Youth Soccer

Youth Soccer: We’re Doing it Wrong, Part 4

Scott Pugh continues his series discussing some of the most important problems facing youth soccer (between the ages of about 5-13). Much of the ideas and content are derived from the work of onetwo, and three of the series.

So far in this series, we’ve established that children learn best when they are trying difficult skills in a supportive environment. We’ve shown that elite clubs throughout the world utilize games primarily as learning opportunities rather than a way to produce short-term wins. Now we’ll look at the traditional “win-at-all-cost” mentality that pervades many adults’ outlook toward youth soccer, and its affects on how we as coaches, and parents, behave on the sidelines.

Coaches and parents

Most of us would agree that the goal of youth soccer should be to develop players to fulfill their best potential while fostering a love of the sport that will keep them playing into adulthood, if they so choose. Many coaches and parents will pay lip service to the idea that “it’s not important who wins the game, the most important thing is that they learn and have fun,” yet their actions often contradict these principles.

Pay attention the next time you’re around a youth soccer match. Observe how coaches and parents act differently depending on the scoreline. Listen to the chorus of “Pass! Shoot it! Move up! Be aggressive! Not in the middle!” When the score is close, the volume ramps up, but once a team is three or four goals ahead, both sides, resigned to the outcome, relax. If learning and fun were the main objective, why would we act differently when the “game is on the line.” The high-pressured, screaming-laden game I described in the first part of this series is unfortunately not uncommon.

So why do we act this way?

As a parent, I’m starting to realize that, as much as I know intellectually about the consequences of parents’ behaviors on the sidelines, I’m already finding it hard to stay calm during my son’s games. Like all parents, I want my child to do well. I want him to enjoy soccer, and I don’t want him to feel embarrassed or upset if he doesn’t perform well. I’m also concerned about what other parents or coaches might think of me based on my child’s play. If he tries a flashy piece of skill will they think I didn’t teach him to share properly? What if he’s a little overly aggressive, or overly passive? What does that say about me as a parent?

Such feelings — and many parents experience them — are referred to by psychologists as the “reverse-dependency trap,” and it can lead to our own emotions taking precedence over what is best for our children. As a result, we shout instructions in an attempt to save our children from their mistakes. However, research shows that we actually cause them to play worse, while also significantly diminishing their learning and enjoyment of the sport.

Coaches are often under similar psychological stress. While many understand that sideline instruction can be detrimental, they are also under pressure from parents and club administrators. Uninformed parents expect coaches to be “sideline generals,” directing play like professional American sports coaches on television. If they sit quietly while the kids are making mistakes, what will the parents think? Likewise, if they intervene and direct the kids, they can improve the chances of their team winning. What would club administrators think if their club continues to lose to a local rival? Fearing that parents will move their best players across town to the winning club, coaches can feel pressured to produce immediate wins.

“Pass it!”

Let’s consider an example:

Suzie is dribbling into the attacking third. A defender approaches to tackle the ball while her teammate, Annie, is wide open to her right. A parent shouts, “Pass it to Annie!” Suzie dutifully complies, leading to a goal for Annie. Good job, right?


What just happened? By directing Suzie, the parent didn’t allow her to use her own active decision making skills. She doesn’t get to fire those circuits in her brain that allow her to think quickly under pressure. Moreover, the coach just lost a great opportunity to evaluate how far Suzie has developed in her game understanding. Perhaps Suzie had been working on a new piece of skill and was prepared to take on the defender 1 v 1. The abilities to make decisions quickly and to attack in 1 v 1 situations are two of the most critical skills that separate successful soccer players from the rest, and we just robbed Suzie of the opportunity to develop them both.

And yet some would argue, “But we just scored and beat our cross-town U-10 rivals!”

In the words of the immortal Chris Farley,”Weeeeeell la-dee-freekin’ da!”

“Play smarter”

Let’s consider another example:

Timmy is playing defense for his U-11 team. While under significant pressure from an opposing player, Timmy attempts to play back to his goalkeeper. He mishits the ball and the attacker intercepts and scores.

There are two ways a coach could handle this situation.

Coach A shouts “Timmy! What are you doing? We don’t play with it in the back!” and pulls him from the game to continue emphasizing this point on the bench in front of his teammates so that everyone remembers to not “play with it in the back.” After the game, he reminds the team about Timmy’s mistake again and encourages the team to “play smarter” next week.

Coach B stays calm. He claps briefly and says to his team, “Don’t worry guys, keep working.” At halftime he pulls Timmy aside and says, “That was a good idea to play back to the goalie when you were under pressure, but you got unlucky. What could you have done differently?” Timmy thinks for a second and says, “I should have stayed more calm and concentrated on following through the center of the ball with my pass like we worked on in practice.” The coach replies, “Bingo! Way to go. Next time you’re in the same situation, I want you to try that pass again.”

Now, which coach leaves Timmy feeling more confident about his play? Which one allows him the freedom to try difficult skills and develop his game further? Which coach will he enjoy playing for and be more willing to learn from? And which coach is more likely to lead Timmy to conclude that he’s not very good at soccer and pass on next year’s tryouts?

The research is clear that shouting from the sidelines during a match is counterproductive to our real goals. Trevor Brooking is responsible for the development of England’s youth players as the Technical Director for FA. He describes how Manchester United has evolved: “The philosophy is to let them discover it themselves. The old vision of the coach shouting do this or do that has gone. What they have realized at United is the best coaching for youngsters is about standing back.”

This theory is supported by the research of Rianne Kannekens, who demonstrated that players who are allowed to develop superior decision making skills in their formative years are the ones who progress the farthest in the sport.

As parents and coaches, we have to be courageous enough to allow our children to fail. Remember, as we discussed in the second piece in this series, mistakes are the currency of learning. By constantly directing young soccer plays during a game, we limit their abilities to think creatively for themselves and pressure them to avoid mistakes at all costs.

Ultimately we create robotic and unimaginative players, precisely the kind that the rest of the world criticizes us for on the international level.

But more importantly, we create children uninspired by the game, and we drive far too many of them to quit playing.

That is inexcusable. We have to do better.


  1. I learned pretty quickly in parenting, when we had our first child, that I was robbing him of the ability to self sooth every time I went to the crib at night when he got upset. One of the greatest lessons I have learned and it was instinctive. It was hard. But it was right.
    What a tough thing to do to stand by and listen and watch without comment or direction. But not tough at all. So vitally important.
    I listen to parents applaud every little thing Johnny does. Everything. Way to GO! Johnny running and not laying down on the field. I listen to parents yell direction, as the author writes, and it is so throughly disheartening…….Disgusting really as if……..
    …it were this. Spell JoHnny! Subtract Subtract- no multiply JoHnny! ……JohnnYYYY Read! Read! Read faster!….. JOhnny friend-friend over there JohNNy. JohNNy your the best. JOhnny yea!!!!!! I love you JOhnny. JOhnny! JOhnny!JOhnny! …. John? John?
    Please if there is ONE thing readers take from this excellent series, it is to stand on the sidelines with a smile on your face or a friend next to you to bullshit with and thee air that you do not give a shit. YOUR kids do not need you in any capacity when they PLAY anything. I repeat. YOUR kids do not need you in any capacity when they play anything. They are whole. They are whole. They are whole. Parents?

    • Much love Joel. Reminds me of an excerpt that Mairs and Shaw include from “More Than Goals” by Mike Woitalla and Claudio Reyna:
      “For some reason, adults – some who can’t even kick a ball – think it’s perfectly ok to scream at children while they’re playing soccer. How normal would it seem if a mother gave a six year old some crayons and a coloring book and started screaming, “Use the red crayon! Stay in the lines! Don’t use yellow!?” Do you think that child would develop a passion for drawing?”

    • I’ll give you an exception – but I’ll be really clear that I know it’s an exception.
      I had a kid who was autistic. It really was a moment to celebrate when he didn’t “lay down on the field.” (Or to take the real moment, when he didn’t run off the field crying because he was confused.) It was an especially awesome moment when, in the last game of the year, he was able to successfully make a pass to a teammate.
      As I said, I know it’s an exception to what you’re saying. I find something to celebrate with every kid, even if it’s something seemingly as simple as, “You stayed on the field for the whole shift! Way to go, Johnny!”

  2. The entire game of football is about panache and daring. Gannas as Jaime Escalante says in Stand and Deliver. Ganas. Balls. Desire to dream and be great.
    I love the kid who thinks to get out of a jam inside the 6 who looks to buy time and space inside the 18– dare you say you think I can’t do it. WATCH ME!
    Love this kid.
    Love Love Love.
    And if he actually manages to thread a pass to a supporting player who happens to be in a support position then even better cause now 2 kids are thinking and linking and there is not one thing dad can do to help that save think for him.

  3. Great article, Scott. Anyone who has coached in America has heard this kind of parenting. Love the point about letting the kids make the decision- a challenge to me and a way I can grow.

  4. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    So true, I constantly ask parents to stop coaching from the sideline, it completely stunts a child ability to make decisions. I swear if I hear “send it” one more time….

  5. ‘Coach B stays calm. He claps briefly and says to his team, “Don’t worry guys, keep working.” At halftime he pulls Timmy aside and says, “That was a good idea to play back to the goalie when you were under pressure, but you got unlucky. What could you have done differently?” Timmy thinks for a second and says, “I should have stayed more calm and concentrated on following through the center of the ball with my pass like we worked on in practice.” The coach replies, “Bingo! Way to go. Next time you’re in the same situation, I want you to try that pass again.”’
    Yay! I’m doing something right! (Most of the time, anyway. Sometimes it’s harder than others.)

  6. I get very frustrated listening to parents yell instructions to their kids – the kids get confused, especially when the parents are yelling something different then what the coach has instructed them to do. So now the kid has two voices inside of his head and he has to choose who to listen to – parent or coach?

    • three voices actually staci. parent coach player.

    • This frustrates me so much as a coach – both soccer and basketball.
      Yes, Dad. I realize you think Suzie should slide out and cover the girl on the wing who is about to put up a 3-point shot. But if you actually came to practice, instead of dropping of Suzie and leaving as though we were babysitters, you would know that we asked the girls specifically not to worry about her shooting from outside, because all she does is chuck up bricks. But if we rush out to try and defend that, she’s smart enough to pull it down and dribble around into the open space for the easy jump shot. But now, that’s OK. Keep yelling at Suzie to “go put a hand in her face.” It’s cool. Ignore that confused look on her face, too. That’s just Suzie being a stubborn teen, and has nothing to do with us coaches telling her one thing and you yelling another. Kids these days!
      (Yes, this happened last night. Why do you ask?)

      • As the wife of a coach, that is one complaint I hear all the time – the parents don’t know what we’ve been talking about in practice, so when they yell, they are undoing what we’ve been working on.

      • It’s so frustrating. Every year, both sports, I talk to the parents. I encourage them to encourage their son or daughter. I beg them not to criticize the refs. (I’m big on “everybody makes mistakes, especially refs. Ignore it, it all evens out.” But it’s hard to drive that point home to the kids when Dad is arguing about the calls.) I demand they not criticize or yell at players on the other team. (I asked a dad to leave this past year on the soccer field because he kept yelling to the ref that “#10 was playing dirty.” Way to go, Dad. That’s how you teach your kid sportsmanship. Now get the hell off my field!) And I remind parents that if they wish to help coach, they are more than welcome to come to practice and help me out – I can always use extra hands and such. But if they don’t come to practice, they shouldn’t coach during the game. And invariably, it falls on deaf ears…

  7. The simple solution is for parents to stay away from the games, find your own sport and let the kids play without that kind of pressure. This parent involvement seems kind of unique to the USA. Stay home dammit!

  8. Thanks for the article.

    I’ve been in the coaching arena in various degrees for over 20 years. Now that my kids are grown and no longer play, it’s easier to remain calm, more like Coach B in the scenario above.

    It can be funny, and at the same time sad, to disconnect from the game itself and focus in on some of the outrageous behavior of parents on the sideline.

    It is challenging, especially for those parents who haven’t had a chance to be exposed to articles like this one, to not get pulled into those high emotional states in close games.

    I am fortunate now to be involved in very non-competitive coaching system, that emphasize having a positive impact on the young kids we teach.

    I remember those emotional moments well.
    Keep up the good work.


  9. I guess it shows how old I am .We took the subway in NYC to play our pickup games. NO parents,thank goodness. Just play for 3 or 4 hours. The coach took us to away games by subway. All 15 0f us. NO parents. A few parents would come to the championship game, but mostly to socialize with each other. The question asked was “how did you do?”Boy that was heaven for us players.

    • I read an article once – and forgive me, but I have no idea where – that the absolute best thing a parent can say to their kid after a game (or concert or whatever activity) is, “I loved watching you play today.” No praise for scoring; no suggestions on how to fix things or do better. No talk of mistakes. Just those six words, then shut up.
      I’ve tried incorporating that with my kids after games. It’s hard, since I’m the coach. But I try to use those six words, and say nothing else on the car ride home and for a while after we get home. I’ve seen a difference in my son, especially. He seems more relaxed on the field, and seems to just be enjoying the moment more often.
      Your “how did you do” comment reminded me of this.

      • Thats great to hear. I think it helps. When a pass back to the keeper is intercepted, there is nothing to say as a coach because the kid did not do it intentionally. His teamates will give him enough grief, so dont say anything if you can help yourself, or at least very little. This is not a teaching moment. At the very youth level, tactics are pretty much unimportant. If they play enough smallsided games, , they will get what it takes. Less tactics, more skill is the way to go with kids, I think. Dont worry about running into space, or thru balls, Give and go, to the feet is where it is at.

      • John. It was an article from the Huffington Post. I remember reading it as well. Rachel something….. I believe.

      • Great, thanks Joel. Now I have to basically admit I read the Huffington Post… Though that’s better than admitting I read buzzfeed. Which I totally never do. Ever. Nope.

  10. I agree that ideally this is what we should strive for but based on my experience (with 2 kids going thru the system), the following is why kids quit:
    – parents refuse to take them to practice & games. The whole traveling becomes too much for many parents.
    I actually know many parents who won’t even let their kids start to play travel because of this.
    – the team or coach is not ‘right’, and some kids do not fit in, have no fun and end up quitting. There are plenty teams and with some effort a better team or coach can be found but it takes effort, and kids have to get out of their comfort zone (to play in a team where they know no one) and often this is not wanted/desired.
    – a lot of kids develop differently and even though we strived to keep a team together since U8, some just did not develop as fast as others, or could not balance the homework and hours spent on the field & traveling and ended up quitting.
    – some kids ended up quitting to play other sports (tennis, squash, etc.). None of the kids I know ended up quitting to play football, baseball or basketball.
    – parents let kids quit too easily (as discussed earlier). So I will not labor on this but it is clear to me that a lot of parents can not or do not talk with kids enough, especially when it comes to tough issues.
    – then there are some who get embarrassed by their screaming parents and end up quitting because of this, but they are in the minority.

    • I think a lot of your points are spot on, but I disagree with your last one. While it’s not necessarily embarrassment about their parents yelling, it is the whole atmosphere that the yelling creates this unwanted emphasis on winning as the main goal. And that is the single biggest reason why your second point is the primary reason they quit…they stop having FUN.

      • Not based on my 10years on the sidelines. I tell you something else: the few that did quit regret it big time since they see that the ones who stayed end up having lots of fun and have a great camaraderie.
        As the kids age there is less and less screaming on the sidelines and parents relax more and more. Coaches are also a lot to blame if they can not control the parents. As coach it is essential that they communicate a lot and properly with the parents.
        My youngest plays U18 and his team will be staying in a beach house at Wildwood this weekend and will take part in the regional futsal tournament which they have won multiple times. They will have a blast and they will enjoy the last year they are together.
        Make this series more practical. What you write about is a repeat of many papers but very little changes because no practical tips are given. For example, tell parents that if the majority feels that the coach is not the right fit for the team then they should change the coach! Some tell me that their clubs appoint the coach and that the parents have no power to change the coach. Maybe some clubs are run as such but others give the parents much more freedom and let the majority rule. This is another key issue: there are always some parents who want this or that and they will poison the team if there is no clear ‘majority rules’ concept in place. For this you need a great Team Manager, which a lot of team lack.

      • This is a very good point, Guido. The actual nuts and bolts of fixing the system, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have the experience to do. My goal is to increase awareness, especially for parents so that there is a desire to change the system. With your experience, perhaps you could write a nice piece on how to navigate the politics of youth soccer and actually implement changes.
        I will still have to disagree about “the few that quit.” The data is clear that your perception of “the few” is actually around 75% of kids that play at the U9 level, will quit by U14. Hats off to you if you only saw a few – you are probably doing something right. Of course, you are spot on about your comments that parents can teach their kids about the benefits of staying committed to athletics even when it seems difficult. As a pediatrician, I am very familiar with the social and mental health benefits of playing a sport…which is again my motivation for writing these idealistic articles: to keep more kids playing longer!

      • Here, here to Guido writing his article!

      • I have been thinking about your statistics and now know what the deal is with them. At U8/9/10 LMSC had 5 teams: A,B,C,D,E. As the kids grew older less and less kids played so that at U16 there was only an A & B team and now at U18 there is only an A team left. So a lot stopped playing, and some went to other organisations, such as FC Fusion and Nether, etc. However, a lot of those who stopped playing, stopped because they were just not good enough and therefore had no fun! Most of those on the B, and especially the A teams kept on playing. Could some who were on the D team and quit have made it to the A-Team eventually; unlikely. Some B and C players did. So you have to take your statistics with a grain of salt! Most of the good players did not quit.
        Once I have a better idea where the kids will play next year I will write something about our experience.

  11. I am going to say this once and then let it all go concerning Guido in this series.
    #1 – How many people are on here responding to Guido saying he is right?
    #2 – How many people other than Scott and I respond to Guido’s posts on this topic?
    #3 – Guido’s dismissal of there being a problem with youth sports is insulting. Therre is a level of arrogance which is off putting by the insistance that everyone else is wrong because he is right.
    #4 – The point being, Guido, if you are right, and everyone else is wrong, why would there be so much research, and statistics, into kids leaving organized travel sports by age 13? (The US Youth Soccer Association has statistics on it, so even they have aknowledged that there is a problem.)
    5 – In the end it comes across as though the whole world just made up a problem that Guido doesn’t see, so it doesn’t exist, and everyone who says it exists is wrong.
    It is that very kind of attitude which cause me to flee soccer clubs as fast as I can to get my kids away from adults with the same mentality.
    Ok, I am done responding in the future on this topic with Guido. It is obvious that his opinion is that those who carry the same thought process that I do are all wrong in his eyes and should just give up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *