How to Help Young Players Stop Enjoying Their Football

17 April 2024

Developing The X-FACTOR To Transform Your Football Performances

How to Help Young Players Stop Enjoying Their Football

It’s great to see a young person on the football pitch enjoying themself.  Taking risks with the ball, giving 110% for their team no matter what the scoreline is, laughing and smiling a lot and having great delight in being with their friends.

It’s also very hard to watch as a parent if your son or daughter is not enjoying their football.  When on the journey to the match they say “I can’t be bothered today I don’t want to play.”  When they fake injuries. Or during matches they appear disinterested and withdrawn or afterwards the drive home is filled with tears, frustration and negativity.

Why do young footballers lose the fun factor and enjoyment from the game?

Below are 14 suggestions:

  • Internal pressure from themselves.

A lot of young footballers look to go out on the football pitch every time to play the “perfect” match with high, rigid and unrealistic expectations of themselves which ends up crippling them with fear.

  • The one-nil down mindset.

Before a ball has been kicked this young player is immediately seeing the match as a threat not a challenge.  It may be that they had a poor training session the day prior, they lost last time out to their opponents or it’s blowing a gale and the weather isn’t helpful.  This footballer will be making excuses from the outset.

  • Comparisonitis.

Comparing yourself to other players is a great way to spoil your enjoyment.  You tend to find from around 9-10 years old children become more aware of other people’s thoughts and feelings.  This can move them away from simply mastering the task in front of them to getting caught up in people pleasing, judging and mindreading.  As it’s a team sport, football, pleasing team-mates and hanging on to the every word a coach says, is hugely common.

  • Focusing on opponents.

This is a common issue for a lot of youngsters who play football who spend time online before matches looking at league tables, scrolling social media or YouTube to see who they are playing, how they are playing and who to watch out for.  The scrolling is done at the wrong time and with no process and is often the result of fear taking over.  Conversations with parents and friends can also revolve around opponents which can be unhelpful too.

A balloon full of worries
  • Exhausted by worries.

As a match gets closer, to some young footballers their head begin to fill with worries.  Imagine blowing a balloon and for every lung busting breath you add a worry this is much like how the footballers brain feels.  When they are on the journey to the match their brain is full of doubt and worries.

  • Overwhelmed by physical warning signs.

A lot of young footballers will experience nerves before a football match, this is normal right!  It’s also a good thing, showing that they care and want to do well.  Not so for some young footballers as their heart-rate increases, or their breathe shallows, their stomach becomes tighter or their hands get sweaty they panic and don’t like the fact their body does in their mind weird things. 

  • Playing in a position they don’t enjoy.

Most football players have a preferred position that they enjoy playing.  However, as it’s a team game and often results take precedent for many coaches.  It is common for players can be asked to fill in and play where they don’t feel comfortable.  Some players get on with it and do their jobs, but some hate that feeling of being uncomfortable and much like the one-nil down mindset they’ve set themselves up to play poorly and not enjoy the game before they start.

  • Criticism from coaches and team-mates.

There are a lot of sensitive young people who can struggle when feedback is communicated to them.  Football being an emotional game is full of opinions, from coaches, team-mates, friends, parents and spectators.  The sensitive young footballer often falls into the trap of letting their emotions overwhelm them and takes any feedback negatively.

  • Fear cultures in clubs.

Some coaches are what you would class as “old school” and believe that the way to motivate footballers is to shout at them, to challenge them “ a lot” and to be very demanding.  These coaches often instil fear psychologically and physiologically in young people and get caught out playing the “blame game.”

  • Playing in a team who is struggling.

Nobody enjoys looking at a league table and seeing their team at the bottom.  Not many people enjoy getting beat 3-0 or 5-0 every week too.  After a while this can turn a lot of young people off playing football and they quickly lose interest in playing.

  • Feeling like they don’t belong.

It’s common to play for a number of clubs during your time playing football.  In some environments there is a strong sense of togetherness and players are made to feel welcome straight away.  In other teams and clubs, their may be cliques, team-building isn’t seen as important or coaches are very task orientated therefore some players don’t feel comfortable and have that feeling of being left out.

  • Parents push their own desires.

Some youngsters are forced to play football.  Their parents don’t want them sitting round the house on their XBOX and want them to be more active.  The parent themself enjoys football so doesn’t give their children any options but to play against their wishes.  Recently when working in an academy setting, I asked a group of young footballers their interpretation of pressure and it was amazing how many said it was being pushed to do something and not to be asked.

  • Football obsessed

We hear all the time that you have to be obsessed to achieve great things, however to some young people, obsessing and specialising in one sport, football or soccer in this case, at a young age, breeds anxiety and excessive pressure.  They fall into the trap of trying too hard and losing the fun factor. 

  • Self-esteem issues

When we’re young we’re trying to find our way, our interests, our strengths and weaknesses.  Our feelings of self-worth can yo-yo and is often volatile.  Throw in specialising in football only and pinning your identity on how well you play on the football pitch, this can be a recipe for disaster for many young people.

How can we help young people enjoy their football more as a parent?

I’d start with being open-minded:

Open-minded to learning about the brain and how it impacts young people’s behaviour.

Open-minded towards recognising that you can help a youngster regulate their emotions.

Open-minded about your behaviour and that importance of modelling.

You may also want to be open-minded to listen to some recent episodes of the DEMYSTIFYING MENTAL TOUGHNESS PODCAST aimed to support parents of youngsters who play football:

In the last of this 3 part series created for parents of young adults and kids who play football or soccer I discuss how fear can wreck a youngsters fun and enjoyment on the pitch.  Common responses to fear before matches include performance anxiety, physical sickness, feigning injury and refusing to play.  It’s a hugely difficult challenge to navigate as a parent therefore I share a tool connected with mindfulness which can help ease the young footballer’s anxieties.

In the second of 3 episodes created for parents of young people who play football I carry on the conversation about enjoyment on the football pitch.  Where on this occasion I introduce the relationship between enjoyment in football, the impact of playing poorly, performance levels and self-esteem.   I go on to discuss what self esteem is, what you could expect from someone with high self-esteem and factors that can contribute to low self-esteem.  In addition, I touch on life control and “having a can-do attitude”, a measure of mental toughness that is connected with self-esteem, and the complexities surrounding self-esteem at a young age.  You can also expect some helpful advice on how to help young footballers who face this challenge and struggle with feelings of low self-esteem.

When your kids go through struggles or aren’t enjoying their football it’s very easy as a parent to play the comparison game where you see other kids having fun or other parents seemingly having an easier job.  Football coaches’ advice and opinions can also add to the stress that you may feel. A mixture of emotions can go on to cloud your judgement too when making decisions on what is best for your kids.

This podcast episode is set up to help parents in this respect where I share some resources to help you and your child navigate some difficulties when they aren’t enjoying their football and when the thought of quitting the sport is on their mind.

WORD OF THE DAY

OPEN MINDED

Some definitions of being open mind include: “willing to consider new ideas” or “willing to listen to other people and consider new ideas, suggestions and opinions.”

As many quotes are this one is very powerful and links closely with being open-minded.  “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” – Henry Ford. 

So many people are quick to moan a lot and blame others without making any changes.  They fail to take responsibility for their actions, development or learning.  Often because they close their mind to other options or ways of doing things.  There’s certainly merit in reviewing our approach from time to time, removing emotion and asking yourself some tough questions or getting someone else to ask you those difficult questions.  Making changes can be tough in the short term, however further down the line you are more likely to reap the rewards and if you’re a parent or coach your children or players will.

CHECK US OUT ON INSTAGRAM WHERE YOU’LL FIND IMAGES AND POSTS LIKE THIS

Unhelpful expectations in football

⚽️ For Football Coaches: 

Do you consider your players inner narrative about how they play football or soccer? 

Do you consider that some players may spend too much time in the past, dwelling on past successes or failures therefore struggle to focus on the right things in training or matches?

Do you consider that some players may be more future orientated and as a result procrastinate or try to predict the future a lot, again distracting them on the training pitch or in a match situation?

How do you help these players stay present moment orientated? 

⚽️ Footballers – how do you manage expectations for an upcoming match? 

One thing you can do is look to replace any unhelpful expectations with specific mini goals.

For example, an unhelpful expectation, which could add internal pressure, could be:

⚽️ Where you tell yourself I expect to score 7 from 10 chances.  Instead replace this with 2 mini goals.  1) To make your opponent life difficult by being on your toes throughout the match and moving cleverly to get into pockets of space. 2) Asking for the ball at every opportunity.  

You could even rate yourself after the match on a scale of 1-10 and track your progress with these specific goals. Then you could move on to other mini goals such as using your body strength well or bouncing back positively after errors. 


💥 Give it a bash, it can really help you take the pressure off yourself and improve you as a footballer.

TO DO LIST:

WATCH: Youth in Sport – Keeping Kids in The Game | Hugh McDonald | TEDxLangleyED

LISTEN: Helping Kids Navigate the Pressure of Upcoming Competitions with the Help of one of Dr. Becky’s Parenting Strategies with Rebecca Smith

READ: The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

EXPLORE: The Cheers and the Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today: Shane Murphy PhD

FACT: The prefrontal cortex, which controls judgment, impulse control, and emotion regulation is the last part of our brains to mature.  This happens in our mid to late twenties.  Therefore it is perfectly normal to see young people make poor decisions and lack emotional control.

TIP: Because a young person’s brain is still developing, they may respond differently to stressful events than adults.  If a lot of stress and pressure is placed on them at a young age it can make them more susceptible to stress-related mental illnesses and in a football context performance anxiety.  Therefore, helping young people deal with stress better and arming with them with coping strategies will help them in their football and lives in general.   This highlights the importance of our role as Sports Psychologists where we often use football as a vehicle to teach life skills.

QUOTE: You make mistakes in your life especially when you’re young.” – Brendan Rodgers

Making mistakes

THOUGHTS: In relation to making mistakes in football and this quote by Brendan Rodgers, something I’ve noted from my work supporting young footballers is that some coaches can fall into the trap of seeing the person as the finished article, psychologically and sometimes tactically, even at the ripe old age of 21 years old.  It’s not uncommon for players to be asked to play out of position, for some players this can be hugely challenging where they get in their own way and become very fearful.  Natural mistakes can mean they get down on themselves and a mental barrier is put up.   In this case, they often need their hands held and extra support yet some coaches treat the players though they’ve played the position their whole lives and don’t give them the time or information they need.  The player really needs to be listened too, to be empathised with, patience is required and an ability to help them regulate their emotions is helpful too.  The tough, challenging approach with raised voices equals less confidence, a lack of trust in the coach and more and more fear and anxiety in the footballer.  Assuming they know the position is another big no, no – by questioning the players understanding (especially the quieter player) and often this alongside the patient approach improves decision making.    

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David Charlton Sports Psychologist

Best Wishes 

David Charlton

Online Sports Psychologist | Mental Performance Coach who supports many highly motivated athletes, young and old, developing their skills or who are already highly skilled so that they gain a mental edge and get the most from their talent across the globe from USA/Canada to Great Britain and Ireland to UAE, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, using ONLINE Video Conferencing.    

Managing Director – Inspiring Sporting Excellence

Host of Demystifying Mental Toughness Podcast

Founder of The Sports Psychology Hub 

Author of The Mental Edge

With over a decades’ experience supporting athletes, coaches, parents and teams to transfer their skills from training to competitive situations, under pressure.

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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