Like every Sunday this fall, yesterday was youth soccer Sunday in our household. Back-to-back games for my 5yo daughter in the First Division and my 7yo son in the Second. The results were identical: bad 3-0 losses. Yet the experiences were hardly the same.
God bless ‘em, but my daughter and her teammates had absolutely no idea what the score was. In fact, after every whistle stopping play she came cruising by for a high-five or a hug (which are getting more infrequent on the field). Which meant she came cruising by for a high-five after each goal the opponents scored, big ‘ol smile on her face. Loving life.
My son’s team, on the other hand, was miserable. They were outplayed badly, frustrated constantly, and what seemed worse to me, they played “amoeba” soccer (everyone follow the ball) - in stark contrast to their opponents, who for the most part stayed true to their positions and spacing. As a result, his team wore themselves out chasing all around the field, then gave up the inevitable demoralizing goal once they tired themselves out enough.
Now, I’m the assistant coach, so part of this falls on me. And what I could not get out of my head was how Un-fun it is for players when they reach the age to discern whether or not they’re competitive with an opponent. If it’s not fun, then it’s useless to extol the value of sports to a young kid! So what is my responsibility there? To take the extra steps to make our team better, thus more competitive, thus more fun.
And the answer is not to play our “better” players more, or more prominently. You may win a game or two that way, but is your team having more fun? That’s the goal, remember? Not to win, but to have more fun by being more competitive.
So I spent about 45 minutes after the game with the referee. He’s a gentleman in his 60′s who has played soccer his whole life, refereed this league for the past 30 years, coached the local high school for the past 35. He was able to explain to me the developmental stages that a coach can expect players to comprehend as they move from the lowest division to the highest, elementary school to high school, and gave me concrete tips and drills for each age group, helped me integrate more sport-specific knowledge into my general understanding of how to coach.
You can do the same, whether you’re an all-star coach or just a mom or dad or teacher out to help the kids have a good experience. Find an expert, in person or online, and pick their brains. Develop an understanding of how skills and tactics change and grow as the players move up in age. Visit your local high school or college practices to watch the break-down drills they run. And vow to help your kids get better every time they come to practice for you. We owe it to our kids to do the best job we can. For the fun of it.