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!


“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.






Slide1                                               Photo Credit: Leeming Design

                                             MIKE SMITH, FOUNDER: BIGiDEASPORTS

A few years ago, at an international football conference, I saw the legendary French coach Gerard Houllier give a simple and memorable demonstration.

He handed a pencil to a member of the audience and asked him to break it – which he did with ease. He then handed the same person a bundle of 11 pencils and asked him to do the same thing. He put all his force into it, but the pencils wouldn’t break.

“That’s the power of a team,” said Houllier.

Youth coaches in team sports will immediately get this wisdom: A coach’s main role centers on creating a team: binding sticks. Youth coaching tends to focus on team set up, team tactics, team attitude and effort. The players’ circle up, all hands in, “GO TEAM!”

And as such,


But, while the team approach is of course a vitally important part of sports coaching, in terms of total player and team development, there is a limit to the power of GO TEAM! unless it is deeply grounded in confident, skilful individual players.

Going back to our pencil analogy: It’s like Gerard Houllier handing someone 11 pencils half sawn through. They would snap with little pressure.

Happily, we are seeing a growing coaching emphasis, particularly with younger players, on individual player development through ball mastery, first touch and core skills, rather than a lot of “X’s-O’s-and Arrows” on tactic boards.

But where the individual side of coaching of young players is still greatly lacking is in coach-player communications.

In this area, coaching in “Team Mode” simply isn’t enough.


Sports psychologists and researchers have consistently found that the personal relationship of the coach to each individual player, and the positive, progressive and insightful feedback given, is one of the most important components of effective team sport coaching.

This is particularly so in the coaching of young players. Positive feedback builds confidence, wellbeing and a positive player-coach relationship, and then opens the door to being challenged about “What’s next?” – the foundation of a positive, learning mind-set.

Parents too are more supportive and satisfied when they hear their player is getting personal, 1-on-1 feedback from their coach, rather than just hearing about the team’s win-loss record.

Without personalized feedback from the coach, young players have only their own self-rating of how they are doing within the team, perhaps based on an inaccurate self-comparison with others, or the not-always-positive words from other players or parents.

Young players want to know directly from the coach that they are doing well, that they (personally) are making a positive contribution to the team, and how they can do that even better.

So, when it comes to player feedback, a coach needs to shift from “TEAM MODE” to “PERSONAL MODE.”

But, with 10 or more energetic young players of varying abilities to manage and mould into a team, how does a coach find the time to give each player relevant and constructive feedback? That’s a challenge!



Develop an understanding of how a young player progresses in core skills, game sense, and team support, from beginner skills through intermediate to a more advanced player.

 For example, First Touch Control. A player’s starting point, during competitive play, is to be able to receive a ball under no immediate pressure and maintain close control – most players develop this pretty quickly. Progress shows itself as a player instinctively moves the ball away from the pressure of an opponent with their first touch; and a more advanced player has the skill and confidence to lift the ball over the foot of an incoming opponent to avoid a tackle.


It sounds easy, but many coaches feel the need to actively coach and interact from the start to the finish of a training session. Experience tells us, however, that allowing some training time that is totally player driven will boost player decision-making, creativity and player-generated team spirit.

 So always finish training sessions with 20 minutes of competitive, small-sided FREE PLAY. Just observe, individually, 3-4 players on a key core topic (like First Touch, or Attacking Mentality, or Team Spirit).

Don’t comment. Simply make a note on what stage each player has reached. Note any new individual player achievements – a reason for a “well done.”

Over the season, observe and make notes on each individual player as many times as you can.


At least once a month, during a training session scrimmage, bring your notes and call out players individually for 2-3 minutes of 1-on-1 feedback. Always start with what they are doing well, and then challenge them with a “what might be next?” They often know without you telling them.

 Keep it positive and light. Younger players don’t need highly structured goal setting. As coaches, we are there to support and help young players reflect and try to progress, both as players and as people, not to measure and judge.

If a player is struggling to progress, try to create a more simple next step, and give them a helpful activity they can practice at home.


Making more time for personal 1-on-1 feedback will certainly create better players and a more successful team – it will increase your chances of winning the league.

But another, and perhaps more important outcome, is that your positive, encouragingly challenging words delivered 1-on-1, are words that can stick in a player’s mind for a lifetime, helping to deepen their love of sports, and maintain their on-going participation in positive, healthy, life-enhancing activity.

Which surely is what coaching is all about.


NOTE: This article is primarily for coaches of young players U12. For older youth players, particularly for high performance players, a higher level of detail in player feedback, and more structured goal setting and player self-reflection, can be useful.

But the principles remain the same.

(If you want to read more on this topic, you could Google the excellent work of educator Grant Wiggins, with his mantra of Less Teaching, More Feedback, More Learning.)

At BIGiDEASPORTS we are working on a coaching APP to help busy coaches easily track player progress and provide effective well done/what’s next feedback.

If you are interested in joining the pilot testing, please contact us at: info@bigideasports.com


u18Happy to see our 1+1 Peer Learning concept kicking off at a Premier League club. A season of Academy players and Special Olympics players sharing their passion for football, live and on-line, with benefits on both sides. Particular thanks to Newcastle United Academy Director Joe Joyce for his openness and commitment to this pilot project. LINK.


street soccer

This evening I stopped to watch some kids, a mix of boys and girls, in the local square (in Spain we are lucky to still have them) playing intensely as the street lights come on, mimicking the moves of the stars that inspire them; playing a unique and special version of the beautiful game.

In terms of child development, there are clearly a lot of positive things going on in these free play games: Players are growing – skilfully, physically, emotionally and socially. This got me thinking about the differences between free play and “organized” sports, and what organized youth sports might learn from Free Play: – A lot I think.

Organized youth sports can certainly offer a lot to young people:

  • It brings similar age/level kids together in a predictable, safe, scheduled way – A family can build it into their busy weekly schedule.
  • Players have a Coach. A good coach can certainly bring a higher level of skills teaching if he/she is able, and help a young player to understand how to progress and work as a team.
  • There’s a Big Game at the weekend. It’s more than a pick up game. You represent a team, perhaps your school, or your community. You wear the team shirt. You gain a sense of pride and responsibility.

What can Organized Sport Learn from Free Play?

  1. Organizers: For younger players, make sport easy to access, local, convenient. Minimize the travel. Don’t have too many training sessions in a week. Maybe 1 for U8s / 2 max for U12s. Let kids explore other interests.
  2. Parents: Chill out! Let them play. At a game, imagine your child is playing with friends in the local square/park, and you are at the café looking from afar; just enjoy seeing them play.
  3. Coaches: Keep training active (as non stop as possible – with a few water breaks as needed), and the fun element high, particularly in teaching technical core skills. Make it social. Build a good team spirit. Allow time for kids just to be kids. Let players take responsibility in their training. Keep it light. Don’t over coach. Don’t talk too much. Be careful about criticism. Don’t do everything for them. Integrate humour into the hard work. Always finish a training session with at least 15 minutes of FREE PLAY where you say nothing at all, except perhaps “Wow. Brilliant.” Let the kids play. Use this time to just stand back and observe. Consider how individual player is making progress, and how you can help that. At games, never coach the player who has the ball. Don’t put a heavy weight on whether a game was won or lost.

Organized youth sports, when done well, can be great for kids. Mixing in some of the feeling and elements of Free Play, will make it even better.

Enjoy your Game

Mike Smith


messi and coI live in Barcelona. Most Saturdays I am in my local pub watching Barca play their magical brand of football. Like many people, I love the Pro game: The skill, the speed and intensity, the physical battle and knife-edged drama, the maniacal fans. For sure, the Pro game is an inspirational magnet for attracting a steady stream of star-eyed kids into the beautiful game. Long live the Pro game…

Well, up to a point.

While all of us who love sport want the Pro game to inspire and motivate our kids, this does not mean it should become the model for youth sports, which is what is happening more and more.

Just as players want to imitate their heroes, here in Spain, and in many countries, we see too many youth coaches modelling themselves on their Pro coach heroes: the same obsession with tactics, the constant pacing the side-lines, the theatrical tantrums over referee decisions, the winning-at-any-cost mind-set, and all the other outward trappings of the modern Pro coach. In the Pro setting it all makes some sense; in the youth game setting it makes no sense at all. (To be fair, I’m pretty sure if Mourinho was in charge of a team of U10s, he would be a very different coach. But youth coaches seem to forget this.)

As many have already commented, we must do more to educate and support our coaches. And we must also do a better job at convincing parents that their kids do not need them to model themselves on Pro club crowds. Pros respond to the intense screaming of their fans; kids do not.

So yes, let’s watch, celebrate and encourage our kids to take inspiration from the Pro game. But let’s also celebrate the youth game in its own right – less tactical, less analysed, with its natural expression of freedom, creativity, pure joy and fun. And, when a 6-year old boy or girl enters into the youth game, let’s not view this as a first step towards the Pros, let’s see it as simply the first step into the “beautiful (kids) game.”

Long live the kid’s game…and the Pro game.

Mike Smith