"Helping" your players during a game

I got the opportunity to coach a U10 game this weekend. The coach was out of town and asked me to step in. They were a very good group of kids, especially for this level. We were playing a team that had been together for a long time with a coach who has been in the program for many years. The game went well, it was close throughout and the level of skill exhibited by the players was higher than you would expect to see at a recreational level.

Basically, everything I would hope to see from the players was on display in this game. As the coach, with little knowledge of the players abilities prior to the game, I just broke them into two groups and substituted the entire team other than the goalkeeper every 7-8 minutes.

As the DOC, I tried to model the behaviors that I want my coaches to use every game. I sat behind the players on the sideline and talked to them about the game. I asked them to help me organize who would be playing what positions when they re-entered the game. I did high fives when we scored. I focused on one goal we had for the game, moving to an open spot quickly when our goalkeeper had the ball and then asking for it so that he would be able to give them a better ball to play. Since I hadn't trained them, I needed a few minutes to see what their level of skill was before giving them a technical goal for the game. Because most were comfortable taking players on, I challenged them to show off their best move that beat a player and then the players on the sideline judged how good it was. At halftime, we identified a winner and then I challenged them to top it in the second half.

Because the game was close and entertaining, it became an emotional experience both for me and for the players. I see coaches get emotionally involved in the game all the time. Most think that that is what they are supposed to do. In one sense, it definitely is important to get involved in the game, but in another sense, it will distract the coach from his or her real goal, player development. Coaches are often distracted by the run of play, lobbying for calls from the referee or commenting on the game as if they were a play by play announcer. I see them trying to help their team by telling the players on the field what to do. Loudly. Insistently. Urgently. You get the picture. Maybe that is you. This behavior is not helping your players, it is hurting them.

My contention is that it is not possible to focus on the individual player's performance in a game if you are engaged in all of these other behaviors. Instead of being the expert observer and teacher, the coach instead becomes part of the game itself. I know that if I mentioned the word "coach" to an audience of Americans, the first image that comes up would be a coach yelling. In fact, when I searched google using the word coach, it was the second image I found. So culturally, we are imbued with images of coaches yelling at officials, at their team or at individual players. It may be part of our makeup; if we sat down at the game and didn't yell, would others question why weren't doing anything?

the first image on a google image search for the word "coach" 
The second image

Because my other job is as a science educator and I was trained as both a scientist and a coach, I may see this differently than others. If that is the case, then so be it. I am sure that a coach who is less involved in the run of play and more focused on the development and performance of the individual players is going to be more successful at helping kids reach their highest level than a coach who is constantly lobbying for calls, acting as a cheerleader or berating his players for mistakes.

Part of my philosophy is due to the fact that players cannot process what we are saying while also playing in the game. While it may be true that they can hear us and acknowledge that we said something relevant to the play at hand, we cannot tell them in enough time for them to do anything about it. Once we say something, they then have to process it, put it into the other events which are going on simultaneously, choose a decision and then accurately carry out what you are telling them to do.

I am telling you right now, that doesn't happen. If a player is struggling to control a bouncing ball without falling over, they are not going to be able to pass it to the open teammate so he can shoot. Save your breath, all of your comments only make the game more complicated for the player and they ignore the most important reason why you should not get involved in the run of play.

Soccer is a player's sport, not a coach's sport. A player has to be capable of solving the same problem in multiple ways. A player has to be capable of making his own decisions and see the effect of those decisions in order to learn the best way to solve problems. Every time we try to solve the problem for the player, by telling them what to do or telling them to do it the same way every time, we remove the opportunity for the player to learn. Our "help" isn't helping the players, it is slowing their development.

If you really want to help your players, watch them, talk to them when they are on the sideline and can listen to what you are saying, take video of them individually and show them what they are doing on the field. Video is a great way to both teach and evaluate your players. I covered that in a prior post that can be found here. If you really want to do a good job, then focus on the skills you have been working on in practices. Are they getting better on the skills? Can you see that in the game? Do you have evidence of that in a way that they can see their own progress? If not, then you are just a guy yelling on the sidelines, like everyone else.

Go help your kids, stop "helping" your kids. Let me know how it goes for you.


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