Best compliments

In my 12th year of coaching, I’ve received some compliments and some criticisms, like anyone else. Most of the compliments have been polite and pro forma. The ones from the kids are usually sincere. A few stand out in my memory, however.

 

A CLASS ABOVE

In one of the years I coached a middle school team, we played some amazing soccer. It wasn’t just talent or games won. It was how we played and how they interacted with each other. I was blessed with a great group of players. This is the year I learned that sometimes, good coaching is tweaking little things here and there but mostly staying out of the way. There was one incident that could’ve ruined with overcoaching but fortunately I addressed the issue while putting my ego aside. I had a great group like that. I had 22 players so I had a first XI (which played about 60% of the time) and a second XI… except just one keeper. The first XI averaged about 5.8 goals every 60 minutes. But the second XI was almost as impressive. They played the equivalent of about five full games; they conceded only a single, solitary goal… and that was a penalty in the last game of the season. So even the guys who weren’t good enough to start didn’t concede a goal in the run of play the whole season. After our last game of the season, I was shaking the refs’ hands and they said nice game. And then one of them said to me, “Your team (of 7th and 8th graders) could beat some of the JV teams (of 9th and 10th graders) in this area.” And this was said after the only game of the season we lost.

 

 DON’T LOOK AT THE SCOREBOARD

One year, I coached what was basically a U14 club team in a tough U16 second division. Due to the way things worked out, we had two older players, both decent but not special, which forced us to play up. Not only were we super young, but most of my kids were 8th graders from small rural schools  and they were playing against mostly 9th and 10th graders from big suburban schools with tons of soccer opportunities. It was a tough season; we went 1-9. Anyways, we were playing one of those suburban clubs and we lost 7-1. And as I was shaking the other coach’s hand, he said something that floored me. “You guys played better soccer than us.” And then I realized, he was right. They beat us because they were bigger and faster and bullied us on 50-50 balls and the like. We played nice, possession soccer. We just got beat because of ‘short-termism,’ the classic reliance of speed and physicality over technique and skill. In the long-term, Most of the games the games, we got our butts handed to us. And you know what, the kids got better. The next year, the same group of kids went undefeated and won the division. And now, four years later, most of those kids are going to be league all-stars with their school teams. We did play better soccer despite losing 1-7. It just took a while to show.

 

YOU’RE SO QUIET

I remember before I started coaching, I would be waiting for people to show up at the public park basketball courts so I’d periodically watch rec soccer games taking place at the adjacent field., usually involving kids 6 to 12 years old. I saw parent coaches screaming at these kids every single time they touched a ball. They meant well and weren’t berating them. They were trying to help. But they were doing more harm than good. They weren’t teaching the kids how to play soccer. They were teaching the kids how to follow orders… to say nothing of diminishing the experience. I mean, what kid is going to enjoy an experience where he’s being shouted at all the time. When I started coaching, I used these parents as my anti-model, as a template for what not to do when coaching youth soccer players. When I coached middle school teams, I would see the results of this soccer upbringing. I would get kids who would get the ball and not know what to do or they would make a move to beat a defender and then slow down like they didn’t know what to do next. And they didn’t. This is because for years, they’d had a voice yelling at them what to do. When I didn’t yell at them, they were lost. What’s worse is that some parents took this for apathy, rather than allowing them to learn. I had more than one parent imply that I wasn’t passionate. They thought I didn’t know what I was doing because I wasn’t telling them what to do all the time. In reality, that I knew what I was doing was precisely why I acted the way I did. Anyways, training the kids to think for themselves on the field and allowing them to make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes has become a fundamental part of how I coach. So one day, I was coaching my U17 team. We were in the midst of a 12-0 season and playing some pretty amazing soccer. Along with the team listed in the last paragraph, it was probably the best team I ever coached. We were beating whomever like 5-0 in the second half. We didn’t have any subs so it was just me on the sideline. The coach of the U14 team playing the next game, not from our club, walked up to me and asked me how much time was left in the game, so he could figure out when to start his team in warm ups. I told him. Then he said to me that my team played really nice soccer. I said thanks. Then he told me, “You don’t say much when you’re coaching.” I smiled, since that was exactly what I tried to do and was glad I was apparently succeeding. Besides, we were winning big and playing well so what was there to say. I said something milquetoast like, “Well they work hard in training so I don’t have to say much during games.” I don’t think he got it. Later, I ended up being a volunteer flag man for that U14 game and was on the sideline with the teams. That coach was exactly like the parents I mentioned above: yelling at the kids every single time they touched the ball to do x or y. It was in stark contrast to the U14 coach from my club, who also didn’t yell to much and his team was playing some really awesome flowing soccer. At one injury pause, the other coach said something to me along the lines of, “I probably shouldn’t yell so much.” I nodded politely. Then his shouting resumed the instant the game resumed.

LOL and other advanced coaching tactics

I joke around a lot with my players. I know a lot of coaches think such a thing is ‘amateurish’ but I don’t. Here’s why.

I coach amateurs. These kids are not playing soccer for a paycheck. They are not playing soccer to keep a scholarship. Their motivation has to come from within. They have to enjoy what they’re doing. By making them smile, I help them keep their passion for the game, primarily by not suffocating it.

But it has another advantage. If the kids are laughing at what I say, it means they’re listening to me. And if I can get them to listen to me crack a joke, then I can get them to listen to me give them counsel about soccer.

And it works. Over 12 years, I have a consistent record of being able to motivate kids that their other coaches have not been able to reach. That’s the proof of the pudding as far as I’m concerned. Maybe this tack isn’t for everyone but it works for me.

And one thing I feel is important in being effective coach is quite simple. A lot of coaches treat their players like sporting robots. I treat them like human beings. I’ll ask them how school is going. I’ll ask them how a family member is doing if I know them. If they have to miss practice because of, say, a band concert, I’ll ask what instrument they play. This is how I reach players. I’m not all business every microsecond so when I am all business, I have the credibility and the trust to get my message to be received.