“Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone!!” – Pink Floyd
I am a big Pink Floyd fan. I love their music because of their mystic way of capturing the audience. When you watch them perform, it is a complete experience, a roller coaster of emotions. By the end of their performance, you can take away some very powerful messages. One such message is “Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone.” The message is very clear and still applicable today despite how old the song is.
In applying this to player development on match day, letting the kids play and experience the match without too much interference from the coach is very important for the learning process, especially at a young age. The players are the protagonists, not the coach, thus coaches should step back and observe. By letting the kids play, they will be able to demonstrate their personality and their skills. When players’ make their own decisions on the pitch, it will be a complete experience for them. What’s more, coaches and parents need to realize and understand that the players’ performance on match day is a reflection of what they are learning during the week at practice. If you as the coach or parent did your job during the week, you’ll see it on match day, on and off the pitch.Watch how players express themselves to understand your mistakes.
To help explain the importance of letting the kids play without too much interference, here is a story:
Hi, my name is Philip and I love to play soccer with my friends. I’m 10 years old and one day I want to play pro. My coach is very demanding and makes me run most of the time during practice because I’m talking with my friends while I’m waiting in line to do an exercise. My parents are happy with that because they say he’s teaching me discipline. While I am not a fan of all the running, my passion and love for the game help me to accept it because there is always a match on Saturday to look forward to and I enjoy playing against other teams.
Today, like the other Saturdays, I’m really nervous and excited to play the match. I eat a quick lunch and while I’m waiting for my mate Andrew outside the house I feel dizzy and suddenly I’m on my knees throwing up. My parents brought me some water, but they are concerned about me. Almost every Match day is the same; I feel sick before the match and then I’m fine, especially if we win. Despite my throwing up, I go to the match.
It’s a sunny day and I can smell the grass from the pitch from the parking lot. I’m running to the pitch with Andrew, carrying my ball and water, ready to play with him before my coach arrives. I find that playing with my teammates before the match helps me relieve some of the tension. Unfortunately, as soon as we step on the pitch we hear the coach’s voice: “Hey get off the pitch and come here. You know we don’t play before the game. You need to save your energy for the match. Come here and sit down until the rest of the team is here.” He’s probably right, but I’m getting bored. Finally the rest of the team is here and the coach starts to remind us of all the good and bad things from our practices and the last game. While he is talking, I get distracted watching the other team warm up. I then hear the coach say “Hey Philip, pay attention…give me a lap!” So, I get up and run a lap around the pitch. At least I’m doing something. During my run around the pitch I can see different things. I see parents lining up on the opposite side line, referees checking the goals, opponents doing some drills. I can see some good players on their roster. I might be facing the tall guy playing center defender but I’m not worried. He’s much bigger and taller than me, but he doesn’t have my speed. I can deal with that. While I’m going back to the bench I spot my parents shaking their head in disapproval. I feel shame and my confidence drops. I walk with my head down and the coach warns me about their striker. “He’s tall and big, you need to pay attention and don’t underestimate him. He has already scored 9 goals for their team.” Fortunately, the refs blow the whistle and it’s time to kick off. The noise around the field is massive. We can barely hear our teammates. Coaches and parents look like they are playing too. It’s so intense that my legs are shaking and in a second the big tall guy runs by me and scores. 0-1. For me, the game is over.
When I think about that moment a few years later, I regret the fact that I gave up. I didn’t react like my coach and parents were expecting me to. I don’t know if I was wrong and they were right, but I lost my passion for the game after a couple of seasons because I wasn’t able to manage the pressure. Throwing up before every game definitely didn’t help, and neither did running laps. I’m sure there are some kids that can deal with that kind of pressure, but there are so many others that are struggle like I did. As I reflected on the experience, I realized how much influence a youth coach and parents have when it comes to youth sports. This is now my motivation to become a coach. I learned from that experience; I learned how I don’t want to coach!
Like Philip, I don’t want to be that kind of coach. As a coach, I’m there on match day to absorb the pressure for my players and to help them perform their best. I’m also there to help them focus their emotions on having fun and learning as much as they can from the game, as soon as they step on the pitch. Here is my approach for each stage of the match to achieve these goals:
Warm up: I usually do a completely different warm up every match based on the players’ feelings and attitude that day. Sometimes I run an activity we did during the week, sometimes we just play a 3vs3, and other times I ask them questions about their life, goals, etc. to help them feel more relaxed.
Match: During a match, I prefer to guide the players to maintain their shape, help them communicate with each other, and help them share responsibilities. On the pitch, my goalkeeper is helping the center defender, the center defender helps the midfielder, and so on to the front of the formation. When it comes to substitutions, most of the time they are determined before the match, based on the progression formation. I like to organize the players’ position for the whole season and I prefer they play 3-4 games in a row in the same position. I do this because they need time to adjust their skills while playing in a new position. This allows them to be confident and demonstrate their skills when in a new position.
Half time: I find that a pep talk during half time is helpful in getting them to share their emotions and share their point of view regarding the first half. I guide the conversation to channel and redirect any negative comments that are made into something positive that we can do on the pitch. In managing this conversation I have only one rule; when someone is talking, everybody else is listening and can only speak when their teammate is done. If done consistently, you’ll see that after a few games they start to communicate more often and efficient on the field as well. As I mentioned previously, this is their moment to fully express themselves.
Bench players: Another important thing I do during the match is ask the bench players to keep track of their teammates’ performance. Every player on the bench has a teammate to scout, filling out a piece of paper that we call ‘individual performance’. For example, they are asked to write every time their teammate completed a pass, had a successful control, or intercepted a ball.
In the end, remember that the ultimate goal when coaching youth is to be there for them. While your approach may be different, I’d like to remind you to “leave them kids alone.”
Written by Matteo Curioni
UEFA A Licence
Academy Coach at Dundee FC