Game-Day Coaching

Over the past months I have had the pleasure of watching many games in Massachusetts and other states. From U6 recreational games to U19 Regional Championships, I have seen a wide range of abilities amongst players.

Similarly, I have seen an equally wide range of abilities amongst coaches. Some coaches have demonstrated tactical savvy of the highest degree, while other teams have proven the coach's effectiveness at teaching technique.

When watching some teams walk to the playing field, one gets the sense of the coach as a Pied Piper of sorts. The players follow the coach almost mindlessly with enthusiasm and a smile on their faces. It is almost as if I can hear a faint whistling in the air. Yet, other players are dragging their bags and trudging onto the field for the game.

At the start of the game, many coaches have their teams properly warmed up and stretched and focused on the game. I overheard some coaches encouraging their players to have fun and give their full effort. Others encouraged their players to get serious and focus on the task at hand. Still others stepped back and let the team prepare on their own while they stood aside to help if needed.

Whatever the case, there are a thousand different choices we make as coaches — not only during practices, but also on game days. There is no one right way of preparation and game-day coaching and — depending on the team, the situation and the person coaching — there are, in fact, many right ways.

It is a bit humorous to see that some of the U19 coaches approached the game the exact same way the U6 coaches did. For some it worked, for some it did not. Why?

When thinking of our approach for game day, we first must think of our approach during practice days. Our styles on the two days must be closely related. The old adage, "Practice like you play," stands true for coaching. You want to create an atmosphere that is familiar to players. They will be able to best present their skills in the environment in which those skills were learned.

One of the most important considerations for us as coaches is to then create a practice environment that will transfer to the game environment. When we arrive at game day, it is then our job to be consistent and avoid making players uncomfortable by changing our demeanor or demands.

Of course, this just gets us started. On any given day, there are countless other variables to consider. A few include:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Time of season
  • Game situation (tourney/league)
  • Weather
  • Opponent
  • Field condition
  • Personalities of players on your team
  • Recent games
  • "Newness" of your team

Our actions before the game should take into account these factors and more. I am not saying each factor should be given hours of consideration, but they should be given consideration, even if for one second.

Once the game has begun, we are left on the sideline hoping our coaching had some effect. Sometimes, to our delight, our players make us look like geniuses. Other days, to our chagrin, we would like to hang our head, as it seems nothing we have been teaching has been understood. Whatever the case, this time on the sideline, and during halftime, can be a time in which we send crucial messages to our players.

Below are some of the messages I heard during MTOC and State Cup, and at some recreational games in our own state. Some of these are great, some not so great. Interpret as you wish:

  • BU12: "You guys should be embarrassed, you are embarrassing me."
  • BU10 (after an own goal): "Don't worry about it, you tried hard. Now just do the same in the other goal."
  • GU8: "Are you having fun?"
  • GU15: "What the hell are you doing? We went over that, dammit!"
  • BU17 (after the opposing team's defender slipped, allowing an attacker to score): "See what happens when you listen to me?"
  • GU13: "So how are we doing out there?"
  • BU15: "You gotta play with more guts, it is a war out there and you are losing the battles."
  • BU16 (with team 0-3 down at half against a superior team): "OK, they beat us in the first half, but I don't think we played our best. What can we do better next half?"
  • GU17 (after a missed goal opportunity): "Ah, damn," while turning head in dismay and kicking at ground
  • U6 (after a missed goal opportunity): "Ah, damn," while turning head in dismay and kicking at ground
  • BU12: "When I played, I played a lot harder than you."
  • GU10: "Tell me three things that we did good that half."
  • U6: "Go, go go, go, ohhhh noooo, run back, run back, run back!"
  • GU12 (when team had a counterattack opportunity): "Kick it up, kick it up!"
  • GU12 (when same team had one attacker going against four defenders): "Kick it up, kick it up!"
  • BU18: For Christ's sake, what possibly made you do that?"
  • BU8 (laughing): "OK, interesting choice, good job."
  • U6 (while hopping up and down, moving down the sideline and waving her arm): "C'mon, with me, with me!"… Player's reaction was to hop up and down on the field while waving her arms
  • BU14: "Fantastic, brilliant!"
  • GU14: "Wow, that was great move!"
  • BU15: "Head up, shake it off."
  • GU15: "Will you get your head out of the sky and start playing?
  • BU12: "If you don't score, you are walking home!" (approximate distance would be 90 miles)
  • GU8: "You girls are great!"
  • BU8: "Great goal! Fantastic! You're a superstar!" (team was losing, 1-8)
  • BU15: "OK, what would you do differently if you were in that situation again?"
  • GU17: "I don't know why I coach you, it is a waste of my time."

As you can tell, there are a wide variety of comments being made on the sidelines. I particularly listed both positive and negative comments and a range of age group, because these comments are truly representative of what can be heard on the sidelines. Some of these might have made you laugh, as we do sometimes during games. Some might make you question what the coach is doing, as I did when hearing some of the comments.

What I would hope is that after reading these comments, you can look back over your coaching the past season and reflect on your own words. I would also urge you to review your demeanor, as sometimes it is not what you say, but your non-verbal communication that impacts the players. If you are anything like me, you will find that you are proud of some of your behaviors, and left questioning your behavior at other times. Admittedly, sometimes I find my non-verbal reaction to an event sneaks out, despite my efforts. That is something I am currently working on as a coach. What could you work on as a sideline coach?

Do you ask your players to solve their own problems, or do you tell them what to do all the time? Are you encouraging at all times? Do your players see mistakes as learning moments, or acts deserving penalty? Are there times when you hear yourself and have to laugh (there are for me)? Do you read your players' emotions and provide words in order to help them in the particular situation they are in? Are your words reactionary, or are they proactive? Are you giving specific, concise, helpful instruction, or vague cheers? These are just a few questions I ask that you consider as you head into your next season of coaching.

Overall, the large majority of comments I heard from coaches over the spring were positive. There are thousands of fantastic people supporting the hundreds of thousands of players in our state. However, we all always have room to improve.

For those 5-10 percent of coaches that find themselves making negative and caustic remarks more often than not, please take a step back and think of what you are doing to the children you coach. If you review the list of comments I provided, please trace the comments for the BU12 age group. These comments all came from one coach, in one game, within a span of five minutes. The players were losing a game 4-0 against a team that was dominating them. What effect do you think those comments had on those 11- and 12-year-old boys?

Thankfully, that case is not the norm. However to make sure we do not fall into a similar slump, let's keep monitoring ourselves on the sidelines … and let's take it one step further and help to monitor each other. We are all trying to help the children develop and grow, let's help each other as well. What we say or do not say can leave lasting impressions.