An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Derrek Falor, girls soccer program head and head varsity coach

Soccer is a game filled with mistakes and transition moments. Since it is very much a player’s game once the referee blows the first whistle, how players respond to those transition moments must be trained. When players make mental mistakes in games it’s almost always a function of how we practice...

Mistakes in games are not always an indication of a lack of ability, talent, or conditioning. Most of the time, mental mistakes result from how players prepare, how they conduct themselves in practice, or more specifically, how we (the coaching staff) create training scenarios to help train their minds to compete. Training one’s mind to compete is a huge key to reducing mental mistakes in games. Last year I counted how many transition moments there were in our average game. The total came out to 351! That means there are 351 times an athlete must be prepared to make quick effective decision in a game while under pressure. This doesn’t happen unless we help them learn how to do this each day in practice.

It’s easy for players go through the motions in practice. They get to the end of their rigorous academic day and just show up at practice and do what the coaching staff says, more or less. Our student-athletes attend practice 1.5 to two hours a day for 3 days a week for a total of 4.5-6 hours a week of training. Many times, they want to just play and have a physical release from being in class. However, this alone won’t be enough to help them avoid mental in-game mistakes during our Metro League games.

Although when our soccer players physically practice they are improving their physical conditioning, they may not be fully working to train their brains for in-game decisions unless we help them keep that challenge in the forefront. Putting in the hours is different than making the hours count. Players who just put in the hours and never may never miss a practice, are still missing an opportunity to make improvements in their overall games.

When considering how to reduce mental mistakes in game, given our 351 transitions, the problem lies in how we are training our player’s minds to react in games... When players are physically present in practice, their conditioning may improve, and their technical skills may get better, but if they aren’t ready to actively solve problems during training, they never train their minds to be fully prepared to compete. To help improve problem solving, we use a concept borrowed from Dr. Sarah Castillo called ‘What’s Important Now?’ This is shortened down to W.I.N, so that now when we talk about winning, we are talking about controllable variables, not outcomes. During our time in and around the field, WIN helps each player learn to make quick, effective mental shifts through the various transitions that come their way.

  • WIN guides players to bring their attention to the immediate variable(s) that demands their focus.
  • WIN focuses a player’s energy during the transitions of play.
  • Before their first touch, after a foul, after a loss of possession, before a set piece, etc.
  • WIN helps players concentrate on the controllable variables.
  • WIN helps each player to become accountable for applying their attention to the correct task. 
  • WIN is the key to developing world class focus by teaching athletes to goal set in real time.

We believe that in using the W.I.N principle, our athletes are training their minds to compete by handling those 351 transitions well. In this way, under the duress of games we trust they will avoid making the same mental mistakes over and over again.

For practice we use this tip to help our players effectively train their minds to compete: Have a practice plan AND ask themselves the following two questions;

"What will I do today during practice to help me to compete better in games?”

“How will I use the W.I.N principle today in practice?”

After players answer those questions, identify practice goals (technical, tactical, or mental), we then have them quickly visualize game-like scenarios that allow them to see themselves solving problems under pressure.

By taking this approach, we are working to reduce mental mistakes that could pop up in games.

See you on the field!

Follow Lakeside girls soccer on Twitter at @LakesideLionsFC.