Dealing With Lopsided Games

By Ian Plenderleith

The parents of the girls U16 indoor team screamed at every shot and wildly cheered at every goal. Their players and all three (yes, three) coaches did the same. The more they scored, the more excited they seemed to be at beating a clearly inferior side. I was coaching that inferior side, and had loudly remonstrated with my counterparts when one of their players had scythed through my best forward, leaving her in a crying heap on the turf, too hurt and upset to take any further part in the game. It was the most brutal of countless overly physical challenges from a team clearly coached to play in what can kindly be called a ‘robust’ fashion.

One coach shouted back at me that his player  - who was yellow-carded, though she should have been dismissed - had played the ball (where have we heard that one before?). It was this regrettable verbal exchange between the coaches that prompted our opponents to ramp up the cheering, but by that point I was only concerned that we end the game with no further injuries. At the final whistle (result: 7-1), I refused for the first time in five years of coaching to shake hands with the opposition coaches and, rightly or wrongly, suggested to my players that they likewise abstain. The opposition parents booed me out of the arena.

As a coach at youth level, you often come across the problem of lopsided games, and winter indoor soccer especially can throw together teams of vastly differing caliber. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and there are lessons to be learned from both severe beatings and easy wins.

When my teams are losing heavily, I don’t expect or even wish for mercy from superior travel teams. Instead, after pointing out the positive aspects of our performance, I will ask my players what they noticed about the team they just played and lost to. For example, did they see how the opposition players always moved for the return ball after passing it? Did they hear how well they communicated? Did they see how closely the defenders stayed on their mark? How fit the other team was, and how they didn’t tire? Were their opponents born with good technique, or did they play well because they train at least a little bit every day? Playing quality opposition can show young players the rewards of dedication and practice, rather than destroying their confidence.

My teams have also been in the position of playing far less gifted opposition, and it’s important for coaches to distract their players from the scoreboard after the fourth or fifth goal. Now is the time to try your defender as a striker, or see if the tall midfielder might shape up as a back-up goalkeeper. Instruct your players to see if they can keep possession for long periods, and perhaps only shoot once they have made five passes (if you’re coaching boys, you’ll hear some protests at this one). Tell them to continue to respect the opposition, and not to celebrate overtly if they score. Emphasize that this is a good chance to practice using their left foot. Play short by one, two or even more players in order to make the rest of the game something of a challenge.

These all sound like obvious points, but it’s astonishing how rarely you see them put into practice. The team mentioned at the start of this column was full of talented players, and had no need at all to intimidate my team or kick lumps out of them to win. The failure of their coaches to recognize the skills gap and adjust their tactics accordingly lead to an acrimonious game that taught the players nothing positive about soccer and how to play it.

The values of the grown adults madly cheering their daughters on to a cakewalk victory, or the coaches who spent the entire game screaming instructions at their players, are arguably topics for another column. But my concern is that a bilious sporting environment can be used to influence tomorrow’s adults into thinking that foul play, constant shouting, and beating on weaker opponents are virtues that lead to success.

As coaches, we should use one-sided games to suggest to young players that in defeat there can be both dignity and room to learn, and in victory there should be respect and restraint. Most importantly of all, that sportsmanship and fair play are of far greater importance than a 10-0 scoreline.

(Ian Plenderleith is a soccer writer who also referees and coaches the game at youth level. He is also the author of a book of adult-oriented soccer short stories, "For Whom The Ball Rolls.")

13 comments about "Dealing With Lopsided Games".
  1. R2 Dad, January 15, 2012 at 2:48 p.m.

    There are no easy answers here, which is why this specific problem defies quick solutions. While I agree with Ian's general approach, the overall tone of the game is debased when coaches tell their kids not to shake hands at the end of the match. Having been in his shoes, though, I completely understand the frustration. We see these types of teams every season. These teams are a small minority but I believe are responsible for all that is wrong with soccer. Typically:
    1) they value winning over development
    2) the parents know nothing about the game, and don't play it
    3) their team does not belong to a big club, so the coaches are not responsible to anyone
    4) this type of obnoxious team is trying to grow, trying to attract the attention of the parents of other quality players, trying to "get to the next level"
    Parents should see this behavior and run in the opposite direction, but curiously are attracted to teams like this. We know we should take the high road, but injuries to our players and dangerous play from opponents that goes unpunished clouds our judgement.
    Respect the game, the opponents and the referees and your kids will learn the important lessons. Don't give up, and don't give in.

  2. David Borts, January 17, 2012 at 9:26 a.m.

    As an experienced coach at all levels, I have developed the answer to the over-aggressive coach with a superior side. It is particularly valuable in indoor games in which lopsided wins apparently appeal to a certain mentality that has nothing to do with development. When it becomes apparent that you are facing such a coach, either between periods or at a time-out if the format permits. Explain your actions to your players and then take your goalkeeper out of the goal. This allows your opponents to score "at will" and will eventually lead the opponents(players and parents alike)to question the coaches mentality! Enjoy the results!

  3. John Shaffer, January 17, 2012 at 9:54 a.m.

    I have coached levels from 2nd grade rec to U19 boys and high school girls. Every one of my players can recite the mantra of "Win with humility. Lose with dignity." You can't control other teams' behavior, but you can certainly impart the right lessons on your team.

  4. david benson, January 17, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.

    I have been on both sides as a coach and a parent. I have gotten down to 3 v 6 and ordered a certain number of passes before a player could shoot with his off foot and violators were benched. I have been in tournaments where the opponent had zero business being in our bracket and when we were "over" bracketed. getting beat like a drum in my opinion is part of life. playing a vastly superior or inferior team is part of life. there were plenty of coaches and parents who were poor sports and sometimes i was not the best ambassador in the face of boorish behavior. i never refused to shake hands and i would have been upset with a player who did the same. i feel that the better part of wisdom is to confront the coach when u do shake hands or confront at a quiet place after the game. refusing to take part in the post game ritual confirms what the other team thought about u and in fact affirms their behavior. in one game as my team was beating the other team badly in spite of putting the shortest child in the goal, my son, and swapping defenders and forwards and forbidding certain kids from scoring, and requiring a certain number of passes and restrictings goals only to headers, the other coach continued to belittle his own players for not being able to keep up with us. it was not the players fault that they were not as good as we were, but the coach was blind. So, i have seen both sides. my take is to be a man and let that beating be a motivator and never ask the other team to let up on you. if you dont like the outcome or the behavior of the coaches and fans then tell the coach, dont take your ball and go home. in one indoor season we got beat by an older team like 14-3, and we were in the league to get better. we beat them later 5-3, same team, same players. in that game the other coaches were yelling at their players to "take him out". the "him" was my son who was magic that day. both of these young men were younger, taller, and bigger than me in every way. a fist fight would have been a terrible mismatch. i told them both to shut up or i would take them out, and guess what those two bullies did, they shut up. on another occasion players from another team were verbally abusing a talented player because he was very small and reduced him to tears. at halftime when i found out i confronted the other coach, and you guessed it, he fixed the problem. i could go on and on, but i hope u get my drift. running and being passive wont change the game and confrontation may not either, but at least they boorish participants will know when u are around they will at least be called on it. dont be passive, confront the bad behavior without anger, dont run, shake hands and look coach in the eye and with a smile on your face tell him how u feel. u might be surprised.

  5. Luis Arreola, January 17, 2012 at 10:40 a.m.

    The biggest reason that so many of these lopsided games exist is simply because their clubs use these results to market themselves. The coaches also want to secure their job and winning is always the sure answer. Everybody really hates getting killed but are only sometimes a little bit annoyed when winning a lopsided game. I have seen the top Academy clubs enter their top region teams to play their age group when they know 100% they will absolutely kill everyone instead of challenging themselves in a higher age group. When openly critisized by their own customers for this they do play an age up but make sure they roster at least 6-8 older players to make sure they get the result in case they run into trouble. Its all about wins in this country and this mentality will continue to be the problem. The highest end customers will always pay to be in the most winningest club disregarding what anti-development moves the club made to get those wins. Lets take the State, Regional and National Cups for example. What is behind permitting a team to bring in 1/2 their team from out of state to compete in these events? Wouldn't it be obvious for the richest clubs to have the only advantage in this case? Isn't the whole purpose of competing in a State Cup to see who has developed the best team from that particular state composed of players from that state? The clubs doing this the most are the ones with "Academy" at the end of their names. Isn't and Academy suppose to develop top players and not recruit from other states and countries? Its clearly a marketing war at all costs between these "top clubs" at the players expense. If a team is clearly at a higher level than the rest in the league then its the leagues responsabolity to place them accordingly or fine them for lying on their level of play. Simple.

  6. John la Madrid, January 17, 2012 at 11:03 a.m.

    Dear Ian...I am sorry to read that you didn't offer to shake the hands of your Teams opponent. What is even lower in my mind is the poor sportsmanship you passed unto your players and and their parents. Shame on you! You had a chance to teach, coach and role model how to take the higher ground. You can't always control what happens to you in life but you can control how you response.

  7. Brad Hallier, January 17, 2012 at 12:09 p.m.

    It saddens me that Ian did not shake hands and encouraged his players to do the same. The team I help coach lost a game last spring to a very good team. The other coach was our pal after the game. When we beat the same team later in the season, she didn't say a word to me post game and barely brushed my hand when I offered her "good game, Coach." Even though my personal views of this coach were already negative due to her screaming and encouraging her players to take dives, I will always shake hands with a coach, win or lose, no matter what happened during the game. If you feel you were wronged by the other coach/team, take the high road.

    As for the parents cheering for goals in a lopsided win, I've been on both sides. Last season, we were put in the wrong division, unfortunately, since we don't have tryouts. Being in the 'B' division was like the USA women playing in an amateur league. We destroyed some teams. But one game, we had a girl who isn't very good take the ball near midfield. She dribbled around three defenders and launched a where-did-that-come-from shot into the upper corner. Our parents - including myself and the head coach - went bananas. Maybe the other team's parents were feeling, "Really? Getting that excited it a game like this?" There's maybe more to it. We had another girl score the last goal in a 14-0 win after a double-scissors in the box. You could hear the "Whoaaaa!!!" from our parents. I'm not saying the parents in this article weren't out of line. Maybe they were. But there may have been more to it than parents being obnoxious. Perhaps one of the goal scorers was coming back from a broken leg.

    I'm not a believer in "changing tactics" in a rout. Encouraging players to maybe pass a bit more or send in some crosses, maybe. Just let the kids play the game. Make it challenging and fun. If you're on the losing side, yeah, it stinks. I once played for a team that lost a game 14-0 to a British select team at a tournament in Minnesota. It was embarrassing. But our coach never blamed the other team. He taught us that yes, that team was good. Keep playing the game the way you've been taught. If that's not good enough, that's fine.

  8. John Butler, January 17, 2012 at 3:47 p.m.

    I have to agree with John la Madrid above. Enough said-- except I might talk to my team and admit I was wrong and why. I think you might make a much better impression on the team and parents then the way it has been dealt with.

  9. Ellen Jones, January 17, 2012 at 4:05 p.m.

    Dear Coach,
    I am a parent of 2 club soccer players who play year round.
    Thank you for your words of sanity and lucidity.
    It's a GAME folks.
    Let's also think about what we are teaching kids when they play that game!

  10. Patrick Nevis, January 17, 2012 at 10:44 p.m.

    Coach, Whether you and your team shake hands after the game with the opposing side is a side point of the article. You need to call them as you see them in a given situation; none of us were there.

    My son's team has been in situations when they were beaten 10-0 and when they dominated a game. Fortunately, my son's coach believes that if after the first half we're ahead and dominating then you use the rest of the game for player development, such as giving playing time to team members who are struggling, playing players out of position, etc. After all, it's really not enjoyable watching a team get slaughtered and doesn't help our players with their game or sportsmanship.

  11. Daniel Pelleck, January 18, 2012 at 12:57 p.m.

    This notion that every contest requires a shaking of hands when over is ridiculous. I have coached in over 300 youth soccer, basketball, football and soccer games, and I have refused to shake one time and it was deserved. My bar is pretty high to not shake hands but if my opponent shows a complete and utter lack of sportsmanship, dignity and compassion in a youth contest where one team is totally outmatched, you will not shake my hand nor the hands of my players, and I will explain to every parent and child why that has occurred and why it is the right decision. I will not feign respect or sportsmanship when none was given in return.

  12. Frank Trovato, January 19, 2012 at 4:33 p.m.

    The best way to deal with the regular issue of lopsided games in youth soccer is simple.

    If you are the team that is ahead by 4 or 5 goals, clearly going to be a blowout, coach should remove one of her/his field players to even out the game so that both teams get real chances to play and score goals.

    This effort puts more pressure on the winning team in the areas of fitness, technique, decision making and mentality. This approach will allow the team that is behind to get real game, get real shots on goal and even score a goal if all things go right.

    Blowouts are a serious issue when looking at the growth and inclusion of soccer players across the US.

    Blowouts need to be addressed at the board, coach, parent and administrative levels to stabilize and encourage growth in youth soccer.

  13. Ronnie j Salvador, January 19, 2012 at 9:24 p.m.

    It isn’t always possible to avoid lopsided scores, because a] some coaches really are major a**holes, and b] some leagues use goals scored as a tiebreaker with no limit on the number counted per game. I’ve seen 25~0 in a high school varsity game. On a more personal note, we bore the brunt of a brutally lopsided score in a SuperY game [against one of the MPS teams], with those parents cheering for more goals, talking trash to our youth players, etc. After the game, the parents of that team talked about how they needed more goals to stay in 1st place, in earshot of our parents. And we were the visiting team and had a 2+ hour drive home. After over a thousand games as a player, coach, referee, and parent, and that was the worst unsportsmanlike behavior I’ve had to endure.

    ODP tries to control the scoring at the regional events by automatically putting an ‘unsportsmanlike’ asterisk when the winning margin exceeds a certain number of goals [is it 4?].

    Until leagues limit how many scores count towards a goal differential, or, issue rules on keeping the score civil, lopsided scores are here to stay. Most tournaments already limit the number of goals that towards any type of tiebreaker. But many leagues don’t have such a limit. Maybe…this is an unwanted influence of football and basketball. Scores matter in state high school football and basketball rankings, so running up scores in those sports is common [college ball is the same].

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