Every great youth soccer team has a healthy dose of one ingredient: fun. Now, the most important aspect we can cultivate is the feeling of “fun” for our players. I think we’ll all agree that when kids are having fun, they are turned onto the game, developing, progressing and won’t drop out of playing the game. Yet, so many times, the inner competitive drive of adults trumps the common sense approach to having fun. If having fun is central to turning kids onto the game and ensuring great opportunities for all players, we have to figure it out.
What does “having fun” mean? How do we cultivate that environment?
- Let them play. So many kids would rather play on losing teams and be on the field playing than standing on the sidelines of winning teams. The joy and fun is in playing the game.
- It is generally accepted through research that lack of playing time, pressure to win and dislike of the coach led to kids dropping out because they weren’t having fun.
- Players learning new aspects of the game while achieving and improving increases enjoyment. Come to practice with a plan that builds on your previous sessions and be flexible enough to change the session if players aren’t achieving success.
- Players that are part of a team and the social aspects of feeling needed and part of a larger whole dramatically affects player fun. Let’s face it, for many players the rituals of pulling on the uniform, hanging out with the team and the after-party gatherings from games are as important as the activity itself.
- Coaching soccer is not a dictatorship. While it is important to have a plan, making players feel “part of the plan” is just as important. Players that have independence and control over their environment will certainly experience greater satisfaction.
- Players feel the balance of challenge and success for growth. If the challenge is too easy, it is no longer fun. If the challenge is too hard, it isn’t any fun either. We have to be constantly attentive to the games to find the right balance of challenge and success for optimal growth.
- Coaches create age appropriate activities that are clearly explained and flexible to meet the needs of the players. An exercise that is not well explained or demonstrated leads to confusion, anxiety and subsequently no fun for the player. Be prepared with your practice plan, but flexible to change it if your players aren’t succeeding. The easiest way to make an exercise harder or easier is to limit (or increase) the amount of space where the activity is taking place or limit (or increase) the number of players.
- Positive Feedback sandwiches: Positive comment. Corrective comment. Positive comment. This approach always doubles the number of positive feedbacks to negative ones. With fragile self-images and egos of young players, it is critical coaches stay positive to keep players motivated and part of the game. If you want to see a young player “shut down”, watch an overzealous coach yell at a player.
The outcomes of keeping things fun:
- Lower drop out rates
- Higher self-esteem
- Players who develop faster. If a player enjoys the game, he or she is more likely to go outside in the backyard and practice with friends, family or by himself.
- Social connectedness through the team leads to improved behavior
At the top of the list, age appropriate activities are central to having fun. As your team progresses and players develop psychologically and physically, we can change the parameter of expectations. We have to remember to see the game through our players eyes – not our jaded adult eyes. These players are not “little pros”, but rather young kids out to have a good time, learn, be challenged and play with their friends.
What are things that you do with your team to cultivate a fun soccer environment?