I often get asked about how to get the most out of a group of players – from fitness, mental or tactical perspective. Some might ask about technical things such as various aspects of fitness or game plans while others might get frustrated about their players putting in sub-maximal effort. Many wonder what they should say to their players to get them to mentally “peak”.
The truth in fact is that most often, you don’t need to say anything at all – or indeed what you say is often of little importance in comparison to how you say it or how players feel treated in general.
What we know from psychology research is that players generally will give their all if they are “emotionally engaged” in a process. They will only get to this point if they feel valued by their peers and coaches! So how do we get to this point?
A coach can help players be emotionally engaged by showing them high levels of fairness and that they care. Care you ask?
Players will remember if they felt valued by a coach. They will also remember if they felt let down, disrespected, under-valued etc. That is not to say that all players will feel they should always play. That is not necessarily the case as some may think. Players as experienced sportsmen will often have their own hierarchy as to who is most deserving of playing and most if they are honest, know where they stand. Once the choosing of the team is done in a fair and equitable manner, then most players won’t have an issue irrespective of whether they are chosen or not – but choosing it in a fashion that disrespects the group or individuals within the group can make things difficult to get the most out of the group.
Deci & Ryan 1986 (psychology researchers) pioneered a very relevant theory of motivation that we have come to know as self-determination theory. This theory is very relevant to all coaches irrespective of the level. The premise is that individuals or a group of people remain motivated towards the completion of a task if they have the following attributes – Autonomy, Competence & Relatedness.
Autonomy is a sense of ownership of the process among the individuals within a group.
Competence is the sense that the task at hand is within reach and that with fair effort, success is readily achievable.
Relatedness is the appreciation of the importance of the camaraderie of a group with a shared vision towards a group goal where all members feel involved.
Athletes will be more motivated if their inherent needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met and enhanced by the environment they find themselves in.
Within this space, a sport psychologist might work with a team in divising a team culture that fosters such attributes. This might include facilitating a group to generate their own “code of values”, team motto and/or group behavioral goals / standards. The fact that players generate these gives them ownership of the process and as a result, are more likely to engage with the process.
A clear game plan with clear roles is also crucial and with input from the coach, a sport psychologist would also be capable of facilitating a session on “role clarity” where players again feel a sense of ownership of the process as they engage with the clarification of the position specific roles.
Additionally, Dr Carol Dweck, (also a psychology researcher) over a period of time has developed what she has termed a “growth mindset” – a mindset where people act in a positive way towards personal improvement to aid achieving a goal. She suggests that to get to this point in a sporting context, a coach needs to praise effort over outcome. The net result is that lesser talented players become better for trying harder and feel more valued while talented players that might be playing within themselves, are motivated to work harder to receive acknowledgement or praise from the coach. The group becomes inherently motivated and much stronger as a result.
A recent article on Dublin footballer Paul Flynn emphasises the importance of a growth mindset. Commenting on his struggle to “make it” and his improvement from the U21 grade to senior level he said, “I definitely didn’t have a bullet proof confidence that I was going to make it,” says Flynn. “When I was minor and U21 I was always on the periphery. When it came to championship in both I started in midfield, but it was always a real battle.
“I continued to work on my game and I always had confidence in one part which was my engine and hunger. I knew once the tougher the game and battle got, the better I’d get. I had confidence in some aspects of my game but I always knew there were areas to work on. There’s the talent piece and the attitude piece. I was always very strong on the attitude piece and the commitment to honing in on my game and making sure I was the best me I could be. Whereas there were other players I played with who had the talent and probably didn’t put in the work or have the mental capacity to be able to take it to the next level.”
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From a field game perspective at higher levels, some coaches may use GPS software to track effort levels, monitoring heart rate, running distance and speeds across a series of games. Standards and goals may then be set to increase GPS scores based on position specific roles.
If you want to take anything from this article it might be the following. People might not remember what a coach says but they will ALWAYS remember the way you made them feel!
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Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport