To be a better youth soccer coach, sometimes you just shut up

How's this for a bright idea ... just shut up and let 'em play!

Today I will be a good soccer coach. A regular Guus Hiddink. There’s no doubt about it – if I do say so myself.

It’s not because I’ve been inspired, or because I have some special wisdom to impart or because I’ve read something really cool in a coaching book. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Here’s the deal …

I do some youth coaching because I enjoy it. Right now I have an under-12 team that plays at a competitive level. Generally speaking, I try hard to do the right things for the boys. I spend as much time organizing practices as running them, so every session has a purpose and so the young men aren’t spending a bunch of time standing around in lines or listening to me yap.

Most of our practices are about skills and the practical application of them. I try to make them aware of body positioning relative to opposition, and why creating space that way is important. I put them through agility drills to begin every practice, hopeful that developing foot speed and mobility will help them become better athletes, no matter what sport they pursue in days future. There’s a lot of 4 v 4 games, with lots of touches, plenty of problem solving and no latitude for shirking responsibility.

I try to teach with enthusiasm, attention and with a plan.

Today, I won’t be doing any of that. Not a bit.

For the last month or so, Saturday soccer for the boys has been 90 minutes of semi-structured pickup play. I helped arrange an hour-and-a-half session with another team, so that we have three small indoor fields. We divide up the teams, set a watch for 15-minute games and let ‘em go.

They don’t hear from me for 15 minutes. Then we rotate the teams, let ‘em get a quick drink and … then I shut up again. There’s no real score keeping other than what the boys do within their own games. There’s no prize to claim for having the best team of the day – other than getting to beat their chest about it Monday at school, I suppose.

And they love it.

When it’s our time to take the field, the boys are out there in a flash, with lots of gum flapping and ample energy. Generally speaking, these are good kids and they take direction well. That said, they sure don’t seem to mind not getting any.

If this sounds like a no-brainer – well, it is and it isn’t.  See, I also get paid a little to coach this team. Plenty of coaches get paid, and that’s part of the problem. It creates a central conflict, a conflict that prevents coaches from being the best they can be in the big picture.

In order to be the best coach I can be, sometimes it’s just best to shut up and let the kids learn the game, to solve problems by themselves, to learn lessons without admonishment from adults.

But in order to justify the paycheck, coaches may feel like they must … well, you know … coach.

We hear all the time about the day-long pickup games that teach the game to young kickers around the world. Well, we just don’t always have that kind of environment here. So the kind of free-for-all Saturday we have going right now serves the same purpose.

How far might it go to help prevent the prevalent burnout that we all know about in the youth soccer game? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it will hurt.

We’ll be back on the outdoor practice field in about a week. They’ll be listening to me talk about doing the right things on the field, about the importance of little details, etc. Maybe I’ll be a good coach, maybe I won’t.

But at least for one day, I can be sure that I’m getting it right.

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