Volunteers are often the backbone of youth soccer clubs.
For clubs relying on volunteer coaches, finding the right balance of enthusiasm, positivism and availability is a challenge, as strong recreation programs will have up to 5,000-6,000 players. More often than not, the first people to throw their names in the hat are chosen. While the numbers will dictate that an organization has to take what they can, careful scrutiny of who these people are can bolster and strengthen the rec leagues and a player’s love of the game.
The first thing to look for is experience in soccer. Someone who has played will at the very least have a rudimentary understanding of the game and the demands within. A parent with a coaching certification from US Soccer, Europe, or any other organization is a bonus. You can say what you want about coaching education in America, but a person who has the commitment and drive to challenge themselves with a coaching course will only benefit the players on that team. If a volunteer has played the game, they can see the equation from both sides. They can put themselves in the player’s shoes, which will hopefully help them provide better information and coaching.
A volunteer coaching role can serve as an apprenticeship for young coaches who are just getting started with coaching and their coaching education. They can learn how to manage a group, plan sessions and talk to parents. Learning how and what to plan for practices and getting this across to the team is challenging, but with experience and hands-on practice, coaching can become much more natural and fluid over time. Good communication is important, and every facet of life and coaching is no different.
The attitude and mentality of your volunteer coach is also incredibly important. An overemphasis on winning at early ages is the leading cause for burnout. The greatest involvement in soccer is at 5 years old, and the age for the greatest dropout is 6. That is a massive red flag. The priority for these coaches should be developing a love for the game with the players and parents. Success should be measured in player retention and not in who won the league. With this in mind, the way a coach talks to his or her team is critical. It should be positive, encouraging and enthusiastic. Moreover, catch the players doing something right and pump it up! Too much time is spent on fixing mistakes and ruminating on everything players do incorrectly. It’s important to remember that telling a player they made an awesome move or a great pass will spurn them to continue to do the right things.
“It’s really important when you’re young to enjoy it. I think in America, it’s too often that we see that the first thing you learn in sports is the stress of it and trying to please your parents on the sideline,” USWNT star Christen Press recently told STACK. “So I think that having an open field and a space where you actually get to play is very important. If you look at other countries, they play on the streets more, it’s more of a free-form style, and I think that’s important for development.”
Another trait to examine is the person’s sideline demeanor. Micromanagement is often cited as the worst trait for a boss to have. Coaches fall into this as they try to joystick their players to wins by telling them exactly what to do. A coach who strikes the right balance between teaching vs instructing will not only get more out of players, but he or she will empower those players to make good choices and take control of what they do. This is the embryonic phase of creating not just good players, but lifelong athletes.
The last trait to look for is someone who isn’t just available, but who also genuinely wants to help kids learn soccer. Granted, it’s difficult to find anyone who is purely altruistic aside from team parents, but there are people who love coaching, love soccer and want to help out. A great source of positive role models can often be found in local soccer clubs. High school students need volunteer hours for college and offering them an opportunity to coach kids in their chosen sport and work in the community can be ideal for them. Perhaps they’ll coach their own siblings or simply work with the neighborhood kids, but they have a chance to learn about themselves as teacher/coach and show what they know to younger players who inherently look up to them. There is a youthful idealism that is so engaging and palpable with teenagers that trickles down to the players and from a parenting standpoint, that is what you want.
If you can find a volunteer with all or many of these traits, you’ve got yourself a good one. However, this is hardly a perfect world. We often see volunteer coaches who not only don’t fit this mold, but are characterized by incessant negativity, over-coaching, arrogance and inappropriate comments and language.
While some of this may seem obvious, it’s shocking to see how many coaches conduct themselves on the touchline or around kids, in general. The most important thing to remember is that these coaches are working with highly impressionable kids and their attitude and demeanor will be reflected by them. These types of issues need to be put to rest and simply ended. Screaming, yelling and throwing clipboards or chairs may be amusing with Bobby Knight, but that is hardly what you want in your U6 girls coach.
There is nothing wrong with being competitive, but how this competitiveness manifests itself can determine whether your child is interested in playing soccer again. Coaches who consistently have meltdowns are not fun to be around. This will lead to burnout. No kid wants to be around an adult who acts like this. Listen to kids talk about their teachers and coaches. When they discuss the things they don’t like, these negative attributes are almost always at the forefront of the discussion.
Finding a great volunteer coach for a youth soccer team is hardly an easy process, but it’s one that should be handled with care. People can put up a tremendous front and come off one way but act another. But a careful vetting process, diligence and perhaps rethinking the volunteer model can provide a new avenue of options. At the end of the day, its about the kids, and that sentiment should be the cornerstone of every volunteer coach’s attitude.
Photo Credit: shironosov/iStock
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