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What or who motivates our players to ‘Play or not to play’. That is the Question?

by  Dr. Jay Martin,

Editor NSCAA Soccer Journal

Neil Hull wrote the following article which was  published in NSCAA’s ‘Soccer Journal’

As we all know the game is built around individuals creating a team. In a full-sided game a coach is dealing with twenty-two, but the numbers required to play a ‘game’ can be as low as two, one vs. one. Whenever players get together a team environment can be created and this often is the bonding agent between winning and losing. The emphasis of the team can add a virtual player or two; their names might be motivation and passion. Our question though: What makes this individual want to play in the first place? Where does their motivation come from? The game, the ball, friendship, the end product? The answers to these questions could be endless because we are dealing with the psychology of the individual player.

In an organized game, the coach should have a role in the motivation of the player. At all times one must remember that players are passionate for the game because they just want to play. Everything else to them is just an external factor, in my opinion. To remove the will to play from a player is surgical suicide. It is the coach’s duty to create or facilitate the environment so the game can be successful. By doing this correctly the game then becomes the player’s teacher. As we know from our coaching experiences in soccer, players learn more from ‘doing’ than from lecturing.

As mentioned in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s curriculum at the director of coaching level and also the State diploma; directors of clubs should be there reinforcing to their coaches the importance of the game and should not take away the opportunity for players to play and develop at any level, from a scrimmage, to an organized game. Obviously we have to deal with players overtraining and being able to prioritize, not wearing themselves out by scrimmaging with friends on a match day or conducting similar activities prior to important games. This comes down to the coach’s scheduling, communication and organizational skills and the player’s discipline. As mentioned in the NSCAA State Diploma in the certain areas of America the game is denied grassroots growth because of the restrictions in being able to play soccer. Reasons may include, but are not limited to: Lack of public fields, travel distance to playing locations, restrictions placed on players by other institutions, transport/ parent involvement. On an organized level in the USA there are probably more options than most developed countries, but these can also have controlling factors and environments. At the end of the day when the opportunity arises for players we should give the game back, and when the opportunity arises for players we should give the game back, and just let them play! This is when they become creative and learn from siblings, friends, strangers and the game. For a coach or parent to take the opportunity away from a team or individual, when it is available, (the ability to just play), removes the evolution and development of the player, the team and the game. This is when the score does not matter! A player who plays is the winner! !

Sometimes there can be more to a game than just the Game. When players are young grandparents, other relations or mentors might travel a distance just to watch their offspring. The score does not matter to them, the spectators, only the moments of joy and pride expressed by the player. This is the game at grass roots, but as we advance in the game and enter the higher levels of club and high school, external factors can affect the game – incorrect numbers of officials, weather, team availability, injuries, and tactics. All these can affect the legitimate outcome of a game. In some of these situations the rules say you can cancel and reschedule; so cancel it. However, do not send the players home, you’ve got the field, the time, the resources, have a scrimmage: 11v11 or M, split the timing into thirds rather than halves so the players can enjoy themselves. At this level who knows the external factors, maybe high school coaches have come to watch their players at club level or visa versa. Parents might be collecting video for college resumes. One team might have traveled a considerable distance to play, what are they going to do just turn around and not play because a referee did not turn up? Have a scrimmage; the official game will be rescheduled anyway: Just let the players play and have their own winning moments.

One of largest feedback points from players to coaches is about playing time. Taking away the opportunity for a player to play when it is there, in the local park, league or high school setting, is possibly a control issue by the coach understanding what is best for him but not his team. There might well be strong reasons why he does not want to play the team in formation, but at least give the players the option to have a 4v4, 8v8 or I M I run-out. Obviously there are exceptions in this argument, but at the local league level a game is the game.

Any coach worth his or her ‘salt’ knows that all training sessions should finish with a game, so he can asses his product and watch the players play. Each game, whether on the training ground or match day, is his diagnostic examination; where each player is cognitively graded in both effort and ability.

To produce a ‘red’ card to players and deny the opportunity of a game or scrimmage could take away the ability for a player to love and advance in her sport. Creating the loss of passion and motivation and divorcing him from his roots and the reason she most enjoys the sport of soccer. Just remember: Player’s play to play the game!

Neil Hull
Director Players Academy Soccer Skills State Technical Director – NSCAA

Dr. Jay Martin

Editor: United Soccer Coaches, “Soccer Journal” Author: Recently published his first book, “Lessons from a Great Coach: Develop a Winning Team Culture That Lasts!” Head Coach: Ohio Wesleyan is the winningest coach in NCAA men's soccer history with 749 wins, making him the first men's soccer coach to reach 700 wins. Heading into the 2023 season, he boasts a 749-158-80 record and a career winning percentage of .799, ranking 14th all-time in the NCAA. Under his guidance, the 2022 Bishops were NCAC tournament champions, and the staff was named NCAC Coaching Staff of the Year for the 10th time. In 45 seasons, Martin's teams have a 297-30-24 conference play record, winning 26 conference crowns. Martin led Ohio Wesleyan to NCAA Division III national championships in 1998 and 2011 and has reached the NCAA Division III semifinals nine times. His teams hold records for playoff appearances (43) and victories (65). Awards: 16-time NCAA Regional Coach of the Year. Inducted into the United Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame in 2020. Beyond soccer: A successful lacrosse coaching career and has turned out 61 All-America and 214 all-region or All-Midwest players in both sports. He served as president of the NSCAA and spent six years on the NCAA Division III selection committee. Martin, a professor and former athletics director at Ohio Wesleyan, has also been a color analyst for the MLS's Columbus Crew for nine seasons. Learn more about Dr. Jay Martin at Super Soccer Camp at Ohio Wesleyan University.