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Commentary Dec 03, 2013

You can’t blame them for breaking the rules

WendyLeBolt-HeaderWhen kids move from recreational to travel soccer, the rules change.

Oh, the laws of the game stay the same, but the rules change. Do we tell them? Should we?

This is the question I am asking myself as a sprinting teen nearly knocks me off my feet as I jog around the indoor track at the gym. He is one among a mob of teenage boys careening around the small, banked oval in compliance with orders from their group trainer.

They start en masse and then establish themselves, passing on the inside lane, cutting the corners, darting past and then cutting me off. Their recovery walk is in the wrong direction. Don’t they know that Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it’s clockwise and Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, it’s counter clockwise?!

In fact, no, they don’t know these rules. They’re the unwritten rules of engagement, understood by the participants who have had them passed down by mentorship, word of mouth, coaching and training. They’re part of the culture, the how-we-do-things-here, and the non-initiated are ignorant of their offenses unless someone tells them. Whose job is it to tell them?

I was indicted in this omission when I first rostered a bunch of recreational players to form a new travel soccer team. They had lots of heart but came with average ability and little experience.

We got trounced in our first tournament. Literally, the other teams were playing a man down or requiring three players to touch the ball before anyone could shoot. My kids were like deer in the headlights. The rules they played by in the recreational game had suddenly changed.

The old rules:

  • Take turns
  • Be polite
  • Stop and see if the kid you accidentally knocked over is okay
  • Listen to instructions
  • Just boot it
  • Trying hard = Being good
  • Equal playing time
  • Everybody tries all the positions
  • When the ball goes out, wait to see who the referee says gets to throw it in
  • Halftime oranges and postgame snacks
  • If you don’t feel like playing today, it’s okay
  • Everybody gets a trophy

The new rules:

  • Take it from them
  • Do not be polite about it
  • Play to the whistle
  • Tell your parents to be quiet so you can listen to your coach
  • Play to feet or play to space but play to your team color, keep possession
  • Some kids, no matter how hard they try, will never be as good as other kids
  • Playing time is awarded to those who earn/win it
  • Your skill set will define your positional play
  • When it goes out, run after it in case the ref doesn’t know who it went off of
  • Close your mouth and listen up at halftime and in the postgame huddle
  • You play, even when you don’t feel like it
  • Only the winners get trophies

As a new travel coach, I hadn’t given much thought to “new” the rules until little Katie was sent sprawling and my whole team stopped playing to see if she was all right. In the mean time, the other team scored a very quick goal. The opposing coach looked at me apologetically, with hands in the air and said, “You have to teach them to play to the whistle.”

He was right. There was a new layer to the rules, extra expectations and increased toughness and diligence. These were survival skills in the increasingly competitive environment. I was the one who had been delinquent.

This set me to thinking about how better to prepare these little girls. The positive coaching platitudes had sounded nice in the rec league: be a good sport, play fair, follow the rules. But they were vague and a bit hard to put into action.

These players needed to know the full extent of the rules and then how to execute, right up to the edge. Now THAT was coaching. As any competitor knows, you can use the rules to your advantage, if you know them. A “travel” coach teaches things like:

  • How to use your body to shield but not obstruct
  • How to use your upper body to trap but not handle
  • How to shoulder a tackle but not to extend an arm
  • How to position yourself to go straight up for a ball in the air
  • How to slide in to win the ball but not endanger from behind

In this holiday season when we get a wee bit reflective, I wonder if we can come up with rules that hold true for rec and competitive players in every game, but probably are not listed in any rule book. Those are the rules I’d like to coach and see coached.

Coaches, share in the comments what rules of engagement are non-negotiable for your players? Let’s list these because most of them are probably unwritten. I’ll start:

  • What the referee says, goes.
  • Play the ball and not the player.
  • If a player is hurt, kick it out to stop play.
  • If you are assisted in a score, thank the one who assisted you.
  • Play hard to the final whistle.

Let’s face it. None of our kids starts off as a travel soccer player. He  or she crawls, then walks, then runs, then plays rec soccer. Somewhere along the line she or he gets attracted to or tempted by or identified as a candidate for the next level – the Holy Grail – travel soccer.

And the rules change. But not really. We just turn it up a notch or three. If we’re going to expect him to follow the rules, we really should tell him.


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