I co-coached my older son’s soccer team this past few months, boys aged 7 to 8, the U9 level. Last year I coached his team, also, in a less-competitive league with 4v4 play. This year we had the step-up, 7v7 with a goalie, and 11 kids instead of 8. It was much different in terms of energy from the number of players, plus welcoming new players into a squad that played together last season. Pretty early on I talked with my co-coach about how we’re going to have to Manage more than Coach. He runs a large furniture manufacturing company, and his insight saved me I don’t know how many shots of Jameson at practices and games.
I observed early on in my sports “career” (I threw shot put and discus in college) that successful teams put players where they are most naturally suited. If a talent shows up, how can a coach ensure the success and interest of the player AND the success of the team? Do what’s right for the player and the team, it’s easy to find that balance. We got a returning kid who was so fast and athletic and had such a motor that we created the Ranger position. He could play anywhere on the field, F-MF-D, because he was going to run the field anyway. It wasn’t in his nature to stay in an area, so we didn’t force him to. Put ’em where they fit. My co-coach was able to see how kids had a certain skill that would translate to a position, and he’d get them to really shine. And we wanted them to have fun. There’s no pay, no public glory, no shoe contracts. In fact, with the amount of driving, emailing, snacks, and gear, it’s wise to put a line-item in the family budget for “Soccer, Misc.”
And there were kids who were first-timing it. Rookies in the world of organized sports, or just soccer. And every dude comes out with his own experiences and ideas of how it’s going to go for them. But hey, as a coach, you have to help the players understand the boundaries and intention of the relationship. We’re here to get better via practice, so we’re the best in the game. Sportsmanship can be tough to teach, the idea and practice of being respectful of the game and players by playing fair, playing hard, and encouraging your teammates at all times. We called that last one “Teamsmanship”.
This was a tough one, because we had kids from 4 different schools. Last year we had 8 kids from 2 schools. So this year we had 11 kids: 6 from 1 school, 3 from another school, and 2 from different schools. I think I researched “youth sports team dynamics” as much as “drills for youth soccer that aren’t monumentally boring”. We weren’t as cohesive as I’d hoped, but that fell on my shoulders as the coach, in that we could have done some more team-building stuff. Some kids were like cousins, some like brothers, and some like professional wrestling rivals getting ready for the Bunkhouse Brawl at the KeyStone Fieldhouse this Saturday.
We had Alpha performers, Alpha personalities with Beta skills, Beta performers with Alpha drive, and everyone had their own Omega (not interested, gonna quit) moments. All of these have to be identified, welcomed, and addressed. As each kid had his own way of expressing happiness, effort, and disappointment, we were learning quickly how to help them embrace it and turn it into positive energy.
The league’s pre-season meetings and seminars rarely give you the heads-up about the dynamics of personalized coaching styles. I’m far from a guru, but I’m thankful I had experience with some of the players from last year, as well as the works I’ve read about working with boys, their energy, and especially with the Positive Coaching Alliance.
We’d get 2 hours a week with the kids before the game. I’d like to get more, but instead we’d encourage them to play soccer at recess, practice those passing drills, and ask parents to remind their guys about Sportsmanship and Respect. We had a great group of parents, too. It was so loud at a couple games that I had to give kids hand-signals instead of shouting directions. Preparation was a huge lesson! By the time we started the game, we didn’t want to coach, we wanted to just remind the guys of where they should be and let them play and make their own decisions on the field. They all showed the ability to play well, play with a team, and everyone got a lot better by season’s end.
Our record, for the record, was 7-0-1. UNDEFEATED! 2 of those wins came against teams that were far more technically proficient than we were. Really great at passing out of the cluster – if you’ve watched a kid’s soccer game, the Cluster is the maddening huddle that migrates around the ball as it rolls around the field – and getting back on defense. We won against those teams sheerly by just PLAYING. Our guys were just out-hustling the other team, challenging everything. Usually around the 5th game, about 7 weeks in, I tell myself “This is it. Next year is no-go.” But this year I was already looking for ways to get better as a coach, in Soccer and elsewhere. If you make the practice/learning a FUN thing, the play/game takes care of itself. The best part of it all, for me, is when I see the kids and their families around town, and they say “Hey coach! I’m playing this sport this Winter, but are you gonna coach XYZ in the Spring?” Yeah, I probably will. Just gotta get the shoe contract worked out.