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.