As someone once famously said “Stuff happens!” (excuse my tame version of the original quote!) This couldn’t be more of a truism when it comes to coaching soccer. In this blog, Ray Power, author of bestseller “Making the Ball Roll”, introduces you to some ideas to deal with those awkward moments when your coaching session goes wrong.

I’ve spent nearly a decade working in football coaching environments, and probably delivered an average of 6 football sessions a week, plus games. In that time I have changed immeasurably in how I approach the discipline of coaching, and in particular dealing with things when they go wrong.

In my early days I probably had the same approach that we all do when we first start coaching. I took my own team, accepted very little input from anyone else, was terrified of feedback in case it was negative, and hated parents or other coaches watching me work.

Frequently, whether eyes were watching or not, things would go wrong. That wonderful online passing session I downloaded did not turn out as planned, players messed around and I got into arguments with the perpetrators. And critically, yet unfairly, I blamed the players openly or internally for the problems.

Early Mistakes

It was their fault the session didn’t work, that they were misbehaving and argumentative. I put the balls away and punished them by having them run around the pitch. That solved nothing. It actually made the rift between myself and them even greater. I couldn’t wait for the 90-minute session to end – and all because of a passing practice that didn’t quite go as planned!

When you read the last two paragraphs back, exceptionally negative feelings were produced from doing something we love. But we all have those days. It’s natural for things to go wrong. The question we need to address is how we reduce their frequency and how we can handle them more positively?

In my youth coaching book, Making the Ball Roll, I shared a story about a moment where the penny dropped for me. I was on a coaching course and I delivered an assessed session that I wasn’t happy with. I felt the participants were at fault, not me, and subsequently moaned about X, Y and Z. During this analysis with another candidate, he crudely cut me off and cut me down to size, uttering the words “look in the mirror first”. It was me, not them.

Learning from those Mistakes

Since that day I’ve tried to improve my analysis about the real reasons things go wrong. I look at my impact on the problem at hand and ask myself whether I could have solved it – right then and there, in the moment – rather than letting it degenerate and upset everyone like in the example above.

I’ve learned that the only things I can control are the things I can control (my next blog post will be looking at controlling the ‘controllables’). If a particular practice is not working, I change it. If there are players messing around, I look for ways to engage them. That is all I can do!

Of course there are times when players need a prompt about their standards, but chances are, a substantial amount of the time, the reasons for non-engagement or poor behaviour is the result of the coach’s approach, or the practices and drills that the players are put in.

Planning and the Art of Being Comfortable

My planning plays a huge part in preventing these bad days. That doesn’t mean I spend hours on a session planning – far from it. I tend to work from certain templates where players are not stood still, in queues or at any risk of being bored. They’re too busy with football to mess around. I threw 99% of my neat, organised constant practices in the bin and replaced them with chaotic, random ones. The organised, straight line ‘drills’ look great to an onlooker, but ultimately are of little benefit. A line or queue of players simply foster an environment for players to become bored, distracted and ultimately seek other ways of entertaining themselves – to the annoyance of us coaches.

Today I’m comfortable with my sessions, even if there is someone looking over my shoulder. Furthermore, I actually made a conscious decision not to worry about the perception of others at all. We all have different perceptions of what is good or bad. On one occasion I watched a Premier League, UEFA Pro-Licence holder deliver what I thought was an awful session, but his reputation in the game contradicted my opinion.

The easiest thing in the coaching world is to pick apart another coach’s work. We watch him or her at work and negatively analyse whatever we can – “I wouldn’t do that”, “I’d never speak to players like that”, “he’s missed that bit” – I could go on.

While I’m not overly affected by those watching, it does not mean I am not interested in their opinion or have a self-built immunity to criticism. It means I do not worry about it. I happily seek out feedback from others, and I put myself in uncomfortable situations where my sessions are freely critiqued. I’m proud to say I lose very little sleep over any negative feedback. In fact, I genuinely see it as a way of improving. I simply bank anything I see fit, research what I’m not sure about, or discard it if I don’t feel it’s worthwhile.

In Conclusion

The essence of this article is to encourage the coach to manage his or her mistakes, to accept that from time to time things will go wrong – there are bad days at the office, whether that office is a green field laden with balls, bibs and cones or part of the concrete jungle that most workers experience. The trick is to control what you can control, consider your role in the problems that arise, and sleep soundly knowing you’ve learned from your mistakes – are those not the same things we preach to our players?