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Coaching from the Bench – What Crosses the Line?

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Written April 8th, 2013 by Mike Slatton

Coaching from the Bench

Coaching at any level, in any sport, is an emotional endeavor.  Coaches never feel that they’ve got enough time to teach everything their players need to know, but since the Laws of Soccer were first put into writing in 1863, FIFA had banned the practice of coaching from the bench.  That meant that soccer coaches at every level, from youth to the pros could do little more than sit on the bench with their substitutes and suffer in silence, if their team failed to execute during the game.  Since most youth soccer coaches in the U.S. only have 3 or 4 hours a week to teach their players, (figure that it takes ten thousand hours for any athlete to become a master of their craft) it’s a safe bet that the team won’t know everything the coach wants them to know by their first game of the season… or even their last.

In 1993 however, the IFAB (International Football Association Board) recognized the coach as an important part of the game, and allowed for him to “convey tactical instructions” to the players on the field (as per Decision N°13, tacked on to Law 5, then moved to Law 3, Decision 2).

That’s when all hell broke loose.
Yelling Soccer Coach

WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!

The repeal of the sideline-coaching ban has now evolved from simple transmissions of strategic information, to coach/player interaction that was never intended.   Sarcastic, non-directional, abusive screams of “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!“, “WAKE UP!”, and pleadings of “OH, COME ON!” can be heard every weekend, in every soccer complex in the nation.

Emotional outbreaks from coaches on the player’s side of the field are as common as parents complaining about playing time or bad coffee from the concession stand.  The real problem, however, is that most parents expect it, and most coaches think it’s ok.

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Abusive parentCoaching and directing are one thing, but no matter how you look at it, non-directive screaming and yelling at children that are not yours is NOT OK.

In fact, any parent standing in their yard, yelling and screaming at their own children the way many youth coaches scream at their players, might very likely be visited by a government official the following work day.

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All screaming and blood-vessel-popping aside, the basic act of coaching from the bench is actually looked down upon by soccer purists who believe that barking orders from the sidelines is the sign of a bad coach.  The United States Soccer Federation and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America both discourage what’s known as “joy-stick” coaching to control play on the field (imagine using a video game controller to play a soccer match).  Both coach certifying organizations believe that it detracts from the “beautiful game” and destroys the confidence of players.  After all, soccer is a thinking man’s game.  If you take the freedom to make decisions away from the players on the field, their passion for the game will soon follow.  That hurts the entire nation, and substantiates the theory that we don’t have the best-of-the-best soccer players representing the United States soccer program in International play (read Understanding Athletic Potential to learn more).

From the BigSoccer.com community boards, attributed to retired International Referee and current International Referee Instructor, Stanley Lover:

[testimonial company=”International Referee Instructor” author=”Stanley Lover”]A coach only needs to convey occasional tactical instructions during play, unless he is incompetent and has not established his ideas in training.[/testimonial]

Coaches who have failed to train, teach and condition their players during the week feel that they must resort to other measures to get them to perform on game day.  That usually means yelling & screaming step-by-step instructions to each player.  Most yelling and screaming goes far beyond instruction, though.

Will Ferrell Kicking and ScreamingTeach Me, Don’t Berate Me

Coaches in the purest sense of the word are teachers.  Their role is to teach the game to their players.  Game day isn’t a test of how well the players have learned – it’s a test of a coach’s effectiveness to teach his players how to play the game of soccer.  If a team fails to execute certain strategies or if players fail to display certain skills, this is a failure of the coach to teach those skills and strategies.

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The test of a coach takes place on game day, when his or her players take the field and (hopefully) execute the skills, philosophies and strategies set forth by their leader.

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In today’s over-priced “pay-for-play” youth soccer environment (read Where Does All the Money Go? to learn more), clubs advertise and set high expectations regarding the level of training and player development parents can expect.  Fees equaling thousands of dollars per year have set high standards of accomplishment for coaches in competitive environments, for children as young as 8 years old.  Low or non-existent wages for coaches, however, means that qualified, certified youth soccer coaches are hard to find.  This results in frustrated parents and mediocre (at best) player development, season after season.

… and the U.S. fails to win again…

For Love of the Game?

Part of the art of developing players is keeping them passionate and interested in learning the game.  The pitfall of the American soccer system – and the reason we struggle to qualify for the World Cup every four years – is that our grassroots system is focused more on generating income for club directors and winning trophies, than actually teaching our kids how to play soccer.

[testimonials_style_two]Many youth soccer clubs are starting to look like third-world mega-corps with 6 figure salaries for Executive and Technical Directors, while the bathrooms are filthy, the fields & equipment are deteriorating, and the coaches are getting paid just over minimum wage.  Budget cuts are made at the lowest levels, resulting in high coach turnover, frustrated parents and emotional coaches.[/testimonials_style_two]

Coaches who are frustrated and emotional create frustrated, emotional players.  This is why we see such a huge drop in registrations and participation as players get older (that, and The Car Ride Home).   Kids who played soccer from 4 to 12 years of age suddenly take up football, tennis, golf or cross-county running when they get to middle & high school – or quit playing sports all together.  They’re either priced-out or stressed-out of the American soccer system.

For Better or Worse

Club soccer started out as small community service oriented organizations, but after 4+ decades, the unspoken rule of most clubs seems to be “win today” rather than develop skilled players for tomorrow.  Aren’t we all on Team USA?  Shouldn’t development take priority over winning?  As players get older and the demands are higher, talent that was very promising at 8, 9 or 10 years old has retired at 12, 13 or 14.  Isn’t that a problem?

Every youth player has great potential.  The American Soccer program suffers each time a player is lost, because competition becomes lighter for the remaining players.


Mike Slatton is a USSF & NSCAA Nationally Licensed 30+ year youth soccer coach, player developer and father of two teenage soccer players.

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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."

5 Comments

  1. Coaching like parenting is communication.
    The value of the coaching is dependent on the ecology of the coach.
    If the coach is missing value and fundamentals, then often what comes out is empty noise. ie. “What Are You Doing?” Which is not actionable.

    That is not very instructive and is not taking responsibility as the instructor because the kid obviously did not get your prior instructions on how to execute the play. The meaning of our communication is how it is received. Obviously, the player isn’t getting it. And unfortunately, probably neither does the coach or he would say something more clear and specific. To make things worse he yells the proverbial “what are you doing?”. This implies a lack of communication skills.

    However, I do have issue with the spirit of this article. What we call yelling is not bad. Bad communication is bad. Maybe what I should be saying is raising your voice is not bad if it implies directed transferable passion and is received with actionables. As one of my first mentors taught me. If you are coaching on game day you are too late.

    Regarding develop skill for tomorrow I have some issue with that. My coaches often use that.” We are getting them ready for high school”. Well lots of them will not play high school. So what are they getting then? We develop them to play for today. The only thing about tomorrow is the life skills they take from the experience.And yah, if they play later on, they will be all the better because we took care of them mentally and fundamentally today.

    Amos Alonzo Stagg, once the winningest coach in College football. Was asked about how he felt about his players success that season. He replied to the reporter, “I will not know for another 20 years”. He was a mentor to the great basketball coach John Wooden. Who also did not focus on his wins. But instead always marveled in his players success in life.

    • Tim, the majority of these article (this one included) are directed at “competitive” soccer. Competitive soccer clubs dress themselves up like they are developing players to play at the highest level – either college, pro or even national teams.

      You’re right though: “Well lots of them will not play high school.” Most of the kids playing “competitive” soccer should actually be playing in recreational programs. In fact, our rec programs should be the primary revenue producers for our clubs, and the competitive programs should be made up of only the best players, resulting in just one team per age group per club. Currently, the majority of 10 and older teams are considered “competitive”, with small recreational programs at each club. In fact, for every 5 “competitive” teams in the u-12 to u-18 programs, there is just 1 recreational team, resulting in very watered down competitive programs.

      When you look at those numbers, the kids who could really benefit from (and develop in) a competitive program are getting lost among all of those kids who will never even play in high school.

      Thanks for your input Tim.

  2. This is weak. Allow you child to develop into an adult that wont be sheltered by the wing of their overly attached mother. Coaches instill this respect from yelling to get their point across much like a parent yelling at a child that doesn’t respect their authority. It is thinking like yours that is causing the youth of America to act like they must be “babied” in the failure of any endeavor. Shame on you

    • Thanks for the comment Alex. You’re not the first NON-parent to accuse those in the trenches of parenthood of being too soft. “Yelling to get their point across” is not the issue at all. If you read the ENTIRE article, you would have noticed that the issue is actually about TEACHING during practice, and letting the kids PLAY during the games.

      It’s also about coaches giving SPECIFIC instructions that help players develop, instead of berating players who have failed to execute what the coach thinks should be instinctive. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!” is the most unnecessary statement a coach will ever make. After all, the player is doing what the coach taught them; if the player fails to execute, then the coach has obviously failed to teach.

      Now that you’ve graduated WKU, Alex, you’ll soon grow up, marry and have kids of you’re own (provided you’re not JUST interested in “cougars”) and you’ll realize how ignorant you really are right now. It’s ok though – we’ve all been through it.

    • No sir. You are the problem!! Screaming like a fool is often cover for being a weak coach, lacking in the technical knowledge to teach the sport properly. Do us a favor and don’t pro create or coach. You just get in the way.

      Thank u for an excellent article coach!!! We live what you preach and our kids development has been outstanding.

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