Commentary

Instead of moaning, get involved

The local club where I coach in has signed up to the German federation's Fair Play campaign, which is of course only right and good. This week the club's 30 or so youth coaches were polled on which two of the following officially sanctioned banners we'd like to see displayed at our home field:

1. Be fair to your opponent, be fair to the ref
2. Play soccer -- have fun
3. Show respect -- live diversity
4. Instead of moaning, get involved
5. NO! to discrimination and violence

My own personal favorite out of the five was No. 4. It's the only one that's a call to action, rather than paying lip service to a noble but nebulous idea. Of course, everyone wants to play fair, have fun and show respect. And ask anyone involved in amateur soccer if they are in favor of discrimination and violence, then they will reply that they most certainly are not.

In practice, no one pays the slightest bit of attention to slogans on a banner once the game has kicked off. I've refereed at numerous clubs where well-meaning words hanging from the fence or in the locker room have been ignored and contravened across the full 90 minutes. No one stopped a rough game and pointed to banner No. 1, for example, to make the plea for sanity, calm and sporting values.

Like all team sports, soccer takes place in a vacuum of adrenalin far removed from rational thought. The main obstacle between players and violence is a set of arbitrary rules, enforced by the referees. Fun, fair play and respect are merely sporting ideals we claim to favor while in a state of emotional sobriety, far from the field of play.

When the game starts, however, we want to win. Coaches will not be telling their players in the pre-game huddle to respect their opponents and the referee. They will be vociferously evoking the hackneyed language of war -- the fight, the battle, the struggle, giving your all, your 100%, and "not leaving anything out on the field" (whatever that means). Ask them about fairness towards the opponent and the referee, and they reply, Yes, that's important too. Only, it won't be in the top ten coaching points on their tactics board.

My own view is that the focus on winning in sports is to miss the point of taking part at all. I know that I'm in the minority, and I'm not righteous or naive enough to think that telling my players I don't care about the result is necessarily the right approach. That's why I think slogans about respect and fair play are largely a waste of time. It's also why I prefer banner No. 4.

The slogan 'Instead of moaning, get involved' is the perfect counter to all those who stand on the touchline aiming loud criticism at the players, the coaches or the referee. For example, when refereeing, I'm prone to taking vocal parents to one side at halftime and asking them if they are qualified referees. If they are (which is extremely rare), I appeal to their solidarity and ask them to stop attacking a colleague. If they're not, I suggest that someone with their obvious expertise should immediately enroll on the next refereeing course and get out on the field to officiate. We always need new recruits. (They won't do it, but they will shut up).

It's the same when coaching. If parents are unhappy with some aspect of the way that you're running a team, invite them to participate. If they're critical of your tactics, suggest they take the coaching badge. If they reject that idea, you win anyway -- they've forfeited the right to complain. If they feel that their child's not being integrated into the team, invite them to plan an outing, coordinate the car pool, or organize a fund-raiser. There's certain to be something they can do that will not only take the weight off your shoulders, but strengthen the team too.

Only myself and one other coach voted for banner No. 4. The others thought it was too negative. I will report back later this year on whether or not the chosen slogans (Nos 1, 2 and 3 were the most popular) help to improve behavior at our club.


(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

3 comments about "Instead of moaning, get involved".
  1. R2 Dad, February 11, 2019 at 6:27 p.m.

    Good stuff! You are right, of course, numbers 1, 2, 3 and 5 are useless dreck.
    But one line can never do enough to address all that is challenging in the sport.
    I prefer something wordier but more pointed. Maybe:
    Fans - check your blood pressure at the gate
    Players - check your anger at the touchline
    Coaches - check your credentials; this isn't the World Cup
    Officials - check your fitness and ability; don't wait for your Peter Principal moment to realize you're in over your head

  2. Adam Cohen, February 12, 2019 at 11:40 a.m.

    the cliche goes “leave it all on the field” ostensibly all your energy, effort, teeth, opponents scalp, etc. etc.

  3. Mike Lynch, February 13, 2019 at 8:15 a.m.

     Thank you Ian for highlighting again the challenges and opportunities of sportsmanship and ethics in sport. Empty words, such as banners 1,2,3 and 5 if not followed through on, are nuetral at best and perhaps even negative at worst as you pointed out. My question is why do we coaches so easily punt sportsmanship and ethics as values only for the not serious and/or not competitive? I hope that most coaches can agree there is some max ethical line to ensure minimal integrity such as performance enhancing drugs or point shaving or false registrations (older player in younger age league for example). yet why the belief that sportsmanship and ethics can't win, too? Is top flight competitive excellence and high sportsmanship and ethics standards together so rare we believe not possible? Not only is it possible, but when pursued player development is greater, player satisfaction is greater, higher more consistent performance is possible and most importantly, all those involved act more this way in all their endeavors, which is the purpose of sport to begin with. I encourage everyone, if you haven't already, to take the United Soccer Coaches Commitment to Culture pledge that includes "CHARACTER FIRST” and "THE GAME IS THE TEACHER"  which speak to sportsmanship and ethics directly. We don't take this pledge thinking we are putting our players and teams at competitive risk, instead, we do so actively and willingly knowing we are putting them in a greater position to be successful, both on and off the field. If I am a pro coach and I feel my job is just to win, then I still do because it works. If I am youth coach, I still do it because it works. Don’t punt character for the excuse we are trying to win. Push character because you are trying to win

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