Category Archives: winning and losing

Shoot-out

IMG_0910No.1 son’s team capped off a season in which they won every league match with a cup run. The final was played on a bright, blustery spring afternoon – cherry blossom swirling across the pitch to give a brief wintery feel. The venue was a local non-league club ground, several steps up from the public park environs the teams normally play in, with their undulating fields, haphazard grass-cutting and careless dog owners.

The match fulfilled one of the cup final archetypes that all football fans will recognise. The stronger team (‘our’ one) dominated possession, created chance after chance, but couldn’t score against dogged, determined opponents with a hero-in-the-making in goal. Mid-way through the second half, the archetype shifted. In a rare break out of their own half, the other side’s lone striker ran past ‘our’ central defenders and struck the ball firmly past the keeper.

The match reverted to type, with no.1 son’s team piling on pressure and with ten minutes left, equalised from a corner kick. More chances were saved or missed before full-time. The game re-started with 20 minutes of extra time. Despite the rolling substitutions, the size of the pitch had tired both teams so that a sustained attack was beyond them. Penalty shoot-out.

“This will end in tears,” was the conclusion my touchline pal and I reached as the players gathered in the centre circle for the penalty prelims.

No.1 son’s team were to maintain their perfect season, winning the shoot-out 5-4. The image at the top of the post shows him driving his penalty into the top left hand corner of the goal.

The other side’s second penalty taker steered his shot wide, lifted his hands to his head and walked slowly back to the centre circle without showing his face. There he sat, staring at the grass, amongst his teammates, who were presumably offering their support. His miss, as he must have feared, as all of the boys dreaded for themselves, was the difference.

I question the value of a penalty shoot-out in a junior match, where the result has no further consequences. Earlier rounds in a knockout tournament do need a winner for the competition to progress; I’ll return to that subject shortly.

Having joint cup winners is to me an entirely legitimate result for the teams that cannot be separated over full and extra time. The trophy can be shared; the individual statuettes would just need ‘finalist’ inscribed on them all, instead of one-half; both teams can celebrate. I see nothing to be gained from spoiling one or two young lads’ days, as almost always happens in a shoot-out.

I imagine proponents of a definitive result arguing that youngsters should not be sheltered from the harsh truth of life and its repeated sifting into winners and losers. I think kids know that well enough. Everything they do is imbued with competition: school, gaming, appearance, getting noticed by girls. Why not, in these rare instances when the score remains tied, show magnanimity and recognition that the contest, not the result, is all important?

“They don’t take it that seriously,” may be another rebuttal of my idea. Many, I agree, probably don’t, and can stride on after a penalty shoot-out miss, walk tall in the playground on the following Monday and savour the opportunity for another chance to take a penalty. Others, though, do not. The coaches, I observed, selecting their five penalty takers, are not overwhelmed with volunteers. It’s a stress that many boys (indeed, professional footballers) prefer to avoid.

Several weeks after the final, I took my younger son to play a cricket match. There were puddles on the pitch and storm clouds overhead. The game would normally have been called off before bedtime the night before, but this was a cup-tie and a definitive result was needed. The method used, a bowl-off, is cricket’s equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. Bowlers deliver a single ball at an undefended set of stumps. Whichever team hits the stumps most often wins the tie-breaker.

The situation was tense, the boys were anxious during the match. One team was delighted and the other disappointed at the end. There was a key difference to the penalty shoot-out that made it less likely that a single player would feel the burden of responsibility for defeat. Instead of each team fielding five players (as in a penalty shoot-out), all eleven in each cricket team had to bowl. The greater number of competitors and efforts means that the margin between teams is a lot less likely to be a single point. The individual is a smaller part of the team score and gains protection. With all players participating, it is more of a team event.

This should be the model for penalty shoot-outs in junior football. Involve the whole team. Do less to isolate individuals. Try not to spoil one young lad’s day.

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Filed under winning and losing, young shoulders

No sport for the weak

gymGymnasts are wiry, resilient, persistent and brave.

Had the parents of the junior gymnasts forgotten these truths, they would have been forcibly reminded within ten minutes of the start of the annual club championships.

The 1&only daughter’s cohort began on the uneven bars. The first competitor missed her transition from the lower to higher bar and brought her routine to an abrupt end. By the time she had returned to the bench she was sobbing. Her upset continued. The girl sitting next to her put an arm around her. Her parents watched, but were forbidden from crossing onto the competition area to give her their succour. The coach remained in his scorer’s chair, waiting for the next competitor.

That second competitor completed her initial moves on the lower bar and struck out for the upper bar, but in a way that immediately felt unpractised, speculative. Whatever the reason, the young girl upended and fell, like a winged bird, to the mat. She wailed, as we all wanted to do. “My arm feels funny. What’s happened? I’m frightened.” Her father, seconds after the coach, did not respect the sanctity of the competition zone and went to her aid. An ambulance was called, a sling improvised and after a few minutes of comforting, the girl was lifted from beneath the apparatus.

Four girls left to perform. The coach asked them one-by-one to return to the bars and repeat the warm-up of ten minutes before. And then it was competition time again. First to perform after the interlude was the 1&onlyD.

Her routine involved six or seven maneouvres, all but one of which she had managed time and again, with increasing polish. The exception was the opening move, the upstart, which after months of practice she had finally achieved two weeks before the competition.

To complete the upstart she would need to attack the bar to create the momentum for the backward swing that could lift her body up. Logically, after seeing her classmate fall after a tentative move, attack would be the right approach. Emotionally, self-preservingly, a little caution could be understood.

The 1&onlyD pitched herself forward onto the bar, arcing first one way and then back. Up her body rose, bendy elbows struggling for an instant then snapping her atop the bar. Upstart achieved, the 1&onlyD rotated and launched for the upper bar, another swing, a shape held and then a dismount to the crash-mat. Arms up to salute the scorer. The audience clapped with relief, with admiration, and in our corner, pride.

The drama of the 1&onlyD’s bars performance may have affected her for the rest of the evening. Neither beam, nor floor routine went smoothly. But she picked up gold for the uneven bars.

The girl who had cried received a quiet word from the coach and went on to compete wholeheartedly in the remaining disciplines.

Little J, who fell, was kept in hospital overnight. Her arm was broken and dislocated. She came back to the gym the following week to see her classmates, collect get well cards and her competition participation certificate.

Wiry, resilient, persistent and brave.

 

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‘Are ye Hearts or Hibs?’

englandscotlandfootballAll the debate about the referendum on Scottish Independence recently has made me think about my early childhood in Scotland, in the early 1970s.

One of my first memories is coming down the slide at my nursery school in Edinburgh. I was maybe three or four and I was definitely wearing an orange pinafore and matching hairband, of which I was very proud. I was confronted at the bottom of the slide by a small knot of scary boys who pulled me to one side, encircled me and demanded menacingly ‘are ye Hearts or Hibs?’. It was as if they were speaking a foreign language, I had not the slightest inkling of what they were talking. I remember trying to say I didn’t know, I couldn’t choose. I was scared and nervous as instinctively I must have registered the importance of the question to the questioners. Eventually I think I half-heartedly plumped for ‘Hearts’, it being the only word I recognised, whereupon several of the small inquisitors threw up their hands in despair and walked off in a huff. It was not for another thirty years or so, when I recounted the tale to my husband, that it was explained to me that this was about football and the intensity with which (some) small boys (and girls) approach it. Perhaps the boys in my nursery school thought I had shown some slight promise as someone who could be recruited into the ranks of the Heart of Midlothian or Hibernian supporters, but my evident lack of partisanship made me a disappointing potential ally and I was thereafter left to my own devices by them.

Forty years on, I am living in Manchester, with two devoted football fans of my own in the shape of my sons and one daughter who also anchors memories by remembering not always what happened, or where, but by what she was wearing at the time. ‘Was that the time I wore my yellow summer dress?’ she asked recently, as I reminded her about a wedding we attended when she was four. ‘Ah yes, the butterfly leggings…’ she mused, when discussing a trip to London.

Being in Manchester, of course, means that many of the local children are either avowed Manchester City fans, or Manchester United fans and the rivalry appears to start young and hold fast. My younger son, now aged eight, plumped for City at a very young age to follow his older brother with the helpful coincidence of it being a bit of a purple patch for the Club, so that ‘his’ team were amongst the most successful. He identifies so strongly with the team that he is genuinely and wholeheartedly distraught when they do not perform to his exacting standards and roams around the house randomly kicking sofas and sulking at a draw, let alone a loss. It is not enough, either, that his team succeeds – his enemy must fail and United’s losses are greeted with dances of delight.

A recent school trip to visit the local Old Trafford ground was met with jutting jaw and disgusted silence. Unprecedentedly, the school trip spending money I had pressed into his warm palm in the playground in the morning was returned to me, unspent, in the afternoon. He just couldn’t bring himself to buy anything with United on it, he explained. Not even the sweets. Even a few of the parents appeared to feel the same, with ill-tempered mutterings in the playground about the kids being ‘indoctrinated’ into United, how it wasn’t fair to make City fans go to the home of their fiercest rivals.

I can’t help feeling, in this week of pondering what it means to be British, that the business of football supporting is all, well, a bit un-British. Aren’t we supposed to be famous for supporting the underdog? For coping manfully with defeat after defeat, supportively cheering on our hapless, hopeless teams in the rain and wind and snow, with nothing but a pie and a pint to look forward to? Or does that only apply to our most local teams, or our national team, or our children’s teams? What I see, as someone on the periphery of football fandom in Manchester, is a state of the art stadium, shiny, expensive, mostly foreign players and vastly overpriced shirts and accessories without which a small fan’s life simply isn’t worth living. The live City games – yes, I have been to two now – are undeniably exciting, gladiatorial affairs which I have enjoyed immensely, not least because City won and I did not have to contend with the profound disappointment of my sons on the way home. When I talk to my sons about those matches, they can recall in great detail who scored, from which end and in what minute, who assisted the goals, who was substituted for whom. I remember the chanting and cheering, the feeling of being part of something huge and exciting and watching my children’s flushed, excited cheeks. My daughter remembers that she wore her black wool coat, her fluffy white scarf and the earmuffs she got for Christmas. And that it was fun.

I have really not intentionally encouraged or facilitated my children into such stereotypical roles, but I cannot deny that they fall into them pretty neatly. On the subject of supporting a team, my daughter certainly does appear to feel a degree of disappointment if, say, someone she wants to win on a TV programme is not triumphant. There is, however, a world of difference between her temporary, mild upset expostulating some unfair bias amongst the judging panel of Strictly or Tumble and the existential despair which comes over my younger son when City lose. My older son does not appear to feel quite the depth of despair of his younger brother, so maybe it is something which can be grown out of (although when I see the obligatory Match of the Day shot of men crying in the stands when their team gets relegated at the end of a season, I somehow doubt it.)

I wonder if those small Edinburgh boys are still in their separate Hearts and Hibs camps now that they must be, like me, in their mid-forties? I feel sure that they are: a true fan stays true after all. What I don’t know, though, is whether they will be in the Yes or No camp for the Referendum. Are they going to vote to make me a foreigner in the country I was born in, where my mother was born and died, where my father and sister live, just as they once ignored me for my lack of allegiance to Hibs? I hope not. All I know is that I feel fifty per cent English, fifty per cent Scottish, one hundred per cent British and zero per cent Hearts, Hibs, City or United.

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Filed under Competition, individual development, winning and losing

Flaws and the floor

leotardThe one and only daughter (1&onlyD) swung on the uneven bars, battled for balance on the beam and would soon assault the vault in the annual club championship. Next though, for the 1&onlyD and her cohort of primary school gymnasts, was the floor routine.

The 1&onlyD has been thrilled by each new piece of equipment introduced to her gymnastic life: as a tot, the trampoline; then as play became training, the vault, the beam – first at ground level, then at head-height – and most recently the uneven bars. But it’s the apparatus without equipment – the floor – that has remained her favourite. It might be sheer enjoyment of the space, or simply that it’s less constrained, maybe even safer than the other disciplines.

She selected the music for her routine at the end of the summer: Bear Necessities. Then she began to construct the moves she would perform to accompany the music. A concoction comprising her favourite wheels, rolls, flicks, flips and splits linked by strides, leaps, steps and kicks. The routine grew in length and complexity at the twice weekly training sessions, but it was at home that the 1&onlyD pondered her options and trialled them in the concentrated space of our living room.

She counted down the training sessions until the championships, which fell in the same week as the first public performance of the school orchestra and recorder group. Playing violin and recorder played second fiddle to the gymnastics which was what really made her nervous. The 1&onlyD was anxious about the beam but the build up was really focused on the floor routine.

Her cohort included three girls she trains with regularly and a group of girls who train on another night. One of her peers, a little older, has an energy and elasticity that sets her apart. Finding she would be in the same group made the 1&onlyD sober about her chances of winning trophies. On the first apparatus, the uneven bars, Elastic Girl did swing with a speed, precision and assertion greater than the rest. Moving to the beam, all the girls wobbled and teetered, getting plenty of opportunity to show their graceful remounts. The 1&onlyD brushed off a couple of tumbles attempting simpler moves and completed a backward walkover intact.

And then the floor, where the 1&onlyD was the second gymnast to perform. She flitted all around the mat, forwards, backwards, speedily and slowly, on feet, hands, bum and back. Her pacing and gestures moving in concert with the music. Mrs DG, who had seen practice runs and discussed different moves, beamed. The applause, not just mine, seemed more sustained than for the gymnasts before or after her.

Several practice vaults, then one for real and the competition was over. The girls gathered on the mat in front of a foam rostrum and a table of trophies and medals. The 1&onlyD made it to the lower steps of the rostrum for bars and beam, with Elastic Girl winning gold. The medallists for the floor were announced: not bronze, then sighs of surprise – silver for Elastic Girl – could the 1&onlyD.. Before the thought was complete, a Monday night girl was up and taking the prize. A simple case of mistaken identity no.1 son quickly reasoned. Overall bronze was the reward for the 1&onlyD’s consistency, but it wasn’t savoured.

A few days later and the judges’ scores were posted on the gymnasium wall. How close had she been to a medal for her floor routine? Not close, but last.

All sports have scoring systems that exist a little askew from the aesthetic excellence of the most eye-pleasing performances. We’re familiar with the flowing passing move in football that slices apart a defence, but earning nothing if the final shot is angled a degree too tight or wide. The most sumptuous off-drive in cricket scores zero if intercepted by a fielder. Something similar operates in gymnastics, too.

The 1&onlyD’s routine was longer than that of her peers. It contained, with one exception, a greater diversity of movement and degree of difficulty than that of her peers. It turns out that slight misalignments of her limbs, repeated in the many tumbles, turns and twists, led to multiple deductions. There can be no complaint – the apparatus is there to test specific skills which the scoring system measures.

But the 1&onlyD is disappointed and I wonder what lesson she should learn. Clearly, as with any junior sport, the aim must not be to win at all cost. I would not want her to conclude, though, that there’s no return, no reward for boldness. Maybe a technical sport, like gymnastics, demands attention to detail ahead of risk-taking.

What I hope, when the disquiet passes, is that she can reflect on the satisfaction and joy she felt devising her routine, practising its intricacies and contortions, but not dwell on how it was received in competition.

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Filed under skills, winning and losing, young shoulders

In net

goal & goalieIt’s one of the curious facts of junior sport that approximately one in twelve children who wants to play football likes to be, in the vernacular of my region, in net. The replication of this statistic throughout the country keeps the game in balance: ten outfielders (give or take the odd substitute) and one goalkeeper. And on those occasions when the ratio is disturbed, the simmering emotions of the touchy touchline parents tend to boil over.

A couple of summers ago, no.2 son was playing a friendly end of season competition. With boys aged five or six, the club discourages specialisation and each player is rotated through the various positions – actually the two positions: not in net and in net.

No.2 son was part of a strong team, playing with several boys now part of the academy structure of local premier league clubs. The team won all their games. The coach was giving equal playing time to all and, notionally, asking the boys to play in different positions. All got to play in goal.

(There was actually one exception: no.2 son. In one of my greatest touchline faux pas, I had taken him to get a hot-dog, misreading the start time of the next match, missing his match in goal.)

Throughout the day there was a low but irritating buzz from a couple of parents – ObsessedDad and High-flyerDad – muttering about the coach and his tactics. But harmony beckoned in the form of a trophy for the winning team of a short knock-out between the best teams. How could we lose?

So, into the semi-finals our lads progressed, to meet a team featuring some boys familiar to those of our players attending pro-club academies. Then, as the boys lined up, there were gasps of disbelief. High-flyerDad’s lad, an uber-talent at six, had thrust his oversize hands into some infant goal-keeping gloves and stood between the sticks. The match resolved itself as a battle between him – every bit as outstanding in goal as anywhere else on the field – and the opposition. The rest of our team was swept away and out of the final.

The dads that had buzzed irritatingly all day, burst into condemnation of the coach and the club that had ‘wasted their whole day’ with this bizarre selection decision that had neutered our team. The coach tried to explain that High-FlyerDad’s son had volunteered to go in goal, but this was met with ridicule – what was he doing allowing the boy to decide?

And now roll forward to this morning. Another boy made a decision about being the goalkeeper. No.1 son’s team arrived at their under-13 league fixture without their regular keeper. The squad has another experienced goalkeeper and this was the lad who made the decision – not to play in goal.

The background seems to be that he played a game in net earlier this season and became very upset. He was on the verge of tears today when asked to play there again. Quite reasonably, the coaches did not force the issue and another volunteer stepped forward for the role at the back.

On the touchline, matters were not left to lie. The refusenik’s mother put up a defence of her son, which wasn’t based on him getting upset, but not getting enough game time as an outfielder. She was challenged on this and soon, then repeatedly, MoaningDad had shifted the focus from the mum to the boy: “If that was my son, I’d be across that pitch to sort him out. There’s no ‘I’ in team. Letting everyone down”, etc.

The boy making his very first appearance in goal was applauded loudly. Understandably he made a few errors – three in fact, but who’s counting? Each led directly to a goal, the third the decider in the last minute of a game heading for a 2-2 draw.

No.1 son reported that as the players and some of the parents gathered together immediately after the match, MoaningDad repeated bitterly his favourite adage, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”

A strongly worded email has arrived tonight from the coaches about an incident and parents’ behaviour.

From all this, we can conclude: parents have a very easy job at matches, but some do it very badly; coaches have a very difficult job at matches and won’t necessarily be appreciated if they do it well; and a lad (or lass) that likes to play in net is essential to the harmony, if not the success, of any team.

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Football without a ball

kes

Football without a ball so no one keeps score. One way to do it I guess. Your thoughts?

This appeared on my twitter timeline not long ago. The piece it linked to explained that many Canadian soccer associations had eliminated the concept of keeping score due to the growing concern over the effects of competition on junior sport. One association had gone a step further and removed the ball:

We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it’s about using your imagination. If you imagine you’re good at soccer, then, you are.

And it does make you think. What sort of inventive tricks, formations and interchanges kids could come up with if they didn’t have to worry about a ball. Wouldn’t it be liberating to run around a field with a group of friends, conjuring a game from thin air. Wouldn’t it?

It was, of course, a hoax. Or, more accurately, satire – created by Canadian comedians behind the radio show and website ‘This is That’. It had enough of a ring of truth to it to convince one English coach on twitter, however.

A joke is a joke and perhaps it would be best left there. But the idea of junior football being a subject for satire has intrigued me. I don’t think it is unprecedented for the culture of junior sport to be played for humour. The Fast Show had a series of sketches about Competitive Dad and his put upon kids playing family games of monopoly, arm-wrestling, cricket, etc. There have been portrayals of coaches who take themselves and the sport too seriously, none more enduring that Brian Glover’s bullying, delusional PE teacher in Kes who is coach, referee and wannabe-Bobby Charlton rolled into one.

This target of the Canadian satire is different, though. It’s not inappropriately macho behaviour; it’s the opposite. It’s the efforts of well meaning coaches and organisers to make junior sport a better experience by removing the sting of competition. Playing without a ball is a fiction, but not keeping score is real in Canada, the UK and probably many other places; and it’s that which gives the satirical piece its hook back into the real world.

I am interested in what it means for modern junior coaching practices to be satirised. Does it mean those practices are wrong and those that pursue them are laughable? Definitely not: anything that is new or counter-intuitive is easy-pickings for satire. Well-intentioned people, trying something different and harmless for the betterment of children deserve respect not mockery.

I think it means that the proponents of junior football for fun have yet to win the argument. There remains a dominant view that junior football is adult football played by smaller people. Opinions polarise around this issue. The football establishment seems to be on the reformist side of the argument wanting to make the junior game about participation and the development of skills and social awareness. They have not yet won over their constituency of parents and football fans. Until this balance shifts, any innovation, any deviation from the established pattern of matches, results, leagues, cups and champions will be viewed with suspicion and subject to satire.

What will it take for the popular view to come into line with that of the experts?  Gary Lineker wrote recently about the corrupting influence of pushy parents. Perhaps the public support of high profile football personalities for junior football being played for its own sake, not for results and league positions will play a part. It might take the evidence of better adult players graduating from a system that values play more than victory. But perhaps that evidence is already available from societies such as Holland, without influencing attitudes elsewhere. It might just be when demand from children to play for fun outstrips the demand for competition at a young age.

I suspect, however, it will happen when the parents of a future generation hark back to their youth as footballers and talk about the fun they had, not that they played in a league with points, winners and losers and that it did them no harm. If you’re a coach or junior organiser who just wants to ‘let them play’, you need to accept you’re in a long game and there’s a fair chance that there are people who will want to satirise what you do for a few years yet.

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Dan Abrahams – Sports Psychologist

Soccer-BrainDan Abrahams is a leading sports psychologist who has worked with players and teams at all levels to improve their performance on pitch, court and course. Dan has just published a new book, Soccer Brain. He has kindly agreed to answer some questions on sports psychology that my time on the touchline have prompted.

TL Dad: What experience and research is your new book ‘Soccer Brain’ based on?

Dan Abrahams: Soccer Brain is a book for soccer coaches. It comes from a decade of working at just about every level of football and with most age groups.  I have worked alongside hundreds of coaches and managers – experiences that have shaped my views on effective ways to coach and manage players and teams. With regard psychological underpinnings to the book – my passion is to demystify sport psychology for players and coaches so I try to avoid too much ‘dry’ stuff. There are lots of stories in the book related to the experiences of those perceived to be great managers and coaches. I love to bring this stuff alive for people. However there still has to be substance and all its tools and techniques are backed by research.

TL Dad: Do you find the psychological challenges of adult and junior players to be similar, or not?  If not, what tend to be the differences?

DA: Similar but in different forms and at different extremes. Parents must remember that their kids have different brains to them. What we know in neuroscience now is that the front, intellectual brain isn’t fully wired up with the emotional brain until a person is in their mid twenties. Emotional management for your footballers is very difficult. Many kids tend to be engulfed in emotion, especially after a poor training session or a loss. But you always work on the same things whether you’re working with academy players or men/women’s first team – areas like confidence, focus, intensity, motivation etc tend to resonate throughout the lifespan of a footballer.

TL Dad: One of my children (aged 6) went through a phase of not being able to tolerate losing football matches – even when in a non-competitive environment. What would you advise a parent in this situation?

DA: Losses are a great opportunity for parents to help their children manage adversity and subsequently provide effective schemas for adulthood. I’ve always given parents a basic process for post match losses. Firstly, don’t feel compelled to say anything. Allow your young footballer time to stew. You know it’s no bad thing if they’re disappointed. This means they’re competitive and they want to win (and as we all know, competitiveness is a valuable commodity in adult life, something that is thrust upon us no matter who we are.)

Once your young footballer is in a better mood then it’s time to be proactive. But avoid making statements, strive to ask good questions. For example, what went well today? What could you have done a little better? Asking questions helps a young footballer open up a catalogue of pictures. They are not judgmental and they help your child become a student of the game (and their own game.) If you want to add value yourself then mention a couple of things you thought they did really well. As a parent it’s useful to lay down tracks of success for your child to come back to as often as possible.

TL Dad: I have found some junior footballers play below par because of a fear of getting injured as the game becomes more physical as they get older. What advice would you give to support them?

A fear of getting injured is tough to overcome. You can provide all the rational advice in the world (for example, if you go in at 50% you’re more likely to injure yourself) but the brain works emotionally more so than it does intellectually. This is an art and not an exact science, so my best advice is to ask the young footballer what 100% looks like. Get them to see and feel the pictures. Try to help them equate these pictures to something different. For example “What kind of animal does this look like?” That might get a bit of an embarrassed chuckle, but if you elicit an answer of, say, a LION, then this is a very productive, emotional picture that the child can use when he or she trains and plays. If they can equate LION to 100% it may make it easier for him or her to compete at that intensity. But do bear in mind your question requires a whole chapter to answer properly.

TL Dad: Children tend to want to practise what they are already good at, rather than new skills they could develop? Do you have any psychological techniques for encouraging children to persevere and  acquire new skills?

DA: They often don’t want to practice something they are ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ at because of the fear of failure or the embarrassment of looking stupid. So my first advice there would be to work on a weakness individually away from others. Within that process, as your child starts to pick up the skill, reinforcing the notion of ‘can’ and helping the child identify improvement can help build their confidence in trying new things and working on weaknesses. Another idea is to try to make the drills as fun as possible whether it’s bringing a competitive edge or bringing a playful theme to proceedings. This is simply the art of good coaching.

TL Dad: Where junior players are having difficulty at sports, which have a psychological background, what role do you find the parents to have played?

DA: Parents can be a great influence or a lousy one. Pushy parents can be pushy in the right way or pushy in the wrong way. It’s a real mixed bag. Parental involvement is a very complex landscape. Many people say parents shouldn’t be involved and should keep a distance, yet there are numerous examples of parents who help their kids develop their sport and their personalities in a healthy competitive way. Just because a sports parent is firm doesn’t mean they are a bad sports parent. I’m unsure the job of the parent is to be their child’s best friend all the time. We live in a wonderful world but one that (in the words of Sylvester Stallone) can beat you to your knees. Parents who love their children also know that they have to help their children face adversity life throws at them. Sport is a wonderful platform to help this happen – so I don’t have a problem with the ‘involved’ parent. But it must be a healthy involvement.

TL Dad: Which sports player would you nominate as having the most thorough psychological preparation for competition?

DA: Ha, well this is a grey area because I would say that having a thorough preparation programme for competition isn’t necessarily congruent with being a ‘normal’ person with a ‘normal’ lifestyle. I think the best sportsman mentally is someone like Tiger Woods, but his off course antics show that, whilst his sports prep has been spot on it may have been to the detriment of him as a person. Novak Djokovich seems to have a great attitude on and off the course (but who knows!!).

TL Dad: Thank you, Dan, for sharing your experience and providing some practical tips for supporting junior footballers. We may also know a bit more about how effective Djokovich’s preparation is this weekend.

Dan Abraham’s new book Soccer Brain, is available on Amazon. Dan can be followed on twitter: @DanAbrahams77

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