Twice this week, I was asked by parents - each from opposite sides of the country - about how to improve the competitive mindset of their children. One dad is father and coach of a 7-year old in California. The other is a mother of a 9-year-old in Maryland. In this episode, I will share the questions and their context and do my best - with the help of a couple of friends of mine - to address these listener questions.
There is a lot of stuff in this episode, so make yourself comfortable while we explore the question of aggression, confidence, and the competitive mindset.
Setting the Stage with The Questions
First of all, shout out to listeners of this show! You always inspire the best episodes with your questions and comments, so thank you for sharing! Don't sleep on the SpeakPipe integration I have with my Website at https://thesoccersidelines.com/connect/. SpeakPipe a cool tool that I pay for that gives you a simple press-to-talk button on your mobile device or computer where you can leave me voice feedback, ask questions, etc. I can't think of an easier way to communicate.
My first question came last Sunday at 10:30 PM Eastern from Paras. Paras writes from California:
I am a dad of soccer kid who will be 7(born Nov 2012) years old next month.. I played lot of soccer and other sports in Asia during my school days. I today train my son and is also in U8 academy at local club in California.. My son skills, strength and pace is good for his age.. Besides U8 ,I enrolled him for a rec program for 2011/2012 , which was for two months at local club just to get games exposure . I noticed in these games that he was not aggressive (positive aggression) which may be because his cognitive is in developing phase ... He has a feeling that older kids will be hard on him and do something negative.. The club should have conducted the games for U8 only rather than 2011/2012.. His games with U8 kids are good.. Can you please share your experience on how can kids develop the mindset to overcome this? I am using strategy like watching with him European soccer leagues and talking /discussing with him about how players are being strong with the ball, soccer drills, motivation.
The Soccer Sidelines Listener Community
My second question came to me in person during one of my Culture Walks this weekend. Culture Walks, you may recall from very early episodes back in 2017, is what I do as Club Officer to walk the sidelines of my games every weekend, evaluate coaches, connect with parents, and in general support and maintain our club culture. Conversations from my Culture Walks inspired this show.
This soccer mom in this case is wife to one of our assistant coaches, very involved with multiple sports with her kids, and generally active in the youth sports community. She asked about her 9-year-old & was wondering what she or her husband can do to improve their child's "aggression" on the pitch.
Her child plays in a recreation league, in an age band that included 9 and 10-year olds, and has played for a few years in our Academy program for younger players, ages 3-8.
Unpacking the Issues
Paras' question is actually several great questions, relevant statements and assumptions rolled up. They deserve some unpacking as we dig into what's going on here. First for context, we're talking about a 6-year-old player. Per United Soccer Coach standards, this is a Stage 2 player. Next, we're talking about a child born in the 4th quarter of the year. See last week's episode #102 about Relative Age Effect (https://thesoccersidelines.com/relative-age-effect-in-youth-soccer/) to understand more about why this is important. His son will son be 7. His player has a mixture of academy and recreation games experience and Dad noticed that his son is not as aggressive in the game environment as he is in Academy. He tells us that his son "has a feeling that older kids will be hard on him and do something negative."
The soccer mom who asked a similar question is also very active in multiple youth sports. Her husband is a competent assistant coach. Her child is 9-years-old (Stage 3), and her player is playing in an in-house recreation league.
Responding to the Underlying Issues
My first reaction was that these questions would be easy to answer. My opinion was informed by experience and I've talked about many of the sub issues on this show. I thought better of my own first reaction through. I haven't directly coached Stage 1 or Stage 2 kids in a very longs time. Even though I've been next to other coaches who have done so for a few years now, I didn't do the thinking and planning behind the practice sessions that I was observing and I wasn't privy to the big picture plan that other coaches were working from. So I decided to first reach out to a couple of coaches I know who work regularly with these age groups and have a lot of experience doing so.
My first stop was to a friend and colleague, John Dingle. John is the Founder and Managing Director of Soccer Source 360 (http://soccersource360.com/about-us/about-the-director/). He's been coaching for several decades. He holds multiple US Youth Soccer high level licenses. He founded several soccer related programs. And John Currently works with me in Maryland running the Academy program for the Damascus Soccer Club.
My second stop was to Tyler Isaacson. Tyler has been coaching for a lot of years himself. He played soccer at Rutgers in the mid-to-late 80's. He's a soccer club president like I am, and he is also the founder and CEO of Youth Soccer 101, which you can find at http://www.youthsoccer101plans.com/about-us.html. His company specializes in creating age appropriate training plans for coaches in 45 different states in the US.
I also spent some time pulling together a few resources for you that I'll talk about a little bit in a few minutes, and you can find links to in the show notes at https://thesoccersidelines.com. As always, feel free to leave me some feedback at https://thesoccersidelines.com/connect/ and join the conversation.
The rest of this article will address the competitive mindset, positive aggression, parent coaches, environment, education, self (parent driven) assessment, league structures, and watching professional matches as an adjunct to on-the-ptich training.
Competitive Mindset in Youth Sports
John, Tyler and I all agree that it's too early to start worrying about the competitive mindset for a 7-year-old, or even for a 9-year-old. Developing a competitive mindset is an important part of youth sports, but some more basic foundational stuff needs to be in place first. In the early stages of development (Stages 1, 2, and 3), falling in love with the game is more important than just about everything else. People do more of what they love. If they love being outside, playing a game with friends, being physical, and playing soccer, they will do more of it without the need for any real prompting from mom or dad.
When kids do more of something on their own, they will get better at it naturally. We generally don't need to tell a kid who loves being outdoors running around to go outside and run around. Usually, it's the opposite. If a kid loves to be outside, it's hard to get them to stay inside. This makes sense, right?
Cultivating a love for activity, for kicking a ball, for putting a ball in the net or shutting down an attack - it's as easy as making it fun. So the main question I'd ask someone who asked me the question Paras asked me would be: how can we make the game fun?
In case you're listening to this and saying to yourself: yes, but answer the question. How do we turn up the positive aggression and competitive spirit, let's deep dive a little more into Stage 2 and Stage 3 kids. I did an episode on Cognitive Development (https://thesoccersidelines.com/cognitive-mental-development/). It's episode #97 where I dive into the five different stages and talk about what each stage brings to the table and what each stage needs. You 're welcome to go back and listen to that episode and you can write me through my Connect page and ask for the guides I'm referencing when I talk about this stuff. I'm happy to send it to you.
As far as watching professional soccer on TV and talking about being strong with the ball, soccer drills and motivation, I'd suggest that this falls pretty well into the category of abstract concepts. We're asking kids to understand the relationship between what they're seeing on TV and what is going on inside their own head and within practices and games with other kids. While a Stage 3 kid (our 9-year-old) might be able to start making connections between "If you do X, then you'll realize Y" they're still not likely to be digging deep into their own mental toughness to get the job done on the field. Some kids might not like losing, but I would challenge anyone to think about the other stuff that's going on.
Kids are super sensitive to non-verbal communication and facial expressions. They all have deep rooted need for affection and approval from adults in Stage 2 and Stage 3. Do they really care what the scoreboard says or are they reacting to the emotions that adults around them are revealing? Ask a kid one week or even a few days after a game what the score was and very few will remember or care. They will, however, have a gut feeling for whether or not they liked the experience. It's we adults who assign meaning and labels to those experiences.
I suspect that the fact that Dad is spending time with his son, in the case of Paras, is what his son loves most about watching professional soccer on TV. I would take some convincing by a good many experts if I am to believe that a 7-year-old is catching the complexity implied with being "strong on the ball" or being "motivated" in youth games when they watch professional matches. It's awesome that Dad and son are watching the matches together and even MORe awesome that they're having loving conversations around them, but I don't think I could assign value to that activity in terms of making a 7-year-old more aggressive on the ball in a youth match.
After saying everything I just said and basically confirming my own opinion with the opinion of two long-time coaches who work in this space and who's judgment I respect, I also found some resources that seemingly give advice on this topic. Big Life Journal, for example at https://biglifejournal.com published an article on May 31st titled 5 Ways to Foster a Healthy Competitive Mindset in Young Athletes. I don't disagree with what they said in their article. In fact, it really appealed to me on a number of levels, but before they gave their suggestions, they very cleverly turned the discussion from pure competitive mindset to "healthy competitive mindset," they brought in ingredients like empathy and confidence.
I actually believe that my Maryland soccer mom was speaking more about confidence than she was about aggression - although if she were here, I could see her making a valid argument that her son would behave more aggressively on the pitch if he were more confident, so am I nit picking when I or Big life journal brings in the concept of confidence? Maybe the two are related, but I can also see situations where lack of confidence brings out aggression as well - and not in good ways - so from my perspective, I think we're talking more about confidence.
I love the fact that Rebecca Louick from Big Life Journal added the empathy ingredient into her "healthy competitive mindset" recipe for young athletes because I totally agree with her. At the end of the day, we're not trying to turn kids into little monsters who stop at nothing to kill their opponent. We want to see healthy competition that has stuff like empathy and respect baked in.
Her Five Ways include:
- Connect winning with effort. The best players are the ones who practice the most and work the hardest.
- Re-Define success to include things like a love for learning, improving, and bouncing back
- Learn from the competition - to include competing against themselves and their own performance.
- Create a healthy team culture that reflects on lessons learned, encourages mistakes, and models good sportsmanship
- Practice at home in fair and cooperative competitions. Back to John Dingle's comment to me this past weekend that people do more of what they love...
What we're going for here is a Growth Mindset. Which is to say that when we teach kids to focus on the correlation between effort and outcomes. I'm not talking about praising effort without results, but when results occur, bring the conversation back to effort and how effort affects outcome. If we want a particular outcome, we must naturally put in the effort. When we put in the effort, we deserve to win - and winning doesn't always mean having the highest score on the scoreboard. It may mean that our team consistently strung together 10 passes, changed the point of attack and consistently capitalized on transition moments in the game. As a parent or a coach, celebrate the effort and the results over the score.
Other Related Issues
Part of what Paras is dealing with might have to do with Relative Age Effect (https://thesoccersidelines.com/relative-age-effect-in-youth-soccer/). I talked about this in last week's show. Para's son was born in November. I assume that since he refers to brith years in his email to me that his program brackets age grouping between January and December. If that's the case, then Paras' son is a 4th quarter baby - one that is least likely to be selected during competitive tryouts - not through any fault or weakness of his own, but by virtue of the fact that he is relatively less developed as a general rule than other kids born in the first or second quarters. See episode 102 for more information and a graphic that explains RAE in more detail.
The fact that Dad is coaching and taking an active interest in his son's life is 5 star awesome! Paras represents the best of us in some ways because he's out there. He's having discussions and he's trying thing - including writing in to this show in order to best support his son. I love that about this family and don't want to undervalue that in your eyes.
I would caution him and every other parent about making self assessments of our own kids. Paras tells me that his son's skills, strength and pace are all good for his age. I get it. I see my own kids as super stars too. They amaze me every day. But not every coach or every league will see things the same way I do. I see a composure player with sticky feet, a great mental picture of the game, good reflexes and superior passing when I see my own son. His High School coach likely sees a thinner, less physical player who might get hurt playing against slightly beefier and more physically aggressive high schoolers. The kid is ripped with an 8-pack and cut musculature that can (and has) run three games in a row, but it's hard to see that under baggy jersey's and shorts. My point is, even if we have the education and experience to evaluate other people's kids, it's hard to take our own parental bias out of the picture. As difficult as this might be for you to hear, if I were coaching your kid and you came to me to tell me how great your kid is, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking that I'll make up my own mind how good, how much pace, and how strong he or she is when I see them. I'm going to take into account the environment around your player and the needs of the team as well when I make my own judgment.
Finally, the issue of whether or not a league should play single year age brackets, two year age brackets or three year age brackets. I've seen all of the above, and in high school, we combine four years. Mostly, the decision about how to band kids together depends on how many kids are registered and in the United States on US Youth Soccer rules. FIFA rules pretty much drive the rest of the world.
Along the developmental continuum, we introduce certain game rules, ball sizes, field sizes, goal sizes, game times, and break times between halves and between matches. Ball sizes go up from a #3 at age 8 to a #4 at age 9, for example. Ball size jumps again from #4 at age 12 to a #5 at age 13. We don't introduce headers until kids are 12, then only in limited amounts until they are 13. Those age lines will dictate the rules our officials will enforce. They affect coaching content and season focus.
In general, a two-year age band is pretty common. I myself run a 3-4 year age band, a 5-6 year age band, a 7-8 year age band, a 9-10 year age band, and fewer (more combined) bands as the kids get older. Certainly either 14 or 15 and older all play together in a single High School age band. I think the age band discussion is one that all Clubs wrestle with every season. If we had thousands of kids, it would be easy to make single age brackets, but that's just not reality in most towns in the US. Smallish clubs support the game everywhere and will do their best to create safe and fair age groupings based on the kids who come through registration.
To summarize this episode, I would reassure parents who are seeing differing levels of confidence and aggression in young players. This is a normal part of growing up. If we can focus on making sure that kids come away from the youth sports experience with a positive emotional base, they will come back on their own and find their way.
By making slight changes in the way we frame a "healthy competitive mindset," we can encourage what we call a Growth Mindset. With a Growth Mindset, kids will be empowered to drive outcomes through decisions they make over stuff they have control over - level of effort, persistence, and self determination. To do this well, change the conversation at home from outcome based (you won or lost today) goal to performance based (your hard work showed on the field today in X, Y, and Z... well done!).
At the end of the day, stay engaged with your kids and enjoy the process.
- Biglifejournal.com. “5 Ways to Foster a Healthy Competitive Mindset in Young Athletes.” Big Life Journal, https://biglifejournal.com/blogs/blog/foster-healthy-competitive-mindset-young-athletes.