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Out of the Mouths of Babes
February 19th, 2009 1PM
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By Emily Cohen

Driving the school or sports carpool always affords the opportunity to eavesdrop on what's really happening in kids' lives. While kids may not tell their parents about an embarrassing or unsettling experience with a teacher, a coach, or another authority figure, they'll almost certainly tell each other, especially if they're in the backseat of a car and they don't think the parent is listening.

It was just this situation in which I found myself, driving my daughter and some friends home from a soccer game. In between surfing radio stations, I heard the girls comparing the coaching styles of various coaches. One girl said to the others about a past coach, "One minute, she yelled, 'Go to the right!' The next minute, she yelled, 'Go to the left!' I was so confused, I didn't do anything. I stopped to figure out what she was telling me to do, and the girl with the ball dribbled right by me."

I laughed to myself and wondered if the coach realized that her yelling was completely counterproductive. In fact, I wonder if most coaches really think about how their bellows and screeches from the sideline, which they think of as helpful instructions, are perceived by their players.

If coaches ever stopped to ask players whether instructions yelled from the sidelines motivate the player to do what the coach wants, the collective response would be a resounding "No!"

All but two of the 15 kids -- ages 7 to 17 -- with whom I spoke said that their coach's yelled instructions didn't help them at all. In fact, it made it difficult to focus on what they were doing -- playing soccer. And the two who did say that shouted instructions or directions by the coach helped them perform better qualified their answers by saying that they thought the coaches were trying to help but, when they thought about it, what the coach was trying to explain to them would have been better communicated off the field, during a substitution or at halftime -- or, better yet, at a practice.

But enough of my interpretations. Let's hear it from the kids themselves:

"Getting yelled at by my coach isn't helpful at all because it makes it harder to concentrate. It's more difficult to control the soccer ball when someone's yelling at me."

"When the coach yells at me to mark someone or run somewhere else, I can't focus on the game. I think I make more mistakes because I was listening not playing."

"Both the coaches were screaming instructions. I tried to do what one of the coaches said, but it was hard to figure out, because the coaches were saying different things."

"I hate it when the coach screams at me to 'play better' or 'run harder.' I mean, really, I'm trying my best already and that just makes me feel worse. It doesn't make me play better or run harder."

"Most of the time, when the coach yells something to me, I saw it already and I'm trying to get there. But I can't yell that to them because I'm too busy running!"

And my personal favorite:

"I don't like it when a coach yells at me to do something because I usually figure out what to do on my own."

There it is, in a nutshell. Isn't that really what youth soccer is about? Figuring out how to play the game and gaining a sense of accomplishment from doing just that?

I wonder how many of those screaming coaches could play an hour of soccer (or play a tennis match or a run a 10K race or cycle up a steep grade) with someone yelling at them the entire time to "run harder," "cycle faster" or "play better." Most would likely lose their patience and yell back at the offender.

I just hope the next time one of them coaches a kids' soccer game, he or she thinks twice about yelling at the players and decides to just let them play.

(Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif. She is the mother of a son, 12, and a daughter, 9, who both play multiple sports. She has been a team manager for her children's soccer, baseball and softball teams.)


  1. Brad Partridge
    commented on: February 19, 2009 at 2:09 p.m.
    Emily, You are very accurate with your comments and observations. The only thing you need to add is Coaches/Parents to the article, in place of just coaches. Both are equally guilty of distracting players. Some even do it at practice sessions. Letting players make their own mistakes is a major key to player development. Great article. Regards, Brad Partridge

  1. commented on: February 19, 2009 at 3:36 p.m.
    Emily, Why do you think we call it the 'Windy City'? RW
  1. David Hardt
    commented on: February 19, 2009 at 6:10 p.m.
    Amen: From a former yeller, now I have learned. Practice time is for quality instruction, game time is the "test" of the learning. Re-evaluate practice based on the game results, and most importantly, the game results have NOTHING to do with the final score. Is it a good game if your players dominate another team but they do it with poor habits because they are bigger, faster, or already further developed?
  1. James Madison
    commented on: February 19, 2009 at 7:10 p.m.
    Regardless of whether it is a coach or a parent-fan, would shouting instructions be in order if it was a music recital or school play instead of a soccer match? There are lots of other things to do to deal with the anxiety over the effectiveness of your coaching---take notes about what you observe to help plan next week's practices; provide helpful instruction to the substitutes who are sitting with you; take notes about the good things going on so you will remember praiseworthy items to share with your players and parents at the after-the-match meeting, etc.
  1. Tim Silvestre
    commented on: February 23, 2009 at 1:58 p.m.
    As a coach of U6 last year and U8 this year I do think that yelling simple instructions to the players helps in certain circumstances, primarily to get their attention when they are distracted, like sitting down in the goal box, walking off the field during plays, facing the wrong way, etc. Specific instructions like "mark #4" or "cut him off" don't really work in my experience since youngsters can't process the instruction on the run anyway. I disagree, though, that a soccer game is like a play or a musical recital; the former is a dynamic moving contest with no script or set schedule and adaptability to the particular circumstances can lead to a win. The latter are set pieces that are intended to proceed according to plan at each and every performance. Bottom line for me is that well timed and relatively basic shouts to my players at this age do work. Now if I could only get the parents to be quiet!

  1. commented on: May 18, 2009 at 6:29 p.m.
    I would agree with Tim. Soccer is a dynamic exercise, and situations will arise that provide "teachable moments." Taking note of the situation and trying to address it with a re-creation in practice does not work with the younger players. Their attention spans & event horizons are too short. But if you can give them a short, concise command that creates a positive outcome in a match situation, they will remember it. Obviously, we've all seen the type of coaches that Emily describes; and constant ranting & spewing of directions IS a distraction that hurts player development more than it helps. But limited, concise, and timely instructions will help players to get more enjoyment from the game.

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