I am an under-10 boys soccer coach.  An unlikely one as I was never a good player.  2 years ago my youngest son’s coach had to quit unexpectedly. 4 weeks later with no new coach I put my hand up and said “Give me a shot at it.  I figured I could not do a worse job than no coach and there was always Youtube to rely on?

At the start?  Wooee what a mess.  The boys were used to doing whatever they wanted. (Previous coach was a pushover) and they hadn’t learnt many basic skills.  The first training session?

  1. There was a punch-up between two boys over whose fault a missed pass was.
  2. One boy got upset we weren’t doing things the way he wanted and he ran away and hid in the equipment locker. I found him just before his parents showed up.
  3. Another boy, one of the smallest players “hurt” himself so he was unable to train. I later learned this had become a pattern for him.  Pretend to be hurt, don’t train, so you can’t make a mistake and feel you are letting the team down

My new team had lost 10 in a row, the boys were downhearted and felt abandoned by their coach. (Who was viewed as the worst coach in the club anyway).  It was a sad and sorry start.

Day One I’m  thinking “What have I done?”  This thought lasted but a moment because I knew exactly what I’d done.

  • I’d put my hand up to ensure these boys had a good life experience.
  • I was there to show them they were capable of more than they realised.
  • I was there to show them that if they supported each other they’d improve quickly. Children thrive in a positive environment.

I wanted soccer training to be a safe place for them. No matter what was going on at home or school they could come to soccer training and it would be fine. They would be respected, encouraged and given some individual attention.

I had 3 weeks to whip them into shape before we started the 2nd leg of the season.  We had 6 training sessions before our next match and I needed results fast.  This is what I did.

  1. All the boys had to learn listen to me when I talked. Previously, when coach talked?  Listening was optional.  I didn’t yell. I got their attention and then spoke in a normal voice.  Don’t listen?  Run a lap around the field.  Very quickly. I got their attention.
  2. All efforts were encouraged. Training was the time to have a go and maybe get it wrong.  Maybe even fall flat on your face in front of your teammates.  But there was to be no ridiculing the efforts of a teammate – ever.  No more laughing or jeering when someone made a mistake.  Clap them on the back, hi-five their efforts and let’s all support each other.

In matches there could be NO yelling or remonstrating between the boys if a mistake or bad choice was made.  I was the coach.  I could see all.  If anyone needed some extra work on their skills, or some advice on their decision making eg encouragement to pass instead of always running with the ball… that would come from coach and only from coach.

  1. I got to know the boys, and their temperaments and didn’t treat them as if they were all the same. Different approaches, depending on the boy. One of the boys was extremely sensitive.  Prone to anger, tears and tantrums when things didn’t go his way.  Not a bad kid– he just had big feelings and not much idea what to do with them when they surfaced. Whenever there was an incident I took him aside and reassured him everything was fine, he was not in trouble, but I wanted him to sit out from training for a few minutes till he could calm himself down.He was used to getting in trouble and being excluded from class/school/team but it was always done without respect for his feelings (which he could not easily control) and done as a punishment.  “You’re excluded.  You can’t come back, till we decide your punishment is over!”  My approach was “You need a bit of time to get it together, rejoin us when you are ready.”This worked really well and the time-out periods got shorter and less frequent.
  2. I worked out who was good at what and made sure every boy knew I valued them for it. We have a little guy who was always underneath the other player’s feet.  He couldn’t kick with any power and was disillusioned he was of no use to the team.  He became our rebound goal scorer, tasked to run at the goals when one of the bigger boys had a shot to try and get the rebound and score.(As I write this, he scored 4 goals last week, all from within 2 m of the goals.)Another boy was very aware of the gameplay but not super-fast or coordinated.  He became our “general at the back” organising the positions of the defensive players.The boys opened their eyes and saw the positives in themselves and each other and began to think anything was possible.
  3. I treated them as people not just players. I am a team manager at work and understand it’s much easier to manage a team of brilliant, motivated, self-starters who have no issues in their personal lives than…. well… real people with real lives and issues. My job is not to be too concerned about whether I have the best people, it’s to get the best out of my people.I applied this outlook to the under 10’s team.None of my boys is ever likely to play for Barcelona but gee whiz I got the best out of them and they were thrilled with their improvement.

Match Day – The day of Reckoning
Match Day, 3 weeks later, first game of the 2nd half of the season.  I barely slept the night before I was so nervous.  Would the hard work the boys had put in pay off?  Would I be able to keep them together as a team if someone made a mistake and we got behind?  What if we got beaten badly and all this effort I had put in giving them self-belief was crushed in 90 short minutes?

The wait till kick-off was excruciating.

Somehow we got off to a good start and surged to a 3 nil lead.  The other team could not believe it.  We were the easy-beat team… how could this be happening? They descended into chaos yelling at each other than resorting to mean deliberate fouls.  The opposition coach was screaming insults at his boys, yelling at one boy that if he didn’t start playing better he would be kicked out of the team.  It was disgraceful. We won the game 7-4

I’d never seen 10 boys so excited. I was absolutely thrilled for them though my thrill was tempered by seeing the terrible time the opposition coach was putting his boys through.  How would anyone have their priorities so wrong I wondered?  I left the ground troubled, but absolutely certain my approach was even more validated.

We kept winning.  Not every time but a lot of the time. We went from last at the mid-point of the season to 4th out of 10 by the end of it.  In my mind, our victories on the field were small compared with the victories I had with my boys.  The belief they gained in themselves and each other plus the increase in compassion and understanding they held for others outside of our team. I even had boys from the team above asking to come down to my team.  I struggled with my pride, even though I knew all I was doing was what I thought everyone should be doing.

Last week we played a team that had a player with mobility issues.  He was skilful, but just not able to run anywhere near as fast as the other players.  After the match, my team’s striker suggested next time we play them we take one of the boys from the very bottom team to match up against him.  Someone normally abled, but slow so this boy who clearly dearly loved his football could have a better matchup and a better experience.   I almost cried.  This same boy on my first day of coaching punched one of his teammates for making a mistake… now he was suggesting we intentionally weaken our team to give this boy a good experience?

My team are as competitive as the next team. They love to score goals.  They love to win.  But they see a bigger picture now as well.

Yes yes I hear you say, it’s just under 10’s soccer.  To me, it’s so much more than that. As the soccer coach, my role is not just to shape the boys as players – I have a responsibility to shape them into the men the rest of the world would want them to be.

As a society, we might declare our boys men at age 18 or 21 depending on where you live but the journey to manhood starts much earlier.

It’s the joy of my week to run onto the training pitch with these boys.  They see me as just their soccer coach, but I know I am there for so much more.