(FA) The Art of Adult Communication
Standing on the side of the pitch produces what can only be said is a myriad of nonsense, jargon and random industry-related phrases. Half of these, well, maybe well over half don't actually help our young players learn and in fact reinforce messages that we probably don't want them to have. Furthermore, how do we know the way these messages are being received - is it helping them understand the game? Is it developing their decision-making skills? Is it doing anything for their self-esteem or feeling of worth?
I've collected a whole manner of information from the side of pitches and I think its time to try and translate some of these. From the 50 focus groups we have done with children across the country there is some fascinating insights into how us, the adults, make them feel with words. I would say most of what the children hear isn't deliberately meant by adults to have the effect it does, it's probably meant with good intentions but just a little misguided.
I'm sure you've heard a whole manner of different things from the side of the pitch over the years, whether as a parent or a coach, and will relate to some of these.
Quotes: "If in doubt kick it out", "Get rid of it", Get it forwards", "Whack it up the pitch"
Interpretation: I must have heard these phrases more than any others, which loosely means "don't take care of the ball, just don't concede a goal". Managers and coaches seem to be happier the further the ball is away from their goal, regardless of direction or purpose of playing forwards. It is about the adult ego here; the reflection on themselves and what the possibility of conceding a goal might mean.
It is also probably the one reason we have young players in this country that aren't comfortable in possession of the ball, because they know if they lost it and heaven forbid, make a mistake, then the world will end! Equally, children then do it because the panic sets in, the mum or dad on the sideline screeching this information at them would scare me into doing it too!
We need to allow children to make mistakes, to learn what to do when they have the ball and to learn to pick the most appropriate passes. Sometimes it might be into the forward, sometimes it might be across to another defender. It might be different to the one that you picked but so what?
Alternatives: "Take your time and choose the right pass, Darren", "Try and find a team mate, Nicola", "Try and play forwards when you think its the right pass, James".
The difference? Decision-making is owned by the child, they try and do what they think is the right thing yet with a modicum of coaching support and help.
Quotes: "We have two goals to get and your trying all these tricks", "Don't hold on to it", "Get it down, pass, get it down, pass, get it down, PAAASSSSSS!"
Interpretation: It basically means - stop having fun. You aren't here to come and emulate your heroes, you aren't here to try things that might just boost your self-esteem and ranking amongst friends if it works, you are here to be a 'robot' and do as the adult defines.
The adult here is showing a lack of trust and support for their players and is basically saying "you aren't good enough to try something new so get rid of it". However, from what I know about learning, unless you try something and practice it you will never be very good anyway?! I can imagine that some of the players we know and love watching at the top level - Messi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, the young Giggs, and the Gazza's and Waddle's of their time - would they have been the same player they are/were if they had adults on the side barking at them to pass every time they got the ball? Probably not.
Flair players are exciting, they can change the game in a heartbeat and create opportunities from nothing. They can unlock defences with a moment of magic and a dribble, but they can't if they are going to feel vilified for even trying. Do they fail more than they succeed? I'm sure they do. But they do things that are incredible, breathtaking and make you sit up in your seat and make noises like you are watching fireworks.
Alternatives: "Great attempt, try again Jack", "Try and vary your style, Ishmael, to keep the defender guessing - are you going to pass or dribble?", "Where do you think your dribbling will be most effective to help the team, Roger?"
Of course, use training to help them refine these skills but the whole purpose of practising these is to do them in a game. It sends a better message of when and where is appropriate and the coach has a role to help develop understanding of this.
Quotes: "Don't just stand there, move about", "Come on, move", "Get in the hole", "Look up"
Interpretation: This was one of the funniest moments I have seen in a Mini-Soccer match, the first quote there. I was watching a game of U9's playing and the ball was down one end a fair bit with a few corners on the trot. Near the half way line was an striker from the team defending and a player from the other team. The manager clearly decided his forward wasn't doing enough to influence play so demanded he moved about. So he did.
Despite the ball being at the other end, 35 yards away, the striker did what he was told. So he started running in a massive figure of eight in the opposition half, nowhere near the ball! The defender, not sure what to do at this time having never seen such creative off-the-ball play, was told to "stay with him" by the coach. We then had a scene from Benny Hill, with these two kids chasing each other across the pitch from side-to-side! All because the coach hadn't thought about how his words were going to be interpreted by the child.
I remember the "get in the hole" at a tournament which followed with the U10 kid coming over to the sideline and saying to the coach that there wasn't any holes in the pitch and I recall three U8's 'looking straight up' into the sky when a parent shouted this on, like there was a passing helicopter or something.
Be careful with the language you use; don't use football jargon for the little ones, it won't make much sense and some will take you literally. Try and use language that they will understand and questions to promote thinking, rather than telling.
Alternatives: "Becci, try and find some free space when you don't have the ball", "Try and see where your teammates are, Zoe, before you pass the ball", "Well done for getting into a position to help your team, Tyrell"
This is about encouraging players to think about the game without getting confused with the words you say. Try and keep it simple and introduce more game-related language when you see is the right time with the age and stage of your players.
Finally, some quotes directly from children about how adults can make them feel when they shout negative comments on to the pitch if they make a mistake:
"Parents embarrass me when the shout and they just confuse me"
"I don't like it when we try something new and it doesn't go right first time and the adults shout at me"
"When adults shout at me, it's like it all goes quiet and it's a big spotlight on me"
"When people shout negative stuff it makes me just want to leave the pitch and go home"
However, when we say good things, this is what the kids say:
"I feel proud, confident and honoured to play for the team when people shout good things"
"It makes me feel really good about myself and I try even harder"
"It boosts my self-confidence and energy"
The only thing that us as adults can control in the coaching and match environment is what comes out of our mouthes. We can't control how the message is received, the actions of what happens after or how the child feels after hearing something. Please, think about the words you choose carefully and try and be positive as much as you can. That's what the kids want.