Handling discipline problems: a dilemma for youth soccer coaches

By Dave Simeone, NTSSA Director of Coaching, National Staff Coach – U.S. Soccer

My thanks to T&C Optimist Soccer Association for allowing reproduction of this article

Handling discipline problems presents a distinct challenge for youth soccer coaches. Many coaches are inexperienced in dealing with discipline or even identifying real problems versus child’s play. Many coaches mistake immature behaviour, which would be appropriate for youngsters, for behavioural problems.

A few factors influence the typical inexperienced parent /coach:

  1. FALSE EXPECTATIONS: inexperienced youth soccer coaches begin with personal expectations of what goes on during games or practices. These expectations are, sometimes, inaccurate; these parent / coaches lack perspective. They forget that soccer is a child’s game. It is “play”. These coaches encounter reality in their first session with youngsters. They find out very quickly that working with youngsters does not meet their expectations of “coaching”. This, in turn, causes feelings of fear and anxiety. These inexperienced coaches may, at times, react abruptly and may not successfully handle these situations.
  2. PERSONAL CONCERNS: New and inexperienced youth soccer coaches become concerned with “controlling” situations. They also are over – occupied with being well-liked. Many coaches see these two interests working in opposite directions: “If youngsters like me…I can’t control them,” or “l can control them, but they won’t like me.” Coaches either become over- ambitious to please players, or harsh.

Both of these approaches have grim consequences.

Coaches may feel betrayed if they are overly friendly and feel taken advantage of, while being too harsh causes youngsters to feel resentful or bitter. In the end, problems are unresolved and both the coach and youngster are angry or disappointed.

  1. LACK OF RESPONSIBILITY: Many times, inexperienced coaches have difficulty coming to grips with their inability to “manage” these situations. These coaches tend to blame players, solely, for problems.

Some, on the other hand, allow serious problems to occur, repeatedly, but lack the insight which would allow them to prevent such situations from happening time and again.

After several experiences in attempting to “discipline” youngsters, coaches become increasingly frustrated. This results in the coach perceiving themselves poorly. For this reason, some youth coaches leave our ranks early. It is through coaching education programs that we should address their needs for appropriate player management.

These coaches must be empowered to help themselves overcome these “problems” and feel effective.

Real discipline problems are best described as conflicts of interest between the youngster and the coach. Are some of these interests predicated on the differences between the needs of young players and the role adults perceive youth sport to take? The answer is yes!

One of the real predicaments is to deal with behaviour in a non- judgmental manner. Many times adults reprimand youngsters and embarrass them. The challenge for coaches is to address what is happening and modify their behaviour without being threatening. An adult’s actions should imply that they are dealing with the behaviour and not making the behaviour into a personal issue. This might be caused if children are compared against one another.

Undoubtedly, dealing with behaviour can be frustrating for rigid adults. It’s best to recognize that you, as the coach, are frustrated. There is a decided difference between anger and frustration. Adults need to differentiate between the two.

Again, differentiate between the behaviour that is disturbing and the individual child: the behaviour is what’s disturbing you.

You must also acknowledge that young players have feelings.

In fact, while we would like to see them develop and improve they must learn to enjoy the game. They have a genuine need for attention and inappropriate behaviour is their way of soliciting attention. If, in fact, you as an adult have difficulty acknowledging your own anger or frustration, how can you recognize and acknowledge these feelings in others? Most adults use methods that deal with behaviour and discipline that are reactive versus proactive. This causes coaches to sometimes overlook how a youngster feels about their comments on the youngster’s behaviour.

In identifying behavioural problems, parcelling out “punishment” is risky. Consequences must be meaningful to young players, but cannot be confused with punishment. The difference is the factor of respect for young players versus making them feel demeaned.

The real gift exhibited by competent youth coaches is to manage people / players effectively. There are several factors associated with effective management of players relating to behaviour:

  1. Management of Time
  2. Management of Environment
  3. Effective Communication

The availability of time is limited when working with young players. Practices are usually scheduled twice weekly, anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and a half in duration.

This places a high priority on effective teaching / coaching.

The time youngsters spend with the youth coach is minuscule in comparison with the time they spend away from soccer, with family, in school or in other activities.

The environment for youth players is a key ingredient.

Creating the appropriate games, activities and conditions directly influence management of players and acceptable behaviour. Typically, youth coaches attempt to arrange and manage players by over-organizing them. They place them in lines, with unrealistic absolutes, that do not allow them to move and play. It’s great for adults since it resembles the adult perspective of discipline and order. Soccer is a dynamic game; one that exhibits and includes movement of the ball and players. The organization of “play” has direct bearing on boredom versus stimulation as well as interest and learning.

It’s simple: there are no lines in “the game”, let there be no lines at practice. The advertisement for the Sega computerized game product which emulates NFL football says it best: if it’s in “the game” (The NFL), then it’s in “the game” (Sega). In one sense, those coaches who insist on over-organizing the environment are contributing to their own woes!

Effective communication has everything to do with all avenues to offer information. This includes body language, facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact and quality of content. Very simply, is the information useable in improving the player’s enjoyment, development or performance? Emotional outbursts, yelling and screaming either at parents, referees opposing coaches or PLAYERS is really unacceptable. It’s a tremendous sign of intolerance and a great indication of a lack of the necessary qualities to be an effective coach. The game, at all levels, must be the teacher and meet the needs of players. Youngsters learn more from their experiences in the game than from the coach. That’s why the role of the coach is to create the appropriate conditions and let youngsters play!

What youth coaches must ascertain is the distinction between a discipline problem, or poor behaviour as a result of unsuitable management. The nature of youngsters is to run, jump, be inattentive (from an adult’s perspective!), change their focus at a moments notice or gaze expertly off into the sky at a far away plane. If they are uninterested in the activities, it may be a problem of management. They come to soccer to be challenged and invigorated as well as to play, make mistakes and learn. A phenomenal aspect of “play” is that the problems, challenges disappointments or rewards resemble and parallel life experiences. Learning for youngsters between the ages of 5 and 12 is a leisure activity that is accomplished through play. Remember…PLAY is a key part of PLAYER DEVELOPMENT!