Sideline coaching -- Dump the GPS and let the kids drive

By Scott Nelson

While observing U7 games a few seasons ago I got into a conversation with a disgruntled parent. It turns out that this parent was constantly being told to stop coaching from the sidelines by the team's actual coach. This parent felt justified "getting involved" from the sidelines because, he explained, the designated coach of the team "wasn't coaching enough."

Now, I had observed this parent’s sideline behavior several times, and had also seen him silenced by his daughter’s coach on more than one occasion. This parent’s pearls of coaching wisdom included phrases like “Go!” ”Get the ball!”  “Shoot it!” “Get back!” “Hard kicks!” “Don’t Bunch!” and liberal doses of the one phrase guaranteed to make me cringe whenever I hear it: “Boot it!”

Without a hint of irony, this parent would also yell at his child to “Pay attention to the game” on the many occasions when she stopped playing to look over at him on the sidelines.

His daughter’s coach, much to this parent’s consternation, gave out none of this crucially needed guidance. Instead he would stand watching from the sidelines, giving out plenty of encouragement, praising good intentions (even when they weren’t successful!) but mostly leaving the kids to their own devices unless they needed help figuring out what to do on their restarts.

When he did intervene, he would ask his players questions instead of giving commands. “Where do you need to be?”  “Where do you think they will go if they get the ball?”  “Where do you think she will kick the ball?” “What shape should we be in?” Can you try and dribble instead of kicking the ball away next time?”  In a season of observing this coach, I had never once heard him say “Boot it!” It was a testament to the natural ability of the kids, this parent said, that the team managed to dominate most of their games even without “real” coaching.

The truth was just the opposite. The team was playing well in part because of the lack of “traditional” youth sideline coaching. This coach and others in his club had been trained to act as facilitators, not directors. Coaches were encouraged to let the kids play and make their own decisions (both good and bad), not to micro-manage every dribble and kick.

Obviously, most of what this parent in question wanted to yell from the sidelines was just useless noise (Just once I’d love to see a little 6 year old turn to the sidelines and say “Kick the ball?  During a soccer game? Dang!  Never thought of that before ...”) but what if it wasn’t just superfluous information and noise? Suppose these sideline coaches were actually giving out proper advice in agreement with the coach’s policies and philosophy. What could be bad about that?  

I’ll answer that by comparing coaching from the sidelines to driving with a GPS. A GPS system is great for getting from point A to point B, but most of the people who use a GPS tend to pay a lot less attention to where they are going.  Many people end up relying on the GPS to the point where they cannot find their way without it, even when they have been on the same route multiple times. In a similar manner, coaching from the sidelines can hinder players from developing the crucial ability to make their own decisions and think for themselves.

For drivers who do know where they are going, the GPS can be a real annoyance, cutting into the songs on the radio and interrupting conversations with the passengers to tell the driver information they already know. At worst it is a distraction that might prevent the driver from concentrating on the road.

Now imagine if your GPS could not be turned off, and that it always presumed to know where you were going without ever asking you. Let’s further suppose it didn’t appreciate you exploring a side road or detouring to that espresso stand, and got increasingly loud and angry if you failed to follow its directions. “Take the next right turn ...” “When possible make a U-turn” “Recalculating route ...”  “When possible make a U-turn ...” “Recalculating rout ...”   “HEY DUMMY, YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!”

What would driving be like if you had a GPS like this?  It would be a lot like trying to play soccer while people on the sidelines were constantly yelling at you.

Bottom line: If we want our young players to develop and have fun, we need to learn to shut up and let them drive.

(Scott Nelson has coached at every imaginable level of youth soccer from toddlers programs and recreational teams to high school, premier soccer, ODP, and two years with the USL Seattle Sounders youth teams in the Super-Y League. In recent years his focus has been on the development of very young players. Scott has been a member of Washington Youth Soccer's instructional staff since 2004.)

12 comments about "Sideline coaching -- Dump the GPS and let the kids drive".
  1. Tyler Dennis, November 9, 2011 at 2:14 p.m.

    I try to set expectations at the beginning of the season with the parents. I think the best way to do this is create a positive approach to head off the sideline coaching by using the "ole" program. I ask the parents to yell "ole" as a group when they see a great dribble down the field or good passes or shots on goal or a save by a goalie. It works ok depending on the designated parent who coordinates the chant. But, it sets a positive "cheering message."

    The other thing I remind them before the first game of the season is to "please cheer the result, not the action"... then a reminder throughout the season now and again.

    I had a parent the last weekend get a little too commanding in his cheering and he actually wrote me an unsolicited email to apologize... first parent I've ever had self-censor.

  2. James Madison, November 9, 2011 at 2:18 p.m.

    My favorite story about how players react to sideline yell-coaching, whether from parents or the coach, took place several years ago when I was the center in a women's match between Fresno City College and Canada College. The FCC coach was constantly on his players. Midway in the second half, when I had awarded a DFK to FCC, the captain came up to me to take the kick and said, "Could you please red card our coach."

  3. Kevin Ellis, November 9, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.

    Amen. I coach at the high school level and have coached for the past 15 years at U12 and up. I have a 9 year old who plays as well. I find it hilarious when a parent on the sideline starts yelling these things and the kids turn and tell them "I KNOW". People are amazed at how I am able to just sit and watch my kid play and not comment on everything that he does wrong or right. I just tell them that I am here to watch, not coach. During my matches when I am coaching I have learned that occasional corrections are much better than the constant chatter. Players begin to tune you out if they are constantly being told what to do.

  4. Pete Pidgeon, November 9, 2011 at 2:50 p.m.

    Great point!!

    I always told the parents PRIOR to working with a new team, my three rules of coaching:

    #1. I coach, you don't.

    #2. You will ALWAYS be positive and encouraging in anything you say on the sidelines.

    and #3, I coach, you don't.

    Worked wonderfully for myself and the kids and if a parent sometimes forgot, or we had a rookie injecting themselves by mistake, the veterans would police the sideline for me.

  5. Joseph Pratt, November 9, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.

    Great great GREAT article, and I love the comments! James Madison, I laughed out loud at your story, that is great. I'm going to pass that one on. I coach a U12 travel team and try very hard to adhere to the positive encouragement, suggest alternatives, and let them play model. I actually spend most of the game sitting on the bench with the subs. They are the ones who get the earful, as it gives me an opportunity to make coaching points about actions in the game. There's no question that a team meeting is key to set ground rules. I also love the "ole" suggestion, that could be fun!

  6. Ron kruse, November 9, 2011 at 5:37 p.m.

    I try and not coach from the touch but am guilty! I am better than i used to be and constantly improving, especially with great atricles like this on that reminds me. I try and use alot of deserved praise, especially when i see something that we are trying to work on as individuals or as a team. Usually right after i see it i offer imediate praise and that seems to be encouraging to not only that player but others as well.

  7. Paul Lorinczi, November 9, 2011 at 5:42 p.m.

    Well - parents need to learn that it is not about the parent. I believe that in youth development, it is important that self-discovery be part of any child's learning experience. At the younger ages, they are in discovery mode. Parents simply have to shut up, as do red faced coaches on the sideline. It's up to the kid if they want to learn to play or not.

  8. John Steltz, November 10, 2011 at 12:20 a.m.

    A useful book on this topic: Beyond the Scoreboard, Examining Teamwork, Tension, and Triumph in High School Athletics written by John Steltz. All parents w/ children in youth sports MUST READ!

  9. Daniel Clifton, November 10, 2011 at 7:26 a.m.

    This is a great article. The parent discussed in the article I have dealt with in the past. Parents who never played the game somehow know more than the coach. I actually had a parent tell me I didn't yell at the girls enough. I got into hot water for making sure that every girl on the team played at least half the game. This occurred ten years ago. The thing about coaching in soccer is you have to help them learn how to think on the field. You can't call a time out and tell them what they need to do. They need to figure it out for themselves. This coach sounds like an excellent youth coach. I wish there were more like him (or her). I like the way Jurgen Klinsmann emphasizes making sure that children have fun playing. Just kicking the ball around in the back yard or anywhere else they can.

  10. R2 Dad, November 10, 2011 at 9:45 a.m.

    Great reminder that while youths are learning to play the game (and many coaches learning how to coach), the parents also need to learn how to be fans. The other side of the coin is that many kids are especially sensitive/embarrassed when their parents speak up. You know how your kid doesn't want to be kissed at the school drop off any more because it's embarrassing? There is a healthy amount of that on the pitch as well with the U8/9/10s. I get grief from my youngest for yelling at the referees (e.g. dangerous play but no whistle). I'm a referee so it irks me when I see poor officiating, but it's not about me the parent/fan or the game, it's about my kid and their perception of the game that counts.

  11. William Rivera, November 16, 2011 at 10:08 p.m.

    This is a great article, I'm a parent of 3 kids all 3 of them play soccer recreational and comperative., I have coached, I have a referee licence and now I'm a team manager, you always hear parents criticizing the coach for everything, always coaching the kids from the side lines,always yelling at the referees and of course they know everything. they feel that if they were the coaches they can win every game.But they never show up for their kids practices and they never want to volunteer to be a coach or to assist the coach in any way shape or form!, so if they are not going to helph or get involve they should keep their mouth shut , the parents job is to encourage not just their kids but the whole team.

  12. soccer4kids 1, January 26, 2012 at 12:22 p.m.

    Excellent article. I coach, I parent, I spectate and I constantly remind myself of something I read on this topic...

    it's their game, not mine.

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