Thursday, 7 October 2010

Tension v Confidence - Hitting the sweet spot III

There is a depth to dealing with situations that most never see. What I'm about to share with you goes beyond football. It is a way of analysing any situation where there is the possibility of success or failure. Nonetheless, in the fast paced world of football it has a particularly relevance. And this magic thing I speak of is the sweet spot that occurs between confidence and tension.

What is confidence? Confidence is a belief in your abilities as an individual and as a team. It is typically associated with an enjoyment of the process, a relaxed approach to affairs without worry, and intrinsic enjoyment - i.e. playing the game for the good emotions it gives you... for the game's sake. Confidence is good because it typically allows you to express yourself in a creative manner.

What is tension? By tension I don't mean knots in your back that your local massage parlour rids you of. It is not a bad thing. It is typified by a focus on getting good results, understanding the importance of what you are doing, and taking extrinsic enjoyment for what you are doing i.e. seeing the greater purpose of what you are doing (winning, parents, pride). It is good because it ensures there is a high level of application to the task at hand and you take nothing for granted.

I see both as existing on a continuum. It is impossible to have too much tension and too much confidence. It is possible to have too much of either. Too much confidence and you fail to prepare adequately. Players with high levels of confidence typically attribute winning to their own ability, and losing to a lack of effort on behalf of the team. Players with low confidence (i.e. high tension) typically attribute success by a good team effort, but a loss to poor personal ability. Too much tension results in being stifled, with lack of creativity and self-expression.

However there is a sweet spot in the middle where the two no longer seem to pull away from each other but act together to create "the sweet spot".

When I spoke about "commitment", "positivity" and "fun" as being important in my first post, then it is in the sweet spot that these things are built. Before I talk about how to make players more confident or increase tension, I want to make a point so simple it may barely seem worth making.

In order to hit that sweet spot you need to know where your players are. Or, in order to know which direction you need to head in, you have to know where you are now! This involves having great empathy for your players and an understanding of what motivates them. If you do not speak with them, if you do not show them you care, if you do not make a real effort to get to know them, then you will never be able to lead them. When all is said and done leadership is simply being able to organise people to behave in a certain effective way. Find out what makes them tick and you're onto a winner. Here is a short list of questions you might like to ask each player:

Name/what you like to be called?
Have you received coaching before?
Did you enjoy it? Why?
Favourite player/club?
Why do you want to play for ?
What type of players do you like around you?
Favourite film?
Favourite band?
What are your goals for the year?

This list can make it sound formulaic. It needn't be. You might like to just get them to fill out a form. This will suit some players who like to reflect on themselves. Other players will prefer to talk loudly and quickly. A team will have many different characters and your role as a coach is to allow each player to express themselves fully. This way you no longer drag them behind you, but guide them as they propel themselves to greatness. One of my favourite quotes of all times is by Arsene Wenger...

"It's not really that important what a manager has to say. What's important is what you instil in the players' heads. You have to make sure the players are under the impression they are struggling for themselves. Point them in the right direction and then allow them to express themselves. If they do that, they can move mountains."

This is not to say let the team take charge. On the contrary, they must have complete trust in your knowledge and ability if they are to take your democratic style as a sign of strength rather than weakness.

It is particularly important to take an interest in a player's well being when he is down/injured/not playing well. A coach's role is not to try to be strong enough for the hole team. It is to have the intelligence to bring out the best strength in each and every player. However, there will be times when individuals will need you to convince them they are part of the team. If you know your players you are likely to spot this before it becomes a big deal.

How to improve confidence

Players must feel like they have improved after every training session. Growth is invaluable for all human beings. Football is no different. If you can add value to your players they will enjoy themselves and have more trust in your ability as a coach and in turn be more willing to put themselves at the disposal of the team.

Emphasise the importance of the team over individuals. The coach and the players all need each other.

Positive feedback on performance in training and matches.

Remind players of past successes.

Prepare thoroughly. Do everything possible to succeed. This removes any lingering doubts.

An emphasis on progress and improving as players rather than results.

Praise and encouragement.

Getting closer to agreed goals.

Having input to the way sessions are run.

Feeling a part of the team/valued/making a positive contribution.

Positive talk among teammates.

Mimic high confidence players by emphasising ability after a win, and effort after a defeat.

Varied, challenging and fun training sessions.

Clarity in player's role and instructions.

Intrinsic enjoyment - are they being fulfilled in ways they thought they would be by playing the game.

Opportunities to demonstrate ability (say "show me what you've got..")

Key points: Players need confidence in their own ability, to feel part of a positive team, and to be able to express themselves/influence the team.

How to increase tension

Some players will be overly cocky. Others will not want to work hard to improve their game. Sometimes your team will have won many games in a row and you'll want to guard against complacency. Here are some things you can do to guard against anything less than 100% commitment.

Lose (or draw). Obviously this is never the aim but when it does happen amidst very good results then this can be used as leverage for future games. It's not all bad.

Poor performance. When a player plays badly he will (hopefully) be upset. This is natural. What is important is that this is leveraged into good performance in the future.

A demand for focus.


How can you as an individual contribute more to the team?

Focus on improvement not talent.

Performance under scrutiny from coach.

Enforcing rules to the letter.

Extrinsic enjoyment i.e. results based focus or trying to please someone else (e.g. "do this for your dad!").

The key here is maintaining high standards of results and being critical of performance but within the context of improving skills.

Where does the line lie exactly? This is a matter of good judgement and experience but as a guide the team should be "leaning on its edge". This means it should be operating inside its comfort zone in terms of routines and self-perception but constantly trying to push the limits of what they can achieve.

If this article doesn't end with a bang it is because the sweet spot is not an understanding. It is not a series of words. Anyone can intellectually know what is right. No, the sweet spot is an experience. It is up to every coach and individual out there to take action to get into that zone and live it.

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