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The Mental Game of Coaching Neophyte Players

Championing to the Use of a Routine

By Brian Baxter, MA Sports Psychology

As a long-time coach and sports psychology consultant, the most frequently asked question I get from youth coaches is: how do I keep my kids focused and motivated?  The simple answer: Make it fun!  No matter if a player is a seasoned professional (see: Landon Donovan) or a young player (google: Why kids drop out of sports and read any of the thousands of articles), when the game is no longer fun, it’s not worth playing.   But, of course, as simple as this sounds, the answer is a bit more complex than that.

So how to best teach?

Soccer is a game of skill.  If we break down what’s fun about soccer to its most basic level – it’s fun when you can make the ball do what you want it to, and it’s not so fun when you can’t.  As youth coaches our primary objective is to teach skills.  And that takes repetition, repetition, repetition.  And therein lies the catch-22:  repetition can get boring, and decidedly NOT fun.

That is where a good teacher comes in. Think back on coaches and teachers who you liked when you were a kid.  They challenged you, they made the tedious stuff seem fun, they were genuinely excited about your successes, no matter how small, and they set clear expectations for you to follow.  In teaching kids to play soccer, and develop their skills, you must have a plan, communicate that plan with enthusiasm, and make the players feel like they have some ownership in the process.

The best coaches can take the repetition or routine and make it fun, challenging, engaging, and tie it into the bigger picture, which brings us to:

How to best motivate?

Motivation to get the best effort for games is mostly easy, and motivation to get the best effort in practice or training is oftentimes not that easy.  Why? Because there is a clear, identifiable objective for the end of the game, and not always one for practice.  A great coach can make those practices seem like the most important thing in the world at the time.

In sport psychology, the best ways to motivate are:

1 – Have a clear objective
2 – Follow a clear process to reach the objective
3 – Positively Communicate both

This makes some kind of routine necessary – knowing what to expect.  Motivation is about getting the players to love the process, including the repetition of skills.  This can be hard because you don’t always see instant results, and often there is a lot of failures involved.  A good coach encourages failure as a path to success.  But at the same time, it is imperative there is some success:  a building block of an objective for each practice.  That’s motivation in a nutshell.  But how does that differ from inspiring?

How to best inspire?

If motivation is pushing toward something, inspiration is what’s pulling you towards it. The best way to inspire is by example. Practice what you preach and show that the outcome is what you say it’s going to be. Show results over time, in the way of improvement.  You have to be able to remind the players why they are doing these activities, what the outcome will be.

You can inspire by showing a video of a professional player executing the same skill or better yet talking about all the work it took to get to that place.  You can have one of your players who have improved on a skill demonstrate his or her mastery of the skill.  You can point out the execution of that skill in a scrimmage or a game.  Those things can be very inspiring to not only that player, but the other players too.

The case for routine for coaching youth soccer players

To answer the question: “How do I keep my kids focused and motivated?” it’s teaching, motivate and inspire.  Have a routine that leads to a definite objective, and teach the players the skill.  Have a clear process and communicate with enthusiasm the failures and success, and how the process builds toward the objective. And take time to inspire by showing what the end result looks like and how exciting that can be.

Brian Baxter, MA Sport Psychology, is the Director of Sport Psychology Institute Northwest ( and the owner of BaxterSports Summer Camps ( in Portland, OR.  His mental game workbook, The Sports Mindset Gameplay, is available on, and discounts for bulk team orders are available through SPINw. | 503-309-3347 | |

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