The language of coaching

The Guardian has a really good article on how the terminology coaches use can be counter-productive to help players (and the comments from readers about some of their favourite ‘shouts’ is even more entertaining).

I’ve touched on this before about how confusing it can be for young players to get a constructive message from their coaches (we hope) and a much less constructive (boot it!) message from parents on the sideline. Cliche is the last bastion of the overwhelmed coach. Keep messages simple, consistent, positive and age/level appropriate.


The last few lines of the article remind me of one of the more memorable youth games I’ve coached. We were at the Dana Cup in 2009. We’d advanced out of our group to the knockout phase and were playing a Finnish team. As an overseas team in the U14 girls division we were a bit of a rarity so people had paid attention to our results. In our second game, we somehow held on for a draw against a very good, well known Danish team and that raised some eyebrows so the Finns went into the game thinking they would be in a bit of trouble.

Our keeper at the time was very good (and is now a strong candidate for this year’s U16 Provinical team) but prone to the odd blunder as most young keepers are. This game, however, she had several. Their sideline erupted when they went up 1-0 early in the game but we battled back to level the score. A second gk error followed by a very good goal saw the Finns up 3-1 at the break. Their sideline was going bonkers. Their pre-game nerves were gone and they were euphoric.

Second half we came out storming and scored in the first two minutes. Our sideline got into it more and then we tied it 3-3 and we were suddenly mild Canadians gone wild. We were all over them and they were scrambling to stop the onslaught.

Then with ten to go the biggest of the three howlers gave them a fourth (and I feel I should add that were it not for our keeper in the game against the strong Danish team, we’d have lost that one by a solid margin). So for the last 10 minutes it was a full on assault with both sets of sideline supporters going uncharacteristically (for us anyways) nuts and chance after chance going missing.

Naturally their coach was getting more and more animated. We had exchanged a few glances as the game went on along the lines of “Can you believe this?” but by the end he was working the full length of the sideline yelling instructions at them. I’ve no idea what he was saying as my Finnish is limited to “Sami Salo” but he certainly wasn’t calming his players with some over the top yelling.

In the last minute we had a corner that went past the throng in the middle jumping for it and one of our girls did a full ‘stealing third base’ slide at the far post, a yard off the line to try to jam it in but just missed, giving them a goal kick. Their coach ran past me all the way down the line to about the 18 yard box to yell at the girl taking the goal kick. As I said, I don’t know Finnish but I’d bet the Finnish equivalent of “Boot it!!!” was used in no uncertain terms. The girl, who in retrospect I’m sure must have been his daughter, was totally tuning him out. He persisted with her wanting some sort of reaction to be sure she was listening.

He got his reaction.

Instead of striding forward to strike the ball, she walked forward past the ball towards the sidelines and started screaming at him, fists clenched at her side, upper body angled forward towards him. She looked like an angry ski jumper in mid-flight. She fully unloaded on him for five seconds and then walked back to the ball. I think she pretty much knew that this wasn’t the time to pull a Barca and try to play out from the back off the goal kick. The ball was going to get launched and she didn’t need her dad/coach berating her with the obvious.

He shut up, well chastened, and walked past me not wanting to catch eyes (and my smirk). She took a solid goal kick and the seconds counted down leading to a victory for them, elimination and a bunch of tears for us.

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3 Responses to The language of coaching

  1. Larry says:

    I watched a U15 boys game the other day. Team A was down a goal to team B. In the last few minutes a the striker on team A received a beautiful cross from the wing and tried to control the ball as he broke in towards the keeper. The keeper of course came off his line well to cut down the angle. His coach was screaming at him yelling, “kick it”, “shoot”. In the the end, the player ultimately tried to flick the ball over the keeper, and it was just over the crossbar. The coach then started ranting about how he should have controlled it, etc, etc.
    Did the player make the right decison? maybe, maybe not. He had a split second to choose between rainbowing the keeper or getting freightrained while controlling the ball. The question I always ask when I see this is, Would the coach have ranted the same way if the player had actually scored? I doubt it.

  2. J Larkins says:

    The perfect time to comment whilst all attention is cast on the goings-on of the HPL initiative. I will not take it as an insult, Gregor, if your attention is cast elsewhere.

    I recall, perhaps five years ago, coming upon an article from the Abottsford Soccer Club (I think) – actually through the UK’s Footy-4-kids website – that was written by one of their volunteer coaches whom, I believe, was also on the club’s executive – in fact he may have been the President. You should find that article and post it. It was, as I recall, a plea of sorts to soccer parents/ volunteer coaches (mostly of the hockey/NA football persuasion) to embrance the freedom and expression that soccer brings to players of all ages and refrain from the presumed need to control every aspect of the game. What hit home for me (as long as I remember it correctly) was his observation that, while hockey players may shift off the ice every 20 to 30 seconds or so to rest and receive instruction from coaching staff; and NA football players move in and off the field or huddle together after the odd 7 to 10 second intervals to regroup and take instruction – soccer (with its very large playing surface, lack of all-out stoppages, 3 permitted substitutions) restricted managers to a technical area from which to rant and a half-time talk from which to correct concerns on the field. His conclusion seemed to be that the soccer game, unlike so many NA sports we are used to, was never likely designed to be about the real-time coaching but was instead to be about the players’ expression. I probably got the message all wrong but that is how I want to remember it.

    While the Guardian article gives me some cause for concern that, even among the soccer (football) culture elite (the English laying claim to the creation of the game) there is this element of sideline control, my recollection of his observations always bring a smile and remind me to calm down, put my effort in teaching the kids off the field and enjoy and encourage their sometimes flawed freedom and expression on it.

    In defence, however, to volunteer coaches everywhere (and likely at any level), the pressure to win is sometimes so ingrained into the kids and parents (or by parents, I am not sure) we come across that I can see why so many coaches see winning as the neccessary short term goal. In the parents eyes (at least) it seems to equate directly to the quality of the coaching and the future success of the kids. I recall being told by one parent, about mid-season of very young divisional players at probably the .500 level in terms of results, that there were concerns about the team’s cohesion and performance (read – we don’t think you are coaching the kids in a way that has them win as many games as they can). I suppose in the end, given the current culture, winning is the mark of success and with so few thinking about where their kids are at, soccerwise, in two to five years it probably will not change much. Interesting to see if HPL, given the no boundaries rule, facilitates development or only showcases players who have developed somewhere else (kind of like asking whether the current Man City squad is a reflection of their youth system). Alas, that is a comment for another blog.


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