Lesson 14: Game Day Under Coaching vs. Over Coaching
When I first began taking coaching education courses, there was a popular phrase repeated at almost every opportunity:
“Practice is where you prepare, and the game is the test. You wouldn’t shout out answers during a test at school, so don’t give your players the answers in a game either.”
I always understood this as meaning “don’t coach at all during games” and have spent many seasons quietly sitting on the sidelines not giving any feedback to my players until halftime. I was under the impression that I was allowing my players to make their own decisions, learn from their mistakes, and take ownership of the game, and I was right. However, I was also hindering my players’ development by remaining completely silent throughout every game.
Coaching Soccer is Unique
Soccer is unique to other team sports. There are no timeouts, and only one stoppage of play for the coach to pull their players aside and give them feedback about how the game is going. It’s one of the beauties of soccer: it’s the player’s game. Their decisions change the outcome of the games they play in, not the coach’s. Due to this, we must teach our players how to think through problems and find desirable outcomes through our practices, as we can’t tell our players exactly what to do in every situation - soccer is too dynamic. If you would like to learn about how to teach decision making in players, view our article about the benefits of keeping soccer practices dynamic.
As a result, sometimes we see coaches who are the opposite of a silent coach, called a “joysticker.” These coaches control every motion, every thought, and every action on the field. Joystick coaches tell their players when to pass, who to pass to, when to dribble, when to shoot, when to tackle…the list goes on. We’ve most likely all seen them on the sidelines before: they are constantly talking, yelling, and pacing. Do not be a joysticker; your players will not listen to you, and will eventually not play for you anymore. Joystick coaches rob the enjoyment of the sport, and are not respected by anyone.
As a result, we need to find a blend between ‘silent’ coaching and ‘joystick’ coaching. Players need organizational help in games, because it’s difficult to replicate all the game’s nuances completely in practices. Especially when young, players need reminders of where they should be on the field, or how to move off the ball. However, we need to give players the freedom to make their own decisions and mistakes. If we don’t give them the freedom to make mistakes, then we’ve taken away a very vital tool in the learning process.
So, when I coach games, I always try and follow these rules to find my balance between the two extremes:
- Rarely coach the person on the ball - I do not tell a player when/where to pass or when/where to dribble. I let them make the decision. Occasionally, if I see something they may miss I’ll remind them to “get their head up” encouraging them to look around and see if they can find the same thing I’m seeing.
- Focus on the players “off” the ball - Reminding your defenders to step up if your team has the ball, reminding your midfielders to check their shoulder as they run into space, reminding your outside backs to get forward into the attack, for example. Organizational help is important in the flow, because it’s difficult to “review” these decisions after the game with players. Players will remember the instances when they had the ball more so than when they didn’t, so it’s difficult to review a decision off the ball after a game without video help. Use this coaching in moderation, however, as you do not want to be talking and giving instruction constantly.
- Talk about decisions on the ball afterwards - I don’t coach the player on the ball, but after they pass, shoot, or dribble I’ll say something to them to help them make a better decision next time they’re in that situation. For instance – If they could have played a penetrative ball to a forward, but they chose to play a possession ball backwards, I’d say “you missed an opportunity to go forward because your body wasn’t open when you received it.” I do this almost immediately after they have released the ball, or when the next stoppage happens, whichever disrupts the game and the player’s attention the least. Again, use this moderately.
- Catch them being good - when positive things happen on the field, like a good pass or great movement off the ball, highlight that! Be loud and say things like “great vision! Way to get your head up!” Highlighting the positive things that happen in a game, rather than only the negatives, help players learn quicker what you’re looking for.
- Help players get ownership of their team at halftime - I always give my players five minutes as soon as they come off the field at halftime to discuss the game amongst themselves. They are always given two questions to answer: “what’s the one thing we’re doing well, and what’s the one main thing we need to change in the 2nd half?” I allow the players to give me their thoughts, and then I use those answers with my own thoughts when talking about the game plan for the 2nd half.
Try to minimize your own coaching every weekend when your team plays, and save information when needed off-the-ball. Not only does it allow your players to make more decisions and learn from failure, but it also has another huge benefit: when you talk less, your words are so much more powerful when you do.
Disclaimer: many youth recreational organizations and leagues have some form of a Silent Soccer Saturday/Sunday, where they ask that there be absolutely no coaching from the sidelines that day. I am a huge supporter of these efforts because, for many coaches, if they never take time to be quiet and just watch the game, they don’t ever really know what their players are capable of. Please support your league’s efforts in this regard when asked to.