Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reflections of a Newbie Youth Soccer Coach

This past weekend, my sons' youth soccer seasons ended. My oldest practiced and played in a division for 5- and 6-year-old kids, and I assisted his head coach. My youngest practiced in a division for 3- and 4-year-old kids, and I was the head coach of his team. I wanted to write up some thoughts about the seasons from a coach's point of view. As you read these, if they sound more like parenting advice, there's a reason for that: many times over the course of the season, I noticed (and noted to others) parallels between coaching to parenting. I found that many of the basic principles commonly applied in one role remain valid and useful in the other. Mind you, I'm certainly no expert coach. Not by a long shot. (For that matter, I'm no expert parent, either.) But these are some of my observations, and I'm hoping that perhaps something here resonates with other folks who — like me at when this year began — have never coached at all.

Teams are best built atop friendship

An observation I made at during the Spring soccer season was that by the middle of the season, the players on the team I was helping to coach (which, as in the Fall season, consisted of 5- and 6-year-old boys and girls) still didn't know each others' names. This bothered me deeply, because at a minimum it meant that the players couldn't communicate effective to or about each other. But it also meant that somewhere between showing how to dribble a soccer ball and how to perform a proper throw-in, we as coaches had overlooked the simple fact that children are social beings. My son has a distinct “cautious observer" personality type. Until he's comfortable around his peers, he'd rather just watch to see if it's safe to engage. Not even knowing your peers' names does not encourage comfortability.

This season, we as coaches worked to remedy this problem up front. A helpful parent took a team photo, and we labeled it with each child's name, had Wal-mart print up enough copies for everyone, and distributed them. During practices we often encouraged the players to cheer for each other by name. The result was noticeable (to me, at least). There was much more of a team spirit on the field and off, and sometimes it was actually difficult to get my son away from the fields because he was having so much fun playing stuff other than soccer with his friends after practices and games.

What's my point? People matter — more so than winning, more so than ball control skills, more so than anything else at all. (Unfortunately, I fail to remember this critical truth myself sometimes — both on and off the field of play — much to my own embarrassment and the detriment of valued relationships.)

"Fundamentals" begins with "fun"

The assistant coaches on my youngest boy's team were amazing. One of them was introduced to me as a guy with a ton of soccer-related creds. Quite honestly, I was a bit intimated by this fact. But if there's one thing that he and the other coach taught me this year, it was that if the kids aren't having fun, it doesn't matter how well they can kick and throw a ball. What good is teaching good dribbling if at season's end the kids say, "Soccer's a drag — count me out"? For kids at this age, fun is closely tied to many things:

  • avoiding repetition — no child can tolerate doing the same thing for long periods of time. Mix it up a bit, Coach.

  • avoiding down-time — It only takes a few moments of waiting in line before a young child times out. You can almost watch as their attention span threshold is reached, and then away their little minds go, off to La-la Land. If you can, avoid line waits and repetition by splitting the team into smaller groups at various stations of differing activities.

  • simple rewards, oft-given — I was introduced last season to these little 1" iron-on motivational patches with pictures of soccer balls in various colors, stars, etc. We gave each kid that showed up at practice and stayed for the duration one of these patches. Kids respond positively to the promise of even simple rewards like that, or the promise of playing a favorite game at the end of practice. As it turns out, they don't mind trying harder when trying harder is fun.

  • team spirit — This season the teams were allowed to choose their own team names. My oldest boy's team chose the "Soccer Monsters". I wasn't so thrilled by the name, but nonetheless spent a few evenings designing a team logo just for kicks. The other coaches and parents loved it, and by the end of the season that logo showed up on 3" iron-on embroidered patches, stickers, a vinyl signboard for the parental cheering section, and even a sheet cake! Everyone loved the "brand" we built around the Soccer Monster name. And repeatedly the coaches and parents reinforced not just the value of individual contributors, but also the value of the team as a whole. The stereotype of the coach's kid who gets all the attention was completely absent — every child took his or her turn on the bench in every game; every child got a chance to play every position on the field over the course of the season; and every child gracefully dealt (most of the time) with being asked to do something that wasn't their favorite thing because it would benefit the team.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the other coaches and parents who routinely helped to make soccer fun for my kids and their peers.

Never underestimate a child's potential

If you had told me what I would be seeing some of my 5- and 6-year-old players doing at game time at the beginning of the season, I would have laughed in disbelief. While many other teams were playing "bunch ball" (all the kids swarming around the ball like so many angry bees), ours entered even their first games with an understanding of the various positions, their roles in those positions, and the importance of performing in their roles instead of just roaming around the field without a purpose. By season's end, I was finding that the kids could handle some game play maneuvers that I thought were pretty complex, such as one defender falling back to help the goalie when the other needed to head off an approaching attacker. I found myself often saying in disbelief things like "But these kids are only six years old!" and "But this is his/her first season of soccer!"

One of the other teams had a kid who, despite being one of the smallest players in the division, had amazing ball control and the sweetest little slide tackle you ever saw. And you didn't see many, because I think he's the only kid who attempted them in this age group. Every time he did (our team played against his team twice) I smiled a huge smile and thought (or said aloud) "That's awesome!" His dad was his coach, too, but when asked him about his kid's skill, he indicated that it was self-developed. Call me naïve, but that's amazing to me.

Now maybe these are just exceptionally talented children. But I have to believe that the key to this phenomenon is to never stop asking more of the players. At any given moment, a particular player is going to have a great grasp of some concepts and skills, a pretty good approach to others, be relatively weak at still more, and have never been introduced to the rest. Keep a sliding window of instruction with those kids so that they are always trying stuff they are likely to fail at along with the stuff that they do with grace and ease. What other self-developed skills are hiding inside our children just waiting for us to affirm them into the mainstream? What other skills are they ready to learn but can't because we underestimate their chances of success? This leads me to my next point.

Failure can be the best instruction

Instruction is extremely important. There is always something else to learn, develop, or improve, so ideally instruction never stops. The Harrisburg Youth Soccer program is a decidedly instructional league, favoring instruction to competition in an attempt to develop well-rounded players who love the game enough to play competitively at older ages (when they can emotionally handle serious competition). But instruction without the freedom to try and fail is stifling.

If every time one of my sons reaches for a glass of water on the table I criticize how fast he's reaching, whether he's planning to use one or both hands, whether he looks to be picking up the glass or sliding it between all the other obstructions on the table surface, and so on — if I micromanage his every move, he learns exactly one thing: the way Dad wants stuff done. Not taught in those moments is the most valuable lesson of all: why Dad prefers that approach. My son doesn't understand that it's Dad's experience with the physics of our Universe that leads him to prefer a particular approach to drinking from a glass. And he never will until he experiences some of that physics himself.

Now, I'm not saying that there's no value in that type of instruction. Certainly the opposite extreme of never sharing your own experiences with kids and leaving them to learn solely from their own experiences is just an abdication of parental responsibility — inefficient, unloving, and sometimes downright dangerous. But an absolutely critical aspect to any learning situation is experience, and specifically experience failing. Kids don't need protection from everyday failures because everyday failures teach some of the strongest lessons more quickly and more thoroughly than constant hand-holding ever can. Kids need a safe place to experience those failures, reassurance that in failing at a task they haven't failed as people, and encouragement to get up and try again.

By the end of our soccer season, the majority of our kids knew how to perform nearly any action that would likely be asked of them during a game. Early in the season, we hand-held. We did our jobs as coaches and taught them the finely detailed mechanics of these actions. But as the season progressed, we gradually shifted to a model of letting the kids make their own decisions and deal with the consequences. And if one of them messed up and did something incorrectly, both the player and the attempt were affirmed as valuable.

In the free software world, this is similar to way that new project members are often brought on board. First, a would-be project member submit patches for the software — technical descriptions of how the software should be changed to add a feature or fix a bug. The patches are reviewed by existing project members for accuracy and efficient, for attention to the rules of the project, and so on. If the patch meets the standards, it is committed (by an existing member) as a change to the software itself. If it doesn't, the patch is sent back with recommendations on doing it better. Over time, a talented developer will submit better and better patches the first time around, earning the trust of his or her mentors. And at some magical point, the mentors realize that it's no longer worthwhile for them to pay both the cost of reviewing the work and of then actually committing it on behalf of the patch submitter when instead they could let the submitter commit his or her changes first and then receive review afterwards. As coaches, our goal should be to progressively transition each child from a model of pre-emptive review (at significant cost in valuable time) and into one of post-facto review (which is far more efficient and allows the kids to celebrate victories they've earned for themselves).

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