Now this was going to be one of those weekend-changing moments!
Standing by one of the fields at the Soccer Park on a recent Sunday morning, I watched as a young boy raced towards the goal with the ball in front of him. Breakaway! Everyone was cheering, you could see his pace quicken as he touched the ball once, then twice, setting the ball up perfectly for the game-winner, the mobbing from his teammates, the high five from dad, the hug from mom, the post-game ice cream – the whole shebang!
He pulled back and then…he flubbed it. The ball hit a divot, a bug, the turf monster flicked it; something happened and he just missed it. The ball dribbled harmlessly, slowly, off to the left and over the end line. A compassionate groan rose up from the crowd, all of us feeling badly for the kid. His hands went immediately to his head and he slumped over in that familiar “how did that just happen” moment. A teammate came over and gave him a pat on the back. And then it happened.
“Aw, come ON (boy), you gotta FINISH that,” coach said from the sideline, piercing the silence with a ridiculously misplaced scream (and I do mean scream) of anguish.
“Thank you Captain Obvious,” I thought to myself! I can only imagine what opinion of the coach the boy had in his mind at that moment. I’ll never know for sure, because unlike the man on the sideline, the boy just rolled with it and moved to defend the upcoming goal kick. I know I can’t print what I’d be thinking.
I didn’t have an opportunity to speak to the coach after the game, and didn’t really want to. But if I did run into him, I might have asked him, “what benefit could have possibly come out of that statement, out of that reaction?” Aside from embarrassing and belittling this boy, and making him feel stupid in front of his teammates, his opponents, his parents, and everyone else watching the game, I can’t think of a single thing it accomplished.
Despite what all we adults think, our kids are not idiots. This boy clearly knew the rules of the game. He understood that the object of the game is to score goals for his team. Clearly, his intention was not to miss the shot. I mean, there was probably ice cream in it for him after all. But these are the instances when a coach really needs to be a coach, and more importantly, to be a coach for his players.
I probably don’t have to tell most of you that the right play here would have been some clapping from the coach followed by a, “that’s okay, we’ll get the next one,” or “forget about that, let’s get the ball back here.” Then, the next time the player comes off, give him an observation about why it happened and how to avoid it in the future. “It looked like you got a little ahead of yourself there. Next time try to stay composed, keep your shoulders over the ball and drive through it.”
The point here is that coaches shouldn’t be reactionary like a fan, or posturing like some sort of amateur Lombardi or Parcells on the sideline. Most coaches don’t even realize the impact their words and reactions have on young players. More than anything you need to be a cheerleader, an instructor, and a teacher. Teams tend to take on the personality of their leader. If you are composed, they will be composed. If you are smart, they will follow suit.
That is why, like the title of this story says, as a coach you need to think before you react or speak, and if you are going to say something, say SOMETHING. What I mean is, be sure that what you are saying is constructive, instructional, or will just simply help the kid play better, in the short term or the long term. By doing that, the athletic experience becomes more than just weekend-changing. It can become life-changing.