After a decade of youth coaching, I'm firing myself

After 28 seasons, a few All-Star tournaments, several coaching license programs that do and do not continue to exist, and more painful losses than I care to count, I have arrived at a candid bit of self-realization.

I’m not a good youth soccer coach.

No, you can’t judge things solely by results, especially in recreational soccer. My horrendously bad luck has carried over to games involving my family in which I have not coached. I’ve started to wonder if I defaced the FA Cup in a previous lifetime.

This season, in which I demoted myself to assistant coach, I’ve missed three games. Our team won all three of those, leading by 5-6 goals in each one. In the four games I’ve attended, we had one blowout win, two ties and a loss. My team is joking that I might want to skip the league championship game.

I’ve always made an effort to be positive. I’ve coached players who’ve gone on to make high-level travel teams or their high school teams, and they always ask me how my current team is doing. Parents and kids have thanked me for my efforts to give them a positive experience.

But it’s an effort. Much more than it should be. And the problem is simple ...

I just don’t have the requisite level of Zen.

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that. I don’t have Alexi Lalas’ calm demeanor as he deals with people who apparently think he’s some random guy Fox picked up on the street, not someone who played in a World Cup and in Serie A. I’m better at argument avoidance than I used to be, but I still resemble the old cartoon with the guy who can’t go to sleep because someone is wrong on the Internet.

With the kids I coach, the good certainly outweighs the bad. I’ve rarely had trouble with parents, even when I’ve had to give a kid a lecture about such practice ills as kicking a teammate’s ball onto a neighboring field, hanging from the crossbar, making me explain an exercise three times because they’re chatting, etc.

The trouble I have is with myself.

I tie myself in knots. I try to design practice plans to fit the old E license or the new grassroots license or whatever U.S. Soccer wants us to do these days. I make absolutely sure every kid gets the proper amount of playing time, to the point at which I think I should be getting a commission from the fine folks who developed the Coach’s Clock app. (I’m guessing they’re Seattle Sounders fans, given the names they use on their demo.)

Then when my team loses, I second-guess everything. What else could I be doing in training? Should I have made that one really good defender play defense instead of acceding to his wish to play striker? Should I try a different formation? Did I do too much joystick coaching? Or too little? It’s U-14 rec league, where the number of players who’ll go on to high-level soccer is dwindling, so should I just give in and start playing direct?

In the fall, I coached a talented All-Star team. We lost our first three mini-games, two of them by narrow margins. I went to a fast-food place with a pen and paper to sketch out possible formations, and I wound up just holding my head in my hands, wondering if I had done something wrong.

This season, after handling two teams and that All-Star team in the fall, I insisted upon serving only as an assistant coach for one team. I was assigned to a head coach who had just moved here from Kyrgyzstan, and I’ve taken on a lot of the organizational duties that are new to him.

He has the attitude I wish I had. Chatty kids, mistakes, refusal to follow directions -- he just shrugs it off and smiles. He laughs along with the players with each good or bad touch on the ball. The word he most often yells from the bench is “Good!’ with a clipped accent that shortens the vowel sound and exaggerates the final consonant, as if saying “Gut!”

He doesn’t spend a lot of time working up E license-approved practice plans with a small-sided activity and expanded small-sided activity and all the stuff that takes up space in my brain that could be used for other things. We’re winging it. And we scrimmage a lot.

And still, I’m too stressed to enjoy it. In a typical season, I fret until my team wins its first game, not wanting to repeat the winless seasons I’ve endured in the past. This season, as my team contended for a spot in the playoff final (which they eventually earned), I’m fretting about wasting the opportunity. I can’t seem to just enjoy the fact that this team plays not just with skill but with unbridled joy.

I also found myself playing the “bad cop” on occasion, a sea change from some other seasons in which my assistant was the taskmaster. I gave a fiery halftime speech when the team fell behind 4-1 to a team they should’ve been beating. Maybe it worked -- they tied 4-4 -- but I hated myself for it.

I still have a good handle on some things not to do as a coach. I’m bewildered when I see “professional” coaches who make every decision for their players from the sidelines and wonder why their players aren’t learning anything. I shake my head when I see a coach playing longball and bunkering so his team’s parents are mollified with a shiny U-10 trophy.

But that doesn’t make me a good coach. I’m basically a coaching Simon Cowell -- not a singer but someone who knows a screechy, out-of-tune voice when I hear one. Or maybe someone who goes to a restaurant knowing I don’t have the culinary skills of the chef but can still discern the fact that “beef cheeks” are inedible.

So I’m firing myself. I’m handing over my dozens of cones and pinnies to someone else. My final game on the sideline was on a beautiful June day. I was determined to enjoy it regardless of outcome. Of course, it didn't work out that way, and I was nervously second-guessing myself all the way to the final whistle, even though we wound up winning the league championship by three goals.

And I’m focusing on my new -- and paid -- contribution to the sport. I’m a ref. It works well because study and practice make perfect.

Besides, I have the temperament to deal with high-strung coaches. Like me.

(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.)

15 comments about "After a decade of youth coaching, I'm firing myself".
  1. Bob Ashpole, June 17, 2019 at 2:57 p.m.

    Enjoyed reading that, Beau.

  2. Kent James, June 17, 2019 at 3:01 p.m.

    As someone who has played, coached and reffed for probably 40 years, I have to say that if you're second guessing yourself as a coach, solving the problem by becoming a referee is going from the frying pan into the fire.  While I appreciate your desire to stay connected to the game, and Lord knows we need more good refs, every decision you make will be judged in real time by alternating halves of the crowd who think you're horrible (and the ones who think you're doing fine will keep their views to themselves).  I'm guessing you know all this (given your experience as a coach), but I was just amused by the reasoning.. Good luck (and just ignore the fans...)

  3. Randy Vogt, June 17, 2019 at 3:54 p.m.

    It seems that the only soccer refs left in the US are either writing articles for Soccer Amerca or writing comments to those articles. :)

  4. Philip Carragher replied, June 19, 2019 at 12:20 p.m.

    Randy, maybe this is too much but I've wondered whether referrees could enable player development during games. I like when refs, during recreational games or young travel game, allow for players who obviously don't understand something to take a moment and learn. Like throw-ins. I like when refs allow for re-throws after the player gets a moment of intruction. Or handle pushing or clipping a dribbler's feet/ankles based on ability or age or something appropriate. It's hard for some players to learn or feel confident dribbling if they're easily pushed off the ball. Maybe that game needs to be called more closely or maybe it's just that player that needs help. As a coach, I've even had slight interventions with very loud male coaches that overwhelm the field with their voices and disturb the players. Refs could maybe intervene here as well. Is this too much?

  5. Randy Vogt replied, June 19, 2019 at 9:15 p.m.

    Regarding Philip's comments above, the ref is more of an instructor than an enforcer at the youngest ages. But if there's a kid who does not get along with others or adults talking the game too seriously, then the ref has to sadly be more of an enforcer than an instructor. I like when refs give a little instruction and a re-throw to a young kid who did not throw the ball in properly. But then give the ball to the other team if that same kid still gets it wrong, otherwise he/she will never learn. Yet it's up to the league to authorize a re-throw. Yes, you could suggest to very loud coaches that their players will never learn if they give loud, constant instructions. But the ref's authority ends with the rules or any mandates from the leagues. With young teenagers, there are large differences in sizes as kids reach puberty at different times. The ref cannot favor small players over large players as this would not be fair to the bigger kids, and the smaller players may catch up to them one day.

  6. frank schoon, June 17, 2019 at 5:12 p.m.

    Reading this tells how the extraneous part the licensed coach/adults are taking all this stuff too serious. 
    " E license-approved practice plans"...That says it all !!!!...Program, program ,programmed!!!  If only we had that in my street soccer days ,I could have been so much better...I can just imagine if Cruyff had E licensed  coach with practice plans in his street soccer days<SARC>
    That is why I can't wait when we  finally have established a real pick-up soccer culture, and begin to do away with the seriousness of licensed coaches and allow the kids to just learn and develop like they do in less developed countries  who display better skill than we have here.
    As long as the USSF tries to engender the idea of the need  for having licensed coaches for the kids when you really don't need it for it is all about learning by "doing", "experimenting", and gaining knowledge from older ,better kids, we'll continue this facade.


  7. R2 Dad, June 17, 2019 at 9:24 p.m.

    Great, humorous read. RE: Zen, I have a theory. You are the norm. The Chill coach/referee who operates at a high level and doesn’t get all angsty doesn’t exist outside of a tiny sliver of the population who are professional coaches/FIFA refs whose personality/disposition/skills completely aligns with their job. Which sounds like Randy, who might have gone down that path back in the day. I certainly don’t fit that category, and my shortcomings weigh on me similarly to you. The “normal” people I’ve seen who have all that confidence and calm are oblivious and don’t let their inexperience and unaware-ness ruin the match for themselves, despite ruining the match for everyone else! I’ve worked with 2 young refs who “had it” and are now State level refs and might be Fifa candidates in a couple more years. They exist but are like hens teeth. 
    Your experience is invaluable. Aside from refereeing and the writing gig(which together will give you priceless fodder) I recommend you join a board at the local league  level where your experience and common sense is needed. I hope you re-discover your joy of this game we love, but you might be looking in the wrong place in officiating!

  8. Beau Dure, June 18, 2019 at 9:17 a.m.

    Great comments, all -- figured it was worth replying to several at once ... 

    Bob -- thanks very much.

    Kent -- yeah, I know I should be careful what I wish for! One thing that helps is that I know which games to take and which games to avoid. The age group, the level, the league, the club -- all factors. I think low-level U12-U14 travel is the sweet spot. The families have reasonable expectations, unlike the (sometimes self-appointed) "elite" teams and those who work out their life frustrations in rec league.  U9/U10 rec league is also generally OK. Generally.

    Randy -- my local club is pretty good about bringing in young refs! I didn't get as many assignments as I wanted this spring because they quite understandably wanted to give the high school kids more games. 

    Frank -- USSF coaching education has improved as it has backed away from the "how to draw up the perfect practice plan" model. It's taking time, but it's getting there. The most important parts of training these days are actually related to safety. Concussion training has been around for a few years, and now we all have to go through SafeSport training. I've been writing a few pieces on the latter -- it's terrifying. All U.S. sports are making some long-overdue changes. 

    R2 -- I think I too often stressed about the wrong things and succeeded at the other aspects of coaching. No one ever came up to me and said, "Great practice plan, coach." Plenty of parents and players have told me they liked the positive atmosphere I set (even when I felt like I was losing my mind). At the end of this season, on the card the players all signed, one thanked me for encouraging him to be a leader. I hadn't even remembered that I did that, and it's one thing I did right. 

    And I'm grateful for those relationships. I bump into former players and their parents all the time. It's a good feeling. 

  9. frank schoon replied, June 18, 2019 at 11:18 a.m.

    Beau, Thank You, for your reply. From the looks of it, you seem like you are a real caring guy.  I think everyone , including myself, has experienced to mental anguishes, and all the other trials and  tribulations that went through but in due time I wised up, hardened my emotions toward the multitudenous of problems and kept it very simple.....
    I don't have a license unlike you but I've been involved in Coaching , training, individual player development for at least 40years. That you state the USSF no longer requires training plans for E-licensed coaches leaves me in a state of whether to cry for I can't believe they mandated such a stupid thing ,telling they have no clue how to train youth ;or laugh how clueless the USSF is for this organization loves , structure, programs, pedantism, hierarchy,etc and totally miss the overall simplicity of teaching soccer.....

  10. Randy Vogt replied, June 19, 2019 at 6:51 a.m.

    Beau, thanks for your response. The issue regarding the referee shortage is not so much getting new refs but keeping them. And this is in all sports, not just soccer. In a 2017 national survey, the National Association of Sports Officials found out that more than 70% of new officials quit in their first three years of refereeing because of verbal abuse. So hopefully articles by refs showing our side of things such as those appearing in Soccer America will get people to think twice before they yell at an official.


  11. Brian Something, June 18, 2019 at 11:29 a.m.

    If my team lost three straight close games, I'd draw the opposite conclusion. Not that everything needs to be blown up (completely different formation) but that the fundamentals are there but we just need to execute a little better. If I made any changes, they'd be little tweaks, but big ones. Being a good youth coach does require patience. I think it's too easy to make big changes without giving the kids enough time to figure them out. So then they're always learning a new system and never have the time to succeed in doing so. That's a mistake I made when I was a younger coach and have learned from.


    To me, knowing the material is important but I've seen too many coaches who thought they were coaching robots, widgets to be plugged in to a game plan. Coaching is, first and foremost, about knowing how to deal with children. If you don't know that, then your knowledge of the game is irrelevant.

  12. Ben Myers, June 18, 2019 at 1:02 p.m.

    My counterpoint to Beau, after the same number of years coaching and a 1995-vintage D license is:
    1. Don't over-think it.  As an old soccer coach friend of mine once said, "Soccer is not rocket science."
    1-a. Keep it simple for the players, too. Simple formations, simple pre-match instructions, simple and basic technique.
    2. US Youth Soccer approved curricula?  Whuzzat?  As a coach at any level, you get players who have been coached by others, a crazy-quilt of skills and motivations.  Observe what your players do in practice and matches and adjust training to the areas where most of the team can benefit and improve.  One week, the theme might be defense, marking, positioning, when (Contain!) and how to tackle.  The next, finishing, not simply shooting.  Or maybe emphasis on movement (not always forward, but diagonal and checking back to the ball) and creating space to receive the ball.  Coaches, do not force-fit a canned curriculum to your team, especially at the more recreational levels of the game.  There have been training days when I went prepared to do three separate activities, only to find that the first one went so well, the kids were having so much fun learning by doing, that it turned into a one-activity training.
    3. Watch a lot of high level soccer and introduce some more advanced technique into training sessions, with the expectation that 10- and 11-year olds will not be able to execute as well as Salah or Kane or Hazard.  But the kids have fun trying, and they become motivated by the joy of playing to be better players.  This adds much needed spice to training.
    4. For maybe 15 years, I coached and officiated when not coaching.  It helps to compartmentalize these activities, but also gives coaches the knowledge to give their players insight into how LOTG applies to them.

  13. Ken Garner, June 18, 2019 at 7:46 p.m.

    Thanks, Beau. I recently had a similar epiphany: I’m a 56-year-old newcomer to the beautiful game, I have no business trying to teach kids soccer skills. Unless the kids are really young. After two frustrating seasons coaching U8, I just finished my first U6 season. What a revelation! I can share my enthusiasm and love for the sport and (very) basic knowledge of the game, help kids have fun and improve (very) basic skills and not feel like I’m letting down my players and their parents!

    Maybe I’ve found my niche; maybe some of my kids will keep playing, keep practicing, keep improving because we had a good time. I hope so. Meantime, I’ll keep trying to get better and make my kids better. And I’ll keep enjoying the game.

  14. Philip Carragher, June 19, 2019 at 12:08 p.m.

    Thank you Beau for the thoughful article. I'll share this one practice-approach that was fun for everyone and great training. I coached my son's U7/U8/U9 AYSO teams of players who were all from my small suburban village. Once a week they'd all hop on the school bus after school and come to my house for "Soccer Playdate". They'd arrive to chicken nuggets and a soccer video featuring something I knew they'd like to watch. For instance, one day it was "the world's best player" with Lionel Messi playing for Barcelona. Invariably, the boys would see something that excited them and this day it was "back-healing the ball". So out back we went and learned how to back-heal. Game day I had a team full of 8 year olds back-healing to each other. One last note. This same group of boys went undefeated for almost three consecutive years in AYSO, and, as me and the other dads knew we were about to lose our last game of the third season, I was worried about the boys' reaction. As the final whistle blew I held my breath and a moment later, a Good Humor truck's music began and the boys all smiled and yelled "ice cream"! I'll never know if the boys would have had a problem with that loss, but I don't think so. They're kids. Soccer, lacrosse, baseball, winning, losing, they just want to have fun. It was a great moment.

  15. Mark Landefeld, June 19, 2019 at 4:39 p.m.

    That type of officiating require refs who study the GAME as much or more than they study the Laws -- and study of BOTH would be most helpful

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