My 7 year-old son has been playing soccer for three seasons now. The first year he was brilliant, and probably the top goal scorer of all the teams. Last season his enthusiasm was OK, but his goal scoring dropped. This season he was lucky to score a goal at all. He has now decided to drop soccer. He is not the only one in his team to opt out. He is very conscientious normally, and has been practicing other disciplines for a few years. At the end of a really bad season the coach was none the wiser, other than to say next year ‘we will win’! More of the same.
As I emphasize in ‘MEganize’, the performance of individuals largely resides in the ‘structure’ they find themselves in. Soccer sadly has become just another ‘control’ environment that pervades our school systems and elsewhere. The coach goes through a number of routines in the practice, trying to teach the basic skills while they are playing. A standard ‘football’ approach is to shout instructions at the players, expressing frustration and trying to give orders from the side line during the matches. We all do this instinctively to no effect. The players walk away with no added-value in terms of why they are playing or what their part is or, worse still, no sense of ownership in making it happen. A coach that sees his role as disciplinarian will only do damage to motivation, meaning and structure. While this does not mean the best route is a free-for-all, it implies working a plan, and oddly enough, ‘coaching’ in the correct sense. Discipline needs to be subtle. Those that don’t comply can sit out. Remember that a child wants recognition, in this case from the coach. By sending a child to run around the field creates resentment, even though it might have some benefit. Punishment should therefore be a form of withholding praise and recognition. If running around the field is part of the routine, then fine.
So what is the solution and why will it work?
Firstly, we need to look at the structure and ensure that the players can understand and take ownership of their delegated tasks. This does not happen as players are swopped around willy-nilly as if all positions are the same, or sit on the bench. Kids’ soccer is 6 a side (out of about 9 available), which in no way resembles a workable structure for later soccer. So, any form of learning positional play like this is awkward. Soccer is made up of defense, midfield and attack. At a minimum this requires 7 players (2 wings and a striker; a midfield player to work as a feeder, and 2 backs and a goalie.) It is essential that each player learns his positional play. This can take years to do well. It is ludicrous for a coach to expect a child to understand and be able to interpret his positional responsibilities for any position. It is just as crazy to expect them to be able to hear the coach and translate his instructions while playing a match. We can only do one thing at a time.
Secondly, and also a part of the structure, is to ensure that ‘meaning’ is clear. Positional play should be explained, with a few game principles. Rules should similarly be clearly explained by the coach or referee beforehand, and then applied consistently when playing. This teaches the structure while allowing the child to interpret and take ownership of his decisions based on his understanding. Empowering is true ‘coaching’. We don’t need to be involved in every decision they make. Micro management is not empowering and is a symptom of the control cycle, with its insidious results.
All that then remains is practicing basic skills, learning the rules and executable plays. It is as simple as that.
Managing expectations is also key in creating the right ‘culture’. So often I have seen games, perhaps with parents involved, where kids are allowed to get away with a foul or a parent is intentionally blown up for no reason. Innocent as this may seem, a child easily interprets this as the norm and starts ‘that’s not fair’ even when he is clearly in the wrong, and leas to cheating or abusing the referee. It blurs the line and creates confusion. I have experienced this first hand and it didn’t take long for the children to start complaining. The problem with this is that by doing these ‘fun’ activities, we raise unrealistic expectations. When these are not met, they can become demotivated. A good, firm ref is essential. Consistency, as with parenting, is key. If not, rules seem arbitrary, and subject to interpretation, and rejection.
A coach’s responsibilities are to empower and encourage and to offer objective feedback, relative to given instructions and guidelines. Feedback occurs after the practice. At this stage the coach will review a player’s performance. It makes sense that this is done as a team, as many corrected errors can be learned from others. This also can become self-enforcing, where players will correct each other. This allows the players to reflect and learn while not in the heat of the game. Remember that we cannot do two things at a time!
It is important to understand our basic nature, whether a child or not. We all dislike being told what to do, and even more resent being shouted at or impugned, especially where we do not feel empowered. Coaches are under an illusion if they believe that this can work as it contradicts basic psychology. The more intelligent the child, the more he will react negatively to these situations.
So, it’s time for the coaches to learn more about ‘coaching’, ensure that the players’ structure is meaningful, and empower the children to play and learn within that ‘safe’ environment in their own right. As always, our problems stem from the first quadrant of the ‘Strategic Change Cycle’, meaning, structure and culture. Apply the ‘Meganize’ principles and see the change in performance. As it is with our coaches, so it is with parents, our schools and our government .