Two of the most common talking points I hear in a pregame or halftime talk are desire and work ethic. One of the most common things I hear during these talks is coaches saying that their players need to “want it more.”
The reality is that the vast majority of the time, when the team talk is about desire or work rate, it is a cop-out for a coach that does not know what is actually going wrong in the game.
How many players do we know who actually don’t give their best in a game? Of course, there are the occasional moments when adversity strikes in a match and players temporarily give up, or times when some players lose focus. But most of the time, young players try their best.
When we think about kids having fun and doing something that they love, how many kids do we know who only give half effort? Kids, when they are doing an activity that they are passionate about, will give their full effort in whatever it is. Whether it's playing with action figures, playing tag, or playing soccer - kids give it their all.
If children are having fun and loving the experience of playing soccer, then they will give full effort. Therefore, if we are constantly using effort and work rate as talking points in our team talks, it’s a sign that we may not actually be seeing what the problem is if our team isn’t performing well. It also implies that our players aren’t giving full effort, and nothing drains the fun or desire from a player or team like telling them they are not giving full effort when, in their hearts and minds, they are doing their best.
Most of the time, when I hear coaches make this the theme of their halftime talks, I will see players and teams actually perform worse because they don’t think their coach believes in them.
It is our job as coaches to constantly reflect on ourselves to see what we can do better. I encourage coaches to pay attention to how often we use “effort” or “desire” or “work rate” as the main themes in our pre-game or halftime talks. If we are frequently or consistently using these terms in our speeches, consider the idea that maybe we are missing something in the game. Maybe our team just doesn’t understand something they are supposed to do and we need to teach it better. Often, it is the coach who isn’t clearly recognizing his/her team’s struggles, and if the team doesn’t understand what they are supposed to be doing, then we as coaches must teach it better.
It’s also common that the other team is just better or doing something that is making our team’s job more difficult than usual. If this is the case, our team is going to struggle no matter how much effort they give, so if we falsely accuse them of not trying their best, we will lose credibility and trust with them. It is important that we truly think about what it is that’s causing a breakdown for our team. We cannot always just chalk it up to desire or effort.
If we can’t figure out the problem, but we know it’s not simply desire or effort, then it’s better that we don’t say anything at all or just encourage our team to keep trying their best, rather than try to make up some reason for our lack of success. Not saying anything at all or simply being encouraging will cause no damage (and it might even help), whereas falsely accusing our players of not trying their best can make things worse.
In fact, one of the most effective halftime talks a coach can have with young players is asking the team what they think. Provide your players an opportunity to control their own development and empower them to try and problem solve together. Sometimes, all it takes is asking the players what they are seeing and how they think the team can try to improve. This only works, however, if we make it clear that players can be vulnerable and tell the truth (and that we will take their suggestions seriously). We can’t judge them on their responses.
If after continuous reflection, we are sure that the problem truly is a lack of effort or desire, then it is time to reflect as coaches on what we are or are not doing that is causing our players to not give their best effort. Again, if kids are truly enjoying what they are doing, then they will give it their best. Thus, we as coaches need to figure out what we need to do differently to create an environment that the players enjoy and encourages players to give it their best effort.
Ultimately, it is the environment and the culture that we create that affects our players’ desire and work rate. If we create an environment which encourages these things, then we will not have to coach desire or work rate, and instead, we can focus our speeches on fixing real tactical errors that will go much further in helping our youth players and teams succeed.