Coping with Failure – Tipps for soccer coaches

Player sitting on bench after loss

Basically every coach has been through a cold streak. No matter what you try to do, just nothing seems to work. It doesn’t only look bad in the standings, but it also poses a big challenge for your team’s spirit and motivation. In the following article, we will explain what coaches can do, to start winning again!

No team is immune to failure

On the 20th of December, 2014 Borussia Dortmund finished the first half of the season in the Bundesliga with a loss against SV Werder Bremen and cemented their place in second to last spot on the league table. It was the worst first half of a season that Dortmund has played in over a quarter of a century. 10 losses from 17 games marks the highest amount amongst all Bundesliga teams in 2014. This example shows that failure hits every team and player during the course of their career. Coaches face situations of continuous failure time and time again, even with preparation and practice at the highest level. In many cases coaches and players believe in having a cold streak that they seem to face helplessly. However previous results influence the challenges ahead primarily in a psychological manner. Which is why the main reason for continuous failure can actually be found in coping with those losses. This article is aimed to raise your awareness, as coaches, in regards to this topic.

The stages of coping with defeat

Knowing your team and your players inside out is of great importance. Especially after losing a couple of games, not every player knows how to deal with failure in certain situations the same way. Depending on their personality, your athletes will vary in order and length in which they experience the particular stages of coping with emotions such as denial, isolation, anger and subsequent acceptance. While some players use a defeat as motivation to work harder, others may need longer for the different stages.

So called “sticking points”, in which individuals stay in one stage of the process for a long time, pose a danger in coping with emotions and failure. It gets even more critical if large parts of a team are affected by a certain “sticking point”. An opponent whom appears to be undefeatable for years can serve as an example for this phenomenon. Sooner or later a “we will never beat them” attitude will develop through most parts of the team, which will ultimately lead to what is called “learned helplessness”. The results of that will be a weakened performance on game day.

How to deal with failure in soccer

However especially for younger athletes the experience of failure can be vital for their development as a player. A loss might be one of the best showcases of things we can improve and develop as a player, as a team and as a coach, which is why failure and losing should be seen as a challenge! This attitude will support the process of re-evaluation during seemingly repetitive situations and helps to prevent players and teams from regressing to an old behavioural pattern. This is where the starting point for each coach should be, regarding how to deal with failure. Every loss should be seen as a possibility to improve on something. To taboo failure should be avoided, because by doing so you create even more negative pressure. As a matter of fact starting conversations about it as a team can be beneficial for the coping process.  “Name the problem – is the name of the game, because recognizing what causes the current unpleasant situation offers the best possible prospect for effective action” is what Prof. Dr. Sigurd Baumann is saying in his book “Mannschaftspsychologie” (written in german).

"``You never lose! You either win or you learn!``"

A collective reappraisal and acceptance of failure in general should be the first step as a reaction to losing. Losses are an essential part in a team’s development. After the team conversations, actions have to be taken. If necessary a re-evaluation ofmutual and individual goals should follow. Unrealistic goal setting creates a huge amount of pressure for you and your team, if they are already out of reach by the end of the first half of the season. The example of Borussia Dortmund shows this sort of re-evaluation. By the start of the season their goal was to become the national champion, which was re-evaluated after the devastating first 17 games and was reset to the goal of staying in the first division. The phrasing of your goals is of great importance as it always should be a goal of action: “We want to stay in the first division” and not a goal of avoidance: “We don’t want to be relegated”. The reason for the positive phrasing is simple. Your brain is not able to understand negative messages immediately. A good example for that phenomenon is “Don’t think of a pink elephant”. The first thing that comes to your mind will eventually be a pink elephant, because your brain is not given any course or option opposing the negative message. This simple principle should also influence the way you talk to your players in practices and during the games.

All in all a positive environment and a good practice atmosphere is key to accomplishing the desired turn-around after having a “cold streak”. Fun and enjoyment of exercises and the sport should always be the number one goal of each of your practices. Small competitions and games are the easiest way to improve the motivation and mood of your players, no matter the age that you are coaching. Therefore bad game performance should not be punished immediately but should considerably be the basis to your approach for improvement. Punishment for failure only worsens the fear and anxiety of failure and bad performances which will ultimately result in a self-fulfilling-prophecy. Also old training habits should be reconsidered, however not thrown out completely. Way too often coaches desperately try to change everything as a reaction to continuous failure, which will lead to even more insecurity in coaches and players most of the time.

In summary it can be said, that the following five points are key to deal with failure as a coach:

  1. Look back on and re-appraise failures as a team
  2. Failure and losses should be viewed as part of the development
  3. Realistic goal setting: If necessary re-evaluate and reset
  4. Phrasing of your goals should always be positive
  5. Positive environment for your practices: Have fun.

We hope this article will help you to prepare for the case of failure. If your team is finally on its way back to the top, make sure you also prepare them for success. We tell you why you should do that,  in another article that provides you with knowledge from the field of sport psychology. Read the article “Suddenly at the top – Dealing with a hotstreak” here.

If you want to turn your team’s weaknesses into their strength, you should have a look at our exercise database!

Go to premium exercises

Book recommendations about Sport Psychology:

David Lavallee  – Coping and Emotion in Sport (2004, Nova Science Pub Inc.)
Burton, Damon & Raedeke, Thomas – Sport Psychology for Coaches  (2008, Human Kinetics)

Fabian Klingner

Fabian is our Sports Scientist and graduate from the German Sports University in Cologne. In our Blog he'll share his knowledge with you.

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