Coaching soccer is as much about what you see as it is about what you say
| 5 min read
After a week-long soccer coaching course, I had to lead a final mini practice to earn my diploma. Test day, finally. Despite my nerves, I found my groove, enthusiastically praising my players and sharing my knowledge, breaking down proper shooting technique in detail.
I passed the test and received my certification. But I remember the constructive criticism most clearly: Don’t talk so much.
Oof. My enthusiasm (and ego) had taken over.
Indeed, from the greenest to the most experienced coaches, over-coaching is commonplace. We fill the space because we’re excited, or we want to impart all of our wisdom at once. Or because we’ve had too much coffee.
But talking too much gets in the way of your player’s development (and yours, as a coach). As Ruben Nieves from the Positive Coaching Alliance puts it, “What takes the fun out of sports? Sitting and listening to an adult talk. For long periods of time. Players get better by doing, not by listening.”
As a youth rec coach and a former Division III soccer and track coach, I’ve learned – again and again – why talking too much is both a fun-killer and a barrier to better coaching. Here’s why.
Probably not. At least not during games.
Game play is chaotic. Fans are cheering, opponents are talking, there’s a lawnmower across the street, the other coach is instructing, and oop, there goes an airplane.
It’s extremely likely your players won’t, or can’t, hear you.
If you have a wordy message (and by wordy, more than four words), save it for the sideline or halftime. Also, try to be less wordy! The best way to do that is to focus on observing your team and players.
Acclaimed Manchester United soccer coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, told the Harvard Business Review, “What you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable… Seeing a change in a player’s habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allows me to go further with him.”
As Ferguson notes, there’s a lot beyond techniques and tactics for coaches to observe and follow up on.
If you know the sport you’re coaching, great. You’ll know what to watch for and how to give specific feedback. If you don’t know the game well, watching is also learning.
The more you watch your players in action, the more you’ll get to know each of them and their specific needs. Give that weight.
When a coach is less familiar with the technical or tactical aspects of a sport, the best thing they can do is teach and give feedback on generalizable sport (and people) skills.
In fact, US lacrosse offers their coaches a breakdown of athlete development by age, which provides coaches areas to focus on at various ages and stages of development. Up until the age of 12, the emphasis is on fun, trying new skills, exploring the game and sportsmanship.
Even if you know nothing about lacrosse, you can certainly tackle (pun intended) those objectives.
And the Positive Coaching Alliance offers a download for Positive Charting, which is an easy-to-use rubric for noting individual players’ development. For example, if you are focusing on exploring the game, you might write down when a player tries something new. Later, you can share that with them and offer praise. It’s as simple as that.
Players learn by doing. We all do.
“Modern sports training for coaches emphasizes playing the game, across all sports and levels,” says Nieves. “Find a way to get them to play the game, and just observe.”
Once your players are engaged in an activity, let it play out for a while. Think 5-6 minutes for younger players and 8-10 for older players. After the allotted time, stop the play.
Now, you really have their attention. Your voice matters. What did they notice? What did you notice?
No pressure. Just keep it simple, ask good questions, listen and share a few observations. Quality feedback is essential to growth, so focus on the areas you really know – even if they aren’t sport-specific. What would happen if you spent an entire season focused on emphasizing the actions of a good sport and having fun? Or really digging into the one area of basketball, dribbling, you know well?
The game teaches so much. But only if you let it.