Had an interesting call from one of our coaches yesterday. One of the parents on their team got very upset with them during a game. I get a few of these each year. 90% of the time the cause for parental anger is one of two things: unfair allocation of playing time (ie. their kid isn’t getting to play the minimum prescribed time for the age/level) or the coach is too harsh and their child is upset at the steady stream of critical comments.
This one was different. The parent apparently cracked when, after a player missed connecting with a cross, the coaches praised the effort anyways. “That’s it!” he yelled, according to the coach. “At some point, you’ve got to tell them it’s not good. That they’re doing something wrong and they need to do it differently, do it better. It can’t be ‘well done’ all the time.”
A few weeks ago I had a parent on another team say that the constant stream of praise from their coaches was really just a “celebration of mediocrity.”
The first team is a younger boys divisional team and the second an older girls divisional team. It should be noted that both are having challenging seasons from a results point of view so there’s probably some residual parent frustration over that and some of the comments can be attributed to A-Type Personality venting.
But it does raise the very important point of the role of the coach on several fronts. How do you motivate? How do you make corrections to things that are happening on the field and effect change in players? How do you keep spirits high during a tough season? How do you teach values like accountability in a team setting? How do you foster confidence without getting tuned out if your message is unchanging? How do you instruct without alienating?
I look at this praise vs criticism dilemma not so much as a dichotomy but as a shifting continuum that is a function of the player’s age, individual temperament and level of play. This is obvious. Who would treat a U8 house player the same as a U18 Metro player? The constants, for me, through these shifts though are: establishing and maintaining the trust of your players that you are on their side while also increasingly demanding accountability in terms of commitment, effort and dedication to improving as a player.
Put simply: start with constant praise for effort and enthusiasm with particular kudos for following instructions for all kids through to U10. As they hit U8 to U9 start mixing in some questions, posed directly to them, about what they are doing and what might have been another option. When they answer correctly, praise them and encourage them to do just that the next chance they get. Bring them into the equation and get them to buy into how they can improve by (hopefully) coming up with answers themselves. People are just more likely to act on something if they feel they were at least partially involved in the discussion and solution.
As they hit divisional soccer at U11, particularly at higher levels of play, your job as a coach is to shift gears and make corrections to individual technique and basic team play (shape, movement, decision-making on and off the ball) more and more. They need instruction and it’s why the term ‘coachable’ starts to enter the lexicon more and more. This necessitates constructive criticism and coaches need to know that their instruction is being taken on by players and not dismissed as a petty critique or ignored because the player disagrees. It’s still outweighed by plaudits but you’re moving towards a framework for increased accountability in your players.
Remember too that just as much communication between people is non-verbal, not all positive and negative statements need to conform to stereotypical whoops, hollering and clapping for praise and clipboard smashing, epithet hurling, temple pulsing anger. Because both of those get tuned out by kids as the hit adolescence. If you can keep both types of instruction at a relatively steady tone, you will get more buy in.
When you get to the point where you’re coaching teenagers most of them are already somewhat skeptical of adults and even more are aware of when adults are being disingenuous with them in their praise. If all they hear is praise, even when they know they’ve messed up, they’ll quickly start to tune you out and some, particularly the brighter and more sensitive ones, will start to feel patronized. Same goes for the completely negative message. No kid needs or wants to hear that.
If you want your message to be taken seriously, ensure it’s genuine and pay attention to the medium. In this case tone is the medium and it can be a great equalizer. All messages to players should be calm and measured both for praise and criticism. Both should be specific to show you’ve been paying attention to them as individuals and if delivered in proper portions (still considerably more praise than criticism), the compliments will be believed because they know they’ll be told honestly and calmly about their mistakes. And the criticisms are more likely to be taken to heart and attempts made to fix them if they trust that it’s being said to make them better players and not from anger or spite.
I want my players to trust that I’m their ally and I have their best interests at heart and know that requires me to be genuine in my comments to them whether it’s praise or pointing out a flaw in their game. I want them to know that being successful means overcoming challenges and being willing to respond to instruction in a positive way. By the time they’re well into their divisional years, for the most part, I hope I’ve created a pathway so that my praise isn’t taken as absolute confirmation of their playing genius and that the criticism is not taken as personal.