Constant sideline screaming drowns out 'positive coaching'

The U-12 boys coach knew his team should be winning this game, and his agitation was showing.

“Jack! You need to play that ball sooner!”

“How did that ball get through three of us!”

My personal favorite:


Everyone responded with quizzical looks. A slight pause.

“Gabe! You kept them onside!”

His team was dominating play but had no goals to show for it, and the misses were adding to his barely contained rage.

“GAAAAAAHHHH!!!!” he yelled after the opposing keeper made a tremendous save. He kicked at the ground to emphasize the point.

Another minute or so, another near-miss. Another kick at the ground.

Then he looked on the field and saw one of his strikers getting frustrated. Can’t have that.

“Teddy!” he yelled. “Relax!”

Now why on earth would poor Teddy not be relaxed?

The coaching trend a few years ago was “Positive Coaching.” Some of us were required to go through training so we would be better at stressing the positive. Don’t just correct the mistakes. Reinforce the things they did right. “Catch them being good,” as emphasized in the title of a book by former women’s national team coach Tony DiCicco, longtime USSF sports psychologist Colleen Hacker and journalist Charles Salzberg. We’re also supposed to ask “leading questions,” helping the player realize other options for herself -- she might even come up with a better answer than we envisioned!

In some situations, of course, that’s difficult to do. Some classrooms have byzantine layers of rewarding students for going a few minutes without being completely disruptive. On a soccer field, coaches would lose their breath if they yelled encouragement at every completed pass or ball won in midfield.

But the concept is good. Kids sometimes do good things on a soccer field without realizing it, just as they make mistakes without understanding, and players need to hear it when they’ve made an improvement.

Imagine you’re in a math class. A student has a problem: 2x+2=6. The student guesses “three.” No, you say. Try again. The student says “two.”

Do you say anything? Or do you just leave the student hanging and move on, scanning the classroom for someone else who made a mistake?

Too many coaches are doing the latter. This spring, as I’ve re-emerged from winter hibernation to ref some games, I’m astounded by the coaches who keep up a constant stream of chatter when their players are making bad decisions or simply misplaying the ball, only to go silent when a sharp passing combination results in a goal.

For a recent story I wrote on referee abuse, I spoke with Janet Campbell of North Texas Soccer, who says she’s seen an uptick in cranky parents, coaches and players, perhaps a result of pent-up emotions from the pandemic.

Such things are difficult to quantify. I haven’t done a study in which I call coaches and ask, “So are you more of a jerk now than you were pre-COVID?”

And perhaps I’m just noticing anew what was true in the past as well. Travel coaches in my area have always struck me as a humorless lot intent on sucking the joy out of the game, especially when the result of that all-important U-12 game in early June, when the league championship had long been settled and everyone was still absorbing the results of tryouts for next year, was going against them.

To the frustrated coach’s credit, he was ever so slightly happier when his team took a 3-2 lead. We can only hope he doesn’t think the team turned things around because of his frustration. The game turned when the opposing team decided to spend the entire half playing direct, perhaps hoping the 52-year-old assistant ref with the dad bod would eventually be unable to keep up and would therefore miss an offside call. (Ha! It was only my first game of the day, so I was fine.) Coach Kick-the-Turf made a smart adjustment, keeping a defender back deep on goal kicks while trusting me to make the offside calls on anything else, and it was only a matter of time before his team’s possession edge turned into goals.

(Are we really talking about tactical adjustments in a pretty meaningless U-12 game, albeit one that’s in a relatively elite-ish league? My apologies.)

He still kept his team on the sideline long after the game, dissecting all of the things they did wrong, oblivious to the more relaxed girls game that followed, in which one kid got a chance to play goalkeeper for the very first time and had a blast, even if we had the blow the whistle when she picked up a backpass. Funny -- the coach didn’t yell at her, opting instead to give her a calm explanation of the rule.

No one’s saying this is easy. I’d be a liar if I said I never yelled anything less than positive in my days as a rec coach whose best players kept going to travel teams while other rec coaches assembled their juggernauts.

My favorite season as a coach above U-8 level was my last, when I co-coached a team with someone who had just moved here from Kyrgyzstan and was still picking up English. “Good!” was his most frequent sideline exclamation, yelled out in a clipped accent that made it sound like “Goot!” We won the league championship (admittedly, one game required a stern halftime talk from me, but it was delivered with the intent of reminding them they could play better), everyone had a great time, and his son made the high school varsity as a sophomore, not a common occurrence for players who were in rec league at U-14.

My biggest regret was that I didn’t take (and give) Coach Kick-the-Turf’s ironic advice:

10 comments about "Constant sideline screaming drowns out 'positive coaching'".
  1. R2 Dad, June 8, 2022 at 8 p.m.

    Nice column. I know that fans of the amateur sport think back to the 80's as the Jurassic period of the game in the US, but I will say this: Despite the erratic offside calls, terrible fields and crazy rules applied, the coaches often sat/stood and said little. That seemed to be the norm for parent coaches of basketball, baseball and soccer. Somehow the loudmouth model (Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Bobby Knight) in the pros hadn't yet filtered down to the local level. Thems were the days. 

  2. frank schoon, June 8, 2022 at 9:36 p.m.

    Nothing new here. This garbage has been going on as long as I have been involved in youth soccer since the early 70's. Fortunately, I grew up playing street soccer where there were no parents around and furthermore in my days kids didn't want parents at their games for that wasn't cool.  

  3. Philip Carragher, June 9, 2022 at 9:44 a.m.

    Youth soccer isn't played, it's performed. Parents in folding chairs, parents coaching, kids on stage. No wonder so many leave the sport to play video games. No parents = play. It may be less healthy (physically) but probably more fun. This isn't changing. It's the environment kids play soccer in, even at the U6 level. Also, coaches need to be taught that one of their best coaching tools is their voice, and yelling needs to be used so rarely that when it is used kids respond immediately. Save it for keeping kids safe, like when they're about to chase a ball into the street.

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, June 10, 2022 at 6:33 a.m.

    Love that Philip .. "Performed, Not Played"... So True... I'm gonna Steal it... :)

  5. Philip Carragher, June 9, 2022 at 10:33 a.m.

    One very simple and ingenious tool comes from the Positive Coaching Alliance: the Positive Chart:

    It works wonders. Sometimes the cheesy-sounding stuff brings out the best in life.

  6. stewart hayes replied, June 9, 2022 at 3:46 p.m.

    That is a great tool, Philip.  The problem is how to get coaches to use it or change their sideline coaching behavior.  

    Coaching directors have the power but probably fear losing coaches if they start evaluationg them.  If coaches are responsible enough to be coaching they have to accept being coached as well.  Evaluations should be sent to the parents as well as the coaches.  

  7. Philip Carragher replied, June 9, 2022 at 7:35 p.m.

    One aspect of the Positive Chart that is truly magical is that all kids want to get recognized for doing things well (especially in front of their peers) and if they hear another kid get recognized for something they're not doing, for example, backing up third base (this really happened on a U9 baseball team), the likelyhood that they'll do it the next time skyrockets. So coaches can use this tool to coach-up kids in a positive way instead yelling at the kid (in front of everyone) that didn't back up third base. Gentle and it works, in fact, the next time we had a similar play at third base we had three people backing up third.


  8. Dan Woog, June 9, 2022 at 4:29 p.m.

    Love the match class analogy. Can you imagine what would happen if math teachers gave disgusted looks every time a student got an answer wrong? Or threw their attendance book down on the floor in a rage? 

    Aaargh indeed.

  9. Bob Ashpole, June 9, 2022 at 9:01 p.m.

    Good article, Beau. This message needs to be repeated periodically.

  10. James Madison, June 10, 2022 at 12:18 a.m.

    One of the bassic philosophes of AYSO is positive coaching which not only means avoiding the negtive, but also being specific in positive reinforcement.  "Good job" is not nearly as helpful as "your aiming (planted) foot was right where you want to place; do that again." 

    Give playhers the opportunity to self-correct.  Get them thinking, by using questions that begin with "What," "When," "How", "Where," or "Why." Where was your aiming (or planted) foot when yhou struck the ball?  Where do you want it to be?

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