Editor's note: This is the third of a series discussing some of the important problems facing youth soccer (between the ages of about 5-13). Much of the ideas and content are derived from the work of Paul Mairs and Richard Shaw in their essential book, "Coaching Outside the Box." This series was originally published on the Philly Soccer Page.
Most of us would agree the goal of youth soccer should be to develop players to fulfill their best potential while fostering a love of the sport that will keep them playing into adulthood, if they so choose. Many coaches and parents will pay lip service to the idea that “it’s not important who wins the game, the most important thing is that they learn and have fun,” yet their actions often contradict these principles.
Pay attention the next time you’re around a youth soccer match. Observe how coaches and parents act differently depending on the scoreline. Listen to the chorus of “Pass! Shoot it! Move up! Be aggressive! Not in the middle!” When the score is close, the volume ramps up, but once a team is three or four goals ahead, both sides, resigned to the outcome, relax. If learning and fun were the main objective, why would we act differently when the “game is on the line.” The high-pressured, screaming-laden game I described in the first part of this series is unfortunately not uncommon.
So why do we act this way?
As a parent, I’m starting to realize that, as much as I know intellectually about the consequences of parents’ behaviors on the sidelines, I’m already finding it hard to stay calm during my son’s games. Like all parents, I want my child to do well. I want him to enjoy soccer, and I don’t want him to feel embarrassed or upset if he doesn’t perform well. I’m also concerned about what other parents or coaches might think of me based on my child’s play. If he tries a flashy piece of skill will they think I didn’t teach him to share properly? What if he’s a little overly aggressive, or overly passive? What does that say about me as a parent?
Such feelings — and many parents experience them — are referred to by psychologists as the “reverse-dependency trap,” and it can lead to our emotions taking precedence over what is best for our children. As a result, we shout instructions in an attempt to save our children from their mistakes. However, research shows we actually cause them to play worse, while also significantly diminishing their learning and enjoyment of the sport.
Coaches are often under similar psychological stress. While many understand that sideline instruction can be detrimental, they are also under pressure from parents and club administrators. Uninformed parents expect coaches to be “sideline generals,” directing play like professional American sports coaches on television. If they sit quietly while the kids are making mistakes, what will the parents think? Likewise, if they intervene and direct the kids, they can improve the chances of their team winning. What would club administrators think if their club continues to lose to a local rival? Fearing that parents will move their best players across town to the winning club, coaches can feel pressured to produce immediate wins.
Let’s consider an example:
Suzie is dribbling into the attacking third. A defender approaches to tackle the ball while her teammate, Annie, is wide open to her right. A parent shouts, “Pass it to Annie!” Suzie dutifully complies, leading to a goal for Annie. Good job, right?
What just happened? By directing Suzie, the parent didn’t allow her to use her active decision-making skills. She doesn’t get to fire those circuits in her brain that allow her to think quickly under pressure. Moreover, the coach just lost a great opportunity to evaluate how far Suzie has developed in her game understanding. Perhaps Suzie had been working on a new piece of skill and was prepared to take on the defender 1 on 1. The abilities to make decisions quickly and to attack in 1-on-1 situations are two of the most critical skills that separate successful soccer players from the rest, and we just robbed Suzie of the opportunity to develop them both.
And yet some would argue, “But we just scored and beat our crosstown U-10 rivals!”
In the words of the immortal Chris Farley,”Weeeeeell, la-dee-freekin’ da!”
Let’s consider another example:
Timmy is playing defense for his U-11 team. While under significant pressure from an opposing player, Timmy attempts to play back to his goalkeeper. He mishits the ball and the attacker intercepts and scores.
There are two ways a coach could handle this situation.
Coach A shouts “Timmy! What are you doing? We don’t play with it in the back!” and pulls him from the game to continue emphasizing this point on the bench in front of his teammates so that everyone remembers to not “play with it in the back.” After the game, he reminds the team about Timmy’s mistake again and encourages the team to “play smarter” next week.
Coach B stays calm. He claps briefly and says to his team, “Don’t worry guys, keep working.” At halftime, he pulls Timmy aside and says, “That was a good idea to play back to the goalie when you were under pressure, but you got unlucky. What could you have done differently?” Timmy thinks for a second and says, “I should have stayed more calm and concentrated on following through the center of the ball with my pass like we worked on in practice.” The coach replies, “Bingo! Way to go. Next time you’re in the same situation, I want you to try that pass again.”
Now, which coach leaves Timmy feeling more confident about his play? Which one allows him the freedom to try difficult skills and develop his game further? Which coach will he enjoy playing for and be more willing to learn from? And which coach is more likely to lead Timmy to conclude that he’s not very good at soccer and pass on next year’s tryouts?
The research is clear that shouting from the sidelines during a match is counterproductive to our real goals. Trevor Brooking is responsible for the development of England’s youth players as the Technical Director for FA. He describes how Manchester United has evolved: “The philosophy is to let them discover it themselves. The old vision of the coach shouting do this or do that has gone. What they have realized at United is the best coaching for youngsters is about standing back.”
This theory is supported by the research of Rianne Kannekens, who demonstrated that players who are allowed to develop superior decision-making skills in their formative years are the ones who progress the farthest in the sport.
As parents and coaches, we have to be courageous enough to allow our children to fail. Remember, as we discussed in the first piece in this series, mistakes are the currency of learning. By constantly directing young soccer plays during a game, we limit their abilities to think creatively for themselves and pressure them to avoid mistakes at all costs.
Ultimately, we create robotic and unimaginative players, precisely the kind the rest of the world criticizes us for on the international level.
But more importantly, we create children uninspired by the game, and we drive far too many of them to quit playing.
That is inexcusable. We have to do better.
Scott is a pediatrician and father of two active boys (who he is teaching to say "American football" for the pointy ball sport). You can follow him on Twitter @spugger77.