Often times, the biggest enemy in youth soccer is, unfortunately, parents.
Before you stop reading this or start calling for my head, please consider the following: The reason that parents are often the enemy is because they should be the number one ally, but, more often than not, they aren’t.
As parents, it is our obligation to take care of our children and raise them to be the best people possible. Although no one ever gets it “perfect” and pretty much everyone is figuring it out along the way, we are living in a time when we have an unlimited number of resources to educate ourselves and become the most knowledgeable and best parents we can be.
Enrolling your child in youth soccer can be an exceptionally rewarding experience. It can also be remarkably unexceptional. It is rarely the child’s fault for the experience going one way or another. In most cases, it is the adults who dictate whether a child’s experience will be a positive or negative one. The first step to progress is admitting the problem.
Parents: You probably don't know as much as you think about youth soccer. Especially about coaching youth soccer. Approach it with an open mind and learn as much as possible about your role. It will pay dividends for you and your child.
Coaches: It is your responsibility to help engage and educate your parents. It might be difficult at times. Fight the good fight. Persevere. It will pay dividends for you and your players.
Why Parents Should Be the Number One Ally
It is their child’s life and their child’s experience. They are responsible for their child. I assume they also love their child. Do I need to say more?
When a parent understands and accepts his or her role in the child’s youth soccer experience, the potential for the child is extraordinary. Everyone will make mistakes, but all in all, if parents do the right things most of the time, their child will have a wonderful, healthy youth soccer experience.
When a parent embraces his or her role and plays it to the best of his or her ability, the following will happen:
- The child will enjoy playing
- The child will look forward to attending practices and games
- The child will want to become the best he/she can be
- The child will be the best he/she can be
- The child will love the game and remain involved in it, possibly for life
Why Parents Are the Often the Biggest Enemy
Because parents have the potential to be the biggest allies in their child’s experience, yet they do not do the things necessary to be those allies, they become the biggest impediment. Parents have the ability to be the driving force behind the progress of youth soccer - to affect all other groups involved. This is why it is so important for parents to take their role seriously and to learn to be the best they can be in that role. And it is why the lack of parents doing so is so harmful.
They're Making Their Child Miserable
“What are you doing, coach?! This is ridiculous! You’re not even doing anything!” As I looked over to the sideline, one of the dads was aggressively walking onto the field in the middle of the game with his hands in the air.
There are so many things wrong with this picture (I won’t even mention the fact that this gentleman ditched the preseason parent orientation, where he would have learned about what we were doing). The least important concern is that he is unfamiliar with the sport, how it is played, or how I should be coaching. I don’t even mind that he is confronting me – I can handle it. It happens all the time.
The saddest part of this whole thing is that all the kids are thinking – and saying aloud – “Who is that guy?” “That guy is crazy.” “That guy is mean.” Meanwhile, one child is silent, trying to hide from everyone else, hoping the others don’t realize it’s his dad.
It’s not just the inappropriately outspoken people like this who make their children miserable. It’s the parents who insist on talking about the game during the car ride home. It’s the parents who complain or shout out when the referee makes a bad call (do you really think the ref is purposely "blowing" this U9 girls soccer game? Although he might now consider it since you’re yelling at him). It’s the parents who talk to and/or coach their children during the game. It’s the parents who tell their kids things instead of asking them questions, like “Did you have fun?” or “Did you try your best?”
They’re Stunting Their Child’s Development
This is the child’s opportunity to learn. Learning involves mistakes. If we try to prevent children from committing mistakes or forgetting things, they will never realize them and learn from them. How does a child remember to bring his water bottle and soccer bag with him when it has always just “magically” appeared wherever he goes? How does a child ever learn to move out of the house, get a job, and take care of every day responsibilities without the help of their parents if he always ran to his parents during water breaks, at which time the parents lathered him with sunscreen, fed him his water, and tied his shoes for him?
Those examples may seem silly, but they are minor details that have a major impact. Have your child learn to keep all their equipment and water with the team – away from you and other parents – so they can learn to be comfortable on their own and start to learn to take responsibility for themselves. Once upon a time, Tiger Wood’s father asked him if he wanted to go golfing. Tiger, at the young age of about 8, agreed, and when they arrived at the course, it turned out that Tiger forgot his clubs at home. His father proceeded to play a round of golf while Tiger watched. He never forgot his clubs again.
I haven’t even gotten into the soccer-specific aspects yet.
In terms of soccer, we are also stopping children from learning. “Sarah, get back on defense!” “Shoot it, Johnny!” Firstly, our children often does not hear us – usually because there is so much else going on, other times because they are purposely tuning us out – so we’re wasting our breath. When our child does hear us, we are acting as two things: 1. A distraction. 2. Their brain.
People often use the analogy of “If I came to your work, stood over your shoulder, and projected commands to you, would you ever get any work done?” This is an accurate portrayal of how it is for the players. Don’t be a distraction.
Don’t be their brain, either. By shouting a command, we are making the decision for the child. Even if Johnny does shoot it, and even if he scores… and even if it’s the game winner(!), he has absolutely no idea why he shot the ball. He did it because someone told him to. Not because he recognized that he was close to the goal with no one in front of him. Therefore, if he is in that situation again, he will not know to shoot – OR – when he gets the ball in a situation totally inappropriate for shooting, he will shoot it, because that’s what he was told to do last time.
Let the coach give direction. Parents should remain mostly quiet – occasionally cheering after something good is attempted.
They’re Enabling Con Artist Coaches
There are many coaches who “steal a living,” as we say. They have nothing but their own interests in mind. They lie, cheat, and steal – promising everything wonderful for children (like scholarships or pro contracts) – later to leave them in a terrible situation (usually ending in the child quitting). They are drastically hurting the game and the children who play it.
These people – who are SO obvious to spot for most professional, educated, well-intentioned coaches – only survive because parents continue to give them business. Because parents don't educate themselves, they fall victim to these people. Before you, your child, and the sport get hurt, I would suggest learning as much as possible about what is best for your child in terms of their development as young soccer players.
They’re Forcing Good Coaches to Compromise Their Values
The things that are best for your child are not always obvious. Things like teamwork, passing, and positions – especially positions – are not what are best for the development of your child. Did I mention winning? Repeat the following: winning does not equal better child and player development.
Many good coaches understand these concepts. However, when everyone is leaving their teams and clubs because The Con Artist is undefeated in the league, these good coaches have no choice but to do things to manufacture wins and/or work on things in practice that are a waste of time in order to satisfy parents, ultimately hurting the kids.
They’re Making Their Child Quit
Pushing them too hard. Taking it too seriously. Making them do extra practice or take extra lessons. Making them specialize too soon.
If the adult is more into it than the child, the child will never reach his/her potential. Let them fall in love with the game and develop their own motivation - on their own terms, at their own pace. Every child develops differently and at different times. Stop living vicariously through your kid.
How Do We Fix This?
1. Ask questions. Ask your child’s coach about their philosophy. Ask them why they are working on certain things. Better yet – ask your child what they learned in practice or what coach talked about during the game.
2. Read. If you’re reading this, it’s a good start! There are many smart people doing great work on youth sports parenting. These are a few of them:
- Changing the Game Project
- Positive Coaching Alliance
- US Youth Soccer
- Soccer Parenting
3. Tune in here. We will be sharing more about how parents can best support their children in their youth soccer journey.