How coaches' mouths lose games

By Mike Woitalla

I suspected this many times as a coach and spectator, but it comes through even more clearly when I referee: Coaches can destroy their teams with the way they shout from the sidelines.

When you’re reffing, you see up-close the children’s faces after they get screamed at. It’s a sad sight.

In my most recent example, a 10-year-old team had so much bad luck I had to restrain myself from consoling the kids (not part of the ref’s job description). While going down 1-0, they hit the post three times and all the while they’re getting reprimanded by screams from their coaches. (I’m using the plural because this team -- like many I’ve seen -- had two coaches doing minute-by-minute sideline screaming.)

In this game in which they dominated but got very unlucky, they collapsed and went down 4-1 by halftime -- despite being the more talented team. The game also marked the fifth time this year, in games from U-14 to U-9, that I saw a goal scored because a key defender was distracted -- looking to the sidelines -- by the coach's instructions.

And it wasn’t just the coaches. Screams came from the parents’ sidelines. I heard them all so the players’ must have as well. And I wish I was making this up, but these are real examples:

“We need a new defense!”

“If you’re not going to pass, then at least take a shot!”

The latter after a 10-year-old took the ball in his own half, smoothly faked out three players, but before shooting had the ball poked away. His efforts may not have produced a goal, but the dribbling was fabulous and he won a corner kick.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the coaches’ screaming creates an environment that emboldens parents to yell -- and even creates discord among the players. The coach constantly "instructs" and berates the players, the parents follow suit, and the players start believing that when something goes wrong the suitable reaction is to place blame.

It’s hard for me to believe that the boy who yelled at a teammate, “What are you doing!?” wasn’t inspired because the exact phrase had come from the sidelines earlier in the game.

When we coach, we have a very strong desire to help our kids succeed. With good intentions, we want to aid or correct right away. But most people -- big or small -- who get hammered right after they make a mistake experience a giant loss in confidence. Not productive during a competition.

My recommendations for youth coaches:

* Referee some games -- to get an up-close look -- and watch how the children react to getting screamed at. Decide for yourself if it brings out the best in them.

* Do not prowl the sidelines. Watch from a chair. Nervous energy makes one want to stand and pace, but the children notice how unnerved you are and it doesn’t instill confidence. (Further Reading: Claudio Reyna: 'Coaches should sit down')

* When you spot the mistake or bad decision -- and that urge hits to address it with a scream from the sidelines -- instead of yelling, jot it down in a notebook as something you’ll bring up in an unemotional way at halftime or at a future practice.

* If you have a really hard time suppressing the desire to articulate your frustration, chat with your assistant coach.

* Consider the probability that what’s going wrong in the game might be your fault.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

14 comments about "How coaches' mouths lose games ".
  1. stewart hayes, October 21, 2013 at 9:29 a.m.

    Give them a piece of you own medicine. As a referee I would give the offending coaches a yellow card for unsporting behavior and would not hesitate to red card them if they continued. That is about the only way to get their attention. There are probably many parents on the team who would wholeheartedly support you.

  2. R2 Dad, October 21, 2013 at 11:32 a.m.

    Good advice to coaches, MW. Too bad licenses don't include a behavioral aspect in addition to proscribed activities. I see teams that are most attuned to the voice of their coach (ie screamers) when their coach calls for substitutions, with kids running on and off the field regardless of what's happening on the pitch or officials are indicating. Stewart, I don't believe coaches are ever carded.

  3. Lee Dunne, October 21, 2013 at 1:30 p.m.

    Something fun for a follow up read:

  4. Bob Reiss, October 21, 2013 at 1:41 p.m.

    Leagues are tough to run without volunteers both coaches and referees. The ref should report this to the league and they should evaluate the coaches. Put it on your report as for yellow cards, cards are for players not coaches.

  5. Brent Crossland, October 21, 2013 at 1:48 p.m.

    I've often thought that I should record what I and the players hear on the field during a typical youth game. With several coaches and dozens of parents yelling conflicting "advice" it's no wonder that kids get confused. Of course recording it and getting any parent or coach to listen are two different tasks . . . Without a doubt, the most effective coaches do their job by talking to players that they are about to send in and to players they have just brought off the field.

  6. ROBERT BOND, October 21, 2013 at 2:50 p.m.

    If you have free subs, sub them out & tell them CALMLY! No point in yelling at the kids, they can't handle it if their parents never had to handle it.....

  7. stewart hayes, October 21, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.

    Some leagues do permit referees to card coaches and individuals acting inappropriately near a team bench. The laws do not technically allow this but leagues have the power to grant officials this option.

  8. John O'sullivan, October 21, 2013 at 5:43 p.m.

    Great advice for all coaches. The second worst thing you can hear as a coach is "I don't want to play on that side coach. My dad /mom is over there." The worst is to hear that a player does not want to play on a side because YOU are over there!

  9. Brian Steel, October 21, 2013 at 6:06 p.m.

    I wish it were only as bad as the coaches mouths loose games examples provided in this very to the point article. a Coach 2 weeks ago actually had the game called by the ref after repeated requests by the CR for the coach to get off the field of play and stop yelling. The coach did not get off the field of play, CR called the game with 25 minutes left to go and the coach literally caused a 0-1 loss for his team. To make it worse this was an MRL match and the team was from out of town. They all got in their cars and drove 4 hours with a coach induced 25 minute head start.

  10. Paul Stewart, October 21, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.

    Modern sports psychology studies have shown that players react best to 1 criticism for every 5 positive comments. Otherwise they tune the coach out. Everyone should visit for great tips for coaches, parents and players on using sports psychology science to improve individual and team perrformance. Paul Stewart, President, Dallas Texans

  11. Chris Sapien , October 22, 2013 at 1:56 a.m.

    There's nothing in the LOTG, or any standing league rules or bylaws (I've heard of) that preclude referees from addressing this either immediately, or during their first chance to discuss this potential problem. In fact I routinely tell my ARs, that I want them to listen closely to the comments, mainly from their own side of the field, but also from the farside, as sometimes sound from their opposite quadrant is actually more distinguishable. If I am confident they are up to the task, I encourage them to engage coaches and spectators alike, from the time they take their positions, reminding them to enjoy the game and keep the comments positive and/or instructional. (the latter of which to coaches only) It's amazing how just an early word setting some measure of expectation level heads off a lot of these histrionics. You may not make a lot of friends early on, ('cause people like to play the victim role....), but it's much easier to be proactive, then feel obligated to be reactive, and have to single one person out for this type of behavior. IMHO.

  12. Brian Something, October 22, 2013 at 2:46 p.m.

    Great column... I’ve reffed maybe 15-20 middle and high school aged games and it gave me a completely different perspective. I may moan occasionally at the refs but I really only get on them if player safety is an issue. I won’t apologize for that.

  13. Brian Something, October 22, 2013 at 2:52 p.m.

    I try to limit my yelling at players to general instructions (stay compact, used the width etc) rather than specific orders (pass to Timmy, dribble). One thing I do is that when I see a player make a bad decision on the field, I will say to the players on the bench, “If you’re in that situation and you do x, instead of y, you’ll achieve z.” I also try to do the same thing when a player makes a really good decision or does a subtle but important thing that is less obvious to the untrained eye. It channels my natural desire to teach in a positive, constructive direction. It helps the players on the bench who are in a better situation to process the analysis rather than distracting players in the heat of battle. Obviously, once the player on the field in question comes off the field, I will try to make the same point to him... but again, in a situation where he’s better able to process it.

  14. F. Kirk Malloy, October 24, 2013 at 12:37 p.m.

    Great article. All of the local soccer associations should kick-off each season with a brief training session for the volunteer coaches (often the case in the US for at least the younger age groups) emphasizing these points. The training grounds are for the coaches and the playing field for the players. That holds for all sports, but particularly for the free-form game of soccer. The players need to develop their own decision-making skills under game situations, and having a coach (or well-intentioned parent) yelling at them is totally counter-productive. It is always hard to bite your lip, and occasionally even painful, but in the long run best for all.

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