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The Car Ride Home (Take it Easy)

Posted December 28th, 2012 by Mike Slatton

Helping or Hurting?

For young athletes, the car ride home can be the worst part of a game.  Depending on how long the drive is, every short-coming, failure and missed opportunity of the entire game will be rehashed.  Compound that by 12 to 30 games a year, multiplied by ten years and that can turn into a lifetime of therapy and dad issues.

For 15 years, before I ever coached my own children, I coached other people’s kids.  Occasionally, before practice or after, I’d have a conversation with a parent about their son’s performance on the field at the previous game or two. We’d talk about their weaknesses and strengths, and consider activities that could help them improve. I never thought much of those conversations, as I always assumed that the parent was speaking for the child.

Beyond practice and games, I never considered my players lives away from the field; their home lives, their relationships with their parents or what the parents wanted for their kid’s future.  I only had one parent-child perspective, and that was from my own childhood, which was rank with poverty and low-esteem.  For the most part, I believed that the kids I coached were happy, healthy and lucky. When I had my own children though, I gained a new perspective.

My Daughter

When my daughter was 5, she began playing organized soccer.  On her own, she learned that she could score goals by staying out of the pack and being patient – calculating.  At that point, I saw her potential, and wanted to nurture it.  I began coaching her team the next season.  We talked about soccer all the time.  Over the years she had the best accessories and went to the best soccer camps.  I coached her all the time; on the way to practice, at practice and on the way home.  I held her to a higher standard.  I would explain to her how she needed to be an example for the other players on her team.  On the way to games, I’d give her tips.  During the game I would yell instructions.  After the game… after the game on the car ride home, I would break down everything that went wrong and tell her what she should have done.

In 6 years she could score a hat-trick without breaking a sweat.

In 7 years she quit soccer all together.

The Internal Struggle

My entire childhood, I believed that success and greatness was available to everyone but me.  I was a horrible student and was constantly in trouble in school. I knew deep in my soul that I was PREdestined for a life of failure.  After I moved out of my mother’s house though, I began soul searching. In that search, I learned that I had been brainwashed for failure by my own mother who had been in a deep depression that went back decades to her early childhood.  My own depression wasn’t necessarily her fault, but once I understood WHY I felt the way I did, I was able to redirect my energy in a positive manner.

When I was in my middle 20’s, I began studying “potential”. I theorized that everyone is born with potential, but few actually realize it, nurture it and fulfill it (read more: Understanding Potential).  I recalled my own childhood and reflected on the discrepancies between opportunities I was given, and the opportunities given to kids of wealthier parents. I come from a long line of poor, single mothers.  I was raised by my mother with no influence from my father, and she was raised by her mother who was a pregnant teenager of a bi-racial baby(white & native American) in the 1940’s who was married 9 different times. To make it even worse, my great-grandmother (mother of the pregnant teenager) was obsessively religious.   Depression and failure was our family tradition, which brings me to my point:

[quote type=”center”] What happens in the car ride home between a player and a parent has little to do with the game or the player. [/quote]

The child-within-the-game is merely a vehicle carrying personal issues that may go back generations.  Relative to their memories, the parent is also a child.  They may be struggling with their past and trying to recreate circumstances in their own child’s life in order to take another path – make a better decision that could change the course of history.  My conversations with my daughter, on the way home from the game, was rooted in the life my mother lived; who’s life is rooted in her mother’s, etc.  Events in my mother’s childhood influenced her decision-making on my childhood activities and life priorities, which now influence my decisions for my daughter – and sons.

Soccer Parent TunnelWhat We Really Want

A parent wants more for their child than they had, but their decisions for their child(ren) are actually based on decisions that their own parents made for them 20, 30, or 40 years earlier.  When you consider the family tree, that means that the conversation in the car may be nearly a century in the making.

Being a parent/coach is a delicate tightrope walking act.  The problem with it is that some parents get obsessed with one role, neglecting the other.  Think of it as Yin and Yang: the balance of good and evil.  Both roles are necessary, so if the father is going to be the coach, the mother has to be the coddling parent.   Every child needs the balance, no matter how hyper-active they may be. In my house, after the game and before practice, my wife is the parent.  Before the game, during practice and during non-practice training days, I’m the coach.  Occasionally we’ll switch roles, but we realize that the balance is necessary for the sanity of the child, and to encourage their love of the game and respect toward their parents.  In the end, we both just want our kids to be healthy, happy and to achieve their potential in whatever area they choose.

Our kids have as much potential for greatness as anyone else, and neither of us wants to be the reason they quit the game.  To insure we don’t burn out our sons on soccer the way I did my daughter, we try to balance encouragement and criticism, while providing love and support of their dreams.  I’ve learned from my mistakes, and based on my experiences, my wife and I have developed a system that works well to quell the desire to over-coach/correct our sons, thereby allowing them to be highly competitive, while still enjoying the game.  That means lots of camera work.


Soccer mom with cameraA good practice for every parent is to NEVER talk about the game directly after the game.  Instead, give it 24 hours.  Directly after the game, just tell them that they “played a great game” and that you’re proud of them, and leave it at that.

Don’t even tell them what you liked, because it will inevitably lead to what you DIDN’T like.

After 24 hours, if you still feel the need to talk about the game, do so with some video.

Blind men describing an elephant.

Blind men describing an elephant.

After a game, every athlete’s version of the game is altered to enhance their strengths and diminish their weaknesses.  Any mistakes they made don’t seem so bad, and every success they had seems monumental, so trying to talk to your child about their weaknesses without video proof is like blind men describing an elephant.

Like you wouldn’t make accusations without definitive proof, don’t talk to your child about weaknesses in their performance without some video.

After a game, your child will rarely remember the exact details of their “weaknesses” (for lack of a better term) – even just minutes afterward.   If they actually do remember, it’s still difficult to recreate the events that exploited their weaknesses in the first place.  That’s what makes video the best tool for breaking bad habits and strengthening weaknesses.

24 hours after the game, make it an event and sit down with some popcorn and watch some video.

When a player watches a clip and sees their weakness exploited from a 3rd party vantage point, they watch it actually hoping for a different outcome than they remember.  That means that they probably diminished the failure in the first place.  Seeing it on video, they consider what they could have done differently, and thereby open there minds to the fact that there are parts of their game that need improving.  As a parent or coach, I don’t have to say ANYTHING.  The video says it all.  The benefit is that I’m not critiquing them they’re critiquing themselves, and now they’re taking an active role in their development.

After watching the video, you can determine their good habits and weaknesses and suggest games and activities around them.  Games make it fun and promote REPETITION.

Hint: Forget everything you think you know about soccer training when creating skill development games.  Keep the games simple and tailor them to your child.  Points for performing a desired move or action are better than awarding points for scoring goals.  It’s also easier to play games with 5 or 6 players, but there are games like Panna that are perfect for two.  Regardless, invite kids from the team to play/train with yours on their off days.

Feedback:  Be SPECIFIC

An over-confident athlete is just as bad as one that lacks confidence.  If a player has bad training habits, but is convinced that they are the best, they’ll never work any harder than they are right now. On the other hand, an athlete that lacks confidence will be difficult to convince that they can do anything to improve.  Video helps both of those situations.

Athletes like to think they’re strong, so a player that’s out of shape will immediately and frequently notice him/herself with their hands on their knees.

Video provides specific situations in which to offer specific feedback & instructions to reinforce specific strengths & identify specific weaknessesThe keyword is SPECIFICNever critique a player with general statements.

[testimonials_style_two]“Skills” are sets of specific techniques that produce a desired consequence. [/testimonials_style_two]

Honesty is what every person wants, but is afraid to ask for.  We all want to hear that we’re awesome, but we also want it to be TRUE. When your kids ask about their performance, be honest, but also be specific.  Provide specific successes, specific failures and suggest specific exercises that will help them improve.

What I’ve learned is that everyone has potential, and that it’s OK for me to want my child to reach theirs.  I’m just not going to drag my ancestors into it anymore. I’ve also learned that when there is a failure to perform, the majority of the time is due to a lack of specific instructions, or interest.

[success]Specific Instructions, NOT Open Ended Questions.[/success]

Look around on any professional sports team, and you’ll see lots of coach’s kids.  If your child wants to be a better athlete, you need to be their first coach/teacher/advocate, and take the approach that everything anyone else provides is supplemental to what you provide.  You may not be his team’s coach, but you still need to take an active role in their development and training.  However, IT NEEDS TO BE ON THEIR TERMS. A child learns better when they’re interested.  That means that you have to be flexible with your schedule and ideas.  Be ready to go to the fields to kick dead-balls when they ask.  Scheduling training directly after school may be better for you, but maybe your athlete needs a couple of hours to re-energize.

Regardless, training needs to be SPECIFIC, and so do the instructions.   General statements like “You need to do better”,  “Try harder” and “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy Miller?” will do more damage to your child’s self-esteem than just sitting the bench.  He’ll never do better without specific instruction, or try harder than he already is… and he’ll NEVER be Jimmy Miller (Hopefully he’ll be better).

Instead, I try to keep my mouth shut after the game, until I’ve watched the video.  If I didn’t shoot video, then I just keep my mouth shut altogether.  If I did shoot video, 24 hours after the game, I pop some popcorn, call the boys in to my office or hook up the camera to the TV and I usually let them watch it alone.  Inevitably, they’ll call me in to see this or that play.  Sometimes it evolves into a conversation.  Occasionally we make it an event.  Kids will ALWAYS point out what they did right, and I try reinforce those behaviors.  They also try to ignore what they did wrong or make excuses, but anything they did “wrong” was actually due to a lack of experience or instruction.

Regardless, watching video will make them want to improve, for no other reason to create more and better highlights.  Everyone loves highlights.

How Video Helps

Here’s the perfect example of how video helped my son:

Three weekends in a row, my son was playing on the left wing.  Continuously, run after run, game after game, he would streak down the left side and make a slight curve toward the goal, and just outside the penalty box, take a shot that 60% of the time would hit the left side of the goal.  The other 30% would go right to the goal keeper.  Occasionally, he would score or he would put it across the goal, but those were anomalies.   I’m a huge proponent of the Dutch method of play and strategy (used by Spain, Barcelona, Germany, and most of Europe), which calls for quick passing & moving and freedom of movement.  Based on that style of play, streaking down the left side, ahead of his teammates, gave him 3 options:

  1. 1. Go all the way to the end-line and pass it backward to an oncoming player
  2. 2. Make a big cross from the outside that’ll travel along the goal line.
  3. 3. Once across the half-way line, start edging toward the middle of the field, in order to enter the top of the penalty box, giving him two options (right or left side) to place the ball past the keeper and into the net.

Since explaining it would be fruitless, I went to YouTube to show scoring highlights and compilation videos of players like David Beckham.  The very next game, my son had 3 assists and 2 goals, and he stopped banging the ball into the side of the net… and the car ride home went very well.

Mike Slatton is a nationally licensed soccer coach and the father of two young soccer players and one young adult soccer player.

About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1979). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."


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