Learning to learn: How football can teach us

A child’s readiness to go to school depends on the most basic of all knowledge, how to learn.
— Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1995)

One of the greatest sources of happiness is acquiring knowledge or skills. We crave new information, the unknown and unfamiliar. Throughout our lives, there are many occasions where we are expected to learn. Clearly, school is one of the first settings where we begin to acquire information and skills, but sometimes we fail to see that sports are also an educational platform. Our failure to approach coaching sports in the same manner that we approach education leads young players to not take full advantage of the personal gains sports have to offer. We have the opportunity to teach our players, not only about football but how to learn.

The following list is from Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, and although the list was written for the purpose of preparing a child for school, all of the seven points are directly applicable to our profession. Our job is to provide and inculcate our players with the following sensations which they will be able to take with them long after they have given up the sport.


Every coach knows the importance of confidence and how confidence can make a difference to a player’s success on the field. However, have you tried to precisely define confidence within a learning context? Goleman describes it as “a sense of control and mastery of one’s body, behavior, and the world; the child’s sense that he is more likely than not to succeed at what he undertakes.” Speaking within the limits of coaching football, we define it as giving the player the self belief to perform an action and expect success.

Although in theory, this sounds relatively simple, we all know that this does not magically happen with a few words of encouragement. This occurs over the course of countless years, with an abundance of encouraging words. Throughout their career, the player must be given the sense that there is no shame in failing because when the player becomes afraid of failure they will surely be afraid to try. Confidence is born from losing the fear of defeat. It’s at this point the player will believe in themselves and will expect success. They will be confident.


We are all curious by nature. As children, in order to understand how the world worked, we had to be curious. The difference is that some of us continued the curious path and others became complacent in the search for new information. However, the question remains, how do we as coaches instill curiosity? The answer is rather simple. Goleman believes that the key to building curiosity is in creating a positive sensation which the person feels when they have discovered something new. This feeling must lead to pleasure, and consequently wanting more.

As coaches, we can do this by allowing our players to discover what they wish to find out. Rather than giving them the information we feel is important to their growth, we can present them with a problem, in our case winning a match, and allow for them to uncover the solution. This will lead to nurturing a positive sensation in the desired results, as well as a sense of confidence in their cognitive abilities.


Goleman’s definition is as follows; “The wish and capacity to have an impact and to act upon that with persistence.” Again, within the context of our sport, we want our players to feel competent enough to want to make an impact on the current problem at hand, in our case a football match, and ultimately to be effective in the outcome. This goes hand in hand with confidence. It simply is not enough to tell our players that they are good enough and let them discover solutions to problems without them wanting to take part. We must encourage them, and more importantly, give them a purpose where they can carry out their intentions.

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Being able to control one’s own actions is one of the most important skills in life. In one’s personal and professional life, this can steer us clear of unnecessary arguments and fallouts with people in our lives. Fortunately for us, football is an ideal instrument to perfect our management of emotions and keep our actions in check. It gives us situations, like losing and winning matches, which can be used to teach self-control. If used properly we can instill in our players a better sense of inner control.


Football is a team sport in which a group of people must work together in order to complete a common objective. The best coaches are able to inject into their teams a sense of understanding between all of the participants. This is what Daniel Goleman is referring to when he discusses relatedness, “the ability to engage with others based on the sense of being understood by and understanding others.” Every member of the group must feel they belong and are understood within the team. To create this kind of atmosphere, coaches must be attuned to their players and their emotions to create an environment where all members will have their voice heard. Doing so will produce understanding amongst the players.

Capacity to communicate

As has been mentioned on several occasions, football is by and large a social sport which requires constant communication between all individuals participating. Without communication, verbal or non-verbal, working together would be impossible. This also means that members of the team must communicate effectively off the field as well in order to resolve any issues that may arise throughout the course of a season.  Many times conflicts could affect the performance of individuals or the team in its entirety, for this reason, the coach must be a facilitator of communication. Ideally, the coach needs to provide the tools and settings necessary for personal development in communicating, and when fully developed, players should be able to express and comprehend complex emotions; a skill they will find useful for the rest of their lives.


The final element on the Goleman’s list encapsulates all of the aforementioned skills. Cooperativeness, as described by the author, is “the ability to balance one’s own needs with those of others in group activity”. This means that the young individual must be able to relate to others by using communication, whilst being in control of their emotions and actions with the final result of sharing their knowledge in a confident manner. They cooperate in order to accomplish a predefined objective. This is not only useful in football but in all activities where a group must decipher what needs the group must meet and what needs the individual requires. Once all individuals are attuned to the needs of the group, they will function as an effective organism.

Often we forget that football is no different than any other educational activity where an individual has to acquire a skill through hours and hours of practice. Frankly, football, along with other group activities, adds a social element that allows its participants to improve their capacities to interact with their environment. As coaches, we must be able to see all of the opportunities our sport provides to teach skills that will help better society and the lives of the individuals with which we engage on a regular basis. Let’s give them the tools to succeed on the field and in life.

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