The Fight or Flight Response, Soccer and Squirrels

For the last couple of articles we have looked at the common thread between soccer and life, and worked from the Albert Camus quote, which roughly paraphrased was “All I learned from life, I learned from the football team I played for.” Today’s article will be no different, and today we’ll be looking at lifelong lessons players learn from people on the sidelines, especially as it relates to dealing with pressure, and the fight or flight instinct.
First things first though – meet Squirrel (pictured above). He lives in my garden and is basically the boss of the place. When we come home he sits on a branch chirping at us to scare us away from his home. We’ve seen hawks take smaller animals from our garden, but Squirrel has stayed strong. He simply doesn’t give a crap, it’s his home and he’ll defend it. He’s even been known to throw things at us. Come to think of it, we’ve been dive-bombed by robins as well, but Squirrel is the king. The creatures in our garden know the social pecking order, and we’re at the bottom. We’ll get back to the wildlife later.
If you’ve ever been to a youth soccer game you will have heard “Clear it!” or “Get it out!” anytime the ball comes into the area or the other team are on the attack. I’ve seen balls kicked out of play when there is no pressure, and balls are lumped aimlessly forward for no reason more often than I care to think about. The goalkeeper is rarely used as a player who can kick the ball, and it is rare that a team-mate passes to them when under pressure as they would a fellow outfield player. Balls get aimlessly kicked away to the opposition, inviting yet another attack, more pressure, and no time to compose. Pressure compounds upon pressure, stress upon stress, until finally someone does “get it away”, the ball goes out of play or on the rare occasions, a team-mate gets the ball.
What is the lesson learned from this, both in soccer and in life? When under pressure it is best to panic, don’t think about the best options, don’t consider your potential choices, just panic. When we shout instructions from the sideline we take away the ability of the player to make a decision, to consider their surroundings, and to think about the best and most beneficial actions to take. The goalie may be calling for a pass, but all the player hears are calls to clear it from multiple voices who are looking on. And this is the important thing – these are people who are just looking on. If a team-mate yells clear it, it may be the best option, the best teams have to simply get it clear from time to time. However, there are others on the team who understand the scenario, the dangers, and the opportunities far better than spectators. They know the capabilities of their team-mates and they can see potential to counter-attack, if only the player on the ball makes the right decision.
Every time a player aimlessly hoofs the ball clear to “avoid danger” they are taking the flight option. They are choosing to give up control of the situation, and telling themselves and others on the team that they have no confidence in themselves and no confidence in each other. The ‘best option’ is to simply off-load the problem as quickly as possible and let the consequence fall into the hands of fate. The more often this happens, the stronger the message. Eventually the reflex of the player is to simply kick the ball out or hoof it away because it is their trained behaviour in this situation. They don’t even need to hear the calls anymore, they have made a decision even before the decision was there to be made. It’s reflex.
What seems to be helpful advice in the moment, given to avoid the potential of conceding a goal, is actually advice that decreases the player’s confidence to be able to play themselves out of trouble. Instead of teaching the player to consider their options, they are now taking the one easiest option and making the situation someone else’s problem, or creating a temporary delay until the problem comes back to them again. The world becomes a place where they are simply dealing with problems, never taking control of the situation, and missing out on opportunities to make decisions. Even a bad decision is beneficial to simply panicking and going with reflex. What’s the very worst that happens? A goal is scored against them and the player has learned that what they did doesn’t work, and will hopefully not do it again. But how will they learn if they don’t take the chance? Is the momentary threat of conceding a goal in youth soccer worth teaching our kids to panic and take flight?
In youth soccer the goal has to be development above all else. We have to try to help our kids get better at the skills needed to get better at soccer, because in doing so they’ll get better at life. They will become better team-mates, better leaders, better communicators, more respectful to their coaches/bosses, and yet have the confidence to try new things, to be creative, to think quickly, to problem solve, and to make reasoned decisions on the fly. This can only happen if we encourage them to make decisions and praise them when they do, even when they are bad. What better place to learn these skills and traits than in a competitive world in which the emotion is high, the pressure is real, but the actual cost of getting it wrong is relatively low?
There will be times in life when our kids have no choice but to stand and fight. They will have to make difficult decisions, there will be pressure, and they will want to absolve themselves of the responsibility or trouble. How can I be so sure? Because it has happened to all of us, our kids won’t be any different.
So here’s the three takeaways from today.
1 – A game of soccer can be a great learning environment. Players can learn accountability, responsibility, decision-making, problem solving, team work, how to manage pressure, how to overcome competitors, how to stick to task, that sometimes life will be unfair, how to lose with grace, and how to win with dignity. We have to encourage them to do this and let them feel safe to make mistakes.
2 – We as parents and coaches have the ability to help our kids feel confident enough to make a decision and not feel scared to get it wrong. We can help our kids learn and grow, or we can give them instructions from a position where we know less about what is going on, and what their coach is looking for. Let them play, make decisions, and learn.
3 – Fight or flight is a trained response. If the highest pressure our children face is in a competitive sport and every time they are under attack we tell them to take flight and avoid the battle, it is the response they will learn whenever they are under attack.
Squirrel, as small as he is, is prepared to fight. He’d be the defender starting an attack by controlling the ball by knocking it into space and taking it up the field. He’d be the goalie calling for the ball, already knowing where he’ll pass it when he gets it, ensuring the team keeps possession and sets up a counter attack. As the pressure increases, Squirrel throws things at us, he gets more aggressive, not less. He fights harder, makes himself scarier, and becomes bolder. He’s the goalie who doesn’t kick the ball out, he’s the goalie who gets the ball and goes on a mazy run to create an attack, like this:

It’s not easy to let our kids fail. We don’t want to see them lose. But in youth sport we need to reframe what winning and losing actually are. Losing is not getting better. Losing is when the team is doing the same thing in the next game as it did in the last one in which is was outplayed. Losing is when a player is devastated because they scored an own goal, but doesn’t know what to do differently next time. Losing is when a defender kicks the ball over the midfield giving the ball back to their opponent’s defender, taking touches and decision-making opportunities away from players on their team. Losing is when a player doesn’t give their all for the team and loses interest because results are going against them. Losing is when a player learns that any time they have a problem in life it’s not their fault, someone else didn’t just get the ball clear in time.
Winning however, that’s when there is growth, confidence, team-work, responsibility and respect. Winning is when performance is the focus and growth is the goal. Anyone can get results, you just play your best players in the best positions. That’s not a coach, that’s a manager. A coach will develop people to improve understanding and performance. Results may suffer at times, but in the long run it is simply not possible to continue improving performance, working on the right skills and behaviours, and for results not to follow.

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