Coaching From The Sidelines

“Why does an article talking about coaching have a picture of a band as the featured image?” I hear you asking. Good question. As a student of performance psychology I have learned that the components that lead up to an excellent performance are the same across multiple activities. Whether it is sport, music, singing, acting, or any other activity where a performance is required, the components are the same – practice, rehearsal, choice of tools, team-building, discipline, and some form of coaching (this may be a coach, director, songwriter, or anyone else who directs the activity and pushes for improvement).
A while back I spoke about the difference between practicing and rehearsing, and I won’t rehash that here, but it is an important component of performance. Today, as the title suggests, we are going to look at the nature of coaching in rehearsal and performance. When I first started coaching I made so many errors it is amazing I was allowed to continue. I was focused on results because players and parents wanted to win, which was a huge error. I would play players in their strongest positions and try to eliminate weaknesses in the team by putting weaker players in positions less likely to harm the team. And the biggest one I see now is that I would coach from the sidelines. I would be yelling across the field telling kids what I wanted to see while play was going on. Looking back, I was not a coach I would want to send my kids to be coached by.
A lightbulb regarding coaching from the sidelines went off one day, and I can give what I think is a great parallel as to why it is a bad idea for multiple reasons. Last weekend I was able to go see The Kickback one of my favourite bands who have just released a new album (shameless plug for the new album Weddings & Funerals). During one of the shows someone shouted for them to play one of the new songs on the album. They responded by saying that the song wasn’t yet ready for a live performance, but thanked the person for supporting their new music. Why would a song they have played on an album not be ready for a live performance? Someone in the crowd could have listened to it a hundred times and learned it by now and told them the chords. It wasn’t ready because what happens in the canned environment of a studio isn’t the same as what happens in a live performance, and this is why coaching from the sidelines is detrimental to coaching, development and performance improvement.
Imagine if the band were up there, they have rehearsed their song countless times but they are still not happy with it for live performance and someone starts yelling what chords to play. You think the band don’t know the chord progressions? They know what to do. The same is true of our players when we put them on the field. We have taught them through repetition and sharing of vision what we want to see and why. As a soccer coach, we spend hours going over drills and different tactics on the practice field. By the time we get to the field the players should know what the plan is, so what good are we doing yelling from the sidelines? When the player hits the field they know what to do, why they are doing it, and how to execute it. Does it always go right? Of course not, but we should be able to see improvement.
So what does happen when we yell instructions? The player is caught between two activities, listening to the coach and trying to repeat the things they have learned in practice. All a yelling coach does is distract at best, and destroy confidence at worst. So what should a coach be doing when the game is happening? Watching, observing, and encouraging. They don’t have to be silent, encouraging words of support when a player does something goes a long way. If a player makes a mistake or diverts from the plan, wait until they are off the field to ask what happened and why. They may have had an amazing idea, or had the confidence to try something new. These are things coaches should be encouraging. When a player is under constant direction how can a coach know if the player is learning how to make good decisions? How does a coach know if they are doing well as a coach if they are unable to see the growth of a player on the field?
The true measure of a youth coach is not in how many trophies ‘they’ have won, or whether ‘they’ won their last game. The true measure of a youth coach won’t be seen for many years, but it will be seen when the player gets into high school or university. It will be seen when the player is no longer reliant on being the biggest, fastest, or strongest (which tend to equalise over the years) but in how well the player is able to read a game and make the game-changing decisions. It is seen when a player is able to be gracious in both victory and defeat. It is seen when a player supports a team-mate who scored an own goal, or made a potentially confidence destroying mistake.
If a youth coach spends their game time trying to direct performances during play, how much time are they spending learning what to go over in practice? If they are caught up in the moment, how focused are they on their actual role of building for the future? For every moment they are distracting the attention of one of their players, they are creating an environment where a player isn’t focused fully on the game, and that moment could be pivotal because a game can turn in just a moment. And when that momentary lapse of concentration happens, is it the coach or the player who takes the pressure on themselves and takes the hit on confidence? I’ve been there and done it. The temptation to immediately fix something when we see it going wrong, the pressure from players and parents (often it is especially parents) to get wins, and the habits we learned from previous coaches all combine to add a lot of pressure to a coaches shoulders. But if we are focused on what is important, keep the players focused on performance improvement as the goal, and stay strong in our mission we will find it a lot more rewarding when we learn an old player is now on a scholarship because of the groundwork we put in, than simply winning a trophy or two along the way.
Here’s the tl;dr read version:
1 – You wouldn’t shout to a band what chords come next in their song, why shout instructions to players when to make a pass or a run? Let them be creative, be safe to make mistakes, and learn to make good decisions.
2 – Remember that there is a difference between what will happen in a canned practice environment and an actual performance. Just because something works in practice, it may not work in real-time performance.
3 – Consider whether you work best when your supervisor is standing over you micromanaging your every move, or when you are able to do your thing and work on your goals and objectives. If you are more productive when you don’t have a helicopter boss, think about what happens in the pressure cooker of a performance with a helicopter coach. Don’t be that person, you are just adding to the distraction.
Finally, remember your mission. As a youth coach, your whole mission is to prepare your players for the next stages and the stages beyond. If your players are ready for a step up when they leave you, you have succeeded. If they are not, no matter how many trophies you have, you have failed. Think about the environment you create and how you can take the pressure of results away from your players, and help them focus on performance. It may take a while, and you may take heat for it, but if you focus on performance the wins will come, it is impossible to keep improving and performing better for the results to not follow.


Christian, Husband, Dad, Psych nut. Fan of Stevenage FC, Minnesota Wild, Real Salt Lake & spicy food. INTP. Creator of 'not sure if..' moments. &

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