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 can be ridiculous. I may not agree with all the things the coach does, but that’s natural as soccer is a game of opinions, but if they have the interest of the team at heart, I can almost always see what he or she is going for.

The hardest part for me is watching something simply terrible happen and hearing parents cheering it and knowing the coach is cringing. A while back I was 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 possession near the 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!

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 when encouraging new behaviours, that’s behaviourism 101. 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.

Here are the three takeaways for today:

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.

2 – On the other side, are we reinforcing wrong behaviours? Did Jenny just do 4 step-overs to get around a player and lose the ball a moment later, not once, not twice, but for the 20th time in this game? Is this something we want to reinforce? Probably not, it’s not working, she’s not learning, and it doesn’t help the team.

3 – 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?

If we want to see development, praising a kid for being fast or for looking flashy but losing the ball 9 times out of 10 isn’t going to help. We need to reward the new behaviours, the growth, and the understanding of teamwork. “Whoo!” 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 in their teens and 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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