When "Whoo" Doesn't Help

The move from coach to parent is hard. Really, really hard. The hardest part is when you listen to the parents who have no idea how soccer works (I am sure it’s the same in other sports), and no interest in learning, but want to disagree with everything the coach or referee does (OK, hands up, as a coach I am guilty of the referee one as well). I love the parents who are interested and ask questions, offer intelligent thought and want to add to what the team is trying to achieve. It’s the ones who know best because they once played a sport (any sport) in school and are by default experts on all sports that get to me. Or they believe the techniques that worked in the 1980s apply today, and we don’t need to think about this “psychobabble mental-toughness crap. Lot’s of running was all that mattered in my day, and if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my kid…”. Yes, and you used to walk uphill, both ways, to school and back, barefeet in rain, snow, and when it was so hot the pavement was on fire. On the coaches side of the field you don’t hear it and it’s not so bad, on the parent’s side it’s ridiculous. I may not agree with all the things the coach does, but that’s natural as “soccer is a game of opinions” (© Danny Jones on LinkedIn), but I can almost always see what he or she is going for.
The hardest part for me (other than the constant criticism some have of coaching methods they don’t/don’t care to understand) is watching something simply terrible happen and hearing parents cheering it and knowing the coach is cringing. I was recently watching a High School game and the opposing parents were shouting “Whoo” and “Great job!” at every touch. Every. Single. Touch. Little Johnny in defence gets the ball and kicks it out of play while under no pressure – “Great play, Little Johnny!”. No! It wasn’t. He just lost you possession near your 18 yard box for no reason! A player with a big kick does a big kick – “Whoo – Awesome!”. Yes, an awesome kick back to our goalie who will distribute the ball and we’ll go on the attack again. I know this because it’s the fifth time in this game of seeing it. It’s. Not. Awesome!
Excuse me for one moment while I exorcise this from my head…
Okay, all better…
So here’s the important thing. I believe that praise, encouragement and support are the most important things we can do when trying to get people to perform new behaviours. No, scrap that – I KNOW that praise, encouragement and support are the most important things. Whether this is in sport, in the classroom, or in the workplace people will do better when they are given an expectation, shown how to do the task, and then encouraged when they do it successfully. Behavioral data and studies support this – encouragement, support and rewards (whether praise or tangible) will see a repeat of the desired behaviour.
As much as I get that people want to support their player, there is also a point where too much encouragement not only doesn’t help, but is actually a detriment to the player, the team, and what the coach wants to achieve. As a parent I am maybe 60% focused on my kid, 40% on the team (on a good day). I would imagine this ratio is even more skewed for someone without coaching experience who isn’t wondering why we just had an offside against us when the ball came off the defender’s head. Anyway, I diverge…
We naturally want to encourage our kids and the team. We want them to do well. We don’t want them to feel bad when they lose. We want them to be happy because first and foremost, they are children, our children, before they are athletes. However, it should be noted, as parents when we list the things that create our identity, we may say husband/wife, parent, religious affiliation, hobbies, job, etc. When our kids build their identity it is “Swag-King of the Soccer Field!” or “Future Leader of the Dark-Side, and Ruler of the Universe.” It is important for us to encourage our kids in the things that help them build their identity, but it is not good to encourage it when the substance doesn’t match the style.
When a player with a big kick hoofs the ball down the field, he hasn’t done something amazing, he has done something within his skill-set. It doesn’t seem to matter if 80% of the time the ball goes out of play, or goes to an opponent, it’s a big kick so it is reinforced by people impressed with big kicks. They like style – regardless of substance. The behaviour is then reinforced, whether it is useful or not, and it doesn’t help the player or the team to encourage it. Or what of a kid who has great ball control and can do more step-overs per game than Christiano Ronaldo, but loses the ball 9 times out of 10 because she isn’t a team player and won’t pass to a team-mate? I’m sure we’ve all seen it, she goes past one, goes past another, but now two opponents come at her and she loses the ball. Again. Everyone is in awe at the moves she used to get past two players, but no one stops to think about the fact she has once again cost the team possession. Once again, to people who don’t know any better, the substance must be present because it looks good, right?
The behaviours that are detrimental to the team are repeated over and over because they are praised and reinforced. Play after play, game after game, these behaviours are reinforced with “Whoo!” and “Great job!”, but they aren’t beneficial. They are the same behaviours play after play, game after game, no growth is seen, and ultimately they harm the overall team. These players will never reach their full potential because their skills which are beneficial, and their decisions which are not, are being reinforced through praise and positive comments. Those who offer a dissenting view are ignored because, well, Little Jenny is the next Messi, just look at those skills, didn’t you see the step-over?”
Three easy fixes to help people who want to help their team and their player:
1 – Question what happened? Did the player with the big kick just do a big kick? If so, did the kick go to an opposing player or a team-mate? If it’s a team-mate “Great pass to a team-mate, Johnny!”. Praise the thing you want to see, not the action that is hit or miss. Praise the completed pass and Johnny will want to do another one. Did Jenny just do 4 step-overs to get around a player and lose the ball a moment later? Is this something we want to reinforce? Probably not. Think about what you encourage because the things you praise and encourage will be repeated. Why encourage something that helps neither the player or the team to improve or grow, or worse, are detrimental to player and team?
2 – Focus on the right things. Focus on the process of improvement, growth, mental toughness, and development. The kid who can run faster at U12 and is given a “Whoo!” every time he runs fast will find himself among the pack as he gets to U15 level, and beyond into college. All he learned to do was be fast and use his speed. What is left when he isn’t the fastest anymore? The player who can do the moves and step-overs will spend a lot of time on the bench in college because she still can’t pass to a team-mate and still loses possession 90% of the time. Why would a coach want that? Don’t do your kid a future disservice by encouraging them to do the thing that looks good but will harm them in the future. Talk to them about team-work and doing the things that will help the team. Don’t praise the step-overs that she does 50 times a game, praise the pass that comes off once every ten times, and is successful for half of those. Encourage the substance that helps, not the style that hinders.
In another game I watched last week a young player, a freshman, organised his team from midfield. He put in good challenges, made good decisions, good passes, and played well. However, the most important thing he did in that game was led the team. He directed play, he controlled the midfield, he told people where to be and what to do. He was, in reality, the star player. He didn’t get many “Whoo!”‘s because he wasn’t flashy, he just did it. He wasn’t the captain, and I don’t think he scored, but he led his team to victory through leadership and direction. I’d rather have 11 of him on the field than one of the players who can do step-overs and wow people who don’t know better, and he’ll go further than the flashy players. You know why? Because scouts and college coaches know better than to take someone who loses possession, no matter how good they look doing it.
3 – Youth sport is about development. Nothing more, and nothing less. If you measure success at U16 to the same standard that you did at U10, you’re getting it wrong. The bigger kids aren’t going to stay the bigger kids. The fastest kids will not always be the fastest. Kids develop at different ages, and a kid who was smaller and thinner last season can bulk up and become bigger and stronger very quickly. The journey is more important than the destination. I realise (through painful experience) that some parents are more interested in results than performance, it’s tough to deal with and is the worst part of coaching. I have come to believe that anyone can get results – just put your strongest players in their best positions and kick the ball up the field to a fast attacker. Job done.
Actual development, when we are taking the player who can do step-overs and helping her to learn passes will result in her losing the ball without the impressive skills first. The reality is that she doesn’t lose possession any more than she used to, but the style part that brings the “Whoo!” factor isn’t there. To the untrained eye she has got worse. They didn’t see the downside of her game before, and now it’s all they can see. However, without this, she will ultimately be lost in the pack, or worse, be dropped from the pack for being detrimental to the team. However, if she is encouraged when she makes a pass she will do it again, and eventually with work this will be an added weapon to the arsenal. Not only can she dribble and take on players, but now she can pass as well. It isn’t the every day behaviours and actions that should be praised, no matter how fancy they look, it is the new behaviours, the growth, and the understanding of team-work that should be encouraged. I have no problem with “Whoo!”, encouragement is great, but it needs to be for things we want to see in the future – new things, beneficial things, growth. I used to give my kids toys when they pooped on the toilet instead of in their diapers. They are now 14 and 16, they don’t get toys for that anymore. We don’t praise and reward things that were previous development steps in everyday life, why would we do it in sports?
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Christian, Husband, Dad, Psych nut. Fan of Stevenage FC, Minnesota Wild, Real Salt Lake & spicy food. INTP. Creator of 'not sure if..' moments. www.socceracity.com & www.psychspot.org

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