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In-Game Coaching At Tournaments

Why Coaches Should Leave Games to the Players

By Cyrus Philbrick

Over-coaching, or over-instruction, has become one of the worst plagues in American Youth soccer. It flares up most during tournaments, when the intense atmosphere and emphasis on winning causes coaches to try to control their players’ every movement.

“I see a lot of over-coaching on the sidelines, a lot of instructions from coaches play to play,” said Adrian Cox, the current coach of the U12 Lower Merion Lighting. “I like to do most of my coaching after the game and during half time. If you’re coaching every roll of the ball then the kids will be worrying too much about what the coaches think and what they’re supposed to be doing.”

During halftime and after games, coaches have the players’ collective attention. Players can reflect on their performance and on what they can improve.

Even during these breaks, however, coaches shouldn’t overload the players with instruction and criticism.

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“At halftime I want to limit the amount of information I give my players,” said Ellis Pierre, the Director of Coaching for the Bethesda Soccer Club in Maryland. “Instead of talking about all the things they’re doing incorrectly, I talk about a few things – and I try to limit it to three – that we need to do. It might be something that we need to continue to do, or something that we need to do to come back and win.”

Dave Green, also of Bethesda Soccer Club, suggests addressing halftime criticisms to the entire team, instead of individuals, whenever possible.

“If there’s two or three players that need to be criticized,” said Green, “then I’ll mention the criticism to the entire group, hoping that the players that it applies to will think, ‘I’m pretty sure he’s talking about me.’”

Although coaches should try to save the majority of instructions until after games, sometimes players need instruction and criticism during the heat of competition, and not just if they’re going the wrong way.

Darren Marshall, the Director of Coaching for Eastern Massachusetts FC, says that the amount of instruction that a coach gives often depends on the circumstance of the game. Important, or extremely competitive, tournament games can require more instruction as less margin for error exists.

If the errors on the field require shouting or instruction, coaches of top clubs recommend waiting for “coachable moments,” or moments when instruction can benefit the player and the team.

As Pierre suggests, “a ‘coachable moment’ in a practice and a game is different. In a game you don’t have the luxury of stopping and restarting so that the instruction gets engrained in a kid’s head. In a game, a ‘coachable moment’ is when you see a player do something incorrectly that you have worked on a lot in the past.”

Green also says that coaches should focus their instruction on topics that they covered recently in practice, on concepts that should lie fresh in players’ minds.

“Especially with younger players, it’s important to concentrate on the things we just went over in practice, or in the last few weeks, instead of criticizing them for something that I might not have gone over or something that we’d gone over months ago,” Green said.

Coaches should also stay aware that boys and girls might interpret instruction or criticism differently.

Travis Kikugawa, who currently coaches in the Real So. Cal youth system and has coached both genders in many different sports, says that the difference between coaching boys and girls hinges on the ways the two genders react to criticism:

“With boys, you can be a little more direct, with both what you say and when you say it. With girls, you tend to have to think before you speak, because girls are a bit more sensitive when it comes to getting called out or criticized by their coaches or peers. Girls tend to internalize it and take it personally, while the boys tend to want to prove you wrong … One of my good friends, and an exceptional coach, might have said it best. He said, ‘Girls need to feel good to play good, and boys need to play good to feel good.’”

“Girls take criticism personally,” Green said. “In talking to them, it helps to phrase your criticism in a way that shows that you care about them and think they’re a good player.”

Above all else, however, coaches should remember that practices serve as the best place for instruction. Games are for playing, practices are for coaching.

“During games I want kids to make decisions, even if they make incorrect decisions,” Ellis Pierre said. “I can correct them after the game or at the next practice.”

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