When the game begins

By Don Norton Jr.

Always remember soccer is a player's game and not a coach's game. Youth soccer must always be about player development and enjoyment. It must never be (just) about winning and losing. Our youth players should never play a game afraid of making mistakes.

Unlike other sports, soccer coaches cannot script out the exact play in front of them. Those coaches can signal for a bunt, screen pass or jump shot. We can’t. During the game we should value our player’s creativity, flair and imagination just as much as their hard work and commitment. We must allow our player’s the freedom to think for themselves and display their talents within a team concept without constant harping from the touchline. Coach, but don’t overcoach.

* Keep your comments to a minimum during the game so that it carries more weight spoke. Give short tidbits of information to your players. Always be positive. As your players get older, you can talk to them in more detail. I’m not saying you can’t speak to your players once the game has begun. You can, and in most matches you will need to. But you should realize that it’s very difficult for young players to understand and then act upon your comments in the “heat of battle.” If overdone it may go in one ear and out the other. Sometimes less is more. It carries more weight.

* Try to focus your game observations to the big picture. Do my players need more technical work? The technical mistakes you see will determine the focus of your upcoming training sessions. If they are passing poorly, then work on passing. For younger players their technical abilities must be the primary focus of your comments (and training). Sadly, many coaches often get so worked up during the game that they are unable to see the forest for the trees.

* Relax and have patience. In a very real sense you are the teacher, your players are the students and the game is the “exam.” What you observe in the game will dictate what you need to work upon in future training sessions to improve upcoming “exams.” All youth players (as do students) need plenty of time to develop and learn the game.

* Keep a small note pad and pen with you so that you can record your observations. This will help you to remember those key points to stress to your team moments before the game, at halftime, after the match and to guide your upcoming training sessions. Note everything from injuries to equipment needs!

Your notebook pad will ensure that you don’t forget a coaching point during the match. In time, it can grow to become a valuable resource guide. After some reflection, write down additional thoughts about the match later that evening or the next day. Keep your note pad(s) going for all your training sessions as well.

* During the match quietly observe your strikers, midfielders, defenders and goalkeeper. How are my players performing individually? As groups, collectively? Do they complement each other other’s play? What are their technical, tactical and physical levels. How do they (and you) respond to the countless game situations that arise every match such as different scores, formations, styles of play, changing tempos, skill levels, field conditions, and time management, etc.

Again, how your players respond to what the game presents them will determine the focus of your comments at halftime, after the game, and will be a factor in your preparation for upcoming training sessions. With very young players, your comments are always directed to their ability to master the ball and enjoy the game in safe conditions.

* Explain to the parents at a mandatory preseason meeting that they are not to make negative comments or yell instructions from the touchline during the game. These types of comments serve no purpose and are a distraction to players and coaches and are disrespectful to referees. They also do nothing to promote soccer in this country and make the world’s greatest game less enjoyable for players, coaches and referees.

* At halftime take your players to an area just close enough to your team bench, but where there are no distractions. The coach always takes the sun on his/her face. Don’t speak until you have every player’s undivided attention. As I say to my players, “If you can’t see my face, you're in the wrong place.” Make a few brief points about the first half. Speak slowly and clearly using words your players will understand. The younger the player, the shorter the attention span.

Be positive. Make sure all players sip water or a sports drink. Stress two or three areas that the team needs to focus on for the second half. Again give good information. Young players tend to have an abundance of emotions and are eager to learn. Give them positive feedback about their play and what they can do to improve it rather then solely a pep talk.

From time to time players will give a comment or idea at halftime. Respect these comments and the spirit in which they are offered. After all, they are competing on the field and can see things that no one else can. The more our players feel a part of the team the better. If a player is struggling, look to briefly take him/her aside after you have spoken to the team and offer some words of encouragement. It only takes one shot; pass etc. to go from a poor first half to the second-half hero.

* Strive to give all players equal playing time. Gradually rotate your players during the season to different positions. This will (hopefully) force the left-footed players to use their right foot by placing them in a situation that requires them to use their right foot. Rotating your players takes them out of their comfort zone and demands them to think differently about their role on the field.

Gradually they will begin to better understand the ever-changing roles and responsibilities within the game. Rarely does one player play solely one position from youth to senior adult. Some of the world’s best defenders were once strikers, etc. In today’s modern game defenders must be able to attack and strikers must be able to defend. If they have never been exposed to other positions they are being denied a chance to further develop a more well-rounded game. Also for young players it is fun to play new position and this adds to their enjoyment of the sport.

* Are the players communicating or just talking at each other? There is a big difference. We want our players to rapidly communicate valuable information to each other for the entire match. That information must be precise. Many times when things aren’t going well players talk at each other instead of talking to each other. In Scotland they have a saying that when the game ends the players should be “daffy.” Meaning they should be mentally fatigued as well as physically spent.

* Sportsmanship matters. When a player is injured the ball must be kicked out of play immediately. Players should never talk trash. When the game ends everyone shakes hands. This type of behavior promotes the game we all love and want to grow in this country. It also teaches our children valuable life lessons. Inappropriate language and behavior before, during and after the match by coaches, players and parents can never be tolerated.

Respect the game and everyone associated with it. If a coach is out of control during the match how can we expect his players to play under control?

* You are a role model to your players. The words you choose, your appearance, it all matters. Young players are influenced by their coaches and often continue those same traits if they become coaches. There is no better feeling in life than to have former players come back and thank you for making a positive difference in their life.

(Don Norton Jr. is the men’s assistant soccer coach at Rowan University. He has the USSF “A” license, NSCAA Premier Diploma, F.A. Ireland “A” License (UEFA “A” License), Scottish F.A. “A” Certificate, USSF National Youth License and a NSCAA Regional GK Diploma. He is a USSF Coaching School Instructor for New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. He is also a NSCAA Associate National Staff coach. His writings have been published in several soccer magazines. He has a BA from Gettysburg College and a MA from Rowan University.)

5 comments about "When the game begins ".
  1. Allan Lindh, June 13, 2012 at 6:16 p.m.

    If memory serves me well, the legendary Stephen Negoesco at U of San Francisco went and sat in the stands during the game, took notes and talked to his players at half-time. He won, I believe, at least 6 national titles at club and college level, and is considered by many the best of all US soccer coaches.

  2. Allan Lindh, June 13, 2012 at 6:35 p.m.

    Stephen Negoesco - In his own words (edited for length, read the whole thing at

    At the adult level, I've always tried to do the best I could for the players. Tried to improve them as much as I could. And I did the same thing in youth soccer. We worked a lot on the fundamentals, which are the basics that improve players.
    Eventually, the kids got smart and we started winning ballgames. I remember distinctly in the youth leagues that I never won a championship with kids under 14, and I rarely lost one with kids under 19. That tells you something about the development of the team. Under 14, we were working a lot on fundamentals. This Win! Win! Win! philosophy ... who cares? We were developing talent. When their talent had developed by the age of 18 or 19, they started winning ballgames. Even adults had trouble beating them. These kids were great!
    Some of them went to college, some to USF because I had started coaching there. And the next thing you know, we won a national championship at USF, that was in 1966. ...
    We play the same type of game most of the time - 100 miles an hour or lack of patience or all kinds of ridiculous mistakes we make without thinking. The kids have to learn that when they're 14, 15 or 16. Then you have a problem with the youth coaches. We have too many book readers who say, "The book says this, the book says that..." But what does their sense say? And why is it so important that you should win? Is it that you cannot be successful unless you win? That is like saying, unless you're a rich man, you're not successful. Well, how do you define success, or riches?
    Joe at first was a critic of mine, but years later he said to his alumni, "You know, I appreciate what Steve is doing by bringing in the type of players he has. He has been able to show us how the game should be played - have a little bit of patience in the back, build from the back. Don't give the ball away. Slow the game down."
    I think you should be a players' coach. After all, you're dealing with kids, it's not a professional level. Take care of the kids.
    They always talk of my coach, Gus Donoghue, of being a great scholar, a Ph.D. in English history, excellent professor, great soccer player and a great person. The kids always talk about how Gus used to be so wonderful. That's because Gus was good to the kids. Here we are 42 years later saying that. On the professional level, you've got a lot of pressure. But on the amateur level, you've got to take care of the kids.
    Here's a thought for you. Should we insist in developing an "american style" of play, and follow the lead of most soccer advanced countries that have developed their individual styles of play? I think we can have better success by having some creative players who'll help influence a more spontaneous and unpredictable game. Playing together enough, they'll develop their own combination...???

  3. James Madison, June 13, 2012 at 10:49 p.m.

    1. If Tony DeCicco can tell the US Women's National team to "Go out and have fun" in a World Cup final, as he did at halftime against China in 1999, who are we to insist that youth "win, win, win!"

    2. Players who are all pumped up psychologically by the stimulus of competition CANNOT absorb more than one SIMPLE comment/suggestion at a time.

  4. R2 Dad, June 15, 2012 at 1:35 a.m.

    "When a player is injured the ball must be kicked out of play immediately."
    There are so few real injuries at the youth level, even young players should learn the game goes on even if they stub their toe on the turf and fall sobbing onto the pitch. But once kids get to U14, coaches should do a much better job teaching their kids to kick the ball out when injuries occur; I don't recall seeing kids under 17 doing so, especially in tournaments. It's like Sportsmanship is dirty word or something.

  5. Dennis Doyle, June 17, 2012 at 11:08 p.m.


    Great article on Coach Negoesco:-) I grew up going to his camps when I was a kid, and I had the most positive experiences every year. The Coaches were always positive, and the activities always focused on FUNdamentals. He was truly a pioneer for the game, and I hold his values at heart to this day as a Coach of youth teams. Winning is not everything, despite what many believe/say. Too many kids leave the game due to either burnout, or bad experiences. Let's give the GAME back to the kids!

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications