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How to turn things around and instil confidence - some ideas from solo sports for team coaching

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This post picks up on a cry for help from youth football coach Danny Mallon.  It suggests how ideas I use in coaching individuals aimed at instilling confidence might work in team sports.  If you are a coach involved in a team sport, grappling with similar challenges, great to have your responses and reflections in the comments below.

Danny says that since losing some star players, his youth team has gone from being regular winners to losing all their games.  Training goes well but heads go down when opponents score.  How to turn it around?

Three things come to mind from my own coaching experience, focused on confidence and working with triathletes, swimmers, cyclists, runners and others of all ages and range of ambitions, in clubs and one to one – so all in highly individualistic rather than team sports.

From the outset it’s worth saying that I don’t think there are any quick fixes or easy answers.  I’m not a fan of the “ten top tips”, one size fits all approaches.  What works in one context won’t always in others.  Everything we do as coaches is so bound up in the different circumstances, personalities, ambitions, experiences of those in front of us as well as our own make up.

Coaching Moments

The first thought I have comes from a principle I apply when I’m swim coaching at poolside or sometimes at an event where people are performing. This came from a video I saw of US Sports Psychologist Michael Gervais who talked about coaching moments: that we have no more than around 3-4 seconds after someone performs an activity in which our impact as a coach can have a profoundly positive and effective – or destructive – impact.

Building on this and as an example, if I’ve asked a young swimmer to do a length focused on changing a particular part of their stroke, I tell myself I have to be there at the end of the lane in that immediate few seconds to show:

  • a recognition and an appreciation of their effort (even if I’ve not seen a great change)
  • an energising connected interest in how they felt to show it’s a shared endeavour and I’m keen to know if it worked for them (before saying anything about how it might have looked to me)
  • and to be ready to suggest a progression, how to take it further.

If I miss that coaching moment who knows what the young swimmer will take away, but it’s unlikely to be uplifting or progressive.

The whole session can effectively be a series of coaching moments, key points where I know I have to be at my very best and wholly focused on the impact I can have on the swimmers before me.

When an opposing team scores it must be a similar, high impact coaching moment. What can a coach do to recognise effort, to be with them in the moment, to give a non-judgemental “next time try…” to help lift heads, shows belief and encouragement to keep going in those crucial moments?  (I suspect José Mourinho isn’t quite the model to follow.)

The Confidence Paradox

My second thought relates to what I think of as a bit of a paradox.  People often talk about confidence as if it were a fixed thing – we’ll say someone has lots of confidence, or another lacks it.  But what is it they actually feel?  For me, I can be acutely aware of the feeling of lacking confidence and I’ll describe it as such: “this happened and I lost my confidence.”  But when its all going well I rarely find myself feeling or saying that I am confident.  I am aware of other things that have a brilliant motivational effect.

Seizing a coaching momentSeizing a coaching moment

So how about making those other feelings the focus in coaching others?  In work I’ve done with people preparing for big hairy challenges, like the Marathon du Sable, Ironman triathlons or their first big open water swim, I seek to focus on three elements that I want them to feel deeply for themselves and which I think are the basis of that elusive confidence.  These are:

  • a calming sense of control and uncertainty: my coaching aim is for my athletes to stand at the starting line of those big, scary events and know they are ready, that we have prepared so well through all the training and practice that they feel they are in control, knowing what to do.  At the same time we also recognise and have an easiness about those uncertainties that can’t be controlled.
  • an energising sense of excitement: another key goal is for them to feel excited about what lies ahead.  For some that can be about simply being there, ready to take part in an event.  There can also be an element of eager anticipation, of not knowing what’s going to happen but being thrilled by the chance to see what they can do.
  • an absorbing sense of fluency: a third element we do a lot of work on in preparation and that comes into its own once they are underway, is a total focus on form, effort and movement all coming together in a balanced, flowing way: every stroke through the water, every pedal stroke and each stride as if it were an expression of being at their very best.

We also prepare beforehand a set of scripts – what to say to oneself – at key moments such as at the start line, when things get hard (as they do in these events) or the unexpected happens.  These are never framed in a “just get on with it” denial of the pain or difficulty.  Rather they acknowledge the difficulty and look to reconnect with the feelings of control, excitement or flow so as to keep going and finish, knowing they couldn’t have got more out of themselves.  Each person needs to find their own meaningful scripts, but just as illustrative examples in the big events I do: for motivation and reconnecting to the excitement I might tell myself “this is hard – and I do hard things”; for getting back control and into the rhythm I’ll have mantras that reinforce a smooth swim technique “reach, roll, tip”.

In thinking about how such a focus on control, excitement and fluency might apply to coaching team sports it is clear they won’t come about through a single pre-match pep talk or in the moment shout-outs.  They would need to be infused in the training, regular practice, how each match is prepared for and then talked about afterwards.

And I know that matches are won by scoring more goals than you let in.  But how would it be if more of the focus is on those above elements and the goals and final results were left to take care of themselves?

How lucky are we!

My final thoughts – what a great coach Danny must be and how brilliant to be doing what we do in our different sports.  In Danny’s case he clearly had a player who he brought on so well that he or she moved on to greater things.  There’s a great coach behind that.  And how privileged to have the opportunity to work with a young, mixed team and help them find their very best – whatever that might be and however it might get tallied up in goals scored.

I am lucky enough to coach people with a range of ambitions and abilities – some coming to swimming or triathlon comparatively late in life and starting something very new, others who are highly competitive and going for PBs and podium places.  In each case I think there is something very precious in holding and sharing another person’s aims and helping them surprise themselves with what they can do.

So for Danny looking for that turn around in his young team’s fortunes, my one simple answer in a post full of questions is to keep doing what you’re doing!

If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here.

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Comments (1)


Hi Mike
Thanks for this - there is so much that I think can be transferred to team sports.

The Confidence Paradox
Paddy Upton, in ‘Coaching the Mental Game’ (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/coaching-mental-game) defines self esteem as a “...deeper and more permanently ingrained mental condition characterised by knowing that ‘I’m okay’ and ‘I can do this’.”
Whilst confidence can be fleeting; self esteem is “...is a consistent mental position [that can help] athletes to consistently access ideal mental states for performance.” So he advocates helping the player to develop self esteeem over self confidence; perhaps, working with junior players, the coach’s challenge is to avoid beating that self esteem out of his charges in the first place?

Coaching moments
I love the concept of “Seizing a coaching moment”. It’s something I don’t always do well in 1-2-1 coaching situations - I can get caught up in my ‘silence’ mode, and miss the moment when a word or two might have made all the difference to the athlete.

In the context of a junior football match, perhaps this is something that can be delegated to parents? If the coach has asked his or her players to make more adventurous runs with the ball under control, for example, an affirmative call from the touchline, even (especially) if the move doesn’t come off, can inspire the player to try again.

Dan Abrahams promotes the use of ‘performance scripts’ in football to support what he terms ‘mastery goals’, focussing on behaviours that the players can control e.g. “Take players on — be brave” or “Keep my head up — Stay alert”.

Dan’s book “Soccer Brain: The 4C Coaching Model for Developing World Class Player Mindsets and a Winning Football Team” is really good on this subject.

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