A season ends; reflections begin

By Mike Woitalla

Today is soccer practice day, but it isn’t because the season ended last weekend.

So I’m not checking which balls need to be pumped up, if the first-aid kit is in order, or if the pinnies and goalkeeper gloves are back in the coach’s bag. (Which reminds me, are you ever supposed to wash those pinnies?)

Instead come the reflections of the last season. Did I coach well? What could or should I have done differently?

I never forgot the player cards, so that’s a plus.

The best memories are those moments when the youngsters showed signs that they’re mastering the ball and being creative – and the smiles and the laughs.

For sure, there are few things nicer than watching the kids score and celebrate goals. But a goal we didn’t score may last longer in my memory than shots that hit the net, because I still chuckle when I replay the incident my mind:

The opponent’s 11-year-old goalkeeper made a spectacular diving save. The rebound rolled invitingly toward our center forward. But she, instead of pouncing, was applauding the save as the keeper got to her feet and recovered it.

Another season of coaching and observing many other youth games did give me the impression that youth coaching is getting better year-by-year. One still hears far too much sideline shouting, including the very troublesome “Get rid of it!” and “Kick it out of bounds!” But more adults with soccer knowledge and an appreciation of children’s stages of development seem to be involved in the sport.

What I fear keeps getting worse is the invasive role of tournaments, because they are so profitable, on youth soccer.

League games are doubled up on weekends to make room for tournaments, which have teams playing three to four games in two days. Teams can end up with six to eight games over a 16-day period. Who believes this is healthy?

Three games in one weekend is already excessive, but four borders on the atrocious. Is the fourth game necessary so the trophies can be divvied out? If trophies are so important to someone, why not decide the winners with three-game round-robins? So what if there are two champions in the same age group.

Speaking of tournaments, one had a point system that awarded 6 points for a win, 3 for a tie, and shutouts earned 1 bonus point. In the case of a scoreless tie, each team got an extra point. Rewarding defensive, anemic soccer at the early ages is not what the sport needs.

If coaches of youngsters aren’t emphasizing attacking and scoring it’s no wonder the nation lacks players with a nose for the goal at the higher levels.

(In what I hope must be a rare example of misguided coaching is the U-6 coach whose policy is to sub out the scorer after each goal. Let’s hope that if we’ve got a potential Lionel Messi he’s not in that squad.)

A big thanks to the referees and their assistants, whose mistakes, when we really assess them, still generally even out between the two opponents.

In 14 games at the U-12 level, I counted four officiating errors that just maybe could have impacted the final result: three on offside calls, and a ball rolling past the goal line without the officials seeing that. (An especially tough call because the goal line paint had disintegrated during the day's earlier games).

So these refs’ error rate was comparable to the 2010 World Cup officials’.

I do have a pet peeve: Why are so many refs obsessed with calling foul throw-ins? If both feet are on the ground and the ball is tossed with both hands, from behind and over the head, it’s a fair throw. It doesn’t matter if the player twists his body, how the ball spins, or where it goes.

Still, next season I’ll make sure my players throw the ball in the robot-like fashion expected of the most finicky refs. And I’ll keep thinking about how to be better coach – how to help the players improve and how to inspire them to play with the ball when it’s not practice or game time.

The challenges of youth coaches are many. For me, one of the greatest is getting 11-year-old girls to stop chatting. Each practice or game seems like a reunion of dear friends who haven’t spoken in years. So eager are they to catch up that they struggle listening to even the most concise words from the coach.

Before one game, shortly before kickoff, I gathered the players, had them read my cap so they would focus on me, pleaded with them to stop chatting -- which they did! -- and proceeded to read off the lineup.

But one player kept raising her hand and trying to interrupt me. I said sternly I needed her to listen and to save her question for when I’m done.

Yet she blurted out, while pointing at my lineup sheet, “You’ve got me in there twice!” And there was her name, at forward and in midfield.

Sometimes it’s a good thing when players don’t obey their coaches.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Rockridge SC in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

7 comments about "A season ends; reflections begin".
  1. dan woerner, November 17, 2010 at 6:49 p.m.

    spot-on article! Thanks for sharing..

  2. Melissa Burns, November 18, 2010 at 1:12 p.m.

    Great post, thanks Mike!

  3. Fred Matthes, November 18, 2010 at 1:32 p.m.

    Great post Mike. . . after coaching both daughters at the house and travel levels for a combined 14 years alas my youngest has now gone off to college, along with all of her teammates. I no longer am coaching and truly miss those hectic Saturdays and Sundays as well as practice days while coaching their two teams simultaneously. Rarely did the end up playing at the same field or even the same town for that matter, but it was all worth it.

    The thrills and excitement, the ups and downs, and the 1000's of great memories will last forever with me and hopefully also with the dozens of girls I coached over all those years.

    And, "No" you will never get 11-year old girls from chatting each time they see each other at practice or games . . . just watch their Mom's on the sidelines . . .

  4. Robert Hill, November 18, 2010 at 2:15 p.m.

    Thank you, Great post.

  5. Kent James, November 18, 2010 at 2:53 p.m.

    Generally a good article, but you might be careful about two criticisms in which you charge tournament directors or coaches with discouraging scoring. A tournament that rewards shut-outs rather than goals may be trying to keep teams from running up the score to advance (though there are better ways to do this, their intentions may be good).

    Likewise with the coach who subs the goal scorer; if the game is really lopsided, it may be an attempt by the coach to avoid running up the score (again, there are other ways to do that too). So while your assessment may be correct (discouraging offensive play), there may be mitigating circumstances. Good sportsmanship may occasionally need to override creative, attacking play. Of course if leagues and tournaments are truly competitive, that would never happen, and a creative coach can find ways to encourage offensive play while still being sporting.

  6. Brian Halliday, November 19, 2010 at 3:40 a.m.

    Really enjoyed the article. In a few years when you looks back Mike you remember the fun that you had with the "girls" Not the wins or the losses but the great times win or lose.

    But lets not forget the parents who manage to get the kids to practice, make sure that Lily, Sarah or Mia has a clean uniform and can find her cleats.
    And who are always there to apply the band-aids when the team has lost their fourth or fifth game in a row.
    Without those pesky troublesome mums and dads, soccer as we know it wouldn't exist in the USA. So as the season comes to an end, let give another cheer for the rest of the team.

  7. kevin weiss, November 19, 2010 at 4:26 a.m.

    I enjoyed your article, but as a (not so former) youth player, and now coach, I would disagree on your views on tournaments and scoring.

    Four games in 2 days is nothing. Do you remember being a kid and running around at recess, and coming home from school, only to go out and play some more? I've never found it to be too much, and have never heard of any kids on my team being happy to lose because they couldn't handle a 4th game. Most tournaments, esp. at younger ages, will have shortened halves too, so the kids are running around maybe 2 hours a day. That sounds ok to me.

    As a defensive player, I tend to make sure my defense is solid before I even worry about offense. I tell all of my kids that offense can't lose games, but defense can. I agree you don't want to limit good players, but too many times in youth soccer coaches tend to think short term, instead of focusing on the player's development.

    We had a kid at U12 who could use his speed and ball skills to score many goals. It was my first year coaching, and I failed him by letting him score 3 or 4 goals a game. This past year, he didn't make my team... he was so used to being the best, that when he got older and the competition increased, his speed couldn't get him by, and he was more focused on scoring than being a complete player.

    At 24, I now have coached teams from U5-U19, and recommend more focus from coaches on what leads to goals, instead of the goals themselves. That's how we have to build youth soccer. The kids with the most skill will still score,but with more focus on assists, and movement away from the ball, our teams will grow as a whole. Just my two cents. I'm still a kid myself, so who knows?

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