In my experience, a coach’s pre-game words are a reflection of his or her wider coaching philosophy, and a good measure of their belief as to what constitutes team success.
Simple, encouraging, memorable words really can make a positive impact on young players and help in their journey through life.
So let’s choose our words carefully!
IT’S SATURDAY MORNING. GAME DAY! The referee is waiting in the center-circle. Your team of 9 year-olds is gathered in a huddle, half ready, half nervous. All hands are in as the players listen in for your final words of wisdom. “LET’S GO OUT AND WIN THIS ONE!” you shout.
« Oof » thinks John, your star center forward, « If we don’t win, Coach is going to be really unhappy with us. »
Your center back, Fred, adopting the mindset of “We have to win – NOW!” is impatiently diving into tackles and being beaten too easily, and may soon get a yellow or red card if he fouls again.
After the team goes two goals down, John is now thinking “We’re definitely not going to win. This is terrible. We’re a bunch of losers.” His energy level slumps.
If you are not a winner, then you are a loser is the background narrative (from club directors, parents, society) that often surrounds a youth coach. We want our coach to be a “Winning Coach!”
“Playing skilfully” and “doing your best” is ok, but in the end it’s the team who wins who takes the points, the cup, the glory, and, by extension, success in life!
So what’s it all about if it’s not about urging your team to GO OUT TO WIN?
While such a mantra sounds like a good way to get your players psyched up and game ready, it can also sow the seeds of doubt, kill confidence and damage development. These words can also send parents the wrong message.
If everything is measured by the win, then what about the time the team plays really well, dominates the game, hits the post 3 times and loses? Or the game where the team really didn’t play well at all and got a lucky goal for the win?
Overly focusing on the result can prevent young players (and parents) from appreciating more important things such as effort, fighting spirit, skill and learning – the game lessons that help players grow.
Our experience is that kids really don’t need to be told to go out and play to win. Kids naturally play to win. They don’t like losing. That’s kids.
They also, as a rule, intuitively know how to keep winning and losing in perspective. In just about every youth sport survey, kids rarely rate « winning » in the top 10 of the most important things. Near the top are things like doing your best, learning, getting exercise, and playing with your team/ friends.
Pre-Game is not the time to hype it up, it’s the time to build confidence, calm nerves, focus minds, and help players feel a supportive team vibe; the the time to succinctly communicate, to both players and parents, your supportive, kids-centered, development-oriented coaching philosophy.
To help, I’ve collected a few pre-game mantra ideas from the BIG iDEA SPORTS network. Go team!
(“KIDS WORDS IN CAPS!”)
“Ok let’s go: Support each other; Play as a team. And, as in every game: We Attack like wolves, and … “DEFEND LIKE LIONS!”
“We’ve had a great week in training. Let’s use all that on the field. Let’s win the ball, attack, be clever, don’t be afraid to take players on, and always support each other. And what’s most important of all? “NEVER GIVE UP!” Absolutely. Let’s go play.”
“ So: play quick, look for space; play as a team, help each other.
Simple as that.”
“Who are we? (TEAM NAME!) / “I can’t hear you: (TEAM NAME!!)
That’s more like it. Game time.
What are your mantras? (Better still; ask your players what the pre-game mantra(s) should be.)
Enjoy your coaching and the beauty of sports.