Gifted players need challenges, not coddling

As I initially sat at my keyboard, entitlement was the theme I thought fit. According to the Oxford Dictionary: Entitlement is the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.

Then a discussion with a teaching colleague brought the term “operant conditioning” into the discussion; a method of learning through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning an individual makes an association a between particular behavior and consequences. (Sinner. 1938)

I accepted a dinner invitation recently to the home of a coaching colleague, who coaches his own son on a youth team. The young player is 8, plays for my friend on a U-10 academy team. The 8-year-old player is by far the best player on the team. I coach a group of high school age young men and we often have open field sessions where anyone can just get together and play. This 8-year-old youth player hangs around our team and is often allowed to mix it up with the older players.

What our little youth player doesn’t understand is that the older boys respect the game, they love the game, and they are in a character-based program. The older boys allow the youth player to enjoy himself, score goals against the big boys, and celebrate his little victories. The older players have been conditioned, instructed, coached, to model positive behaviors and attitudes.

During dinner, my friend asked me, with the 8-year-old present, “Hey Coach, this little guy doesn’t think he has to go very hard in practice ever since he played with the big boys. He walks during drills and he isn’t giving his best effort. What do you think we should do?”

So I asked the “little man,” “What’s up? Why aren’t you working hard?” In a typical 8-year-old fashion, he told me the team goofs around too much and they don’t try very hard, and his teammates aren’t as good as he is. So I told him, he had to be the example, if they don’t listen to him he had to show them what working hard looked like. I added that while he was a very good player now, if he doesn’t keep working he will fall behind as he gets older. I explained what leadership was and how he could develop his leadership skills with his current team. His dad, at the end of the table, gave me that thank you nod. Everything I said had been said between father and son, but sometimes another voice is what a player needs.

So what advice do I have for the “coach” in this scenario? Too often coaches are fortunate to have that “gifted” player end up on their roster. The player is young, but developmentally ahead of their peers. The young player receives a lot of praise for their performances and soon they fall into the trap of not working as hard because their peers are not at their level. Maybe the coach starts to cut them some slack, the coach allows them to skip a drill or some conditioning thinking they are rewarding the athlete, but they are actually teaching them that as long as they “perform” they will be treated differently. Instead of pushing the player to better decision-making, improving their skill level, or expanding their tactical knowledge, the player is allowed to coast as their teammates try and catch up.

The “gifted” player begins to get treated differently. When they are taken out of the contest, they pout or make negative comments about the player replacing them. It is a very coachable moment that is often neglected, because the coach has more urgent things to concern themselves with. If the player stays with the same club, coaches are aware of the talent and drool with anticipation for the player to be placed on their roster. The club attitude may become, “What can we do to make you happy?” This may permeate to the parents and the behavior is reinforced, not only within the club or team, but quite possibly at home as well.

The key is to set standards within your team and hold players accountable. When the perceived best player is held accountable for behavior, lack of effort, or lackluster effort, the entire squad is aware of the consequences. Not only do the other players fall in line, the “elite” player realizes that he or she is just another member of the team. The efforts they produce are appreciated but when they make a mistake they are held accountable just like everyone else.

As coaches, we need to demand more out of the athlete who has matured ahead of his/her peers. We need to challenge them to improve in other areas like leadership, respect of teammates, and becoming more aware of what is happening around them during the game. Our youth are not only becoming better athletes with the guidance of a good coach, they are becoming better human beings, better students, and better community citizens.

My friend will put this article away for his young son to read after he excels at the high school level and as he his heading off to play college soccer. There is no doubt in my mind that he can be one of the best team players as he develops between now and then. I am confident his coach will challenge his son, and the team to continue to develop as complete soccer players.

Like you, I am tired of reading stories about elite athletes and the lengths teams and coaches go to gloss over their transgressions of poor practices or game behavior. As coaches and parents, we need to reintroduce character values, like respect, discipline, and integrity.

A quote I just recently read: “Sport is just a chance to practice life before we live it.”

We can make a difference!

(Greg Winkler is head coach Charlotte High School, Tarpon Boys Soccer in Punta Gorda, Florida, and the author of "Coaching a Season of Significance." Coach Winkler has been coaching youth and high school boys and girls since 1989 and is a United Soccer Coaches High School Advocacy Chair.)

13 comments about "Gifted players need challenges, not coddling".
  1. Bob Ashpole, October 15, 2019 at 12:57 a.m.

    If you want to motivate development, praise effort, not talent.

    If you want to keep someone from improving, praise their talent.

    Words matter.

  2. frank schoon, October 15, 2019 at 10:18 a.m.

    Let me get this straight, this is a gifted kid ,plays up a year, which is what he should be doing but isn't trying hard enough because he realizes and feels that his YEAR OLDER teammates are GOOFBALLS who are not trying hard enough and just play around. Then ,I think, it is time for him to find another U10 team, for this coach is not doing his job or move him up to U11. To saddle an 8 year old kid with leadership responsibilities is a joke. Reading that first paragraph tells me enough.
    This is why I continually harp how refreshing it was that I learned my soccer in the streets without adults presents for they do more harm than good.  

    This kid is acting out of disgust of the lack of serious ,goofball environment he's placed in and don't blame him, he needs a challenge not a course in leadership. Place this kid on a team, in an environment that forces him to work harder because he is competing with older players. But don't come with this leadership garbage to an 8 year old for him to set an example to the rest of the older goofballs and lesser players on this team,if anything that's a coache's job.

    I would seriously question WHY are these non-serious, goofball kids on the U10 , as an 8 year old characterizes them, playing on an ACADEMY SOCCER TEAM!!!  I thought ,maybe I'm wrong,  that the creation of a SOCCER ACADEMY means more serious soccer, better coaching/training.
    Ofcourse , I'm joking here for the word SOCCER ACADEMY , as I've always characterize them, as nothing  but a glorified name for 'travel soccer'.  If I had a talented son on this team and see these goofballs I would sue this ACADEMY for thinking my kid is really getting something out of this.
    If only the parents knew how much of their money is being wasted on these so-called SOCCER ACADEMIES....

    Greg, I do compliment you in setting up an "open-field" session, which I think is great. I hope you can extend that during the summer......

  3. R2 Dad, October 15, 2019 at 11 a.m.

    This is a cultural issue. Coaches don't know how to make play challenging without taking the enjoyment out of it. Fun does not need to be goofing around. I thought DA teams would know how to do that, but Frank is right--this is just more of the same Travel nonsense but at higher prices. 

  4. frank schoon replied, October 15, 2019 at 11:27 a.m.

    R2 , You hit the nail right  on the head.....If we ever  PICKUP soccer becomes part of our culture , these Academies are going to be the big LOSERS!

  5. Beau Dure replied, October 15, 2019 at 12:18 p.m.

    There are no U10 DA teams. 

    In my area, we have talented 8-year-olds who don't make their high school teams. In some cases, they drift off to other sports because soccer is a chore  


  6. Bob Ashpole replied, October 15, 2019 at 1:51 p.m.

    Tony DiCicco was a master of making the game fun. Even with the WNT he didn't say "work hard". He said "play hard".

    I agree but would describe this issue as personality not culture. (He asked the 8 year old,  "Why aren't you working hard?")

    Words matter. The coach's words say that soccer is work, not a game, and not fun.

    Motivating players should be simple when coaching a game. Never underestimate the ability of an adult to suck all the fun out of the game. 

  7. Philip Carragher, October 15, 2019 at 2:22 p.m.

    First, I would like soccer programs to provide "appropriate challenges" for all players. In this instance, moving this player up to a level where the challenge approximates his abilities seems like a good idea, although now he isn't playing with his friends and there may be a loss in terms of developing a peer social fabric going forward (although sometimes that fabric isn't a healthy one). One advantage might be that the skills this player has may be lost playing with lesser players. On a U-6 team, I had a player who, because he loved watching international soccer, began the season knowing how to pass and even back-pass, but the support he had didn't know how to react to this and since it was unsuccessful in games, he stopped doing it and couldn't pick it up again for several years. Another note: when coaching a U-9 team and after these players had learned the process behind organizing pickup games, I'd often turn the practice over to the players and watch as the best player, who the others listened and looked up to, began organizing a game and then, as a group, they'd play without adult interference. They'd play and enjoy it so much that none of the players needed to take nearly as many water breaks as some would if I or another coach was running the practice. I'm not sure what I would have done had players not made an effort, but it seemed as if just letting them play (without me) seemed to work.

  8. frank schoon, October 15, 2019 at 2:28 p.m.

    I don't know but I grew up playing the game because I loved the game. I came out on the streets like my peers and older players because they loved the game. The parents, virtually had to drag the kids into the house for dinner.  I was never around kids in which you had to play "word games" or other Psycho 'babble' tricks of having to make things fun playing soccer.
    If you got to go that route than there is something wrong to begin with....It's like the often heard statement about you have to motivate your players, but Sorry, I don't deal with players that you have to motivate.....

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, October 15, 2019 at 3:27 p.m.

    Frank, I would have to watch you to be sure, but I bet you are a coach who loves the game and thinks paying the sport back by passing on what you know to another generation is a joy. Your love of the game is all you need to motivate others. You don't need to contrive anything, because there is no better motivation for player or coach than a love of the game.

    There are coaches out there who see coaching youth as a job and playing the game as work. (The attitude has nothing to do with whether the coach is paid or a volunteer.) If they don't work hard to portray a different attitude, then their demeanor and speech are going to say "I am only here because its my job and soccer is work not play." Be happy that your love of the game shows through. 

  10. frank schoon replied, October 15, 2019 at 3:45 p.m.

    Bob, I think you said it perfect< You don't need to contrive anything, because there is no better motivation for player or coach than a love of the game.>
    I think it is so important to have coaches go take a course, which does not currently exist, called Soccer Appreciation, that deals with anecdotes (remember the story of Puskas) stories about the stars ,what they have done, what they contributed. This would be the most enjoyable courses for coaches of all ages and levels to take.
    Here is just a sample:
    Puskas, considered by Cruyff as one the greatest, who scored like 58 international  goals in 59games. After he retired became coach of Panatinaikos of Greece. The players challenged him in a juggling contest. Puskas took a watermelon seed and juggled it 40 times on his foot, the players closest to him was 14. When Puskas first came to play at Real Madrid that had the famous Afredo Di Stefano and Gento, Kopa on the team, the players couldn't believe Puskas's ability of able to juggle a bar of soap while taking a shower leaning non-chalantly against the wall.
     Here is another anecdote about Puskas, as told by no ohter than George Best....
    “I was with (Bobby) Charlton, (Denis) Law and Puskas, we were coaching in a football academy in Australia. The youngsters we were coaching did not respect him, including making fun of his weight and age. 
    "We decided to let the guys challenge a coach to hit the crossbar 10 times in a row, obviously they picked the old fat one. 
    "Law asked the kids how many they thought the old fat coach would get out of 10. Most said less than five. I said 10. 
    "The old fat coach stepped up and hit nine in a row. For the tenth shot he scooped the ball in the air, bounced it off both shoulders and his head, then flicked it over with his heel and cannoned the ball off the crossbar on the volley. 
    "They all stood in silence then one kid asked who he was, I replied, 'To you, his name is Mr. Puskas.'” 

  11. frank schoon replied, October 15, 2019 at 3:48 p.m.

    Pele on Puskas
     PUSKAS HUNGARY - Pelé interjú / Pelé Interwiev - YouTube

  12. frank schoon replied, October 15, 2019 at 4:23 p.m.

    Guys , try working on this one. Jan Mulder was a former teammate of Johan Cruyff on Ajax, the Dutch team and played for Anderlecht.

    Jan Mulder - Show (met twee ballen) - YouTube

  13. uffe gustafsson, October 15, 2019 at 5:14 p.m.

    Hey wait a minute guys.
    there is no U10 academy, I think the earliest academy is U12 and think they call it pre academy.
    so that club is using that word loosely.
    i seen that word used by many clubs on some of their teams and are not a US soccer academy team.
    to be a US soccer academy team you have to have high standards for coaching and be certified by US soccer, and you can’t just have one age group of academy teams but at least the older teams in every age group. So that didn’t sound correct to me.

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