Responsibility and Accountability on the Youth Soccer Field
If you haven't been to a youth soccer game, the rules at this age usually require the parents to be on one side of the field and the coaches on the other side. This allows the kids to focus their attention on one side, rather than trying to distinguish their coaches' voices from those of their parents. At a game recently, the field was not set up in this way and both coaches and parents were on the same side.
The kids had complained for a long time about the parents and their yelling and instructions--to the point where none of them wanted to play in the position that was on the same side as the parents. But I had never gained a full sense of it until I was on the same side as the parents. I couldn't hear myself think....one child was running around back and forth totally confused as he was getting instructions from me in English and from another players' father in Spanish at the same time.
We lost this game 3-1, our second loss in a row. We were competitive, but had a couple of lapses of concentration that resulted in goals for the other team...and that is how soccer is. It punishes you for those little mistakes.
I came away from this game very frustrated, not so much because of the loss, but more because of my realization of what the kids had experienced every game with the parents...hearing the direction, the yelling, the groans at mistakes. It was just too much.
It is important before going any further to recognize that we have a very passionate parent base--they get their kids to practice 3-4 days a week, to games that are sometimes in San Francisco or as far away as a three hour drive, and give up whole weekends for tournaments. And most of these families are not families of means--they are sacrificing time, energy and money so their children can pursue competitive soccer. So clearly the parents care deeply about their children and want them to succeed. But what I realized is that we needed to give them the space to perform.
As a result, I reached out to the parents both by email and personally at practice and told them that there we could not continue in this way and that our behavior (including that of the coaches, too) needed to change. I assigned the two most vocal parents to serve as monitors and ensure that no one gave direction from the sideline. I also pledged that as a coach, I would say very little, but that for this experiment to work, I needed their participation. They conceded that it would be difficult, but that they were willing to try.
The following week in practice, we also had a situation come up...because of an unusual set of work commitments for my co-coach that particular week, he could not attend practice. So it was basically me and a set of about 20-25 kids....not our ideal coaching ratio. I still went about creating a practice plan as usual, but realized that the quality of practice was going to be dependent on the kids, and wanted them to understand that.
I shared this with all of the kids at the beginning of practice, and decided to also start and end each practice that week with a kind of pledge. I would say these words, and ask them as a group to repeat after me: "I, individually, and we collectively, are responsible and accountable for the quality of our practice." Obviously not all of the kids understood every word, but they were clear on the sense of what they were saying. For these practices to succeed, I needed their help. I would say that for the week, practice went relatively well and the kids responded. At the end of practice, I also began to have them evaluate the practice on a scale on 1-10, and tell me what they thought went well and where we needed to improve. I reserved the opportunity to add my thoughts, but I found that, not surprisingly, they covered most everything themselves.
Following this week in practice and my talk with the parents, we had our first game since this new system was put into place. Before the game, we recited our pledge but with a little variation : "I, individually, and we, collectively, are responsible and accountable for our performance in today's game. Not the referees, not the coaches, not the parents, and not even the other team." One key element is the choice of the word "performance"--it is neutral of wins or losses, and about the quality of our effort and play.
The parents held up their end of the agreement ( although it was difficult at times for them) and the difference in the experience was dramatic for everyone. For the first time the kids took control of the game and were communicating with one another, telling each other where to go and taking leadership roles on the field. What is also amazing is that when as a coach you say very little, it makes other coaches who are yelling and screaming almost seem like lunatics--as if you have ultimate confidence in your team, while the opposing coach feels like he needs to manage every movement their players make. The experience was also great for me--I had become accustomed at the end of the game to feeling stressed, exhausted, and frustrated. At the end of this game, I felt relaxed and energized, and I spent most of my time on sideline chatting with one of my assistant coaches.
Midway through the first half when one of our players was substituted out to take a break, I said to him "This game is a lot different, isn't it?" He responded "Yes, I like it!" One of his parents was one of my chief offenders in past games, but was very disciplined about following our parent expectations in this game.
Please be clear--To do this, one needs to be prepared to accept the good with the bad--the other team scored one goal against us strictly because of a mistake that one of our players made. Normally, I would have corrected it well in advance and probably prevented the goal. However, after he had the experience of the mistake and the consequences, it was much easier to have a meaningful discussion with him about the importance of maintaining his position.
We also went through our self evaluations as a team both at half time as well as at the end of the game, and finished with our pledge just as we started the game.
I hope the rest of you can start this way rather than learning it through experience, but learning it in the way I did was powerful and a lesson I will never forget.
Oh , and the final result? We won 4-2....