Coaching Difficult Players (With 18 Helpful Tips!)

If you are dealing with a difficult player, then this article is for you. It can be one of the most frustrating things to deal with, and I want to share some tips that I have learned over the years that might be helpful. I thought one article with all the best ideas in one place could be of use. 

Follow along as we work through plenty of options to help get your difficult players back on track. 

Vary Your Coaching Technique

Each player requires attention. Not all attention or teaching is created equal because no kid learns or responds the same way. It is important to vary your coaching style to get through to as many players as possible. Test many different methods to see what works best. A difficult player might be losing focus or getting agitated because he or she doesn’t understand.

A few tips for teaching:

  • Explain it in its simplest terms
  • Let players teach each other how to do the drill
  • Do a slow walkthrough 
  • Draw it on a dry erase board

One technique that is counterintuitive is to move on from the drill if it isn’t working as you initially planned. Sometimes young players that are struggling from the drill need to sleep on it before coming back to the next training session and executing the skill with ease. 

Review Practice

The reason players are difficult might have to do with you. For young players, your practice might be boring, and the players are losing interest. Young kids have a ton of energy and short attention spans. A lot of the time, soccer practice is at night, and they sat in school all day. Parents enroll their kids in practice to burn off energy and get some exercise. They come to practice to have fun.

Try to avoid the three Ls – lines, lectures, and laps. The goal of practice is to emulate the game as much as possible while developing the players into a better athlete.

For more advanced players, the practice might be too easy. They don’t have a challenge. I have written several age-specific drill guides for you to take a look at for more ideas. Here are U6, U7, U8, U9, U10, U11, U12

When in doubt, introduce a small-sided game to get players active and involved. Pair players of similar skill levels together during drills and sessions. The goal is for people to feel challenged but not intimidated. If you aren’t sure, speak to your players to see what they like and dislike. 

Stay Calm

Practice with young kids and teenagers can be frustrating. Whenever your players aren’t listening or goofing off, keep it together. Difficult players are looking to get your attention and stroke a reaction. If you have kids or have young relatives, you know what I am talking about.

Once you lose your cool, you lose control of the situation. Remember, it is youth soccer at the end of the day. Nothing should be taken so seriously that you get upset over it. 

Here are a few ways to keep calm under pressure.

  • Take a moment back and breathe
  • Admit that you are getting angry
  • Ask yourself, will this matter in a year?
  • Change your focus to something else

Speak to Parents

It is best to speak with the player first to see if you can resolve the problem before going to the parent. However, parents can be a great resource.

Be careful with your words. Let the parent know what is going on with the child and the potential you see within them. Parents spend more time with their kids than anyone else, so they can give you some pointers on what is the most effective way to fix the issue.

Ask the parent to support the correct behaviors so that it benefits the team, respects the coaches and helps with the development of the player. If you don’t have the parents’ support, it will make your job that much harder!

Positive Reinforcement

Studies show it is more effective to reward good behavior than punish bad behavior. One study concluded the 5:1 ratio (5 positive comments for every 1 constructive feedback). There is a reason dog trainers use treats to incentivize a dog to act the way they want. It is a ridiculous example but people are the same way. We can incentivize players to act a certain way and their behavior will follow. 

Encourage more than you punish. Another technique is one most are familiar with called the ‘sandwich’, where you give constructive feedback between two positive remarks.

Once you get the desired result, film them on your phone, if it is OK with them, and share it with their parents. I read about this one and I can’t wait to try it. Kids love to be the center of attention and this allows for a fun, safe way to promote the behavior you want. Reward with attention and positive reinforcement.

Speak to the Player

Whenever a player is making a fool of themselves, it is best to address the child away from the other players. The goal is not to embarrass them but to speak to them directly in a safe, comfortable place. This accomplishes two things. First, there are no distractions. Secondly, some kids want to be the center of attention. Don’t feed into it.

There are a lot of reasons a player might be acting out. Everyone has different attitudes, desires, and strengths. While you shouldn’t let a player take up all your time, it is important to address issues as they arise. Otherwise, they will take away from the other player’s practice. Once you understand their perspective, it might be able to give you solutions. 

Often times, you can learn there is an issue outside of soccer that is bothering them, whether it is family, personal, or developmental issues. These things are out of your control. Be empathetic and understanding.

Listen

Being a good listener is a very difficult skill. We are easily distracted. Most of us, including myself, are selective listeners. Our minds pick up things that are consistent with our beliefs rather than the truth. We approach conversations so preoccupied with our thoughts that they are unable to listen to the other person effectively.

The best way to listen is to quiet the voice in your head. Make your sole focus on the other person and what they have to say. This will allow everyone to relax and build trust. They won’t feel attacked and let their guard down. Then, you can determine what the player actually needs. This is when the relationship starts to build and you can connect deeply. 

Set the Expectations

Before the season starts, bring all the players and parents together for a meeting. In this meeting, you can discuss the season, guidelines, expectations, schedule, and answer questions. 

One way to accomplish this is to put into writing, print out, and hand it out to all players and parents. Get everyone on the same page. This way when you lay down the law, they know where you are coming from.

On the other hand, you can tell them what they can expect from you as a coach. This will make the relationship and expectations clear for everyone involved. 

Involve Club

After you speak with the child and the parent, chat with the club director on available options. It is good to an uninvolved third party. When you reach out to a parent, they are going to be biased since it is their child. As I would if the player were mine. A parent might not fully take in what you are suggesting. Given the circumstances, people can get offended and emotions can flare. 

Enter the club director. A third party might be able to help see something that you wouldn’t otherwise see or explain in a way that you couldn’t explain. Think of them as a mediator. Their interest is to find a resolution between you and the player. Don’t be afraid to reach out or ask for a second opinion. 

Be Consistent

Difficult players will test you early and often, just to see how you will respond. One key is to be the same coach every practice. In other words, be consistent in enforcing your rules and policies that you set forth at the beginning of the season.

One of the biggest life lessons for players is to learn accountability. Hold them accountable for their actions by staying consistent.

Consistency will help send the message that you are the coach and you are in control of this team. This especially applies to the star players. Many of them have high confidence in themselves and feel invincible. They deserve the same treatment as the rest of the team. 

Build Trust

Connecting with your players is important. I’d recommend speaking with your players before practice and in between breaks to get to know them on a personal level. What do they enjoy doing outside of soccer? Do they have siblings? How was their day at school?

When you open up the conversation outside of soccer, you allow everyone to share stories and experiences in their life. This will give you an idea of where your players are coming from. 

The first goal is to seek to understand why they might be acting a certain way. A great tactic to get building rapport is called mirroring. With this technique, you are repeating the most important words that were said by the person you are talking to. It is the simple repetition of the last one to three words. People love to be mirrored, people love to be encouraged to continue.

To learn more about these other negotiation tactics, check out Never Split The Difference. This book changed my life. 

Give Them Responsibility

One solution for misbehaving players is to give the player more responsibility during practice. This sounds counterintuitive. Ask them to run or demonstrate a drill. Make the player the line leader, team greeter, or special assistant. Once in charge, people often feel more invested in whatever is going on around them, so they put in more effort and focus. 

Take a Breather

If you pull the child aside or give them responsibility during practice, it might not resolve the issue. The misbehaving child might continue to disrupt practice or your instruction.

If this happens, I direct them to the bench until they feel they are ready to rejoin the team with the right attitude. It is time to take a breather and think about their actions. This works well when it is during a drill they particularly like.

If they come back in and are still acting up, then I send them to the bench again and let them know you will tell them when to come back to practice. 

Use Appropriate Wording

In the moment, I can lose my temper and say things that I wish I didn’t. To avoid this, I take a deep breath and try not to point words at the person I’m talking to.

Speak about the situation and not about the person. For instance, it would be better to say “it seems like something is bothering at practice today” versus “you are being very disruptive”. People are sensitive and children are no different. If you can speak to them in a way where they can see it is outside of themselves they are more likely to get through to them faster.

Everyone views themselves as the hero of their own story.  

Ignore Undesirable Behavior

Don’t feed into every player’s desire, especially undesirable behavior. Attention can lead to more of the undesired outcome. Little kids do this all the time.

My niece goes around the room to every person until they get the attention they want. If you don’t give her what she wants, she moves onto the next person. Not everything needs to be addressed. Many can be ignored. With fourteen U8 boys, you will wear yourself out.

Be Loving

It is possible to be loving and disciplined. Parents do it every day. Great coaches have the ability to look at a player’s shortcomings and see their potential of what they could become. They provide unconditional love and support during a player’s toughest times.

If you listen to former players of the best coaches, you realize that coaches make significant impacts on players’ personal lives as well as their growth as an athlete. This is powerful and something we should all strive to emulate. 

Be Respectful

Players who misbehaving are often mean and disrespectful towards teammates and coaches. Coaches, take the high road. Always. The coach shows by example regardless of the circumstances.

You can’t control how your players behave, but you are in complete control of how you respond. Leadership starts with respect. Once players and other see how you respond to adversity like difficult players, you become the example that everyone wants to follow.

The hardest time to be respectful is when someone is getting under your skin, but you’ll be glad you did. The same logic applies when speaking with the parents of the team.

Last Resort, Send Away 

It would be impossible to suggest that every player can change behavior. Years ago, I volunteered for Big Brothers and Sisters through the company I was working for. This organization is one where working professionals are paired with at-risk kids. For several meetings, the kid who I was paired with didn’t engage or respond. He showed no interest in doing anything. I tried everything. I spoke with his father. I spoke at length with him and he had no interest in cooperating. In the end, the kid ultimately decided he didn’t want to participate. We decided to go our separate ways. 

Sometimes the best answer to let the child move on to avoid ruining the experience for all the other players. While our goals as coaches is to keep players interested and engaged for as long as possible, many things are out of our control. But, you might not be the best coach for them or the child might not be best suited for the game. Consider this as a last resort. Either way, ending peacefully is a noble thing to do. 

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