Seth Taylor on child vs. player development, parenting perils, and athletes' anxiety

Not many sessions at the United Soccer Coaches Convention featured discussions of quantum physics and Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But that’s what Seth Taylor  delivered in a session called “Sideline Culture and Why It Matters: The Origins and Solutions to Parent Drama in Youth Soccer,” which drew an overflow crowd in Baltimore despite being in the first Friday morning time slot.

Taylor is a coach with Ianni Training, a company founded by former MLS player Patrick Ianni. But he’s not a typical coach. He works with players at both ends of the career spectrum, those preparing for life after sports and those trying to improve within it, not just in soccer but in other sports.

He has found that psychology is at the root of a lot of problems in sports -- anxiety that holds players back while they’re playing and depression that sets in when players wrap up their competitive careers. He also sees issues with the typical parent-player relationship, which may explain why the coaches and club executives in Baltimore flocked to the podium to claim free copies of Ianni Training’s book On Frame: Exploring the Depths of Parenting in the World of Youth Soccer. He also has written The Coaching Revolution: An Interactive Guide to Finding Joy and Excellence in Coaching.

SOCCER AMERICA: How did someone with an interest in soccer end up learning so much about child psychology, and how did you come to be doing this sort of presentation of the work that you're doing.

SETH TAYLOR: Well, that is quite a saga. If I'm completely honest, I kind of stumbled into it.

I actually went to seminary, believe it or not, and I did a master's in theology and culture, but it was in a school that had a tremendous amount of psychology involved in how they train people. And so I started doing my own therapeutic work on myself. And that's really where it started. I experienced a tremendous amount of depression and anxiety. I identified identity crisis issues and things like that, into what I guess you call a midlife crisis in my early 30s.

Over on the other side of things, I'd been doing sales for years and hated it. Coaching was pretty much the only thing I actually enjoyed. I've been coaching soccer for a long time. Typically, if you're someone who goes and starts doing a lot of therapeutic work on yourself, you start healing yourself and you start becoming a healthy person, but then you're also left with all this new knowledge and new understanding, and then you use this capability of helping other people.

I'd been doing private soccer training for probably 10-12 years. I started noticing all this anxiety in these players. And there was always this frustration as a soccer coach -- why don't they get better? I think most coaches, if you ask them, that's a really common problem. They get bigger, they get faster, they get stronger, but they don't really get better. We're kind of obsessed with identifying and trying to develop young talent. But for some reason, we don't want to contend with this logic problem: It seems they hit an age where they just stop improving their game.

Even at a pro level there's no reason players shouldn't be able to improve their game. Most players really don't. They are what they are by the time they get to high school. So I just had this kind of vision just as I started bringing this therapeutic thinking into my training.

So my two worlds of sports and therapy just made their way towards each other, almost like an eighth grade dance -- they're hanging out by the wall, and they've just kind of gradually started dancing together.

And then stumbled into a friendship with a guy who played in MLS -- Patrick Ianni. Then I started meeting other guys and got to be friends. Literally by happenstance, a player who was just recently retired from MLS asked me if I'd work with him doing actual professional work. He worked for MLS, so he brought me in and asked me if I could start working with guys.

There's a major crisis at the heart of identity development in high-level athletes in our country. They asked me for a meeting right away. This is unique, this is interesting, and we think it's important. That's where the door really opened. I started speaking at the rookie symposium every year, and then I started getting clients from that. I started working with players, and we started this business, going, "Hey, man, let's just try to turn this whole culture upside down."

The main issue was that there's just a massive lack of consciousness in our culture when it comes to how we parent our kids towards performance -- not just sports but in general. We just decided to try to tackle this portion of it.

SA: When I think of athletes and identity, I think of "Friday Night Lights." First of all, it starts with the star quarterback being paralyzed. And then the scene where Tim Riggins, having left college, is back helping someone with her car, and she says, "Didn't you used to be Tim Riggins?" And I thought, "What a brilliant question that was." You must have some high school players, and they're starting to realize they're not going to go any further competitively and not being recruited to play college. What can you tell them at that point?

TAYLOR: It's really interesting. I've had quite a few players come to me who want to play college ball. They're not getting recruited or it's not working out like they wanted to work out, and they're they're suffering because what they're facing is what every athlete faces eventually because your body just simply won't allow you to continue. This kind of avatar of yourself starts to fade.

I think it's a major part of the human condition. We lose our illusions over time, right? With athletes, they eventually they lose the illusion that they built themselves on. You see the identity problem because far too young, we start organized sports. A child is still trying to build their identity based on the love of their parents. But pretty soon, it's based on the response of their parents to this thing they do. Then they develop a relationship with this thing they do that's very parental. Essentially the game is a parent now, and when it starts saying you're not capable of going any further, it's a major rejection. It's like being disowned by a parent. And that delusion is very intense.

So when people come to me, we go two routes. We start dealing with the anxiety, and then one of two things happens. They start to feel at peace with the loss of it and they start to be able to parent themselves, or they feel at peace and start to parent themselves and they start getting really good. I've had players go from not being recruited to signing a college deal in three months. If you change your relationship with the game and it just becomes a game, then if you're physically capable, you can get really good really quick.

It's not a 10,000 hours thing -- that's a myth. It's a quality over quantity thing. The better relationship you have with something and the more you allow it to be what it is, the more you can actually control it. So you can attack a weakness in a way you never have. You can take risks you never have before because the game always needed to be safe and loving, and now it doesn't have to be anymore.

Tim Riggins was an illusion, right? And the question is who is Tim Riggins actually. Even the name itself -- most of us who have gone through a really deep identity crisis start to realize that even the name is just a name. It's just a word. Who you are is a lot different than this question of what's your name or what do you do?

That identity crisis -- I think we're talking about the root of a massive cultural problem. It's something at the heart of the issues that we face as a country. Sports is such a massive influence on that. It's a fun thing to be able to see sports as one of those unique places where I can see my work play out in real time.

For a lot of my athletes, I can watch them on TV every weekend and see the work we're doing, how it's impacting their experience. Then you can see joy, and you can see all this stuff just show up. When I get behind the scenes, I find out not only are they playing better, but they're having fun, and they proposed to their girlfriend, or they finally moved out of Mom and Dad's house and stuff like that, which is really helpful.

And with the young kids, it's just wonderful to watch these kids come to an understanding. I've got kids that are more awake than their parents are.

SA: One popular trend in writing about youth topics these days is "grit." To take it a step farther, I encounter a lot of coaches who insist that having this Darwinian selection starting at age 9 is the way to go. They say Brazil is good because these kids, at age 9, either become professional players or they live in the slums their whole lives. How do you how do you respond to that school of thought?

TAYLOR: It's toxic. It's a toxic school of thought, and it’s destructive.

This is tricky, and I'm trying to articulate the fine line that Pat and I are walking in this business as we open this Pandora's box. You can create great soccer players, but you can destroy people in the meantime, not just the people that are the ones that end up living in the slums, but the kids themselves. We use them up, and then we discard them. There's a reason that so many high-level athletes suffer so greatly when their careers are over. There's the level of depression and anxiety. We can create some narrative: "They have money, so they're OK." The truth is a lot of them end up with no money, and a lot of them end up really depressed and miserable.

I get a peek behind the scenes for that. If you ever want to see it, just get yourself invited to play in one of those charity celebrity matches or something like that where everybody's four or five years out, and get in the locker room and just listen to the conversation. You're going to hear crisis after crisis after crisis, trouble after trouble. You'll walk out of there feeling bad for them, more than anything. When they get back in that locker room, it's comrades in arms, where they all share war stories.

There's a lot of therapeutic work that's needed in that space, and it all goes back to where we took kids and turned them into soldiers. It does present us with a huge question of who we really are as a culture and what our values really are.

If we put child development over player development, and we allow these kids to make it out of those developmental years to about 12 without having to shoulder this burden, their identities will be so powerful and so strong, those foundations will be so unshakable that their improvement will skyrocket.

But what we do instead -- I've been seeing the Philadelphia Union U-12s getting all over Instagram because these guys are so skilled. And what I see is kids that in about four to five years are going to be manifesting a pretty intense hatred of the game. The skill level will be incredibly high, but you're not going to be dealing with happy children.

I ran into that a lot in the rookie symposiums over the years. I get a line of guys after my talk who start telling me how much they hate soccer, and it's always fascinating to hear that.

SA: There are two things about parenting here that might be interrelated. What do you say to parents to get them out of that dynamic where the kid starts to feel that, for better or for worse, his or her love is predicated on performance? And I'm wondering if this is related to parents somehow living too vicariously through their kids on one extreme, and on the other extreme, I realized after a while -- and I've also realized this as a ref, looking at games that don't involve me directly -- that I took (losses) harder than the kids. So I wonder if that's interrelated, where the parent puts too much stock in it and the kid picks up on it.

TAYLOR: Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. And of course that's something we've known for a long, long time. Parents -- it means too much to them. The only helpful question is why. That's where a lot of my work comes in. We're dealing with the unconscious.

If I go to parents and say, "Is it more important that they win, or that your kid is happy?" Of course, they'll say happy. But there's a gap between those two things that's a part of them, because you can say, "Well, your behavior clearly shows that winning is the most important thing."

(On) the average sideline, if you walk over and say, "How many guys love your kids?" they all raise their hands. "How many of you guys want what's best for your kids? OK, how many of you want kids that are full of joy and happiness?" And they'll all raise their hands. "How many of you guys are willing to leave right now so that we can make that happen?" Then you start to see, "Wait, what?"

The research has been saying for a long time that your presence here and what you guys are doing is actually adverse to everything you say you want for your kids. You leave them alone, and we're going to change what we do out here. We're not going to be training them like you want us to. We're going to let them play now, and we're going to let them play until they're old enough to really train. Of course, that would just cause a riot, right?

What they actually believe is, "We need our kids to do well or else we feel inadequate. We don't get our needs met." Parents are projecting their own unconscious unmet needs from their own childhood onto their kids. They're just projecting it right at them and asking (kids) to parent them. We ask our kids on some level to unconsciously parent us.

That's just how the human ego functions. The ego is going to get its needs met any way it can. And when your kids start stepping out there and being awesome, that performance can really meet some of those needs.

You can't really tell parents anything. I can teach. I can get up and do a parent workshop, and I have. I've done workshops where I've watched mothers start to cry, and I had people come up to me afterwards, begging me to show them how not to kill their kid.

It doesn't have to take forever. But there's a deeper experience required, which is why we wrote "On Frame." We created "On Frame" as a therapeutic experience that could create that impact. Anybody that's going through it and really spending time actually doing the exercises, it's having a radical impact on their lives. And it's causing the awakening we want.

SA: I don't know how many of the coaching education modules you've gone through, and they've changed in the last couple of years. I wonder how many of those you've seen and perhaps what you would like to see included in those coaching modules. If you could consult with U.S. Soccer right now, what would you tackle?

TAYLOR: I did my D license, and then I quit the licensing program because I thought there were so many problems with it. Some of the training sessions -- that's good stuff. But I have a lot of A license friends, and there's almost no psychology done. There's some sport psychology done a little bit, I want to say around B or A, but the sport psychology that's done is much more things like motivation, performance-driven things. It's not understanding identity as it plays out.

Your typical coach is a former player, especially at club level, that's struggling with an identity crisis, and the only reason he's doing this is because he has no idea who he is outside the game. I coached for 20 years, coached club for 15, and almost every coach I knew was in that situation. We would literally get together at the bar after training sessions and talk about our plan of escape. How are we gonna get out of this? Because the lifestyle's really difficult, you don't make much money, you can't spend time with your own family because it's weekends and evenings, it was this real struggle because you're in this toxic relationship with the game but can't seem to leave -- a kind of co-dependent relationship.

We can create, and I hate this term, "woke" coaches. I mean coaches that are aware. They're aware of themselves internally, and they're aware of what's driving the drama with the parents and what's driving these kids, and they're aware of how these kids are being formed. It would give them a sense of what child development is. We're almost completely ignoring the psychology of kids.

We have a massive school system and a massive sports system, and we're basically saying, "Here, parent our kids." And they're not equipped, especially in soccer. I've had some coaches over the years that have gotten to be big fans of mine, and it's changing the way they coach completely. They're starting to care more and see a deeper connection. But they're not trying to rescue kids all the time. They're not trying to parent kids.

Coaching is a deep experience, but we treat it as if it's not. We treat it as if it's a shallow concept. You can do that, and you can win games doing that. It's like the old tactical issue. I can just teach my kids to kick the ball straight down the field, play Route 1 all day long and win games. But no one gets better. In order to create the beautiful game, my kids have to deal with loss, and they have to deal with struggle, and they have to deal with suffering, and they have to deal with team and have to deal with people and training. To create something wonderful, we have to go to the depth where it exists. We have to be there and work in that space.

And parenting is the deepest thing in the world. Coaching is not like parenting but close. Everything we're doing lacks that depth, partly because maybe we're scared of it. We have to confront those depths within ourselves.

One of our sessions (with a student) started with, "What's the deal with your left foot? Do you train it, or do you just do what you've always done with it?" He's like, "probably that one." So there's an obvious question here. Why don't you train it? Why don't you teach it what it needs to know, so you can be dangerous with it, so teams can stop shutting you down. He's just like, "I don't know." All right, well, let's get into that, because there's something that won't allow you to go into that space where you can just be bad at something for a while so you can improve it. Because to train, you have to do that -- you do something you're not good at until you're good at it.

And his ego would not allow him to go there because his game has been completely co-opted to get him safety and love, and it feels safe to do what you've always done, so you don't improve.

He completely changed his relationship with the game of soccer. Now we get to see how phenomenal an athlete he is. It's really quite spectacular. And we can do that with everybody.

SA: So to wrap up: I know that parents come up to you looking for solutions and you tell them that it's a longer process than that. But if you had a parent that says, "Look, there's a big game, my kid's in the Development Academy, it's a showcase. How should I behave on the sidelines for this game coming up in five days." What would you tell them in this scenario?

TAYLOR: I would ask a couple of questions to start with and find out what their awareness level is. But I would just say I'm going to give you a homework assignment. I've done this a lot. I want you to bring a notebook with you, and you're going to spend this game observing yourself while you watch your kid. I want you to watch your kid, and I want you to stay silent for this game. But you're going to notice what your body experiences. I want you to notice if your heart hurts. I want you to notice if your stomach feels sick. I want you to notice every time you feel the need to shout, and how difficult it is to maybe not shout. I just want you to jot these notes down. And then if you have the courage afterwards, I want you to show it to your kid.

They go to the kids and say, "I decided to be silent and and it was incredibly difficult." And they get into a discussion with their child about it. They find out that there's a lot more going on underneath the surface than they knew.

So I would say be silent and observe yourself. Just give yourself one game while you watch observe yourself and see what comes out.

9 comments about "Seth Taylor on child vs. player development, parenting perils, and athletes' anxiety".
  1. Santiago 1314, February 5, 2020 at 10:20 a.m.

    It's quite a Double Edged Sword... Of Course, the 4th Pillar of Player Development (Pyschcology) is the Most Neglected... But, as a Youth Coach.. who's had to Deal with these Back Stabbing Parent's.. I learned that No matter how good a job you did in Improving a player... they would Yank the kid off to the next team, without even a Thank You... After a few years of Hard Lessons on this... It becomes very Transactional... I always told the Parent's; "I am NOT HERE to Raise YOUR KID.!!!"... I am here to Develop the 4 Pillars.. Technique, Tactics, Fitness, Pyschology... Too much, My Kid is the Best and My Baby never did anything wrong out there... Just look at the Current Mentality on our Men's National Team.!!!... Bunch of Snowflakes.!!!

  2. Kent James, February 5, 2020 at 10:27 a.m.

    Lots of words of wisdom here, well done.  As a player I always wanted to coach (because while I thought almost all of my coaches were excellent, I wanted to pick the best practices of each of them and combine them).  I ended up playing and coaching for many years, and when my kids were young, I started coaching them.  As a long-time reader of SA, and an early attendant of the USSF coaching schools, I thought I was on the cutting edge of most soccer coaching practices.  But I took the National Youth LIcense course with Sam Snow, and it was eye-opening.  They pointed out that children are not adults in small bodies, and they emphasized doing things that were appropriate with kids of specific ages, based on their stage of development.  Coaching younger kids is more about child development than it is about soccer (though the latter can be incorporated).  In this article, the point about keeping kids happy playing soccer long enough so that they become mature enough to train is spot on.  

    My great fear of pushing training on younger and younger kids is you risk losing them.  I think if you instill a love for the game, and make soccer a fun experience (which shouldn't be hard!), and provide the right environment, kids will best be able to reach their potential as players (and future fans of the game).

  3. Bob Ashpole, February 5, 2020 at 10:59 a.m.

    Interesting interview. 

    First a quibble. Just because an 18 year old's performance responds well to mentoring, doesn't mean that his 8 years of past training has nothing to do with his performance. Here there is no basis for saying that the "10,000 hour thing" is a myth.

    Successful coaches use psychology.

    The first step is to prepare yourself for contact time. I like to say that attitudes are contagious. (Empathy is the actual factor.) If you would rather be somewhere else, the players and parents will tend to mirror your attitude. Coaches cannot teach players to love the game if they don't set a positive example. Fake it if you are not feeling it. Otherwise you are just a babysitter, not a coach.

    The second step, from the first minute of the first contact and forever after, is to create a positive learning environment so there is no fear of failure.

    Everything you say and do, as well as everything you don't say and don't do, contributes to the learning environment. It isn't just what you say, but how you say it. 90% of communication is non-verbal. (A common practice in public speaking courses is to video tape a speach. It is always shocking the first time someone watches themself speak.)

    These two steps apply to any leadership or mentoring situation. 

  4. cony konstin, February 5, 2020 at 11:34 a.m.


    Great article. Seth you are the man. 
    Another reason why we need 600,000 Futsal courts in the USA so kids can play king/Queen of the court 24/7/365 for free, and especially with no adult interference. Kids need a sanctuary where they can manage themselves. Adults 99% of the time ruin everything because they forgot that they were once a child. They love their kids but they need to stop smothering them. PAMPERING NO! NUTURING YES! 

  5. R2 Dad, February 6, 2020 at 1:15 a.m.

    Great column. What I think parents new to the sport need is a list of Dos and Don'ts for themselves. Parents don't know what they don't know about the game, so unless the clubs actively educate them, we get uneducated parents who behave badly.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, February 7, 2020 at 7:51 a.m.

    I agree R2 Dad, but I cannot imagine a club not having a policy for parent's conduct at club activities.

  7. R2 Dad replied, February 10, 2020 at 11:51 p.m.

    Bob, there probably are parent conduct codes, but there is typically only the coach and manager at a match and they are busy with the kids, not monitoring the parents. Unless the officials are involved (which you don't want), it's tough to stay on top of the parents as well as conduct the match from the touchline. I'm sure the clubs mean well, but it's a matter of priorities.

  8. Philip Carragher, February 6, 2020 at 9:08 a.m.

    Good article and important topic. Its not easy being a sportparent, and as R2 says, parent education is important. My suggestion is to educate early, hopefully as  a parent's first kid begins playing sports, before bad habits or toxic networks form. The Postitive Coaching Alliance has good information and courses on this subject. I like the video embedded in this article and have ordered the books. I'm curious. Lastly, this is a very complex subject and it gets particularly tricky for those whose kids continue playing through high school and maybe even into college. One specific area that needs more attention is what happens when kids try to play their sport of choice at a higher level and they either get cut or less playing time then they were used to. This happens frequently at our high school with over 4,000 students. All that truly nasty stuff surfaces for parents like wishing the player playing in front of your kid goofs up and you're happy; worse yet, you're happy they get injured. It gets pretty creepy and I've fought those negative thoughts myself. Then the parents of kids who aren't playing form a little group that whisper about the coach's bad decisions or a kid who plays due to political reasons or anything that helps them promote their kid.

  9. Sean Mara, February 10, 2020 at 9:41 a.m.

    Great article.  Not my most important take away but I found some common ground in seeing a negative comment about the dazzling Philly Union u12 highlights from Brazil.  I enjoyed them also but they are very common in the DA league especially when MLS DA teams outscore the opposition 20-2 in the span of two games.  All the games are video taped so it seemed strange that these got so much coverage.  Plus they lost at least 1 game or maybe two if not mistaken later in the tournament (Vasco 3-1).  Those highlights didn't make the rounds on social media.

    The psychological impact will be difficult to navigate when so many of these players get cut.  If they aren't cut by u15 half get the axe when u16/17 ages are combined.

    "I've been seeing the Philadelphia Union U-12s getting all over Instagram because these guys are so skilled. And what I see is kids that in about four to five years are going to be manifesting a pretty intense hatred of the game. The skill level will be incredibly high, but you're not going to be dealing with happy children."

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