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Communication key with youth soccer players

By American Sport Education Program (ASEP)

Sending Effective Messages
Young players often have little understanding of the rules and skills of soccer and probably even less confidence in their ability to play the game. So they need accurate, understandable, and supportive messages to help them along. That’s why your verbal and nonverbal messages count.

Verbal Messages
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” isn’t true. Spoken words can have a strong and lasting effect. Coaches’ words are particularly influential because youngsters place great importance on what coaches say. Perhaps you, like many former youth sport participants, have a difficult time remembering much of anything you were told by your elementary school teachers, but you can still recall several specific things your coaches at that level said to you. Such is the lasting effect of a coach’s comments to a player.

Whether you are correcting misbehavior, teaching a player how to pass the ball, or praising a player for good effort, you should consider a -number of things when sending a message verbally:

  • Be positive and honest.
  • State it clearly and simply.
  • Say it loud enough, and say it again.
  • Be consistent.

Be Positive and Honest
Nothing turns people off like hearing someone nag all the time, and players react similarly to a coach who gripes constantly. Kids particularly need encouragement because they often doubt their abilities to perform in a sport. Look for what your players do well and tell them. But don’t cover up poor or incorrect play with rosy words of praise. Kids know all too well when they’ve erred, and no cheerfully expressed cliché can undo their mistakes. If you fail to acknowledge players’ -errors, they will think you are a phony.

An effective way to correct a performance error is to first point out the part of the skill that the player performed correctly. Then explain—in a positive manner—the error the player made and show her the correct way to do it. Finish by encouraging the player and emphasizing the correct performance.

Be sure not to follow a positive statement with the word but. For example, don’t say, “That was good accuracy on your pass, Kelly, but if you follow through with your kick a little more, you’ll get more zip on the ball.” Such a remark causes many kids to ignore the positive statement and focus on the negative one. Try something like this: “That was good accuracy on your pass, Kelly. And if you follow through with your kick a little more, you’ll get more zip on the ball. That was right on target. Way to go.”

State It Clearly and Simply
Positive and honest messages are good, but only if expressed directly in words your players understand. Beating around the bush is in-effective and in-efficient. And if you ramble, your players will miss the point of your message and probably lose interest. Here are tips for saying things clearly:

  • Organize your thoughts before speaking to your players.
  • Know your subject as completely as possible.
  • Explain things thoroughly, but don’t bore your players with long-winded monologues.
  • Use language your players can understand and be consistent in your terminology. However, avoid trying to be hip by using their age group’s slang.

Say It Loudly Enough, and Say It Again
Talk to your team in a voice that all members can hear. A crisp, vigorous voice commands attention and respect; garbled and weak speech is tuned out. It’s OK, and in fact appropriate, to soften your voice when speaking to a player individually about a personal problem. But most of the time your messages will be for all your players to hear, so make sure they can. An enthusiastic voice also motivates players and tells them you enjoy being their coach. A word of caution, however: Avoid dominating the setting with a booming voice that distracts attention from players’ performances.

Sometimes what you say, even if you state it loudly and clearly, won’t sink in the first time. This may be particularly true when young players hear words they don’t understand. To avoid boring repetition and still get your message across, say the same thing in a slightly different way. For instance, you might first tell your players, “Mark your opponents tighter!” If they don’t appear to understand, you might say, “When your opponents are in scoring range, you can’t give them the chance to shoot or pass the ball forward.” The second form of the message may get through to players who missed it the first time around.

Be Consistent
People often say things in ways that imply a different message. For example, a touch of sarcasm added to the words “Way to go!” sends an entirely different message than the words themselves suggest. Avoid sending mixed messages. Keep the tone of your voice consistent with the words you use. And don’t say something one day and contradict it the next; players will get their wires crossed.

Keep your terminology consistent. Many soccer terms describe the same or a similar skill. One coach may use the term halfback to describe a position in the middle of the team, whereas another coach may call the same position midfielder. Both are correct. To be consistent as a staff, however, agree on all terms before the start of the season and then stay with them.

Nonverbal Messages
Just as you must be consistent in the tone of voice and words you use, you must also keep your verbal and nonverbal messages consistent. An extreme example of failing to do so would be shaking your head, indicating disapproval, and at the same time telling a player, “Nice try.” Which is the player to believe, your gesture or your words?

You can send messages nonverbally in several ways. Facial expressions and body language are just two of the more obvious forms of nonverbal signals that can help you when you coach. Keep in mind that a coach needs to be a teacher first, and any action that detracts from the message you are trying to convey should be avoided.

Facial Expressions
The look on a person’s face is the quickest clue to what he thinks or feels. Your players know this, so they will study your face, looking for a sign that will tell them more than the words you say. Don’t try to fool them by putting on a happy or blank mask. They’ll see through it, and you’ll lose credibility.

Serious, stone-faced expressions provide no cues to kids who want to know how they are performing. When faced with such, kids will just assume you’re unhappy or disinterested. Don’t be afraid to smile. A smile from a coach can give a great boost to an unsure player. Plus, a smile lets your players know that you are happy coaching them. But don’t overdo it, or they won’t be able to tell when you are genuinely pleased by something they’ve done and when you are just putting on a smiling face.

Body Language
What would your players think you were feeling if you came to practice slouched over with your head down and shoulders slumped? That you were tired, bored, or unhappy? What would they think you were feeling if you watched them during a contest with your hands on your hips, your jaws clenched, and your face reddened? That you were upset with them, disgusted at an official, or mad at a fan? Probably some or all of these things would enter your players’ minds. None of them are impressions you want your players to have of you. That’s why you should carry yourself in a pleasant, confident, and vigorous manner.

Physical contact can also be an essential use of body language. A handshake, a pat on the head, an arm around the shoulder, and even a big hug are effective ways to show approval, concern, affection, and joy to your players. Youngsters are especially in need of this type of nonverbal message. Keep within the obvious moral and legal limits, of course, but don’t be reluctant to touch your players, sending a message that can only be expressed by such contact.


This is an excerpt from Coaching Youth Soccer, Fourth Edition.

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