Note: For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus heavily on some of negative interactions with one particular coach to illustrate a point. Understand that for every negative discussed here, there are far more positives that made-up my time as a player.
“It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.”
What a simple, yet profound statement.
Coaches must understand the variables and factors involved in communicating a message to a player or a team. Tone, volume, actual word choice, rate of speed, proximity, timing, and context are all important and coaches who master these elements are more effective than those governed by impulse and emotion, which are not bad but must be used carefully.
With all that being laid out…the single most important element in communicating coaching points is NOT what you say; it’s what THEY hear.
Where one player reacts positively to direct, loud, blunt communication and directives others will shrink into themselves and shut down. Some players come from a robust background of candid communication and can handle a firm verbal volley and others need the ‘arm around the shoulder’ approach off to the side. And yet there exists another subset that can’t even make eye contact (a skill, in my opinion) and only hears but can’t listen to what’s being said. Players are unpredictable, which means coaching communication needs to be predictable and consumable.
Granted, there are players who need to be more resilient, open, and receptive to hearing and being told what they don’t want to confront about their game, decision-making (another skill), and the situation. Good coaches recruit leaders within the team dynamic to pass messages on-the-fly because they understand the value of peer-to-peer learning pathways.
The following article highlights the dichotomy between good coaches that may be rough around the edges, intense beyond player understanding, forceful in their delivery yet justified in their intent and coaches who yell and pontificate for the hell of it.
My motivation for this entry is not to tell other coaches what to do, but rather to share what I’ve learned from both a lifetime playing the game and now in a role as someone coaching high-level players. Understand that not every interaction is going to be great and not every player deserves praise or to be coddled. That being said, coaches need to attempt to ‘stay in their lane’ so to speak and make sure the issues pertaining to soccer are the focus as we are developing people as well as players.
As a player, coaches had done my head in over the years. I’d been screamed at, had things thrown at me, been physically shoved, humiliated, degraded, ignored, blamed — you name it, I experienced it. Most competitive players can attest. Driven players learn to cope in different manners and don’t allow bad coaches and communicators to dictate their trajectory in the game.
One of the first times I discovered this side of competitive soccer, I was 9-years old. I was playing at the U12 level and the coach was a former pro. When you think of football’s ‘Hardman‘ archetype, this man fit the mold almost too perfectly. But he was a great coach.
It was one of those cold, late-autumn games where we were getting pummeled by both the other team and the windblown gusts of sleet stinging our faces. I can’t remember that the stakes of the game were too significant but the result didn’t matter to our coach. When we panicked, he watched in silence, his piercing gaze scanning the field from under the hood of his jacket. He was interested only in our willingness to “be brave with the ball”, to “keep it”, and to try and “play through the difficult conditions”. He didn’t want us to compromise our style or give in to the parental cacophony of shouts to “boot it” at every opportunity.
This coach knew the malaise of the game was only going to be exacerbated by the weather and the yelling that came from parents and the opposing coach, who didn’t stop screaming at his team the entire game. I was fortunate to have a good coach like this at such a young, formative time. I would go on to play for him for a few more years.
Make no mistake, his intensity was visceral. His message was always clear. We heard what he said. It seems that former pros baptized in the blood, mud, and sporting climate of an America that disregarded soccer in the 70s, 80s, and 90s were masters of direct, to-the-point communication. They were agents of the dark arts of motivation. The were disciples of discipline. This bluntness helped me and many others.
We entered the foray of competitive soccer soft and malleable and emerged each year carved of granite, armed with a resolute mentality, and charged with learning how to motivate ourselves. Have a bad first touch, you better find some time to remedy that shortcoming. Need to train more, better get after it on your day off. Yes, coaches of this ilk yelled and hammered home points to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. The big difference, however, is they knew when to shut it off.
The great coaches who are passionate about their role and who are heavily-involved with the active development of their themselves and their teams are masters of using the extreme to reveal the subtle. Therein lies a great lesson.
Juxtapose that experience with the first time I actually loathed the coach-player interaction. It wasn’t fear, but contempt that I felt for one particular coach. It was in high school in a closely-contested, heated affair against a local rival. Off in the corner, away from admins and parents, we gathered for halftime. He put his arm around me while the team gathered around and attempted to put me in a vice-gripped headlock ‘to fire me up’ in front of the other players. I twisted out of it and shoved him off me.
He got in my face.
To this day, I don’t know what possessed him to lash out like that and I don’t know how I remained composed.
I was not only his captain, but also the buffer between the players and his fury. I suppose he felt if anyone could ‘handle it’, it was me.
Just like a sappy, cliched script of a straight-to-video movie, we won that game. I scored the game winner. The black-and-white Brine ball hung in the air after their keeper punted it. As a center midfielder, my job was to win these middle-of-the-park, aerial contests. I noticed I had a few meters of space, so I opted to bring the ball down instead of heading it even though I heard the shrill voice of a seething coach yell “AWAY!”
I didn’t defy him. I just knew the right decision was to control the ball off my chest and get it on the deck to play. I could see him slam the clipboard out of the corner of my eye. Then he disappeared. Dribbling through the obstacle course of swinging legs and creating a bit of space, I found myself running through on goal. Their goalkeeper had cheated off his line. A quick glance up, a deft chip, and the ball was in the back of the net. Game over.
In the most disgusting of displays he ran up to me in celebration. I rebuked him. Tore his hands away from me. Lashed out at my teammates who swarmed me. Kicked a corner flag out of the ground. And walked off the field in an angry display.
The whole scene was a microcosm of soccer as I knew it. The collision of the good with the bad and it stood out like an oil spill. The two elements were together — occupying the same space — but they didn’t mix well. The real damage would come later when the oil tarred and tarnished everything it touched. Players took sides fearing castigation from the collective or the coach.
I knew at 16-years old that his man was at war with himself. He made self-contradiction a theatric display and often out-coached himself in a panic while failing to make any adjustments at training or during competition. Games were won because he a few actual players — not because he was a positive influence.
Truth be told, youth soccer had given way to the heightened competitive game of my teenage years. Having little-to-no options in comparison to today’s player, I learned if I wanted to play, I had to learn to deal with this clown. In so doing, I became a shadow of my vibrant self of years former — especially when coaches like this ramped up the intensity of their delivery and tried to lay siege on our emotional and mental canvases. Players who were subjected to the verbal barrage and mental warfare learned to either: shut down, shut up, and eventually, in my case, to shut it off.
The game had became robotic and players became drones. The training environment was stale. He printed his coaching plans before training or just winged it. He used an outdated coaching manual to drum up archaic drills. He trained us in learning how stand in line, kick one one another up and down the field, and to block him out and yet in the most paradoxical way, expected us to play a beautiful brand of soccer on game day.
In other words, we trained like Buffoon Town and he yet expected we play like Barcelona.
It became his game, not ours.
That same coach was known for benching players when college coaches came to recruit us. Clipboards didn’t last long with him. Neither did hats or folding chairs. The coaching role was his chance to “get his” because he was bitter about his own insecurities.
This joystick, half-hearted coaching culture still exists and I contend it produces less talented players, but even worse, less happy people.
Much of this, admittedly, sounds either all-too-familiar or horrific.
Perhaps it was, but I try not to hold grudges because it helped me develop as a person as well as a player. At least I learned how not to act and what not to do.
Look, I’m not advocating coaches don’t show emotion. Nor do I believe the coach I had represents anyone but himself. The real value of this jaunt down memory lane is about the effects and practices of great coaches.
Coaching is an art and a science. I remember the good ones didn’t express a desire for us to work hard or tackle anything that moved — their energy and the tone of their delivery made it clear that such things were expectations. They just demanded we take the field with a competitive zeal that paired with a willingness to apply what we’d trained each week.
Good [youth] coaches understood that a few things that every coach reading this ought to take stock of immediately.
- The game is not theirs; it belongs to the players.
- Players will listen to the delivery, not the message more often than not.
- If you’re shouting on the sideline come game day of a youth game, that is YOUR issue. What is happening during the week’s training that necessitates you need to help and joystick the players come game day? Figure it out.
The bad ones — the clipboard, hat-wearing, whistle-blowing, laps-lines-lectures-addicted clowns that make the game unbearable need to be called out. I’m not talking about the ones who don’t know any better and are sincerely trying their best without any significant background in the game. Nor am I targeting the coaches that are still finding out who they are as individuals and put in difficult roles.
I’m talking about the poisonous hacks plaguing far too many sidelines. I’d argue that these coaches devalue the profession and role. These ones throw tantrums on the sideline, talk about how the perceived collective failure affects them, and take credit for any success.
Egotists rule the game when hackery is rewarded.
People are focused on the wrong aspects of the game. An ugly, kick-and-run game resulting in a meaningless win is considered more important and more heavily-valued than a loss or a draw where a team tries to play what is considered a better way.
If you grew up playing in the [North] American soccer system, it’s likely you had a few bad coaches and hopefully some good ones. I suppose the same can be said about coaches everywhere. Good coaches don’t necessarily stick out or stick around as much or as long as we’d hope. They are smart and know when to cut their losses and move-on. Much like good players, they seek out the best environments to spend their time, energy, and knowledge.
The game has a way of taking more from people than it will ever give back in return. Coaching, in many ways, has become an exercise in chasing the dragon. It doesn’t have to be, but for many it is.
So, let’s return to the point of this post.
Coaching is complex. I won’t make excuses for bad coaching practices, hacks posing as coaches, and people who cheapen the discipline through copy-and-paste methods to pass off as knowledge and ingenuity.
As a coach, I’ve considered what’s really at stake when I train players and it takes me back to one of my favorite quotes from Johan Cruyff, which might serves as the ultimate lesson in humility and understanding the discipline of coaching.
“Before you can coach others first you must learn to coach yourself.”
It’s important to try to abide by a simple principle and consider how to act, react, and be proactive to best communicate with players.
I view ranting and raving to players as the ultimate grandstand. It’s effective for some but that effectiveness is lessened with frequency. More importantly, a coach’s words are not nearly as important as the message the players are receiving. This is why leadership is important to pair with coaching.
Great coaches become experts in becoming an expert (think about that one). They also recognize the importance of being present and as a result can delineate the difference between a coach who enjoys ‘being there’ and a coach who’s ‘just there’.
In any coaching dynamic, great coaches understand that there’s a difference between merely being fit for a position and being a good fit for it.
Some of the best coaches I’ve worked with, played for, or just merely observed from afar know that the key is measuring character, resolve, ability, and skill NOT when they or their players are at their best, but rather when they’re at their worst. This is a real test for many coaches.
Both players and coaches have a tendency to milk a situation for more than it is leading to false perceptions of what the actual situation really means or signifies. One game, one good or bad sequence, one season should not define a player. Framing situations in the right context is essential. Recognizing when this is happening in both one’s self and in others is critical.
In closing, great coaches treat players like rubber bands. If they are constantly stretched but not pushed to the brink, they maintain their usefulness and spring. Stretch them too much and they will snap.
featured photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@toddquackenbush