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Commentary Oct 15, 2021

Youth Soccer Sideline Behavior: ‘What Can I Call It So You Can Hear?’

By Tim Bradbury
Director of Coaching, Eastern New York Youth Soccer

It’s a daunting task trying to find the words that you hope will cause a tipping point. I along with hundreds of others have tried to write about this before: “The race to the bottom,” “The Road to Nowhere,” “How the Screaming Hurts” and I could go on and on. Social media such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook are all full of messages about the same thing – what has sports become, how did it lose its meaning and value?

I listened to a wonderful podcast this week – The Talent Equation – “Becoming a True Athlete – A Practical Philosophy for Flourishing Through Sport” that really was a great listen. One sentence from it sums it up quite well: “Sport can be an amazing tool for personal development and good.”

Why then have we allowed it to become such a shallow version of what it is capable of?

I am back on the fields coaching competitive soccer again. Well, let me rephrase that: I have two girls who are Under-9 (yes so, they are 7 and 8) that the local league and club have decided should play in a competitive travel environment. The girls are keen to learn and display a great energy and enthusiasm to do so. They are seven and eight so may become great players one day, but it will be a journey. This last weekend they played in a local tournament. It is considered a rite of passage and something you must do to keep up.

The tournament seemed to be well planned and such, but it should really be renamed. “The Players Forbidden to Think Event” would perhaps be the most appropriate title. I saw game after game, coach after coach, parent after parent all determined to achieve the same mission – these children will not think for themselves!

I saw and heard some astonishing things. A few examples below:

  • “Just kick it out”
  • “Boot it!”
  • “Kick it to the corner flag”
  • “Get it out of there”
  • “Stay back there and don’t leave that line” (as their team attacked and had the ball)
  • “Never pass it sideways”

I could go on and on but by now you get the idea. All these instructions, shouted enough to be considered an order are all designed to do the same thing – rob the young player of the ability to think and make a decision for themselves. Why do adults hate kids thinking ?

Let’s look at the moment in a game a little, as the ball rolls towards 7-year-old Tim. Tim needs to make a decision and in doing so a few things he will consider are

  • The picture he scanned and what he saw as the ball arrives
  • His ability to perform key skills (first touch, pass, dribble)
  • His pace
  • His balance
  • His pace in relation to the kids from the other team next to him

What makes no sense to me at all is how any adult and that means coach or parent can magically see what Tim sees or like a Disney movie be miraculously transformed into Tim’s body to be given his athletic ability which you must have to solve the puzzle the way Tim does.

To suggest you can be insane and to rob Tim of the ability to make his own decision is criminal as it prevents Tim from learning the game. YET on field after field game after game I saw the process above repeated. Refs would come and talk to me telling me how bad it has become.

So, because I watched Simon Sinek as well, I had to think about the Why, what drives this behavior. The answer, of course, is simple and clear – a fear of losing and desperate desire to win, whatever the cost is at the heart of the ‘we hate players thinking club’.

I am hoping that at least one or two people who read this understand and can reflect upon their behavior at games and decide they are okay with their kids thinking, making mistakes, learning and possibly not winning.

Would that be so awful?