Soccer parents: Take your responsibilities seriously and keep your comments light
Sep 07 2010
"Run! Kick it! Pass the ball! Don't let that player beat you, take them out!" Whoa. When I heard that coming from behind me on the sideline that's when I, the coach, knew I had a problem. Something about the soccer pitch had transformed a lovely, gracious woman into a bloodthirsty parent wanting her player to inflict bodily harm on…ahem…another kindergartener.
Well that could never be me, you're thinking now, but I respectfully disagree. Every parent of every player has been there, and as a coach I confess that at times I've thought about which of my "enforcers" could take on the role of cutting that opposing striker down to size. The difference is not which of us hears the gladiator's scream in our heads, it's which of us allows that scream to make its way through our larynx and into the world at large.
So what are we to do? This is Vashon, after all, and such behaviors can result in you sitting at the special out-of-sight, out-of-mind table at a local restaurant, finding that the aisle you're in at Thriftway has suddenly deserted and, strangely enough, always having a buffer zone at the theatre. On the bright side, you'll never have to wait at the Post Office as the lines will mysteriously melt away when people realize it's you, that crazy parent who puts a notch in the arm of your folding chair for each opposing player sent back off island with a limp.
In order to provide some guidance on the makings of a great soccer parent let's start with a few definitions. There are four roles available on a soccer pitch: player, coach, referee and fan. You, like all of us, get to pick one role and the process is easier than you think. If you're wearing all green and look like any of the other 500 kids wearing Vashon soccer uniforms, congratulations, you're a player. If you have no free time, carry a funny clipboard and think that sheep wranglers have it easy then you're a coach. If your shirt is a funny shade of yellow with vertical black stripes no, you're not some sort of Salvador Dali version of Charlie Brown, you're a referee. By process of elimination we've now established that you, as a parent, are a Fan and with that come some special responsibilities.
Parents-Are-Fans-Responsibility #1: Relentless Encouragement
Parents, as Fans, are responsible for providing enthusiasm and encouragement. This is done in tireless ways, such as making endless shuttle runs to VES, Agren and McMurray usually at inconvenient times during the week without ever once wondering aloud if there are frequent flier miles associated with this trip. Then there's the Saturday morning fun of wondering just how many vehicles fit on the Rhody and is it three cars ahead of the sign or three cars after that make it on? Throughout all of this your job is to be irrepressibly cheerful! "It's a warm rain for October", "Don't worry, that mud will wash right off" or the classic "Yes, kickoff is at 9 am in Issaquah, but don't worry we'll stop for espresso in Puyallup!"
Note that none of these conversations involve providing tips to your player on how they could do better on the pitch. That's called coaching, and it's best left to the person with the clipboard.
If you can, for a moment, remember how your player responded when your pre-match pep talk moved from bubbly enthusiasm to tactical advice. My bet is that, had you been watching closely, you'd have seen your player roll their eyes, cross their arms, and then re-orient themselves to look more directly out the window. Even worse are the post-match talks where you just couldn't resist passing along such helpful advice as "If you'd just hustled a bit more" or "Why didn't you take that shot?" Do your job as a Fan: "I'm really looking forward to the match today", "you played brilliantly, I'm very proud" or even "What do you say to a Zoomies run on the way home?" Build positive associations and the rest will take care of itself.
Parents-Are-Fans-Responsibility #2: Cheerleader
Game time is especially critical, and can prove the toughest test of all for parents who channel an inner Lou Piniella just waiting for the right moment to burst forth. Trust me, Yogi Berra you ain't, so resist the urge to provide your player with helpful hints like "Run!", "Shoot!" or my personal favorite, "Pass!".
Despite your correct usage of the grammatical command form these tips are worthless to the field player who is busy extrapolating the positions of 21 other players, two linesmen, one referee and, oh yes, a soccer ball. Worse yet, once the players start tuning out the noises from the sidelines- ask them, they do - then they no longer hear their coach who may have slightly more relevant directions like "Push up!", "Overlap!" or "Pressure, don't get beat!"
And by the way, at no point in time should Fans be offering suggestions to the other characters in our grand event. I've checked, and referees don't really appreciate your analysis of the offsides rule, opposing coaches don't want your advice, and oh-my-gosh-what-were-you-thinking if you ever found yourself doing anything other than complimenting an opposing player.
As a coach my guidance for parents was to cheer their brains out with chants of "Go Team Green", "Let's Go Vashon" or the classic "Well Played!" If they strayed to the dark side then they all knew to expect my in-game visit to supply them with their favorite flavor of tootsie-roll lollipop. For the most recalcitrant of Fans I'd encourage an investment in a Vuvuzela.
Parents-Are-Fans-Responsibility #3: Your Score Doesn't Matter
Your player's soccer team is not the avenue for you to work out your childhood issues around never lettering at a varsity sport, nor is it the right place for you to burn off excess testosterone. Seriously, if you want to do something where the score really matters, sign yourself up for a competitive sports league, or find some like-minded card players and put some money on the table. For youth soccer the emphasis is skills, teamwork and passion for the game, and while at certain age levels the score does start to matter, your focusing on it won't make the experience better for anyone.
After a tough loss - or win, for that matter - my experience is that the players have shaken it off long before the boat ride back home. At that point they're busy bouncing around the upper deck, raiding the candy machine and being admonished by WSF for disrupting the crew's afternoon naps. The parents, on the other hand, are busy interviewing the coach for what they can do to win the next match, usually cleverly disguised as a question like "What should I work on with my player before the next practice?" The best answer? Celebrate the day by reveling in your player's enthusiasm. If they need an emotional boost kick them out of the car and tell them to hang out topside with their team. Let the team and the coach sort out the tactics and skills, don't let your sense of dismay at the team losing a match drag the mood down for everyone.
Parents-Are-Fans-Responsibility #4: Pele is Pele, Your Player is Your Child
In my years of playing, coaching and parenting soccer players I've found that the happiest parents - and thus the happiest players - are those that have taken the long view. For some parents this means that success is a player who sticks with the sport, at one level or another, throughout the rest of their life, perhaps playing intramural at college or adult leagues in their communities. For other parents success is being scouted for or playing for their college team, and for a very select few success can translate to a professional soccer career or even a cap for the national team. Believe it or not, Pele, Hamm, Messi, Akers and Ronaldinho all came from parents just like you!
Here's the key, though: These definitions of success emerge at the desire of the player. If you want to be a successful Fan then your job is to help your player sort out what direction makes sense for them. No one ever wants to be near that crazy parent pushing their player so hard that everyone feels uncomfortable, but we've all seen those parents so they must have come from somewhere. Don't let it be you!
Holy smokes, there's more to being a Parent-As-Fan than you thought, right? And we've only just scratched the surface. Don't forget the other responsibilities that come with the job: Equipment manager, organic snack coordinator, paramedic and field locator. All kidding aside, encourage your player, cheer them always and love them with everything you've got. Soccer gives you a chance to be connected with them for now and forever. See you on the pitch!
- David Leonhardt is past president of the Vashon Island Soccer Club, a former coach and the proud parent of his daughter, who recently retired from club soccer
Children need to play and it needs to be fun. If it's not fun they will lose interest. Playing is important at any age. How many of us would play the recreational sports we do (golf, tennis, etc.) if every time we swung the club or racquet someone was correcting our technique.
When your child is not at practice let him/her dictate how to spend time playing (as long as it's safe). I asked my son why he plays basketball at recess everyday since it's a sport he does not play in a formal league. His response was, "Because it's fun." At recess there are no coaches, no parents, no officials and no pressure. Kids can make up the teams and the rules to make sure they have fun. The same should happen at home.
If you're wondering why all of a sudden your child does not want to play soccer with you, think back to the last few times you were outside playing together. Did you spend more time coaching than just being a parent? Did you dictate what the two of you would play and how it should be played? If so, you may have taken the fun out of your child's play.
Next time you go outside to play with your child, try to make an honest effort to let your child decide what you'll play and what the rules will be. Don't correct, explain or demonstrate unless you're asked. You might be surprised how much fun you'll have together.