As a boy, I lay on the couch one Friday morning before the school day began, eating my chocolate Pop-Tart and watching the Mighty Hercules cartoon on the tv. It was in that moment that a few things hit me like a ton of bricks. It was an absolutely beautiful June day. It was the last day of school for the week. After school I’d be able to play with my friends and then I’d have the whole weekend to play too. Tears of joy welled up in my eyes and a few rolled down my cheeks. I was so happy to be alive. Life could not have been any better.
I was nine. I remember that day with the clarity to make it feel like it was only twenty-four hours ago that it happened. To say that life was so much more simple then is an understatement. God, I long for that simplicity. I’m so jealous of that boy. He didn’t know just how lucky he was.
Now I coach youth soccer players Many of them trying to move on to play at the highest level possible. My adult life has been complicated by the challenge of somehow trying to help these kids continue to experience that simplicity of youth for as long as possible while also instilling in them the hard core habits that they will require to excel at the game of soccer at an elite level.
It’s a balancing act that on most days I wonder if I’ve managed to get right. If I push hard, I risk being portrayed as negative and too demanding. If I don’t push hard enough, I’m at fault for being too casual and blasé.
Take a look at these two definitions. I hope you then see what I mean.
Instructor or bully? There’s a fine line there. At what point does commanding someone to do something turn into intimidation? And who gets to make that determination?
What I find has happened over the last three decades of coaching is that kids seem a great deal softer to me than they were when I first started coaching. I know I’m far less “old school” than I used to be and yet there are days where I really feel guilty for pushing as hard as I do. I find they get discouraged so easily. It has become more and more difficult to be honest – especially if that honesty is to let a player know it isn’t going as well as it could or should.
And it’s at that point that I’ve often felt I’ve been the one fingered for that player’s resulting lack of motivation and passion to continue with the game. I’ve been unfair with them or too hard on them and this has destroyed their passion and desire to continue.
But from my perspective, many of these situations are just drops in each player’s failure bucket and yet they’re being experienced by them like tidal waves. I think to myself if they’re being mentally and emotionally washed away by these minuscule difficulties then how in heavens name are they ever going to succeed in the adult world let alone on the soccer field? In speaking with other coaching colleagues about this dilemma, it is a commonly shared concern today.
However, I do my best to be optimistic about the players’ chances. Like my Nana always told me, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. Unfortunately, that’s not a great coaching philosophy though. Saying too little can be seen as just as bad as saying too much. Yet there have been days in my coaching career where finding something positive to say has been very difficult. And the last thing I want to do is concoct positivity where no positivity exists. Kids can smell a patronizer from miles away. They have no time for such a person. Who does?
So I find myself transitioning between coaching spurts of going easy and going hard. I don’t want any player to quit because of me and yet my job is to prepare these players for the realities of playing at the very highest level. Only a very few will actually ever get there because of the severity of those realities. However, without some base level of mental toughness, some level of grit, I worry that we will produce an even smaller number of potential players capable of playing at the highest level of the game.
How much of this dilemma is coaches like me being too hard on players and how much of it is the players being too soft?
Let me shift from coach to parent for a moment. As a parent, I want my two boys to grow up completely capable of dealing with all the drops, splashes and tidal waves of failure that they’ll experience over their lifetimes. The way that I can do that is by not jumping in every single time they get in trouble. I can also let them experience the raw emotional pain of failure, as hard as that may be for me to watch and not try to fix.
Blogger and mother of two Stephanie Metz, I think it’s safe to say, shares a similar philosophy. Her 2013 post “Why My Kids are NOT the Centre of My World” got over a million hits and garnished over 1600 comments to read. As the Heretic Coach, I’m a pretty hard core writer but when I read her post on the state of parenting and social expectations for kids today versus a time way back when I blushed. Here’s an excerpt from the post that talks about her two young sons:
“Everyone parents differently, and I respect that. The current generation may be one that expects nothing less than everything from this world. But I know of two gentlemen that are going to be able to accept failure and move on having learned something from it.
I know of two gentleman who will be hurt emotionally, but who will be able to work through the hurt and carry on with life. I will cushion the emotional fall as much as a mom can, but I will not completely prevent it from happening. They will not expect whoever hurt them to be punished. Heck, I might even teach my children the power of forgiveness.
These two gentlemen will understand the value of hard work, and know that hard work is required to get where one wants to be in life.”
That, in a nutshell, sums up the way I will also raise my two boys and it sums up how I feel I’ve gone about my coaching of youth soccer players over the last three decades.
Next post Saturday, September 5th.