Staying Cool and Getting Clean

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Roy Dunshee is a college and NSCAA staff coach. Below is a blog he wrote regarding the behavior of soccer coaches. 

The game was getting a bit heated.  U-9 boys’ soccer games are not supposed to be heated.  They are supposed to be fun.  A heated youth soccer game is a recipe for disaster.  But here we were…a new team in our first competitive match in a very good travel league and the score was locked at 5-5 with just a few minutes remaining.  One of my first tasks as coach had been to meet with the parents about how to bottle the anxiety that comes with watching your little boy in competitive circumstances.  We all agreed that we would let them play and have fun and we would not get too worked up.  And in this first competitive match the parents and supporters were all well behaved.

The opposition was fair and hard working.  Our boys were putting in a terrific effort and there was a great cut and thrust to the game.  There should be joy at such an event rather than anxiety.  But we all felt it.  We all wanted our first experience as a team to be positive.  And although we could take many positives away from a tie or even a loss after such an effort, we all wanted to win.

I did my best to temper my emotions during the game.  I have preached development over results for as long as I can remember.  But there was no escaping my inner combatant.  My exterior was calm and focused but my insides burned for a good result.  With the score locked and the clock winding down, any moment could be the sequence that turned the game.  The slightest mistake could mean our downfall and the smallest piece of brilliance could usher in triumph.  I was cool on the outside but inside I was a bundle of nerves.  I needed a moment of clarity to help me relax and it arrived in a most unlikely way.

I’ve encountered many troubling coaches and parents in my journey through youth soccer.  And the root of all this trouble is almost always an overwhelming desire to win.  This desire springs from a variety of places both good and evil.  For some it springs from unfulfilled dreams or insecurities.  For others it springs from the misguided notion that the results of a U-6 soccer game will somehow define a child’s self esteem…or a parent’s self esteem for that matter.  It may also be hard-wired into competitive people for reasons passing understanding.  But when parents and coaches put winning first, it can be very damaging to player development both on and off the field.

Among the more heinous examples of competitiveness gone amuck was the case of a particular undefeated team.  They were U-10 and had been together since U-7 without ever losing a game.  So important was this distinction that the coach began to fear losing to the point of distraction.  In a very closely played game (against a team they had previously beaten by 8 goals) the undefeated coach boiled-over.  Clinging to a one-goal lead and coming under pressure with the clock winding down, the undefeated team conceded a throw-in.  The ball rolled just beyond where the parents of the undefeated team had parked their chairs.  A thoughtful mom leapt to retrieve the ball for the opponents only to be screamed at by their coach from across the field.  “Don’t get the ball for them.  Make them get the ball.  Leave the ball alone”.  The mom hesitated for a moment and then, to her great credit, remembered she was watching nine year olds play a game and did the courteous thing in spite of the coach’s loud objection.  The undefeated coach defended his actions on the grounds that “any other coach would have done the same thing”.  If this is true then surely I want another job.

I don’t believe it is true that any other coach would have done the same thing.   It is unwise to scream time-wasting advice across a field as the referee has every right to add that time on to the end of the game.  Therefore no advantage is gained and the nuance of gamesmanship is lost.  BUT THAT IS HARDLY THE POINT!  The point is we are modeling behavior for children.  Is this the right behavior to model?  Don’t be a courteous mom/fan because there is a very small chance that it might give ever so slight an advantage to the opponents.  Are we really willing to sacrifice our dignity, our civility and our manners in such a public way and in front of our children simply to gain a slight edge in a trifling contest?  And further, are we willing to drag others down with us by screaming at them from fifty yards away?  What drives coaches to such extremes?

The fact that this team had never lost a game was most certainly a contributing factor.  The distinction had become a burden.  The team put such an emphasis on winning that they stood to lose too much if they failed to win.  They would lose their identity.  But if young players never lose, they never get challenged correctly, they never learn the lessons that only come from a defeat and they never learn how to deal with a loss emotionally.  And they don’t get pushed to a higher level of play.

Rather than focusing on winning, the enlightened coach will focus on effort.  It the players are giving all they can then positive results will follow and there can never be regret.  Asking players to compete is much different than demanding that players win.  Winning is often beyond the control of the players but competing is not.  Value the effort and the journey and the players will value them too and development will take flight.  Value winning alone and you set the team up for a mighty fall…. because there is always a better team waiting to spoil the party.  And playing for results rather than for development inhibits the cultivation of creativity that is essential to growth.  To grow one must take risks and inevitably fail before one succeeds.  If failure is not an option then neither is risk and neither is growth.

So what was my moment of clarity in our thrilling inaugural U-9 match from the beginning of this story?  Recall that we were tied at five with just minutes remaining and everyone was tense but acting on our best behavior.  With the battle pitched back and forth and the adults doing everything in our power to behave in a manner that belied our anxiousness, the moment arrived.  The moment that reminded me that all my preaching about effort over results had been correct; that I needed to take some of my own advice.  As I focused more and more intently on team shape and counter-attacking dangers, one of my players asked a most important question as he made his way off the field and onto the bench for a break: “Coach, do I need to take a shower when I get home or can I go straight into the hot tub?”   “Well, Jonah” I responded, “I suppose you ought check with your Mom, but my guess is that after a great game like this, you might shower first and then get in the hot tub.”

We eventually got our goal and protected our narrow lead until the final whistle.  And I was reminded yet again that the youth player takes a completely different view of the game than an adult.  And they take their cues from us.  Had we been frantic on the sideline, surely they would have been tense too.  Players don’t have fun when they are tense and without fun there is no chance that the players will develop a passion for the game.   Perhaps we should take more cues from them.  They wanted to win, but not so much that they lost sight of what is really important…. Namely…How will I get clean after this game?

Roy Dunshee

NSCAA National Academy Staff

Washington College Men’s Soccer

@roydunshee

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