What youth coaches can learn from Gregg Berhalter

One of my favorite memories from my youth soccer days: My teammate shot high with a golden chance to score and our coach screamed at him, "Come on, David! You gotta shoot low!" David turned to the sideline and screamed back, "Don't you think I know I missed!" The players on the bench tried hard to suppress their laughter and David became our hero for having the guts to yell back at our coach.

I recalled the incident recently while observing how U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter seems to be so successful in keeping his players' confidence level high through thick and thin. In fact, I've long found it remarkable how high-level coaches often seem more sensitive to players' self-confidence than many coaches at the youth level.

I've seen youth coaches substitute players after they made a mistake, which adds to the public shame and denies them a chance to make up for it and an opportunity to test their ability to cope with a setback. When I referee, it's clear to see how players react to their coaches' negative body language on the sideline and admonishing comments. It doesn't help. It increases the fear of making mistakes. It should be obvious that when people take on a task, feeling self-conscious about the possibility of failure doesn't increase the chances of success.

In some cases, the negative body language I see from youth coaches tempts me to ask them whether they even enjoy being on the soccer field with kids. I can only imagine that they're not conscious of what they look like when kids glance over to the bench. I would advise them to pay attention to some of the world's most successful coaches.

Pia Sundhage, who guided the USA to two Olympic gold medals, and Jill Ellis, the two-time World Cup-winning coach, watched their games from the sideline with body language that conveyed confidence and trust in their players no matter how tense the games got -- and always looked like they were enjoying themselves. Surely coaches who look calm under pressure will ease the nerves of their players instead of adding to anxiety.

Among the many remarkable aspects to the U.S. men's 3-2 win over Mexico was how they rebounded from mistakes and kept their composure during a roller-coaster of a game that included interruptions from VAR and fan misbehavior. The Mexicans took a 1-0 lead in the second minute after a blunder from Mark McKenzie. The 22-year-old misplayed another ball in the first half and looked so nervous I figured he'd be a halftime sub. But McKenzie went the 120-plus minutes and contributed to a milestone U.S. victory.

"I was a defender as well, and I just know the feeling when you make a mistake that leads to a goal," said Berhalter. The USA came back twice against Mexico, whose coach, Tata Martino, was ejected and whose players' composure deteriorated.

We're privy only to glimpses of Berhalter's coaching behind the scenes, thanks to the "Behind the Crest" videos, but those must be pretty well representative of the positive approach he takes inspiring his players. We do get his detailed descriptions of his players' performances from press conferences, which if heard or read by his players would surely be inferred as respectful and confidence-building.

Since taking the helm two and a half years ago, Berhalter has been fielding extraordinarily young lineups and has remained steadfast in a tactical approach that creates risky situations while playing out of the back. The recent victories prove he's created a team atmosphere in which players aren't stifled by the fear of mistakes.

When I witness youth coaching that dwells on players' mistakes, I recall Anson Dorrance saying he's been constantly amazed at how little confidence even his most talented players have. If coaches of players at the highest level make great efforts to consider their players' mindset, then certainly the coaches of youth players should be even more conscious of how players interpret criticism.

Amid an infinite amount of coaching education, youth coaches can be well-served by watching how a coach like Berhalter handles his high-stakes challenge. If he can coach with a calm demeanor that instills confidence, then surely it's an approach for youth coaches to embrace.

13 comments about "What youth coaches can learn from Gregg Berhalter".
  1. Carlos Rocha, June 14, 2021 at 11:15 a.m.

    Yes, Soccer coaches. Bruce Arena the best.

  2. Ralph Leftwich, June 14, 2021 at 11:17 a.m.

    Clive Charles was calm and composed on the sidelines.  He was wonderful and continues to be missed.

  3. Carlos Rocha, June 14, 2021 at 1:39 p.m.

    Tony DiCicco.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, June 16, 2021 at 7:31 p.m.

    I modeled my youth coaching after his philosophy. Positive reinforcement works very well for development.  

  5. James Madison, June 14, 2021 at 2:18 p.m.

    For most of us, it is learned behavior that doesn't come naturally.  Our first instinct is to react with a correction, until we learn that, as Joe E. Brown said in my favorite movie finale, "Nobody's perfect." Player errors do not necessarily mean bad coaching.  Just as players make mistakes, so do coaches.  Both players and coaches need room to learn.

  6. Carlos Rocha replied, June 14, 2021 at 2:46 p.m.

    I don't know everything about coaching. But, as it pertains to Soccer, good coaches win games and titles.

  7. Carlos Rocha, June 14, 2021 at 3:49 p.m.

    It becomes "Perfect" when you win.

  8. George Miller, June 14, 2021 at 5:10 p.m.

    If he can coach with a calm demeanor that instills confidence, then surely it's an approach for youth coaches to embrace.???
    Berhalter is anything but calm on the sidelines. It appears he has a hyper active disorder. He clearly cannot control himself


  9. Santiago 1314, June 15, 2021 at 9 p.m.

    If Ggg PepHalterKlopp would just "UnCross" his Arms when he is "On The Sideline" he could instill Confidence from the Coaches Box... He is getting better(Like the Team)... Heck, he even Tried to take the Ball from a Mexican Player in that Game.!!!

  10. Ian Plenderleith, June 16, 2021 at 6:44 a.m.

    Great piece, this - have forwarded it to lots of coaches I know...

  11. humble 1, June 17, 2021 at 10:39 a.m.

    Berhalter is a coach, coaching men.  He is more of an indentifier and then an integrator.  He has little time to do what is the main responsibility of a youth coach, to teach players.  There are a lot of different styles of effective teaching.  When youth soccer coaches see themselves as coaches, rather than teachers, this is a problem.  This article adds to the myth.  Youth coaches are teachers, first.  Teach the game.  Tactics and all that come later.  Cheers! 

  12. Mike Woitalla, June 17, 2021 at 9:08 p.m.

    “If it isn’t fun, it’s not soccer.” -- Tony DiCicco.

  13. Jacob Wang, June 17, 2021 at 11:09 p.m.

    "high-level coaches seem more sensitive to a player's self-confidence"--they have to stroke egos to keep their jobs, for fear of being tuned out

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