Donnybrook Football Club. Donnybrook, D4.

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Stop yelling instructions from the side lines. 

by Scott Pugh.


As parents and coaches, we need to be courageous enough to allow our children to fail.

Most of us would agree the goal of youth soccer should be to develop players to fulfil their best potential while fostering a love of the sport that will keep them playing into adulthood, if they so choose. Many coaches and parents will pay lip service to the idea that “it’s not important who wins the game, the most important thing is that they learn and have fun,” yet their actions often contradict these principles.

Pay attention the next time you’re around a youth soccer match. Observe how coaches and parents act differently depending on the score line. Listen to the chorus of “Pass! Shoot it! Move up! Be aggressive! Not in the middle!” When the score is close, the volume ramps up, but once a team is three or four goals ahead, both sides, resigned to the outcome, relax. If learning and fun were the main objective, why would we act differently when the “game is on the line.” The high-pressured, screaming-laden game I described in the first part of this series is unfortunately not uncommon.

So why do we act this way?

As a parent, I’m starting to realize that, as much as I know intellectually about the consequences of parent’s behaviour on the side lines, I’m already finding it hard to stay calm during my son’s games. Like all parents, I want my child to do well. I want him to enjoy soccer, and I don’t want him to feel embarrassed or upset if he doesn’t perform well. I’m also concerned about what other parents or coaches might think of me based on my child’s play. If he tries a flashy piece of skill will they think I didn’t teach him to share properly? What if he’s a little overly aggressive, or overly passive? What does that say about me as a parent?

Such feelings — and many parents experience them — are referred to by psychologists as the “reverse dependency trap,” and it can lead to our emotions taking precedence over what is best for our children.

As a result, we shout instructions in an attempt to save our children from their mistakes. However, research shows we actually cause them to play worse, while also significantly diminishing their learning and enjoyment of the sport.

Coaches are often under similar psychological stress. While many understand that side line instruction can be detrimental, they are also under pressure from some parents. Uninformed parents and coaches think they need to be “side line generals,” directing play like Premier League Managers on television. They do not believe they should  just sit quietly and let the kids make mistakes because if they intervene and direct the kids, they can improve the chances of their team winning. 

It shouldn't be all about Winning.


“Pass it!”

Let’s consider an example:

Suzie is dribbling into the attacking third. A defender approaches to tackle the ball while her teammate, Annie, is wide open to her right. A parent shouts, “Pass it to Annie!” Suzie dutifully complies, leading to a goal for Annie.

Good job, right?

Wrong.

What just happened? By directing Suzie, the parent didn’t allow her to use her active decision-making skills. She doesn’t get to fire those circuits in her brain that allow her to think quickly under pressure. Moreover, the coach just lost a great opportunity to evaluate how far Suzie has developed in her game understanding. Perhaps Suzie had been working on a new piece of skill and was prepared to take on the defender 1 on 1. The abilities to make decisions quickly and to attack in 1-on-1 situations are two of the most critical skills that separate successful soccer players from the rest, and we just robbed Suzie of the opportunity to develop them both.

And yet some would argue, “But we just scored and beat our crosstown U-10 rivals!”


“Play smarter”

Let’s consider another example:

Timmy is playing defence for his U-11 team. While under significant pressure from an opposing player, Timmy attempts to play back to his goalkeeper. He mishits the ball and the attacker intercepts and scores.

There are two ways a coach could handle this situation.

Coach A shouts “Timmy! What are you doing? We don’t play with it in the back!” and pulls him from the game to continue emphasizing this point on the bench in front of his teammates so that everyone remembers to not “play with it in the back.” After the game, he reminds the team about Timmy’s mistake again and encourages the team to “play smarter” next week.

Coach B stays calm. He claps briefly and says to his team, “Don’t worry guys, keep working.” At halftime, he pulls Timmy aside and says, “That was a good idea to play back to the goalie when you were under pressure, but you got unlucky. What could you have done differently?” Timmy thinks for a second and says, “I should have stayed more calm and concentrated on following through the centre of the ball with my pass like we worked on in practice.” The coach replies, “Bingo! Way to go. Next time you’re in the same situation, I want you to try that pass again.”

Now, which coach leaves Timmy feeling more confident about his play? Which one allows him the freedom to try difficult skills and develop his game further? Which coach will he enjoy playing for and be more willing to learn from? And which coach is more likely to lead Timmy to conclude that he’s not very good at soccer and pass on next year’s try outs?

The research is clear that shouting from the side lines during a match is counterproductive to our real goals.

Trevor Brooking is responsible for the development of England’s youth players as the Technical Director for FA. He describes how Manchester United has evolved: “The philosophy is to let them discover it themselves. The old vision of the coach shouting do this or do that has gone. What they have realized at United is the best coaching for youngsters is about standing back.”

This theory is supported by the research of Rianne Kannekens, who demonstrated that players who are allowed to develop superior decision-making skills in their formative years are the ones who progress the farthest in the sport.

As parents and coaches, we need to be courageous enough to allow our children to fail. Remember, mistakes are the currency of learning. By constantly directing young soccer plays during a game, we limit their abilities to think creatively for themselves and pressure them to avoid mistakes at all costs.

Ultimately, we create robotic and unimaginative players, precisely the kind the rest of the world criticizes us for on the international level.

But more importantly, we create children uninspired by the game, and we drive far too many of them to quit playing.

That is inexcusable. We need to do better.




No coaching from parents during matches helps develop creative footballers? 

by Mike Nicholson.


I strongly believe that in order to develop creative players of the future, something that England has been pretty dire at achieving over the past few decades, you need to give players the freedom to make their own decisions.

Of course during training sessions you teach them how to make better decisions and players can then improve their decision-making through repetition over time, but during the game, I don’t shout instructions while the ball is rolling. Occasionally I might call out with some questions or instructions while there is a break in play, but I try my best to never do so while the ball is rolling.

Some of the most creative players on the world stage today grew up playing street football. No adults making the rules. No rigid ‘if this happens then do this’ instructions. Just play. Trial and error. Improvisations. Messi, Aguero, Suarez … this list is long and compelling.

Rene Muelensteen put it simply while he was in charge of youth development and the academy at Manchester United when he said “footballers cannot learn how to make their own decisions if they are used to receiving instruction from the touchline.” In an interview with the daily Telegraph Muelensteen said that at the Manchester United academy, parents are asked to sign a contract that says they will not shout out during coaching sessions, and that the Manchester United coaches do not shout instructions while the ball is rolling.

I am glad to say that at academies this ‘no coaching from parents’ is standard practice these days, but in grass roots football in England we still have a culture in which parents and coaches shout out a stream of instructions while young players are trying to concentrate on the game, and that leads some to observe that grass roots youth football matches can appear to be like ‘Playstation for dads’ with the parents holding the controller and the kids running around according to instructions.

So many England internationals from the past 30 years have grown to become more functional than creative, and the fact that I have to hark back to players like Hoddle and Gascoigne to remember truly creative, unpredictable, England players is a concern for English football. This rigid, predicable footballer is a product of the coaching they received when they were young. Its great to see this changing in professional academies, but there are still far too many ‘touchline tigers’ pacing up and down next to youth football matches at grass roots level.

So how can grass roots coaches help? As a youth coach you are of course aiming to be a positive influence on the young players in your care, but no matter how well you do as a coach the parents will usually and understandably be the most important influence on the young player.

With that in mind I think it is so, so important that the lines of communication are constantly open between the coach and parents. I see parents as a part of our team. I think that to create the environment you want that you need to ensure it is communicated clearly to the parents. It is much easier to build a positive learning environment for the players if the parents and coach work together, but sadly many coaches don’t feel that the coaching they deliver is any of the parents business. I am of the view that the opposite is true, and I regularly write to the parents of my players to keep them updated on what we are practicing, why, and how they can help if applicable. The no coaching rule is a part of that two-way communication.

Football is an emotive game, and often as a parent or a coach you will see an opportunity that the kids playing do not see, so keeping quiet can be really difficult for some. You might feel compelled to shout out to a player to adjust their position, or tell them to pass, shoot or whatever. The urge is understandable, I appreciate that, but the result of that action is that you short-circuit the players own decision-making in the short-term and it is more difficult for the coach to gauge deeper, longer-term learning.

I have seen games where the coach is constantly screaming instructions at the kids who are trying to focus on the game, and on the other side of the pitch there are many parents shouting their own instructions. It is ridiculously confusing for the kids to receive multiple instructions from the adults, and most importantly, it can stop them from making their own decisions if they become used to receiving instructions form the coach or parents.

Before the players in my team were even selected for the squad, I wrote to all parents with a message that said if their child was selected, they would be expected to abide by the team rules which state that we do not allow parents to shout instructions from the sidelines. Once I had selected the players I wrote to the parents of the kids in question once again to say that their child had a place, but subject to the strict rule above. I believe it is that important to the long-term development of the players. I have only had to speak to one