Changing the Game in Youth Sports

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Check out the following TED talk on youth sports participation:

Some takeaways from the speaker, John O’Sullivan (former professional soccer player and D1 college coach):

  • The single greatest effect on performance is an athlete’s state of mind
  • Youth sports used to be about children competing against other children; now it is often adults competing against other adults through their children
  • Children play sports because it is fun; winning comes in way down the list
  • Children quit sports when they don’t get to play, and when winning becomes more important than enjoyment
  • 90% of children would rather play on a losing team than sit the bench on a winning team
  • Competition is important, but being competitive comes from putting the needs and priorities of our children first
  • We can all start changing youth sports for the better by learning five simple words (watch to learn what they are)

How to Positively Cheer From the Sidelines in Soccer

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PraiseIn my last parent post, Coaching vs. Cheering in Youth Soccer, I discussed the differences in how we might best support our youth soccer players from the sidelines. In short, I said it is best to leave the coaching to the coaches, and for parents to focus on cheering.

Well, the question has been asked, what constitutes positive cheering? This becomes especially important when parents have little or limited soccer knowledge. A big kick upfield is not always the best thing to do, nor is physical contact always a foul.

My advice for parents on the soccer sidelines is to keep everything positive. In fact, this is my advice to coaches, too. Instead of getting frustrated and upset with what your child or team is not doing, encourage the effort that they are putting in. If you praise their effort, then they will likely attempt whatever they tried to do again, even if it ended in failure the first (or the second time, or the third time…).

This is a difficult concept for many of us to grasp because we live in a culture where expertise is associated with how well we can critique something or somebody. My question is, who are we really helping when we get mad at a youth soccer player when he misses a tackle or a shot, or when she gets scored on, or when she makes a mistake?

Here are a few things to think about when making comments from the sidelines:

  • For whose benefit are you making the comments? The player? the team? The coach? The referee? Other parents? Yourself?
  • Are you trying to show what you know, rather than support your player?
  • Are you 100% certain what you are saying is correct? Really?

When trying to positively cheer from the sidelines in youth soccer games, here are a few things to consider:

  • Be specific – for example, “good pass, Johnny” or “nice shot, Jane” or “great effort, Luis.” Even if they don’t show it, the players hear you on the sidelines. If you are trying to coach them, you will put them off. If you recognize their effort and encourage them to continue, you will inspire them give their best.
  • Be genuine – kids know when we are giving false praise. Sometimes, it’s best to say nothing. Or, if you do say something, I have found it best to say something to the effect of “next play” – meaning, don’t dwell on the mistake you just made, make it right on the next play. These two words and your player’s name will help them refocus on the game and you don’t have to have any previous soccer knowledge or experience to do this!
  • Above all, be positive! Praise the other players on your team. The parents will likely respond in kind! Also, it is okay to praise the other team’s players when they do something good! Remember, this is recreational youth soccer, not the World Cup Final. Besides, next year, that player and his parents may be on your team.

Everybody is going to make mistakes, whether it is the player on the field, the coach in his substitute rotation, or parents’ comments on the sidelines. What if we were able to create a culture of recognition instead of negativity. Here are a couple of closing thoughts:

  • Have you ever been to your child’s game and ONLY said positive things?
  • Have you ever told the referee (s)he had a great game?
  • Have you ever thanked the coach after the game for coaching your son/daughter’s team?
  • Have you ever congratulated a parent of an opposing team on the effort of their son/daughter?

I guarantee, if all the readers of this blog committed to doing just one of these things on game day, we could start a positive revolution in youth soccer.

Remember, what gets praised, gets repeated.

I look forward to your feedback and input.

Have a great game day!

~James

Cheering vs. Coaching on the Soccer Sidelines

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Parents on Sidelines

If you are a soccer parent, first of all, thank you for signing up your son/daughter for youth soccer! Congratulations, your child is now part of approximately 17 million youth soccer players in the USA today. Unfortunately, only a fraction of these players will continue to play beyond age 13. There are many reasons for this (getting older, other interests, etc.), but, as a soccer parent, one is completely in your control: do you cheer or coach from the sidelines?
 
I define cheering as celebrating/praising something that your son/daughter or their team has done well (or tried to do). This may be a particularly nice pass to a teammate, a great save by the goalkeeper, a cool dribble move, etc., but it does not always have to be outcome oriented. For example, the player that got beat by the dribble move may have immediately turned back around and hustled to try and recover the ball. The fact that he got beat is irrelevant; the fact that he responded positively (instead of just standing still, throwing arms up in the air, etc) is worth celebrating!
 
I wholeheartedly believe in the philosophy in soccer (and in life) that what gets praised gets repeated. I’m sure people can throw up counter examples, but we’re essentially talking about kids playing soccer here. If the only things that parents and spectators on the sidelines said during games were encouraging and celebrating great effort, then the players would feel good about themselves regardless of the result of the game. Furthermore, it much more likely that players would give their best effort each and every game because they are playing free from their fear of criticism or “coaching” from the parent/spectator sideline.
 
Which brings me to coaching from the parent sideline… Let’s be clear, soccer is a sport unlike football, baseball, basketball and other sports in that the coach cannot micromanage the plays or the players (even though he or she may try!) This is because soccer is a free-flowing, dynamic, and, crucially, a relatively stoppage-free game. Therefore, players must make many real time decisions on the field and deal with the consequences before a stoppage in play (such as halftime, full time, getting substituted) when it may be possible to get instructions. A coach’s real work is done at practice. Hopefully, he or she is recreating game-like situations on a regular basis with the kids getting lots of touches on the ball and having fun.
 
Now, bearing this in mind, when parents/spectators try to coach from the sidelines, it gets very confusing, messy, and frustrating for the players (many of whom may well have more soccer experience than the people telling them what to do!). There are many reasons why parents shouldn’t coach from the sideline. Here are my top five:

  1. It’s off-putting to the player. By the time they have heard you, processed the information, and then tried to implement it (or not), the situation has likely changed.

  2. It is probably wrong information. I say this because you may or may not have soccer playing experience. You may or may not have soccer coaching experience. But it is highly doubtful that you have been at every practice, heard every talk the coach has given to his/her team, and know the coach’s strategy (collectively and individually) for that particular game. Therefore, even if you can argue that the information is “correct,” it is probably “wrong” or incorrect in this context.

  3. It puts the player in a difficult situation. During the game, are they supposed to listen to you or their coach? It should be the coach! If you disagree, please feel free to submit a coaching application, as we are always on the look out for more coaches. In the meantime, make the game easier for your child by simply being their greatest cheerleader.

  4. It creates a negative environment on the sidelines and causes the players to be more worried about what is going on off the field rather than on the field! Don’t be that parent who “gets into it” with another parent, the ref, or worse, the other team.

  5. It undermines the coach. It is the coach who is volunteering his/her time so this group of kids can have a team. They are there before the beginning and stay after the end of each practice. They are going above and beyond. Allow them to do what they signed up for and don’t confuse your son/daughter at the same time! You may disagree with the coach’s lineups, their playing philosophy, you may know more than the coach, but if you undermine him/her, then maybe they won’t coach again next season. Will your child have a team to play on? Maybe someone else’s son/daughter now can’t play because there aren’t a enough coaches. In short, support the coach and let the kids play!

I understand this may be a touchy subject, but if parents stick to cheering vs. coaching from the sidelines, youth soccer will be a much more fun, productive environment.

~James