By Mike Woitalla
A few years ago I arrived at soccer practice in a bad mood for reasons I don't recall. The giggly girls hardly hit a decent pass during the warm-up rondos and I started barking.
That didn’t work so I figured, OK, let them goof around for a couple minutes while I calm down and set up stuff. I looked around the four-field park at which about 10 teams were practicing. About 40 yards away I noticed Coach T with his U-10s boys, and something struck me: He’s really enjoying himself -- and the boys looked sharp and like they were having fun during their exercise.
How did I know Coach T was in a good mood? Did I detect a smile from that far away? I’m not sure, but there must have been something -- and I got to thinking a lot about body language and its influence on others.
At my daughter’s elementary school, the morning started when the bell rang and each class lined up at markers on the vast blacktop. The teachers would come out to meet their classes and lead them inside. Many of them came out with a smile, but I recall one who nearly always approached her students with a sour look. It’s hard to imagine the children wouldn’t infer that she didn’t look forward to a day in the classroom with them. Surely that would affect the attitude in which they approached learning?
It reminded me of advice I once got from a coach (I wish I remembered who it was) who said that when the players arrive at practice or a game, greet them like you’re happy to see them. It sets the right tone.
If you watch the U.S. national team, you’ll surely notice Jurgen Klinsmann’s positive body language. TV shots before Tuesday’s big win over Mexico showed him walking around the team warming up with a big smile. I was at his practice at Azteca Stadium the day before the tie in March in Mexico. They kept the media at least 60 yards away from the training, but even at that distance one got the sense that this was a confident coach who enjoyed his job -- and even, I would say, that he had genuine affection for his players. This is also noticeable in the way he greets them when they depart the field after a substitution.
Noteworthy too are the sideline shots of Klinsmann when things aren’t going well for his team. For sure, he may grimace about a ref’s decision off and on, but his look of confidence generally remains steady even when the team is struggling. That has to be reassuring to his players if they glance toward the sideline.
Pia Sundhage guided the USA to two Olympic gold medals during her 2008-12 stint as head coach and provided a marvelous example of body language that I’m sure contributed to the team’s success. During dramatic comeback wins over Canada and France, when the USA looked endanger of elimination, sidelines shots always showed an unfazed Sundhage. Indeed, she always looked like she was enjoying herself at the field.
When I asked her about it, she said, “I’m really happy to hear that when you watch the women’s team play you think I’m calm, because that's what I want my players to believe -- because I have faith in the way we play and in our players. I emphasize the good things. I’m looking for good things, instead of doing the opposite and try constantly to adjust mistakes.”
I’m not sure how much time is spent during coaches courses on body language -- or even how teachable a concept it is. But it seems that if coaches are enjoying themselves they’re most likely to send the messages to players that bring out the best in them.
“Even at the highest level, it should be fun,” Sundhage says. “Soccer is the best sport in the world and if it’s not fun it’s not worthwhile to coach.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)