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In this short and excellent article, Coach Josh Brown, senior team coach at Westside United FC, Indiana, provides us with an insightful account of the differences between hope and fear and the impact both these emotions can have on performance. He discusses how a crucial difference in communication can make all the difference as a coach.
In one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne tells his friend Red, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Hope can be a very powerful motivator and can keep people striving for success even when the outcome appears extremely dire. Fear, one of the strongest emotions, can also be a powerful motivator, but which is more effective? As coaches, how often do we choose fear over hope as a motivator for our players? Is this the correct way to motivate or help our players?
This past season, I believe I made some crucial psychological mistakes with my high school team that I believe led to our early exit from our state tournament.
We were expected to win our third Sectional title in a row (our state tournament is divided into Sectionals, Regionals, Semi-State, and the Finals), and cracked the top 20 ranking for only the second time in school history. I had the great fortune of coaching several talented players this season that led our team to an early 10-1-1 record.
After a brutal stretch of playing three games in three days, we were 11-3-1 with 8 days until our first Sectional game. Our Sectional consists of four teams, and we had beaten the other three teams previously in the season. In fact, we only had one loss combined against these teams in the last three years.
We took a day off to rest, then trained hard for the next week. The boys were brilliant in training: they competed every single minute and showed a great desire to make a deep run into our state tournament.
We had some issues with player focus earlier this season, and the players noted that every game we lost, one of the players had forgotten a key piece of equipment. One forgot an away jersey, another forgot his socks, and another had to borrow a pair of boots. These facts were not lost on the coaching staff, and I was thrilled the boys had picked up on it.
We made an emphasis in training to discuss our focus and how it cannot be lost not only during a match, but in the events that lead up to the match as well. This is where I started to falter, and where I believe I set us up for failure.
My own fear of losing and not achieving our goals and expectations turned my communication with my team to a negative bent. I repeated phrases such as “These teams want to beat you. You have a large target on your backs. If you come out soft and don’t play hard, we will lose these games. We can’t lose focus” or “If we don’t raise our level, we will lose.”
We had two fantastic trainings before our first game, and I was confident. We were playing a team we were vastly superior than and had defeated earlier in the season.
Before the game, I repeated the mantra: “If we play weak, slow, and soft, we will lose tonight. Don’t lose focus.” Despite dominating on shots and controlling possession, we had an extremely poor performance and lost 1-0 on a penalty early in the second half. We never played with the fire, intensity, or desire to win.
I blamed the players at first for not understanding the need to play with absolute effort every game. Yes, some of the blame lies with them, but much has to lie with me too.
How would the result have been different if I would have used phrases such as: “We will win tonight. We will play hard, play our game, play with absolute effort, and we will win this game.” Soccer can be cruel game, so we may have still come up short, but I’ll always wonder if the result would have been different if I would have filled my players minds with positive ideas instead of the negative ones.
Fill players with hope, belief, and confidence, NOT fear, worry, and dread.
Josh Brown is an English teacher and soccer coach at Southport High School and a senior team coach at Westside United FC in Indiana.