How to Help Emotional Football Players Stay in Control

1 November 2023

Developing The X-FACTOR To Transform Your Football Performances

How to Help Emotional Football Players Stay in Control

Welcome back to our third X-FACTOR email where we look to help the footballer who struggles with his or her emotions on the football or soccer pitch. 

When we think about anger on the football pitch we may of these types of responses:

  • Cursing and swearing.
  • Kicking water bottles or other things lying around.
  • Arguing with officials or the opposition.
  • Fighting with opponents or even team-mates.
  • Reckless tackles.
  • Arguments with coaches and spectators.

Often these behaviours happen as a result of:

  • Not being able to handle nerves.
  • Fear of the unknown.
  • Losing a match.
  • Making a mistake and showing yourself up.
  • A stroke of bad luck or perceived unfair behaviour from an opponent or referee.
  • Intimidation from an opponent.

How well do you deal with angry responses?

It’s very easy as a parent or as a coach to consider the cause of the behaviour but then how we go on to support footballers often could be handled better.

You often see a parent or coach berating a player for bad behaviour similar to what happens to infants, punishing them, often because it dents their own ego or causes them or the club embarrassment. 

I’d question is this approach actually going to help the player moving forward?  Will they learn their lessons and improve the way they deal with these types of situations?  I’m doubtful.

For example, Jonny, a midfielder, is playing football in a semi-final and watches his goalkeeper make a mistake so his team go on to lose the important match.  To Jonny this is huge, it’s his world, he and his team now won’t be in the final.  Jonny goes off the pitch sulking and then kicking water bottles in a rage.  He argues with some of his team-mates and coaches too. 

So the coach gets angry and shouts at Jonny.  His parents get wind of his “bad” behaviour and punish him.  Collectively the club and parents stop him from playing football for 2 weeks and are very critical of him.

The problem with this approach is Jonny now feels ostracised and alone to deal with the issue.  He isn’t shown how to work through this and what would have been a better approach.  By simply being told he shouldn’t have done behaviour A. Or he shouldn’t have done behaviour B.  Or his team-mate Tom didn’t do such a thing, he handled it much better so why can’t you (Jonny) be like Tom.  All this does is wind Jonny up and adds to his already normal critical inner voice.  His self-confidence and self-esteem are harmed as a result.

What would a better approach be?

The coach or parent could firstly look to identify the triggers (the goalkeepers mistake, losing an important match) and acknowledge why Jonny behaved like he did in a calm manner.  Then consider any emotional cues, by showing Jonny some empathy, love and support.  Conversations in a calm manner may take place about Jonny’s expectations of himself and others and factors that are inside  and outside of his control.

By approaching Jonny in this way, Jonny is more likely to learn to face and deal with his emotions better.  He will also likely learn to respect himself and others more, not because he is told too but because he feels supported, truly understands it and has experienced what it feels like personally.

Moving forward yes, he will still likely mistakes, as youngsters do, Jonny won’t be “perfect” however the more compassionate approach will help him learn how to express his emotions in a safer way and slowly he will learn how to do it without anyone’s help.  It won’t happen overnight however with consistent support and reassurance from parents and coaches in this way it is more likely to happen.

Studies show that when human beings are hurt emotionally, our thinking brain can shut down.  So when we cannot think, we cannot learn.

The fact our thinking brain shuts down when we’re hurt emotionally, all Jonny is likely to be doing is recording in his brain the behaviour that is being modelled to him. 

So when the coaches and his parents are trying to help him by criticizing, lecturing, shaming, ridiculing, giving orders, screaming, or threatening all he is doing his recording in his memory bank is bullying behaviour.  He’ll be able to visualise this behaviour easily moving forwards, he’ll likely feel the emotion internally, hear the sound and tone of the voice and so on…  Not the behaviours that he needs to rediscover such as: Calmly speaking to his team-mates or coaches or shaking hands with his opponents at the end of match.

It’s a tough job being a coach and a parent, often our behaviour comes from what we were taught and what we modelled growing up.  The phrase “or else” for one is bandied around a lot.  From Jonny’s viewpoint all he sees is a big person standing in front of, who he is told he “must” respect yet he is being spoken too in an intimating way.  For Jonny this person is bigger and stronger and this can be frightening. 

I sincerely hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this week’s X-FACTOR article, it’s challenged your thinking, and it’s helped you consider your approach and reasons for why you react the way you do. 



Compassion is a fundamental aspect of human emotion and behaviour characterised by a deep awareness of and sympathy for another person’s suffering.  It is an active response where we show genuine concern for another person.  In the case of an angry footballer, this action can have a calming effect and help the player learn how to pacify themselves.


⚽️ If you were a football coach or manager which player would you prefer in your team?

⚽️Perspective – the player who can maintain a big picture perspective, who can see situations for what they are and from different angles.

⚽️Passion – the player who shows passion, yet doesn’t let their passion boil over.

⚽️Respect – the player who is able to respect the match officials decisions, moving on quickly to play the game, focusing their attention on what they can control.

⚽️Winning – the player who fiercely wants to win, yet also shows a degree of sportsmanship towards their opponent.

⚽️Dealing with pressure – the player who has the ability to handle his or her emotions and channel their focus well, when the pressure is really on and when they don’t get the rub of the green.

⚽️Intimidation – the player who is able to intimidate opponents by holding back their emotions, by their quiet humour, by their smile when they are provoked.

For managers and coaches it’s worth noting that you’ve a responsibility to your players, and play a huge part in the development of these qualities in your players by the way that you act…

What are your thoughts?

WATCHProfessor Michael West: Compassionate Leadership

LISTENEp 202: Demystifying Mental Toughness with David Charlton – How To Help Footballers Who Struggle With Fear Of Failure

READThe Self-Compassion Workbook for Kids: Fun Mindfulness Activities to Build Emotional Strength and Make Kindness Your Superpower with Kristin Neff and Amy C Balentine

EXPLOREProfessor Adam Nicholls musings on what socially supporting athletes should look like

FACTKevin De Bruyne one of the best players in the Premier League when crossing the ball fails to find a team-mate 76% of the time.

TIP – Be careful how you set your expectations, in the case of crossing it’s amazing how many times the best players don’t set up opportunities for team-mates.  I’d look to make your expectations more about how you will respond when you don’t find a team-mate rather than getting too outcome driven and then getting frustrated.   For example, I will continue to be brave, getting into positions so that I can put crosses into the box regardless of how well the game is going for me.  This is better than, I “must” find a team-mates 7 times out of 10.

QUOTE  Ange Postecoglou – “Be brave,” he said during one team talk as revealed by Australian TV station Channel 10’s footage. “I’ll back you 1,000 per cent.  Just know either side of you you’ve got someone you can rely on. So if you mess up, they’ll make it up for you.  And next time they mess up, you’ll make it up to them.  Be ruthless, be relentless.”

THOUGHTS – I love this quote, Postecoglou must be a great guy to play for.  As a player, being asked to be brave knowing your manager won’t shake his or her head or fist on the sidelines, won’t shout at you for taking a risk and won’t tell you what you shouldn’t be doing can only free you up  to enjoy your football and play with freedom.  It’s not easy but I’d advocate you don’t fall into the trap of saying things like “What were you doing playing it out from the back like that, don’t be doing that again when there is an opponent on your team-mate.  Just boot it in the stands.”  This approach is critical of the player and won’t help them learn from their mistakes. 


Share The X-FACTOR with your friends, family and colleagues, and create a positive difference to the lives of more football players, coaches, parents and enthusiasts.

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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