Youth Coaches: How to keep from raising the next Luis Suarez

JohnOSullivan-HeaderPrior to the World Cup, the Toronto Star newspaper ran quite a prophetic feature story on Uruguay striker Luis Suarez. Discussing the conundrum that is one of the world’s most talented, and most hated soccer players, it described the striker as follows: “North of his feet, there is nothing good about Suarez.”

And second, prophetically, the Star stated “He will do something insane at this summer’s World Cup — mark it down… Eventually, he’ll punch a baby.” Not quite, but close.

[ +READ: Five life lessons the World Cup can teach your kids]suaresz bite

This past Tuesday, in Suarez and Italy’s Mario Balotelli we had on display two on the planet’s most talented and immature soccer players. Both players have the ability to turn a game on its head, to create something out of nothing, and to win a game single handedly (as Suarez did against England). We also have players who are just as likely to do something rash, to get thrown out of a game and let down their teams at a crucial moment. Balotelli was subbed at halftime of the game after completely losing the plot and contributing nothing to the Italian effort. Suarez should have been red carded for his culinary misdeed of biting Italy defender Gerogio Chiellini, and will likely face a very lengthy ban for a selfish and downright disgusting act.

But what was the fall out from his team?

“This is a football World Cup, not about cheap morality.”

I was so sad to read those words from Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez, uttered when asked about Luis Suarez’s bite on Chiellini. Why? Because it is exactly an attitude like that which has allowed Luis Suarez to become the type of player he is: incredibly talented, and massively flawed.

As a person who has been involved in coaching youth sports for the last two decades, incidents like this cause me to wonder “how did these players get to be like this?” More importantly, how many coaches over the years have tuned a blind eye to the bad behavior of these two because of their immense talent?

[ +READ: O’Sullivan: The mindset of high performers]

This will be Suarez’s third ban for biting an opponent, and fourth lengthy ban when you include his recent ten-game suspension for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. There is even evidence that as a 16-year-old youth star, he head butted a referee in Uruguay, breaking the referee’s nose in a case that led to an attempt on the life of a journalist who reported the incident (check out this fascinating article by Wright Thompson from ESPN). Yet immediately after his bite on Chiellini, his teammate Diego Lugano came to his defense, saying Chiellini was not being a man about it. Suarez’s lawyer Alejandro Balbi stated it was a European plot to disparage Suarez.

Really? Did you watch the video? Did you see the bite marks? Did you see Chiellini react in an unnatural, surprised way to contact between mouth and shoulder? Aren’t you supposed to be the people helping the guy?

In Balotelli’s case, coaches from Jose Mourhino to Roberto Mancini have banished him from training, sent him to the reserve team, and suspended him for behavior detrimental to the cause, yet due to his talent always allowed him back when they needed to get a result. Suarez has served multiple suspensions, yet clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid were lining up multi-million dollar bids for his services, again because of his immense talent.

The really sad part is that none of this behavior helps these players perform better. There have been many passionate, feisty, aggressive players in the Suarez mold through the years, but none of them have resorted to biting people during games. To say that is who he is as a player is a total cop out. To claim, as many of his supporters have done, that this is part of the game is completely outrageous. Suarez will never go down as one of the games greats, not because of his talent and performances, but because of bad character.

[ +READ: LeBolt – Hope Solo needs us to try and understand]

Now I realize that professional sports is about results, but the reason that these players act this way is because for all their formative years, numerous coaches have ignored this behavior. There have not been repercussions that made Suarez and Ballotelli ever stop to think “Is this the best path to becoming a pro?” The message they have been sent over and over is a far different one: You are so talented that it matters not how you behave or act out. We have a spot for you.

How many coaches have abdicated their duty as a coach? Why do so many coaches think that developing people with class is not equally as important as developing players with class?

I believe this is changing. From the NBA to the NFL, and soon to be in soccer, character is beginning to matter more and more. Suarez has cost himself millions of dollars by seconds of madness, and I am curious to see the reaction of Liverpool’s American owner John Henry, who has often talked about the history and legacy of the club being bigger than one person. Teams, and certainly corporate sponsors, are starting to look much more closely at who they employ. This is a great thing, but we need more at the grassroots level.

Youth coaches, it is not our responsibility how a player enters our team or program, but it is most definitely our responsibility what kind of person a player is when he or she leaves. We have a duty to deal with poor character, lousy attitudes, and lack of effort, and the younger we start the more likely we can make a difference. Every time we pass on that responsibility, or refuse to sit a player because it might prevent us from winning an “important” game, we are failing our players!

The chances are minuscule that any of us will ever coach a player as talented as a Suarez or Balotelli, who have made millions and should be financially set for life. The fact is as youth coaches, 99.9 percent of our players will not make their living from sports, and thus need us to teach them life skills, character, integrity and the like. This will serve them well on and off the field. If we fail to do this, and we tell them its OK because you happen to be able to kick the ball a little better than the other guys, we are setting them up for failure in LIFE!


The Suarez incident is a great teachable moment for us coaches and parents. It is a way to show our players that character matters. As such, I for one hope three things happen.

First, I hope that FIFA comes down hard on Suarez, with a lengthy ban lasting far beyond this World Cup, and hopefully affecting his ability to play for Liverpool as well. That will send a message not only to current players, but future ones: poor character will cost you and your team dearly.

[Update: Luis Suarez has been suspended four months from all football activity]

I also hope that Uruguay goes crashing out of this World Cup in their next game. Their accomplishments on the field from a pure soccer sense are extraordinary, as such a small country continues to go toe to toe with the giants of the soccer world. Yet their utter lack of class is appalling, and very bad for the game. I hope they lose, and that Suarez becomes known as a player who let down an entire nation through his selfishness.

And finally, I hope this incident causes clubs to double down on their effort to produce not only classy players, but classy people. I hope it causes organizations to hold coaches accountable for the players and the people they produce. The game needs players with the brilliance of Balotelli and Suarez, but can do without the extra curricular stuff that takes away from its beauty.

So far, Suarez has not punched a baby, as the Toronto Star has predicted, but would you bet your mortgage that he won’t someday?

Coaches, we can all work hard to teach character, mentor young coaches on the importance of teaching life skills, and make sure we never graduate a biting, selfish, reckless player from one of our teams. That is not exactly a high bar, but certainly one worth attaining.

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By | June 26, 2014 | 4 Comments | Tags: , ,


  1. Lonaka says:

    Ban this animal of life from playing the game. What better punishment to dole out to a person that loves to play the game than to forbid him from getting any where near the pitch. FIFA clean up the game. You also don’t need actors playing the game. Use athletes.

  2. Thanks for the comments Chelsea Fan and Joel. Joel, you are right that in this message I am being very harsh on Luis Suarez. I do feel compassion for the man, and for a Balotelli, because they are held back as players by their indiscipline. Suarez is an adult, and he has to be held accountable for his actions, which clearly is happening by everyone outside of his team and inner circle. Unfortunately many of those close to him and blaming everyone from the media to Europe to FIFA instead of saying “But you bit a guy on the biggest stage in the world. What do you expect?”

    I think you are right about the Liverpool culture, that there is something about Brendan Rodgers and the club that reigned in Suarez, and as a result we spent the last few months talking about his ability and not his poor sportsmanship. Clearly that culture does not exist on the Uruguay team, which is sad, for they are incredibly talented.

    Ultimately, I believe that a tremendous opportunity lies ahead for Suarez. Imagine if he took this as a life changing moment, and spoke to up and coming players about these mistakes, and up and coming coaches about the importance of instilling good values in their kids. By accepting responsibility for his actions (which he has not yet done) he could make a huge difference. Then I would not only feel compassion for the man and his family, but proud that he would use his platform to make a difference.

    Only time will tell. Thanks Joel.

  3. ChelseaFan says:

    I take Coach O’Sullivan’s comments for what they are: in youth programs, it is very important to begin teaching character sooner rather than later.

    As we approach the end game of our child’s youth soccer days (and eye the collegiate scene) we have observed some of the following and have some ideas that might support Mr. O’Sullivan’s objectives. I have seen 8 year olds refuse to play defense because they wanted to be forwards. In mid-game, the 8-year-old refuses to play as asked and the coach caves and puts the player in at forward. I’ve seen the most talented players on the team form cliques and verbally or socially abuse players they perceive to be “lesser.” Coaches are either unaware of this, or choose not to address it.

    We’ve had coaches who insist that all communication about missed practices, playing time, etc. should be between themselves and the player. On one hand, this is a great way to teach kids to advocate for themselves, but sometimes those kids need some “coaching” in that aspect of their lives. And how soon should these kids shoulder this responsibility?

    While I realize coaches would rather focus on coaching, they need to understand that communication with the parents might form a more supportive set of expectations for the players. I get it. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with the parents who constantly lobby, cajole and drop implied threats, but I do think it’s possible to lay out clear guidelines for what is and isn’t appropriate communication. If a coach chooses to bench a kid, the very least they can do is give the parents a specific idea of why.

    And Coach O’Sullivan is correct in that many coaches do not really rein in the extremely talented player who is ragging on her or his teammates and causing all kinds of morale issues in the end. (Or other bad behaviors–such as playing right on the edge of dirty and under constant threat of handing your team a man-down disadvantage through earning a red card.)

    So, while I agree with the above commenter that Suarez may deserve a little compassion for what appears to be a real mental disorder, I embrace Coach O’Sullivan’s point: we need to be very careful on the front end of this process to create players with real character–like Didier Drogba and Lionel Messi. Ever notice how these guys walk past their teammates after a muffed play and pat them on the shoulder? How they help an opponent off the pitch?

    And I’ll cheer for any team to beat Uruguay because of the flip attitude the team and coach showed about Suarez’ ugly act.

  4. You’ve stated your hopes for Suarez and Uruguay and I get the feeling those hopes are fuelled by complete and utter disdain for Suarez. Ironic I feel as I think about what you usually stand for through the Changing the Game Project and I see some of that being noticeably absent here.

    Clarification is probably required. I support what you do whole-heartedly through the Project and I do not condone what Suarez did. However, my hopes for Luis Suarez are quite a bit different from yours.

    I put myself in his shoes and I can feel the shame of being a repeat offender – of saying to myself I shouldn’t do this but then going and doing the exact same thing again. I think about how he’s going to have to explain this to his kids one day very soon and the further embarrassment that this will most likely cause not only him but his family.

    I ask myself what if this was one of the kids I coach, what would I do?

    With Suarez’s past season at Liverpool as the example and from the articles I read about Brendan Roger’s methods, I would say Suarez was probably getting what he needed to help him stay on the straight and narrow. With Oscar Tabarez’s comments it is clear that sport psychology and overall player welfare is less important than winning.

    I hope Luis Suarez finally gets the help that he needs and deserves consistently from all who work with him. I hope that Luis Suarez, for his own personal validation, comes out the other side of this. I hope with enough time, people will learn to forgive.

    But for now, someone outside of the country of Uruguay needs to support this player, this human being. I choose to do that and I think you should as well. Why? Through your messages about youth development, and through my own attempts to influence youth sport in similar ways, I believe we need to do that or else risk being hypocrites.

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