by Tom Turner, Ohio Youth Soccer Association North Director of Coaching and Player Development
Much of what players hear from the sidelines moves children farther away from the playing habits that will help them grow as intelligent soccer players. There are some simple and obvious reasons why our average player has never developed the competence to enjoy the game and the passion to play into adulthood, and evolving a culture will be a slow group effort, involving the education of both coaches and parents. What follows, is a sample of typical comments heard at youth soccer games, and the underlying messages that are being subtly relayed to the players about their significant adult’s respect for, and understanding of the game.
Comments: Kick it – Get it out of here! – Great kick! – Get rid of it! – Boot it long! – Don’t pass it backwards – You’re going the wrong way! – Don’t ever pass the ball across the field!
What a child may be hearing: Don’t take any chances in trying to keep possession. You’re just going to lose it, so get the ball as far downfield as early as possible so that the ball is away from our goal. Don’t take the time to look for a teammate and don’t worry where the ball ends up. Just make sure you don’t lose possession and risk conceding a goal.
Think about it: If we never ask young players to take risks and try to play constructive soccer at an age when results don’t matter, when will they ever develop the skills, insights and confidence to play in control, at speed, and under pressure? We don’t teach youth baseball players to go for home runs all the time or quarterback to always throw deep, so why do we ask our soccer players to always kick it long.
Comments: Don’t play with it! – Too many touches! – Don’t hold onto the ball!
What a child may be hearing: You don’t have the skill to dribble the ball to create space or buy time for a pass, and we might lose a goal if you are dispossessed. Better to play safe and clear the ball forward out of our end.
Think about it: Dribbling is the most important skill a young player can learn. If they don’t take these chances sometimes, they will never have another chance to become a creative player.
Comments: Never kick the ball like that! – Always use the inside of your foot. – That’s not the way I told you to do it!
What a child may be hearing: You don’t know what you’re doing. There is only one correct way to kick the ball and that is not the right way. I have all the answers and you must follow my direction because I am the coach and I am in charge. If you don’t do as I say, you will sit on the bench.
Think about it: Creative players solve problems in novel ways. They do the unexpected and use whatever insights they possess to arrive at solutions. A good pass, for example, is one that arrives at its target and can be used to the team’s advantage, regardless of how it was delivered. When we tell players they cannot use technique in a unique way, we are chipping away at their ability to think for themselves and perpetuating a culture where players have limited skills and no creativity.
Comments: Nooooo…what are you doing? – You’re kicking to nobody – Run somewhere – Make a run – Create space – Run to space – Do something – Think out there
What a child may be hearing: You are not doing anything right. You are just hurting the chance for us to win and I wish you weren’t even on the team.
Think about it: As simple as soccer is, it is actually very difficult to do. Young players with growing bodies are learning to master basic technical skills, and all these generic comments are not helping the player to perform. In contrast, it just frustrates the player that she is not doing well and usually ends in the child hanging their head even lower. If a player makes a bad pass to the other team, they are the first to realize their mistake. Instead of reinforcing the mistake with a negative comment, at an upcoming practice, the coach should work on exercises to improve the passing, such as players holding the ball a bit longer so they can have a better opportunity for a good pass. The concept of space and making runs are very difficult to understand to a child, but many coaches yell this without any preparation to the player beforehand. Coaches should not expect their players to do what they do not know how to do. Overall, generic comments do not give the player any guidance at all, except to give up.
Comments: Try harder – You’re not trying hard enough – Pick it up out there – Run faster
What a child may be hearing: You’re lazy and you don’t care if we win or not.
Think about it: In soccer, there are many times when a player needs to give the extra effort, but there are also times when a player needs to rest his-her body during a game. Be aware of the limits of your players. Focus more on helping a player decide when to hold back and when to go all out.
Comments: Always play the way you’re facing.
What a child may be hearing: You failing and don’t know what you are doing out there. Don’t even try taking a player on, as you’re not good enough.
Think about it: This is a coaching contradiction. Players are often asked to receive the ball with their back to goal and turn against pressure. The most difficult opponents are unpredictable in their ability to receive passes and attack space behind and beside defenders. It is a difficult, yet necessary skill for forwards and midfield players. If we always ask players to pass the way they are facing, we make play too predictable and devalue the skills and insight necessary to recognize the opportunity to turn a defender or receive the ball into an open space. The most common reason why players lose possession is that they have no vision of the field behind them before trying to turn.
Comments: That’s a card, Ref! – Offside! – Hey Ref, call it both ways! – Unintentional Ref; that’s not a foul! – That’s a handball! – Didn’t you see that, Ref? – What game are you watching, Ref? – Great call ref (in a sarcastic tone)
What a child may be hearing: I, the coach, know everything about the interpretation of the rules, and the referee, players and parents need to know it. The ref obviously does not know what he is doing and you players don’t need to respect him.
Think about it: Refereeing is a matter of opinion and many new referees are just learning to understand the nuances of officiating what can be a very fluid game. There are good and bad referees, good and bad players, and good and bad coaches. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone should be allowed to learn their craft without undue abuse. By attacking the credibility of the official, we send the message to the players and the parents that referee abuse is acceptable. When we serve as a negative example, or condone a vocal parent or player’s negative outbursts by not rebuking them, we are demonstrating disrespect for the game. We also send a strong message to the players that appealing decisions and questioning the authority of the officials are an acceptable part of a soccer education.
Coaching players to react to any call by taking a quick restart or by organizing the defense is a much more proactive and productive approach to dealing with refereeing decisions. Without a playing background, a refereeing license, or years of experience in soccer, inexperienced coaches should endeavor to understand both the letter and spirit of the rules (Laws) and help their teams to appreciate the emotional challenges of interpretation. Coaches who truly work from a developmental bias, view positive and negative refereeing decisions as an integral part of the game, and which present valuable learning opportunities for their players. Life is not always fair, or to our liking!
Comments: The ref was paid off – That ref sucked – The ref lost the game for us
What a child may be hearing: The other team didn’t deserve to win. We should have won, and the only reason we didn’t is because the ref was biased for their team and was against our team and wanted us to lose.
Think about it: A losing team should always praise the other team for winning and thank the referees. Believe it or not, but VOLUNTEER referees are truly not biased against any team. If they were, they should not be a referee. They may make mistakes, but so do the players and the coaches. When a team loses, the coach should look for weaknesses in their team opportunities to improve the team during the next practices.
In summary, some may see this a “Politically-Correct”, but the reality is the the fear-driven, don’t lose, critical, no-pain-no-gain approach to youth soccer creates players who are perpetually uncomfortable in possession and destined to be incapable of playing constructive and creative soccer. Only through more thoughtful, less pressured coaching, and more appropriate small-sided games can we provide an environment where our young players have the opportunity to play soccer as adults in our national style.