the parent/coach interface – part 3

English: Entrenos antes de la épica de Roma.

Pep – the ultimate player developer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I originally intended to be a single post has now stretched to three (click for parts 1 and 2).  Here, in the final installment I will finally get to the aspect of the parent/coach relationship that can sometimes not be reconciled.  The philosophical underpinnings of teaching are argued in nearly every educational discipline.  The fact is, every individual parent, teacher, and coach will likely have a different worldview regarding educational principles and goals.  Thus, it is the clash of a coach’s philosophy with a parent’s goals for his/her child where the friction is the greatest.

I left off last time with a statement about wins and test scores, this being the only part of the table below that I have not discussed.

Soccer

School

Player: field time or position

Student: discipline or grades

Player: development/challenge

Student: development/challenge

Coach: style/philosophy

Teacher: style/philosophy

Coach: knowledge/ability/prep.

Teacher: knowledge/ability/prep.

Team: wins

School: test scores

In my mind, how wins and test scores are viewed in the context of player and student development is a critical point.  For both soccer clubs and schools, the stated goal is to develop and educate the individual player or student. I have never seen a coach’s, club’s, or association’s strategy that simply says “we want to win”.  Winning at all costs is not the stuff of youth soccer player development.  Similarly, I have never read a teacher’s, school’s, or district’s mission statement that identifies “excellent test scores” as the primary goal.  Educators know that there is much more to student development than an end-of-term standardized test. Individual player and student development are at the heart of coaching and teaching. The best educators approach the classroom with a coaching mindset, and the best coaches approach their teams with education as the goal.

However, we know that the reality of the situation is very different. In the US, I think most parents will agree that “teaching to the test” has been a colossal failure in our educational system, yet that is the modus operandi with which most schools function, as test scores largely determine school funding.  The teachers want to teach, but instead become test preparation tutors.  In some cases, this situation has resulted in cases of abhorrent teacher fraud, as the fear of poor test scores becomes all encompassing.  We have turned our kids into fact memorization machines and test taking robots, and diminished their ability to be flexible problem solvers.

Coaching young teams with only wins and losses in mind can have a similar effect.  Coaches who are preoccupied with wins and losses will tend to play their best players in their “best” positions while the subs rot on the bench.  Keepers won’t be rotated, players will only see one position, and training can become overly tactical and team oriented while ignoring the technical needs of individual players.  Whereas that rigidity can be quite successful with young, fast, athletic players, it will eventually fail as kids grow older and begin to face teams that are both tactically astute and technically adept.  In a nutshell, for young players, coaching for the win = teaching to the test.

As I mentioned in a previous post, U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer have both weighed in on this topic a bit. In both cases, they recommend that wins should be de-emphasized in the pre-teen years so that player development can proceed unhindered.  However, when coaches feel pressure to produce wins, or when parents become overly concerned with those results, the outcomes are a poor training environment, unnecessary parental pressure, and bad coaching decisions.

Note that the pressures can run in both directions.  I have seen coaches begin with every intention to deemphasize wins and focus on player development, and then succumb to parental pressure to win as they proceed.  An initial focus on player development typically means that the coach will rotate keepers liberally, play field players in a variety of different positions, focus training on skill and technique, and let scrimmages become a little less structured in order to let kids discover the game and be creative.  However, that approach can often lead to losses early in the team’s life.  The weaker goalkeeper will let in a few, or a slower player in defense may find him/herself up against a fast striker.  Parents become frustrated, not understanding why the coach would “set the team up for failure”.  Fearing that players will leave the club (parents will pull them out), the coach may begin to stray from the development model, with the long-term prospects of the players and team suffering as a result.

The opposite situation happens frequently, as well.  A coach may be very win-centric, which leads to him/her finding (and taking advantage of) a full-time goalkeeper, figuring out which field players and positions provide the best chance of winning, coaching a cynical, tactical approach to the game, and then sticking to that approach.  The kids suffer because they do not experience the beautiful game, but rather one warped perception of it from one spot on the field.  Their technical acumen will suffer as training becomes tactical and not skill based.  Some parents will love this and some will hate it.  All off them will soon realize as the years go by that this strategy is not sustainable.  Winning with U9s in a 6v6 setup will not translate to 11v11 if the kids don’t understand the game.  The kids who score buckets of goals with (relatively) blinding speed at the age of 10 will learn by the time they are 13 that speed without good dribbling, passing, and finishing technique is of little use against a quality opponent.  Conversely, a well-constructed player development model will teach the transferrable skills that players need to succeed in any situation at any position on the pitch.

Epilogue – the reality. In any competition, the goal is to win. This very fact is what will always cause strong differences of opinion regarding how one should coach, with parents and coaches being on opposite sides of numerous conflicts as a result. Perhaps the solution is not just a prescriptive approach where a particular training model is imposed, but rather one where we simply redefine the word “win”. If you as a parent really feel like your son’s hat trick in yesterday’s U7 match was the “win”, the pinnacle of his career, then go ahead and encase that game ball under Plexiglas. However, if you realize that the player only wins when he/she reaches a long-term goal (playing in college, becoming a pro, playing for the national team, etc.), then the game changes considerably. The individual goals, wins, medals, and trophies along the way pale in significance when compared to the day that ultimate goal is reached.  The bottom line for coaches and parents is this: let the kids play, help them develop, and don’t make them carry the weight of the adult egos around them.  That load is too heavy.

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