I have attended many soccer games throughout my career and I have learned a lot from the school of hard knocks. In this post, I want to share some of the tips I have learned from experience, as well as some tips I have learned from other coaches.
Hopefully, you can learn from these tips and this will help your coaching during game day.
Arrive at least 45 minutes before a game, so you can get everything set up and handle player issues. Also, you can discuss with assistant coaches what the plan is. Some coaches walk the field beforehand to get an idea of the playing conditions. What are the field and weather like? Is it windy? Is it wet? Where is the sun shining? This might change the game tactics if the fields are different from what you expected. Consider introducing yourself to the referees and opposing coaches if time is permitting.
Once players arrive, you can dedicate all your attention to them since you were able to handle the rest of the to-do list before they showed up. Now you can get them ready to play.
Games require a certain level of physical and mental organization to be successful. Before coming to the game, there are a number of things to figure out such as starting lineup, substitutions, equipment, etc. Work some other options into your plan as injuries, sickness or unexpected things will require game-time decisions.
Especially in younger and recreational leagues, commitment might not be as strong as competitive teams. This is why it might be useful to pack extra shin guards and balls into your bag as players forget. Players will have other obligations and they don’t show. With a plan in place, this helps reduce the amount of stress you will feel.
Experiment with Pre-game Routines
Successful teams have a pre-game routine to prepare the mind and body for battle. This includes a warm-up and pre-game chat. For an article on warm-up drills for all ages, check out this article.
Young athletes learn a lot from having a routine and sticking to it. Consistency, discipline, preparation are life skills every child should learn and youth sports is a great vehicle to teach them.
Another advantage of pre-game routines is avoiding wasting time when players arrive for game day. They aren’t waiting for your instruction and there are no surprises. You will need to experiment with this as different age groups and skill levels require varied approaches. One example is U6 players come to a pre-game routine and work on dribbling in a straight line. Given their age, there is only so much to do. While if you have a U14 team, you can incorporate a small-sided game to warm-up for competition. You will also want a separate pre-game routine for your goalkeeper. If you are at a loss, start with the fundamentals. This article will give you plenty of ideas. Check it out here.
Get feedback from the players on what they were thinking and feeling. Some activities will work better than others. Introduce a pre-game routine during a practice session to get some repetitions to create more consistent and confident players.
Games are a great place to put your practice sessions lessons into action. It is best to keep the themes to a minimum. Have two or three objectives for players to focus on during the game like be the first to the ball and one-touch passes. One technique is to let the players choose what they want to focus on or choose captains before the game to get the team excited. Player involvement reinforces your points. Simplicity is key.
Try not to introduce new concepts on gameday. This is what training sessions are used for. Without context or practice, it is very difficult to implement without practicing. It is easier to tweak small adjustments. As I’ve learned, my mind remembers best in threes. If you can make it memorable by using an acronym, the easier it is kids to hold onto.
Let Players Make Decisions
There is a tendency of coaches to try to play the game for their players. This is called joysticking the game. If you have coached enough teams, you have encountered this person. They use their voice as a video game controller. They are usually ultra-competitive and focused only on winning the game. Typically, they get very frustrated and upset because they are trying to control the uncontrollable.
This type of coach is one of the worst because it takes away the ability for the players to think for themselves. If you are too aggressive in your coaching, players will rely on you for everything in fear of doing something wrong. They don’t learn to play the game.
Soccer should be a player’s first game. What does that mean? Coaches have little control of the game. Players enjoy a lot of freedom to make decisions since the game clock doesn’t stop. If you compare association football (soccer) to American football, you know what I am talking about. After every play, the team regroups and receives the next play from the coaches on what to do next. In soccer, they don’t have stoppages and are forced to learn quickly from their mistakes.
Self-discovery is one of the most powerful lessons in youth sports. Kids get to see the result of their actions in real-time. This is a satisfying feeling. We as coaches need to give the players the space to connect with this feeling. Through this freedom, they find their style and best ways to play. Some of the best footballers in the world played futsal in the streets. No coaches were present, and it allowed creativity to flourish.
Give Appropriate Feedback
One of the biggest impacts a coach can have is delivering timely feedback. Feedback is either positive or negative. Studies show that people and children respond better to positive feedback better than negative. Kids are smart. They know when they made a mistake. A common mistake I see among coaches and parents is they yell at players who make the wrong decision. Yelling or scolding their mistakes causes embarrassment.
Feedback can be delivered directly or as a guided question. During live play at a game, I prefer direct, positive feedback because there isn’t much time. A player needs to focus on the game and doesn’t have much time to listen. Straight to the point feedback seems to be most effective.
When the ball isn’t in play, use guided questions for self-discovery. An example of this would be for a player that keeps losing possession to the opponent. Instead of giving her direct feedback, you can ask a question to allow her to find the answer. You may ask, “what are some ways for you to keep possession?”. Allow her to come up with the solutions and you can nudge in the right direction. Learning is best when they connect their mistake with the solution in their own words.
Respect Game Officials
I’m sure you have seen when the coach goes off on a ref for a bad call. Bad calls are apart of the game. As a coach, you have to respect the game officials. The Laws of the Game require everyone including parents to respect their decisions. They have the power to run the game as they see fit. Yelling or arguing doesn’t change this. The best coaches ignore the referees during the match. Control the things you can control.
In youth games, it is common to have young, inexperienced referees who might be unconfident in their play-calling ability. Some coaches see this as an opportunity to manipulate the official. While tempting, this doesn’t help your players develop. It is a distraction from the main responsibilities of a coach. Just remember parents and players are watching you at all times. If players see you yelling at the referee, they could start too. Now players are focused on the referee’s calls instead of winning the game. Let the referees do their job and you focus on yours.
If the play calling is so bad that you can’t keep quiet about it, handle it outside of the game with league afterward. No solution will get resolved during the game. And check out this article we wrote on game officials.
Give Every Player Attention
Staying focused during a game can be challenging. All players and the gameplan all need to be managed simultaneously. In most youth and recreational leagues, there is only one coach for upwards of fifteen or more players. Think of yourself as a conductor to an orchestra. Plenty of people are looking to you for direction and guidance. Each musician has a role in the success of the performance. Coaching a soccer team is similar.
But, it is easy to forget to focus on every player. Let’s go back to our conductor example. Say he decides to only give direction to the trumpet players and ignores the rest of the orchestra. This would produce poor results. During game day, give all players attention and guidance if they need it. There is a natural tendency among coaches to focus solely on the best players. People want to associate with the best and forget the rest. Look for teaching moments for all players. Just be aware of all your player’s development. Some coaches give all direction to one or two players while treats others like soldiers to support the best players.
Fun happens when you are staying in the moment and not taking yourself too seriously. If the game becomes too important, you are putting too much pressure on yourself. Once you get in your head about the game, you take yourself out of the moment. More mistakes happen when you are nervous thinking through everything. Trust in all the preparation and work you put in.
Coaching should be enjoyable for you and your players. If you really want to be the best coach, then you have to stay present, enjoy yourself, embrace the challenges of a game, and have fun throughout the entire process. And if you don’t win every game, who cares? Most youth players are more excited to be competing and playing than the scoreboard.
Don’t Be Silent
On the opposite of the joystick coach is the silent coach. Silent coaches sit back and watch the game. During halftime, they make a few adjustments. Otherwise, they are mute. They are almost invisible on the sidelines, you’d think it was a pick-up game. While this is definitely more acceptable than the joystick, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Coaches have an important role during the game. They can give motivation in times of need. They can pick up the team spirit when a goal was just scored. When you are working out and someone is there pushing you, do you work harder? Of course, you do! We all do and this is the power of a coach. Coaches make us believe in ourselves in ways we don’t see ourselves.
Furthermore, they can make player adjustments that allow players to see opportunities they otherwise didn’t see. Coaches assist teams in wins. Just because the game is player focused doesn’t mean a coach is useless. Be the motivating, self-controlled, communicative coach that your players want and desire!
FSW – Food, Sleep, Water
Kids will be kids. Meaning they will stay up late, eat junk food, and drink soda if they are allowed to. When I was younger, I would always eat sugary and salty treats as soon as I got home from school and practice. While I expect this, it puts the team at a big disadvantage for games. Sleepy, dehydrated, and poorly fed kids won’t play at their highest level. No different than me at work or coaching.
During the post-practice chat before the game. Remind players and parents to get plenty of sleep, eat healthy food, and drink plenty of fluids before game day. Coaches can only do so much so you will need the buy-in from your parents as soon as possible. Communicate. During out of town tournaments, advise parents to arrive the night before even if it costs another hotel room. Recently, we had a tournament three and a half hours away and our first game was at 8 am. One would have to get up at 3 am to get to the pregame routine on time. Remind them before every game to get everyone mentally and physically prepared to play their best game.
Post Game Chats Should Be Brief
After a game, keep the post-game chat brief. Players are exhausted. Depending on the age, they ran around for 45 minutes plus. After a long day’s worth of work, do you want to spend twenty minutes listening to your boss? Not me, I want to go home. The same goes for your players. Quickly go over the game as well as the positives and areas for improvement. End on a high note so players feel good. Then turn them loose to their parents.
Take the room for improvement points into planning your upcoming training session. At the next practice, players will be refreshed and ready to work. Some people love the sound of their own voice. Cut to the chase for everyone’s benefit.
As the British WWII motivational poster said, keep calm and carry on. Regardless of the situation, keeping a level head is the best tactic to manage the game. Refs will make bad calls. Parents will interrupt your flow. Players will make costly mistakes. This is to be expected.
When you are calm, you will make better decisions and your players will as well. They look to you in tough times for guidance. Players feed off the coach’s energy. People think that emotionally charged means passion. It doesn’t. One can be passionate and calm. Have you ever had a teacher that fired you up without screaming at you? I know I have.
This will also help you have more fun. When you don’t let your emotions run wild, you can enjoy yourself more. I have friends that scream at the tv during games. If their team loses, they are stressed and upset the day after. Calm brings the best aspects of coaching out while
Use reflection at the end of each game. This helps organize your thoughts and prepare for the upcoming week. Each game should update your plan and strategy for the team. Here is a list of questions that you can use to ask yourself:
- What went well?
- Why did it go well?
- What did we focus on?
- What could we improve on?
- How could we improve it?
- Did last week’s practice session prepare the team for the game?
Reflection is the input for feedback. Through reflection, you become a better coach as you can adjust the plan as needed. Most coaches don’t go into reflection about the game and continue to make the same mistakes as the week before. Great coaching requires reflection and planning.
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