of motivating your players to perform to their maximum is to tune in with how they are feeling. Broadly, players fall into four categories prior to competition, and how you motivate them and the techniques you use will vary depending on their state of mind. The four categories are:

  1. Scared
  2. Nervous
  3. Confident
  4. Complacent

The optimal state of mind a coach would want their players to be in is confident, but also accepting that a little splattering of nervousness is ok – after all, being nervous about something means it matters. Being too nervous to reach peak performance is however damaging. Let’s explore how to motivate players who fall specifically in the 2scared’ or ‘nervous’ category.

Scared

This is where your players need you most. They will need your support and they need constant reassurance. If they enter the field of play genuinely fearful of their performance (because of the strength of the opposition, weaknesses in their own team, or after a particularly poor run of form) they will be unlikely to perform to their best. Basically, if they start the game beaten mentally, they will be beaten on the field of play. Roy Keane, the great ex-captain of Manchester United famously pointed out that on many occasions he knew from the opponents’ body language that they would lose the game – and that was before a ball was kicked!

Players who are scared need all the positivity you can give them. Give them lots of praise in the warm-up even if you have to slightly exaggerate it. Set up a warm-up that is nice and simple and will give them success. How you as a coach perform, and what you ask of them in the warm-up is critical. For example you may want to finish he warm-up by playing 5v5 for example in a tight area because you know how good the opposition are at keeping possession. This is well thought out tactically, however, as psychological preparation, it may be very damaging. Players will give the ball away more often, they will misplace passes, and if one of them is stressed enough, he may even take it out on someone in an overly tough tackle. Emotions may run high as they are already in a negative mind-set. And that negative mind-set may be reinforced in such a warm-up. Warm-up by doing something fun and light-hearted, where you get your players’ mood more positive.

In the changing room what you say is vital. Try understating the meaning and significance of the game. How many times have you heard a manager in a press conference saying “All the pressure is on the opposition”? That is a very subtle way of de-stressing your players and putting all the pressure on the other team. If you tell a team that are fearful about how important the game is and how good the opposition are, that will on work to increase that fear.

Nervous

As is stated above, being nervous is ok, once those nerves come in small portions. As a race, human beings only get nervous about something if it important to them. That is something that can be harnessed and valued by a coach – your players care about your team, your game and your result!

Again, praise is important. Remind nervous players what they are good at – or better still, get them to remind each other. Get them in pairs around the changing room and give them two minutes to tell each other 2 or 3 good things about each other. If you think about it, if someone tells you all the positive things about yourself, it makes you feel ten feet tall. That becomes even more powerful when it comes from a peer, a team-mate, someone your own age and in your own circumstance.

The coach can also recall the times the team has played well, a specific game, goal, passage of play, or giant killing result that will cause the players to feel the great things about that particular event, and desire to apply it to the circumstance they are in now. It increases motivation and allows them more positivity to break through into a confident mind-set.

You can use this even if it is only one individual who is particularly nervous – ask him “do you remember that game when you marked their star striker out of the game; then scored a goal at the other end? That is what you are capable of. Remember that”. You may even take that player aside subtly to work with him/her. After all you do not want to point out his nerves and raw feelings in front of a group. The key message is about reassurance. That is what they will want to hear.

Conclusion

It is important to tune in to the mind-set of your players. If you do they will dictate how you prepare for a game. If you find them to be nervous, or literally scared about the task at hand, then it is time to go to work. It is time to be positive, pick them up and praise them. They need you more than ever and will be craving any glimmer of hope and positivity you give them. Ensure they get it.