Communication Keys for Coaching Youth Soccer
In this chapter
10 keys to being a good communicator
Communicating with parents
Communicating with league administrators
Communicating with opponents and referees
As a coach, you're called on to do a lot of communicating. You address players, parents, other coaches, league administrators, and referees. You communicate in person, on the phone, in writing, one on one, and within group settings. How well you communicate with these groups significantly influences how successful your season is, how enjoyable it is, and how much your players learn.
Of course, you've been communicating all your life. It can't be that hard, right?
Right and wrong. If you haven't coached or taught before and aren't used to instructing and leading youngsters, then you are entering uncharted territory.
Consider this chapter your roadmap to help you chart that territory.
The 10 keys, presented first, will help you hone your communication skills as a coach. These keys are written with players in mind, but they apply to all groups you will communicate with. Following the keys, we'll focus on the specifics of communicating with parents, league administrators, opponents, and referees.
10 Keys to Being a Good Communicator
Most people tend to think only of the verbal side of communication. That’s important, but there’s so much more to being a good communicator. Here are 10 keys to good communication:
Know your message.
Make sure you are understood.
Deliver your message in the proper context.
Use appropriate emotions and tones.
Adopt a healthy communication style.
Provide helpful feedback.
Be a good nonverbal communicator.
Know Your Message
Coach Caravelli gathers his players at the practice field and says, "Alright, guys, today we’re going to learn how to dribble." He kicks a ball several yards in front of him, runs after it, kicks it several yards in front again, and stops. "You want to push the ball out in front of you in the direction you want to go. It’s that simple," he says.
"But Coach, my dad says you’re supposed to keep the ball closer to you, or it will get stolen," one player says.
Coach Caravelli considers this a moment before saying, "Actually, let’s just focus on passing today. Passing is a better way to move the ball. It’s much quicker than dribbling."
The player was right; Coach Caravelli didn’t know the technique for dribbling (which you’ll learn in Chapter 9). He didn’t really know his message.
Three issues are involved in knowing your message. You need to
Know the skills and rules you need to teach.
Read situations and respond appropriately.
Provide accurate and clear information.
Know the Skills and Rules
Coach Caravelli didn’t know how to teach the skill of dribbling. He might be a smooth, coherent, and clear speaker, but that’s not going to help his players learn how to dribble. Smoothness doesn’t make up for lack of knowledge. You have to know the skills and rules.
Read the Situation
As Coach Caravelli teaches his players how to correctly execute a give-and-go play, Kenny and Sam are quietly goofing off, not paying attention. But Coach Caravelli doesn’t address the situation because they’re not really disrupting his instruction and he’s a little behind schedule. As his players begin to practice give-and-gos, Kenny and Sam are not executing as instructed. They are not going after they give.
So, Coach Caravelli stops the action and tells them how to properly execute a give-and-go. Then he lets them proceed.
Coach Caravelli delivered an important part of the message—Kenny and Sam need to know how to execute a give-and-go—but that was only part of the message he should have delivered. The real issue here was that the players weren’t paying attention, and Coach Caravelli didn’t correct that situation when it was occurring. He should have corrected that on the spot. Barring that, he should have told Kenny and Sam that the reason they didn’t know how to execute a give-and-go was because they weren’t listening when he was teaching how to do so and that they need to listen to his instruction the first time around.
Sometimes knowing your message goes beyond understanding the content. You have to read the situation as well and tailor your message accordingly.
Provide Accurate and Clear Information
Knowing the content of your message isn’t enough. You need to be able to deliver that content clearly and accurately.
Imagine a portion of a coach’s preseason letter to parents reading like this:
"I’m really looking forward to coaching your child this season. Our first practice is next Monday at 6 p.m. Please make sure your child remembers to wear shin guards!"
Too bad the coach didn’t remember to note where the first practice is being held. As a result of not being clear in his letter, he’ll have to spend a lot of time on the phone calling parents to deliver the information.
The same goes for teaching skills. Perhaps you know the proper technique for tackling, but your instruction is so technical and confusing that your players are worse off than if they’d received no instruction at all! They’re confused, you’re frustrated, and no one learns how to tackle.
Know what information you need to deliver, and deliver it clearly so that all concerned understand. That’s sometimes easier said than done.
Make Sure You Are Understood
As you can imagine, if you are not clear with your directives, you can create a lot of confusion. Take the following example:
"Okay, Dion," Coach Hagan says, "the next time you’re in that situation, give a little half-volley with the side of your foot. Alan was open to your right, but by the time you got him the ball, he was covered."
Dion gives Coach Hagan a puzzled look, but Coach Hagan, in the midst of conducting a drill, doesn’t notice. He’s already preparing to set up the next play. Dion just hopes that same situation doesn’t come again because he has no idea what a "half-volley" is.
Just because something is clear to you doesn’t mean it’s clear to whomever you’re delivering your message to, be it a player, a parent, an administrator, or anyone else. You need to watch for understanding and be ready to clarify your message if the person on the receiving end is confused.
When you state your message clearly and simply, you increase your chances of being understood. But don’t count on that; instead, watch your players’ facial expressions and read their body language. If they look confused or unsure of what to do, state your instruction again, making sure you use language they understand.
And watch how you say things: When you encourage a goalie to "cut off the shooting angle," she might not understand what you mean. If she looks confused, tell her what the shooting angle is and how to move to lessen the angle.
Speak in language your players understand, and watch for their understanding.
Deliver Your Message in the Proper Context
Karim tackles the ball from an opponent and then begins to dribble downfield, keeping his head down. His progress is slow, but he does maintain control of the ball. Zach, his teammate, breaks free downfield and is in good position to receive a pass from Karim, but Karim is too focused on the ball. The potential to gain an advantage is lost, and eventually the ball is stolen from Karim. On the sideline, Coach Grantham cups his hands to his mouth:
"Hey, Karim, you’ve got to see the field! Zach was wide open! Keep your head up when you dribble, like this!" Coach Grantham models keeping his head up as he dribbles a phantom ball a little ways down the sideline."
What’s wrong with this? First, it’s humiliating for Karim to have everyone at the field witness his coach yelling at him and instructing him on how to dribble. Second, it’s not the time or place to give detailed instruction. That should be done in practice, not in games. The instruction itself wasn’t incorrect; the timing of it was.
So, consider your context for delivering your message. Give brief reminders of tactical or skill execution during games, but save the teaching for practices.
Use Appropriate Emotions and Tones
Emotions are a natural part of soccer. Both you and your players (and their parents) can expect to experience a range of emotions throughout the season. In terms of communicating with others, your emotions can significantly affect your message.
How? Let’s look at a few examples:
Situation: An opponent, while dribbling, lets the ball get too far in front of him, but Caitlyn simply maintains her position between the ball and the goal and doesn’t make the tackle, which she easily could have done. As a result, the opponent regains control, passes, and his teammate scores.
Response #1: "Come on, Caitlyn! You need to be more aggressive! Go after that ball! That should have been yours!"
Response #2: "That’s okay, guys! Let’s move it up quickly. Be aggressive now."
Don’t ever berate a player, publicly or privately. Remember that even Major League Soccer players make errors. Your players are going to make errors; what they need is instruction, if they’re not sure what to do, and encouragement regardless. Help them to keep their focus on the game, not on how well they’re pleasing you.
Situation: You are moments away from beginning the game that will decide your league championship.
Response #1: "This is it, guys! There’s no tomorrow. We’ve been playing to get to this game all year long. Show them what you’re made of. I want to feel that championship trophy in my hands at the end of the game. How about you? Are you ready to go out and win?"
Response #2: "Let’s play soccer like we know how. Keep your focus on the fundamentals. Spread out the attack, make good passes, and keep the ball out of the danger zone on defense. Let’s go out and have some fun, all right?"
Pep talks are better saved for the movies. Such talks often backfire because they get kids so sky high that they can’t perform well. Your players need to focus on playing sound, fundamental soccer. Remind them of that and tell them to have fun.
Situation: In a scrimmage, Terrell keeps missing tackle attempts, letting his opponent slip by him as he goes for the ball.
Response #1: "Hey, Terrell, where are you going? Don’t you know you’re not supposed to run downfield unless your team has the ball?"
Response #2: "Don’t overextend on the tackle, Terrell. Get in better position before you go for the ball. Until then, just mark the dribbler, okay? You can do it."
Sarcasm will get you nowhere. Terrell doesn’t need sarcasm, or any type of humor. He needs instruction and encouragement.
Adopt a Healthy Communication Style
A lot of what you’ve been reading has to do with your communication style—whether you over-coach during games, offering too much instruction; whether you keep your emotions in check, or are too excitable or high-strung; what your tone is as you communicate; and so on. But there is more to consider concerning your communication style. It has to do with the bigger picture, with how you communicate on a daily basis. It has more to do with personality, outlook, and attitude than with reacting to a specific moment. And some styles are more effective than others.
Here are a few of the less-effective styles some coaches fall into:
Always talking, never listening—Some coaches feel if they’re not constantly talking, they’re not providing the proper instruction their players need. Carried to the extreme, some feel that their players have nothing to say. Coaches who always talk and never listen tend to have players who stand around more in practice because their coach is talking, and those coaches don’t get to know their players, thus missing out on one of the real joys of coaching soccer. Deliver the messages you need to deliver, but don’t feel you have to be talking throughout the entire practice.
Always in control, too directive—Some coaches run practices like drill sergeants, snapping orders at players, exerting their authority, and squelching fun wherever it begins to appear. When practice doesn’t go exactly as they have choreographed it, they become irked. When players don’t progress according to schedule, it drives them crazy. Be in control of practice, yes, but don’t squelch the fun and don’t obsess over things you can’t control.
Not in control, too passive—Other coaches take the opposite tack, either because they’re unsure of themselves or they’re too laid-back and give the impression that no one is in charge. They don’t provide the guidance or discipline players need. Not comfortable in the spotlight, they avoid it, and discipline problems begin to crop up. If you’re a quiet or laid-back person, don’t change your personality but do exert your authority as coach. You can be in charge and provide instruction without being loud and obnoxious.
Seeking perfection—There’s a fine line between seeking to improve and seeking perfection. When coaches cross over the line into perfectionism, they are rarely satisfied with anything. Their players mark well, but they don’t tackle to the coaches’ satisfaction. They maintain control as they dribble, but they don’t go fast enough. They pass well, but their receiving skills are average. Even the fields are not manicured to these coaches’ satisfaction. Players are on edge when they play for a perfectionist coach; their focus turns from playing the game to pleasing the coach. Help your players improve their skills, but allow them margin for error. You can strive for improvement without putting added stress on the kids. Celebrate improvement even if it’s still not picture-perfect.
Not in control of emotions—Some coaches throw up their hands in frustration when players are trying hard but having difficulty learning a skill. They shout in anger at a questionable call made by a volunteer referee. Their voices drip with sarcasm when players ask them something they feel the players should know. They respond with overzealous enthusiasm when their team scores a goal in a tight game, and this response is seen by all as unsporting behavior. The point is not to suppress all your emotions, but to be in control of them. Consider the message you send with the emotion you show. Do suppress any urge to show your frustration toward kids who are trying to learn the skills, as well as any desire to express your anger on the field. Maintain your respect for the people involved in all situations. Your players need you to be steady and need to know what to expect from you.
Not aware of nonverbal communication—Some coaches watch what they say but not what they do. They express their frustration or anger nonverbally, and if someone confronts them about that expression, they likely will say, "What? I didn’t say anything." Remember that you’re communicating every second, whether verbally or nonverbally. Keep your nonverbal communication in line with your verbal communication, and make sure that both are positive, instructive, and encouraging.
Buddy-buddy with the players—It’s good to be friendly with players, but it’s inappropriate to try to be their friend. Coaches who do this show a lack of maturity as they try to impress their players with how cool they are. Have fun with your players, but maintain the coach-player relationship. You’re there to help them become better soccer players, not to become their pal.
So, what should your communication style be?
You should provide the instruction your players need in a way that helps them improve their skills. To do this, you need good listening skills as well as good speaking skills, and you need to be encouraging and positive as you instruct and correct. Maintain respect for your players as you communicate with them. Be friendly and open with them, but don’t try to become their friend. Create an enjoyable learning environment, maintain control over your emotions, and watch your nonverbal communication.
When you adopt this type of communication style, you’re paving the way for your players to learn the game, improve their skills, and enjoy the season.
A common mistake of new coaches is to assume that their sole role in communicating is to talk. Athletes are there to receive instruction, to be coached. Their focus should be on listening to you, on soaking in your instruction, on carrying out your commands.
There’s plenty of truth in those statements, but they don’t reflect the whole truth. Give your players room to speak, to ask questions, and to voice opinions or concerns. In doing so, you can get to know them better and be better tuned in to their needs. Thus, you will be more likely to pick up on issues and problems you need to deal with; see the following sidebar, "Dealing with Issues As They Arise."
Work at not only sending messages, but receiving them as well. As you talk to players, if you notice that their eyes are wandering or their bodies are turned partially away from you, they’re sending you a message ("We’re not really listening"). If their shoulders are slumped, their heads are down, or they’re dragging their feet, they’re sending one or more messages ("I’m tired"; "I’m discouraged"; "I’m bored"). If they’re giving you a blank stare or have a dazed look, they’re telling you they are tuning you out or are confused.
Provide Helpful Feedback
Tyler has been having trouble distributing the ball as a goalkeeper. When he rolls the ball to a teammate, he tends to release it too high, causing it to bounce and slowing its progress. As a result, sometimes the opponents can sneak in and regain possession.
This, in fact, happens right before halftime in one game and the opponents get an easy goal because of Tyler’s poor distribution. As Tyler approaches the sidelines for halftime, Coach Dixon approaches him and says, "Tyler, you need to do better than that."
Is Coach Dixon telling Tyler something he doesn’t already know? Hardly. Is he helping Tyler improve his distribution technique? No. His feedback isn’t helpful at all; if anything, it just adds to the pressure Tyler undoubtedly already feels.
Coach Dixon should focus on giving specific, practical feedback that will help Tyler improve his distribution technique—such as, "Tyler, remember to get low and release the ball smoothly at ground level, as if you were bowling." You’ll learn about this type of feedback in Chapter 6, "Player Development." For now, know that such feedback is one of your duties in communicating with your players, and when it’s given properly it can reap great dividends in terms of player improvement.
Be a Good Nonverbal Communicator
Studies have shown that up to 70% of communication is accomplished nonverbally. You just read about the importance of reading nonverbal cues—watching facial expressions and body language. You also have to pay attention to the nonverbal cues you send:
"Way to go, Alex!" Coach Dintiman says, clapping his hands and smiling.
"Way to go, Alex!" Coach Garner says, arms crossed tightly across his chest and a scowl on his face.
The same words were used, but Coach Garner sent a vastly different message from Coach Dintiman’s.
Coaches constantly send nonverbal messages, both with and without words. Consider your facial expressions during practices and games. Sometimes it’s appropriate to show that you’re frustrated—for example, when kids are goofing off. But when kids are exerting themselves on the field and not executing well, keep your frustration in check. Consider what messages your expressions and body language are sending, and make sure those messages are what you want to be sending.
Your players need consistency from you in three ways. They need consistency
In the messages you send
In how you treat them
In your temperament and style
If you hear different messages from the same person on the same topic, what happens? You begin not to trust that person. The same happens if one week your players hear you say, "You guys need to tackle more! You’re too passive. Be aggressive and go for the ball," only to hear you follow that the next week with, "You guys are trying to tackle too much. You’re getting way out of position and being too aggressive." Confusing? You bet. If you do this often, the players will not know what to believe, no matter what you say. Be sure you send consistent messages.
Be sure you treat all your players in a similar fashion. If Dana breaks a team rule one week and you discipline her accordingly and the next week Zach breaks the same rule, but you overlook it because he’s one of your best players, what message does that send to your team? That it’s okay to break the rules if you’re good enough?
Likewise, if you spend more of your time with your average and good players, in hopes of turning them into good and great players, respectively, what does that say to the lesser-skilled players? That they don’t matter because they can’t dribble or shoot as well as their teammates?
All your players need your attention and guidance to improve. They need to adhere to the same team rules and be treated the same way if they break those rules. And they all need to know that they are equally valued by you, regardless of their playing ability.
They also need to know what to expect from you. If you are patient and encouraging one practice and moody or volatile the next, the learning environment suffers (as do the players). We all have mood swings, and we’re not robots. But do strive to be even-keeled and consistent in your approach from practice to practice, setting aside any personal issues that might affect your mood and your communication with your players on any given day.
Kids learn best in a positive environment. Give them sound instruction, consistent encouragement, and plenty of understanding. Note, however, that being positive doesn’t mean letting kids run all over you, and it doesn’t mean having a Pollyanna attitude where you falsely praise your midfielders for pursuing the ball when they should have gained possession of it. It means you instruct and guide your players as they learn and practice skills and give them the sincere encouragement and praise they need as they work to hone their abilities. You’ll learn more about how to use praise in Chapter 6.