Please, Don't scream at the children

By Mike Woitalla

Within the last few weeks, while coaching and refereeing, I observed a couple of very different kinds of youth coaches.

One played more than a decade of pro soccer, appeared for the U.S. national team, and runs a successful youth club.

The other was a novice to the sport, which I knew not just because he yelled at me to call offside when his goalkeeper's goal kick was intercepted by the opponent's forward.

The former pro, he sat on a folding chair the entire game and rarely communicated with the players on the field. The only time he stood up was to high-five players who were subbed out.

The newcomer coach prowled the sidelines and yelled instructions throughout the game. He had an assistant, who yelled almost as much as he did. The other team of 8-year-olds was led by three coaches, who also screamed the entire time.

With parents yelling from the opposite sideline, it became 14 kids on the field having to hear from more than 10 “coaches.” If you listened to audio of this hour at a park on a Saturday morning, you’d never guess the event was supposed to be playtime for children.

To the credit of the league, it has implemented the guidelines for smaller fields to suit younger players. The downside, the adults are closer to all the players and the noise is even louder for the kids -- and the referee.

When you’re a ref, in the middle of the field, you hear the screaming as the kids do. In the best case, it’s such a cacophony of background noise that the words are incomprehensible -- and the kids can ignore them, one hopes.

But you also see when the kids look to the sideline to try and understand the words -- and the screaming coach or parent has just given the opponent an advantage. (Even if you’re such a brilliant coach that you believe your wisdom should be imparted during a game -- don’t do it when the ball is in play! You’re distracting them when their focus should be on the ball, their teammates, the opponents.)

As a ref, you get a close-up view of how the confidence drains from the kids who get screamed at after a mistake. You see their confused looks after receiving incomprehensible instructions from several adults at once.

When I watch older players, often on quite good elite club teams, squander scoring opportunities by shooting at the wrong time -- I wonder if that might not be thanks to the adult screaming they endured at the younger ages. Because one of the most common screams at youth soccer fields is “shoot, shoot, shoot!” -- when the kid is much better off dribbling closer to the goal before shooting. Or at least being given the chance to figure out on his own which of the options are best.

When a player has the ball, there are basically three options: dribble, pass or shoot. Don’t deny them to explore those choices on their own if you want to increase the chances of them making the best decisions at the higher levels, when they must be made in a split second.

“Pass it, pass it” is another popular scream at the younger ages, when we’re constantly hoping that in this country we develop better dribblers. In fact, it’s crucial that we encourage individual skills and creativity at the youngest ages. Imagine if you were given a team of 14-year-olds and half were excellent dribblers but needed to learn when to pass and the other half couldn’t dribble. It’d be much easier to encourage the dribblers to pass at the right time than to teach ball control skills to the group who spent their formative years without dribbling.

And what do coaches at the highest level constantly look for in players? Near the top of the list: players who are good at “reading the game.” That’s an attribute more likely to be acquired from players who are allowed to learn from playing instead of trying to obey sideline screams.

Over the years, we’ve used all sorts of analogies to try and explain how absurd it is to scream at children while they’re playing soccer, why it’s bad for player development, and how it robs children of their playtime.

You wouldn’t scream at your 6-year-old at the playground, would you? Or when she’s drawing in a coloring book. Do you yell at your child while he’s doing homework? Would you like it if your boss looked over your shoulder at work and shouted instructions? My gosh, how would you react if you had not one, but two or three people yelling at you at the same time?

That novice coach, I observed him before and after the game, when I sat within earshot pretending to be checking my texts. He looked like an older dad or a young grandfather. I imagine he was like so many youth soccer coaches, volunteering because no one else was available to coach. So he took on the task even though he didn’t know the game -- but is trying his best.

And he was sweet with the kids, before and after the game. He joked a lot with them. Even during the game, much of his misguided instructions were peppered with words of encouragement, albeit unnecessary and distracting.

A big and fit man, he walked with a lumber like a former football lineman. And maybe his experience came from the more coach-centric traditional American sports, in which the coaches' play-calling is indeed part of the game -- unlike soccer, where a team's success depends on players making the right decisions on their own.

It does seem to me that the adults least familiar with soccer are the most likely to over-coach, although I do see it, to a lesser extent, from adults with a soccer background.

To those who actually believe that screaming at the kids while they're playing does any good, who think their shouts are somehow contributing positively to the children’s experience -- referee a few games. Run around in the middle of the action and listen to the sideline noise.

It will give you some insight into how you might sound and whether your shouts help the kids at all. And the next time you think you have something brilliant to share with an 8-year-old, you'll decide that a sideline scream isn't an effective way to deliver the information.

28 comments about "Please, Don't scream at the children".
  1. Bob Ashpole, October 5, 2016 at 3:42 p.m.

    Encouragement and cheering are positives, but sometimes I think the best course would be to have "silent sidelines." I remember reading an article about youth football in England, where a club allowed parents to watch matches--from 100 yards away!

  2. Brent Crossland, October 5, 2016 at 3:46 p.m.

    Great column, Mike. The coaches that always impress me are the ones that spend their time talking to the substitutes on the bench and preparing them to go into the game.

    Pre-referee, I learned this lesson from my son's youth coach. When one of the dad's yelled out some instructions the coach looked down the line of parents and said "I'll coach. You cheer."

  3. stewart hayes replied, October 8, 2016 at 6:31 p.m.

    My rule was if you want to coach your son I'll sub him so you can talk.

  4. Referee Parent, October 5, 2016 at 4:04 p.m.

    Everyone needs to know their role. Coaches coach, players play, parents cheer. :)

  5. Ahmet Guvener, October 5, 2016 at 4:43 p.m.

    Excellent it points to one of the most important problems of youth soccer in USA.

  6. James Madison, October 5, 2016 at 7:48 p.m.

    One of my favorite coach yelling stories stems from a community college women's game for which I was the referee. One of the team's coaches was a full-on screamer. Midway in the second half, I awarded a DFK to that team out in the center of the field. The captain was going to take the kick, but, before doing so, she quietly asked me, "Could you please red-card our coach!"

  7. Wooden Ships replied, October 7, 2016 at 9:33 a.m.

    Excellent and I'm sure that sentiment surfaces regularly.

  8. Bob Ashpole, October 6, 2016 at 3:19 a.m.

    Lots of people enjoy being "the boss" but many don't know how to manage, lead and teach. The first step is to appreciate that there is a difference.

  9. Kate Phillips , October 6, 2016 at 6:46 a.m.

    Heh, I saw that 20 years ago when I was reffing in a local league. One guy was so bad (he was your typical type-A "Alfa male," probably used to following his employees around with a clipboard), the league's coaching commissioner took him aside during a game, and quietly explain to him that constant berating wasn't doing anybody any good, and he was right.

    But later, as a coach myself, I realized it was time for me to walk away from coaching, after I found myself doing the same thing. I had had most of these kids on my teams for years, and they were taught well by myself and the other coaches, some who had never coached soccer before, but had coached other sports, and applied those same principles to soccer. But as these kids approached their teen years, it was like Charlie from "Flowers For Algernon," where the "shot" slowly "wore off," and their last game in our league looked pretty much like their first game, years before (and the practices were pretty much similar, like trying to herd cats :-P )). It was so frustrating, and I took that out on the players (I didn't get in anybody's face, mind you, but my sideline instructions were more like those when a nervous dad is teaching his kid how to drive) I even once yelled at my nephew, my assistant coach, who hit me with an errant shot; he never came back (I apologized, and we're still "buds," years later). I "hung up the clipboard," so to speak, after that season, and never looked back. Bob Ashpole is correct; you coach players as it suit the player. Yelling at one player might be the exact motivation they need, while it may turn another player into emotional mush, totally withdrawn and tuned out. (me, and I should have remembered that). I have found that I , and everybody else involved, is better off if I'm just a fan. :-)

  10. Wooden Ships replied, October 6, 2016 at 5:02 p.m.

    Kate, love your remembrances and humor. We sure can get intense in competitive settings. I think many players believe we are nuts sometimes. I've played and coached at all levels and witnessed many styles and one size doesn't fit all. 60's and 70's soccer in St. Louis was deafeningly silent, from coaches and parents, compared to today. Ironically, while playing for Busch, we got schooled by an all deaf team. They silently, with eyes in the back of their heads, buried us. Valuable lesson that day. Two more thoughts. Our youth do seem to be more, overly perhaps, sensitive today, including pro's. And, use to be that no self respecting soccer purist-coach was caught dead with a clipboard.

  11. Brian Ashley replied, October 6, 2016 at 10:34 p.m.

    Kate - From your comments I suspect that you would be a great coach. But that you stayed with the team too long. This is one of the overlooked reasons for the 'two year rule' for youth coaches. Yes, the players need exposure to different coaching styles and different ideas. But the relationship also goes stale after the second year. You almost know the players too well. And they know you too well.
    Later, say in college when players are more mature and a year doesn't seem like such a long time, it doesn't matter so much. But at the youth level it does.
    I'd encourage you, if you want to, to explore coaching again, but make sure that you don't coach the same group more than 2 years.

  12. Beau Dure, October 6, 2016 at 9 a.m.

    I find myself missing a lot of the game action because I'm coaching individually on the sidelines.

    Which is probably just as well, in some cases.

  13. stewart hayes, October 6, 2016 at 9:13 a.m.

    R2 has it right. I would ad that yelling at any player under 18 during the run of play is not productive in the short and long run. A word or two several times during the game should suffice. If not the problem is too big to handle during play. The players should be communicating among themselves. Often the over-verbal coach produces an under-verbal team and that is the chief downside as well as distracted players who never learn to lead of their own volition.

  14. Jay Wall, October 6, 2016 at 9:52 a.m.

    Published research studies document that yelling at person breaks their focus and as a result it takes approximately 1.5 times as long to do what they are doing. This applies to adults too. Yelling is a clasic way of helping your opponent win.

    Injury reports should require reporting what happened just before an injury. A child is playing defender and is focused on the ball, their father yells at them, they turn to listen, balls hits them in the back of the head, they drop to the ground suffering a concussion that has them out of school for 4 months and out of sports for over a year. Whose fault? If their father hadn't broken their focus they wouldn't have turned to be hit in the back of the head by a hard shot. Coaches and parents who yell break focus and cause some injuries.

    Studies show all persons can only keep, on average, four small chunks of information in their 'working memory' at the same time. And when memory gets overloaded they may not be keeping the right chunks, become indecisive and unable to play to their ability. Coaches should teach in practices and limit instructions before, during and at half time of games to only 4 simple chunks at a time 'for each player'. Instead of giving every player every instruction give each player or small group the instructions of reminders they need but limit it to only 4 items per game.

    Coaches should evaluate performance in games to determine what players need to leanr in their next practices. I finally learned to watch and score players actions in game giving them a score of 0 if they had a chance to act but didn't, 1 if they acted but need improvement, 2 if they acted and were successful even if for the wrong reason and a 3 they were successful for all the right reasons. And when you eliminated all the 0's in practices you stopped helping you opponents win and usually outplayed them.

    In life it's not what score you get, it's what you do about improving it the next time. The players knew I scored effort but to be negative but so they could learn to be better. So we stopped doing almost all of the small things teams do to help opponents win.

    A 2012 study in eastern Europe documented that over 60% of the players who eventually went on to start and play in Europes 5 best professional leagues were late developers physically (reached skeletal maturity at age 16 or older) and spent their youth having to really learn to understand the game to be successful against earlier developers who everyone thought would be the stars when they were older. A reminder to mentor players and to teach a good understanding of the game at all ages.

    Yelling at players causes many of the 70% of children who drop out, to do so by age 13. Google 'ESPN youth sports survey'.

    Johan Cruyff, FIFA European player of the last century, observed that player's play in games the way they practice. The best way to handle game pressure is to practice that way.

  15. stewart hayes replied, October 6, 2016 at 10:21 a.m.

    Thank you, enjoyed your excellent point of view on the topic.

  16. Winston Reyes, October 6, 2016 at 10:46 a.m.

    in soccer,you can't teach childrens,if-you-,the teacher,don't know,how-to,dribbling,shot with both legs,marking,-use your body-,to defend youself,and to attack,if you, the teacher, don't know?,how?yelling?

  17. Brian Ashley, October 6, 2016 at 10:30 p.m.

    I have coached younger players, through age 11. It's helpful to remember that, especially at the younger ages, the game means nothing, the player means everything.
    Now, some may think that means I'm not competitive enough. But I'm actually one of the most competitive people I know of. I want to win at everything.
    But I know that we'll win more games if I coach the player to develop the player instead of coaching the player to win games. If that makes sense to you.

  18. Bob Ashpole, October 7, 2016 at 12:28 a.m.

    AA for development teams winning should never be "a main objective" of any game. The main point of development should always be player development. At a certain point, you are teaching players to win, but training to win should be towards the end of the development process. Please understand that teaching players to win is different than developing a winning mentality with no fear of failure. The attitude comes earlier and is part of developing a love of playing and self-motivation to improve.

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, October 7, 2016 at 10:18 a.m.

    AA I agree that players should always play to win. But my point is that development coaches should be coaching to develop players. Coaching to win matches is different, especially at the youth level. Winning matches is often the effect of player development, but if the other team's coaches are also developing their players, everyone develops but not everyone can win the match. From the big picture viewpoint, everyone developing is preferred. Enjoyment should rise from playing and improving rather than winning.

  20. Bob Ashpole, October 7, 2016 at 11:24 p.m.

    AA that is very interesting. Do you require players to specialize in soccer? Do you have contact time 6 days a week? What does the yearly cycle look like? What ages have you trained like that? From what I have read even youth academies like Barca don't train that often below say U16.

  21. Daniel Clifton, October 9, 2016 at 11:08 a.m.

    When I was coaching competitive teams for a couple of years at the U11 and U12 age groups, I had some parents who criticized me for not yelling at the girls. At the competitive levels a certain percentage of the parents can be a major challenge for the coach who wants to develop his players first and worry about winning second. My approach was that the more skillful they get then down the line they will have better opportunities to win. Developing the skills has to be the first priority. Learning how to think for themselves on the field is critical. Soccer isn't like basketball where you can call a time out, have your players come to the sideline so you can talk to them. Soccer players have to learn to be self sufficient and rely on eachother when they are playing a game.

  22. Daniel Clifton, October 9, 2016 at 11:12 a.m.

    In looking at the comments of Jay Wall, I used to play with this guy years ago who every now and then would yell at me during a match. My experience replicates what Mr. Wall is talking about. I always found it shocking when I was yelled at and if anything it slowed me down.

  23. Bob Ashpole, October 9, 2016 at 4:46 p.m.

    I have found as a player that telling a team mate in a calm voice before he is under close pressure and before he looks up about an option works well and is received well. When the player looks up he can see the opportunity quicker, which makes decision making and execution quicker. Examples "take a shot" and "John is open on the right." A coach cannot do that from the sidelines. This communication, like warning of approaching pressure from the blindside, is well received and makes the team harder to defend against.

  24. Bob Ashpole, October 9, 2016 at 4:55 p.m.

    While I have discussed it with other players and coaches, I have never seen any of the coaching experts, manuals or curriculum ever discuss what player communications to teach and at what point during development. While some of the coaching education materials touch on training the brain and visual cues, they miss entirely on oral communication.

  25. Wesley Hunt, October 13, 2016 at 9:52 a.m.

    I am late to this post but could not resist. I coached travel soccer and run a futsal league. Here is what I have observed. Screaming at players during the game almost never helps unless perhaps there is a poisnous snake on the field and you want them to avoid it. How would you like to do an extremely difficult but enjoyable task under pressure in real time with multiple options and someone from 30 yards away is screaming at you how to do it. In addition that someone that someone is your boss and your job is on the line. It is truly a miracle that kids subjected to this continue to play at all. Truly a testament to the addictiveness of our game. Jay Wall you are right that the brain cannot process all this data coming in. Players slow down. They stop communicating with each other as Bob mentioned because why do that when the coach is running the show. It is funny in a way that as Americans we pride ourselves on individual freedom and expression yet when we train kids for soccer we set it up so they never get the feel of being in control and being allowed to express themselves as individuals and as a team in a sport that is set up to be mostly controlled by the players.

  26. Wesley Hunt, October 13, 2016 at 10:29 a.m.

    I have taken two coaching courses one for soccer and one for futsal. In both I received much information about drills, and training sequences, and too be fair some about coaching psychology. However, while I left those classes with a whole notebook full of new drills, I also had the realization that the U6 and U8 kids I first started with as volunteer coach so many years ago taught me more about the attitude that I needed for coaching better than any class given by an adult could. At that age everything has to be a game and everything has to be fun and kids that age are totally honest. If it is not fun and they are not engage you lose them immediately. I learned that almost every kid wants to chase the ball and score. In animal training we call that drive. It is that drive that makes the game so addictive. With drive you have something to work with for training and teaching. You can’t teach drive but you sure can suppress it and that is what even some of the best intended coaches do from the earliest ages on.

  27. Wesley Hunt, October 13, 2016 at 10:29 a.m.

    Maybe we should use another word for the the adult who stands on the touchline at a youth game. What most people think of as a coach is more like a general. A general once in battle is no longer training his troops rather he is taking the troops he has and deploying them to win the battle. He is the brains of the operation. He is in control to some degree or another. That is most people think of the coach on game day. In fact many parents expect that even at U8 level which just baffles me. Soccer is played 11v11 but player skills are best learned 1v1 to about 5v5 on small sided games with out much space. However, even at the youth level the games are played on fields that are too big. If you can spread your kids out and boot the ball to the fast kid you win. So the conflict. Do you teach skills or win the games. If you teach the skills in practice but coach games to win their is a dichomoty in what you are doing it doesn’t work. I know as that I tried it. In the end I had to give up on winning as my primary goal though I would never tell the kids that. I lost a few parents but those stuck with it came to appreciate what was happening for thier kids and some of them have been very successfull but

  28. Wesley Hunt, October 13, 2016 at 10:50 a.m.

    . But, it took time patience and freedom for them to take was taught and make it their own. General speaking I did not tell them what to do on the field while the game was going on. I talked to them on the bench or at half time However, if they did something on the field I was looking for the then praise was immediate and loud. If they were not producing then I just kept waiting and thinking how to improve my practice trainings until I got what I was looking for. That is training and that is what youth coaches should concentrate on. But that means you have to try to understand where the kids coming from and what precisely your goals are It is mind shift. If you are training a horse and it is not doing what you want, it is not the fault of the horse, it just wants to eat grass and do horse things. Same is true of kids. It is up to the trainer or coach to figue out how to show the kids what you want and how it benefits them. If you are going go positive about it it should be way more carrot than stick and the younger they are the more that is true.

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