Have mercy? How coaches can manage a mismatch

The opposing coach was emphatic. “Left foot only!” he yelled. He had also imposed shooting restrictions on his players.

The score at the time? 4-3.

Sure, I had a rather ragtag team of players, including one who evidently had never taken part in any organized activity outside the home, let alone soccer. But somehow, my team was keeping this one close.

So his intention was good, but it backfired. Instead of embarrassing these kids with a lopsided score, he was embarrassing them by making it quite clear to everyone within an 800-yard radius that his kids were employing the same tactics they might use against a bunch of toddlers

Why? Well, it helped that his wife was the commissioner. And rec-league commissioners have an irrational exuberance toward parity.

It’s a noble idea. And a handful of sadistic people (or travel coaches, but I repeat myself) are all too content to run up the score. Before the buildout line was employed, some U-9 and U-10 coaches thought they were impressing their team’s parents by putting their kids on the edge of the area so they could pounce on a goal kick from a terrified goalkeeper or defender. Steal, shot, goal -- or another goal kick, repeating the whole process.

And some parents do indeed revel in such routs. During one dreary U-9 game, when a corner kick was awarded late in the game, I heard one parent yell, “Now’s your chance!” It took every ounce of restraint for me not to yell back, “You’re up 6-1 -- how many chances do you need?”

Smart parents know it’s not just an issue of sportsmanship and kindness. Their kids aren’t developing in a game like that. They’d be far better off -- at any age -- calling off the press, letting the other team bring it up and giving their own backline a chance to touch the ball before springing another attack down the field. No one’s developing if your defenders are spectators.

And smart coaches will find interesting ways to develop players. If it’s five goals, and you’re not already rotating players through different positions, do it now. If it’s a 10-goal game, sure, use the weak foot only like the coach in the opening example. (Maybe you don’t need to broadcast it across the field or the tri-state area.) And somewhere in that range, if it’s a rec league that allows (or insists upon) adding a player to the downtrodden side, go ahead.

But when the margin is just three goals, coaches need discretion to respond to the situation. Maybe it’s a U-9 game in which an untrained goalkeeper’s errors are the difference between 2-2 and 5-2. Maybe it’s a U-16 game in which one team is trying to learn a 4-5-1 formation, a lesson that isn’t as easily taught if it’s a 4-6-1. (The alternative, asking the team leading such a game to withdraw a player, unfairly punishes kids for doing well.)

Or maybe the coach is trying to impart a life lesson on adversity. A three-goal deficit is minor compared with the stress of getting a C-minus on that first assignment in an AP course. Teach a kid to fight through the challenge of being overmatched on a soccer field, and maybe she’ll be better prepared to handle that calculus class.

Take an example from a one-on-one competition in which the losing side can’t blame teammates or other factors -- chess. “In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” Paul Tough says of one chess teacher: “As she saw it, her job was not to prevent them from failing; it was to teach them how to learn from each failure, how to stare at their failures with unblinking honesty, how to confront exactly why they had messed up. If they could do that, she believed, they would do better next time. Just like Steve Jobs at Apple the second time around.”

If you want to avoid snowplow-parenting discussions and just want a practical reason to hedge on mercy rules, consider this: Unless you’re living in a rural area that happens to have a soccerplex lying around, your kids don’t have many opportunities to practice on a full field (or half field for U9-U-12). Your Saturday game is their only chance. If the result isn’t in doubt, fine. Now it’s a rare opportunity to practice.

And with that practice, maybe that “next time” the chess teacher mentioned won’t be quite so lopsided.

(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)

3 comments about "Have mercy? How coaches can manage a mismatch".
  1. Ray Lindenberg , October 15, 2018 at 2:01 p.m.

    Nobody wins when a rout is on ... not the overmatched team being drubbed ... not the superior team that is not being challenged, and thus gaining a false bubble of securitythinking that they'll be able to replicate the rout versus other teams ... and not the spectators, parents, league or the sport. Nobody wins when a team throughly outclasees and pours on the goals against a lesser squad.

    If the coaches and players goal is to win, win, win and score, score, score at all costs and devoid of any empathy, they really need to do some soull-searching and figure out whether they're pursuing something constructively or destructively. If you're of a 'scriptures' centric persuasion ... the 'do unto others' fits pretty good right here. Nobody wants, or deserves to be embarrassed.

    Using sports to teach kids how to treat others with empathy, class and dignity far outweighs bullying rivals with excessive, unnecessary scoring. Nobody likes a bully or bullying, which is precisely what rout-scoring is.

    Just like a coach needs to prepare his/her team for offensive and corner kicks, goal kicks and free kicks, he/she needs to prepare them for 4-corners and tiki-taka/keep-away offense (not necessarily attacking the goal), which is actiually the core of good, productive soccer that will be much more useful for them and their careers over the loing-run than effortless scoring over mismatched opponents.

    The question then becomes 'when' is the right time to go 4-corners? What's the right time and when is the right score/ That one is open for interpretation, but my general rule of thumb is to go 4-corners once you reach a 4 goal advantage (4 for 4).

    Teach empathy, dignity, class, sportsmanship -- which is a much greater life lesson than thumping overmatched competitors.

  2. Bob Ashpole, October 16, 2018 at 10:09 a.m.

    Beau, good article. I believe that the root problem is the adult fixation on winning competitions rather than how the game is played. How the kids play is really more important than winning or losing. Treating youth matches like mini-EPL matches is a mistake. I feel sorry for those adults who are angry after losing a match instead of happy. 

    The objective should be to teach kids to love playing, not love winning.

     Your article touches this point, although it is not the topic of the article.

  3. Barry Tuck, October 16, 2018 at 6 p.m.

    Agree, a big part of the problem are the parents.  They pressure coaches and players to win at all costs.  Most of the clubs in our area seem to have gotten it mostly right, focusing on playing the beautiful game in a beautiful way, over banging the ball up the field and let the fastest kids win. 

    One of the best workarounds was one of my daughter's coaches, who would quietly sub 3 players off but only put 2 back on.  No yelling across the field, embarrassing the other team, and suddenly the other team starts getting more chances and feels more confident.  Meanwhile, the players on the winning team are simulating red card situations, playing a person short, having to work harder. So benefits on both sides.

    Wise to have a quiet word with the Ref/AR to give them a heads up. 

    And coach can always put players back on the field if there's a big turn of events. 

    I've seen that go to far where a coach took multiple players off, so again, embarrassing the other team, making it obvious. 

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