Helping coaches and parents encourage skill development in athletes
How to Cheer on Your Kid at a Soccer Game like an Academy Coach
Did you know 80% of FC Barcelona’s passes are sideways or backwards?
Parents often yell to “Kick the ball hard!,” “Go forward,” and “shoot! shoot!”. But if Barcelona—one of the top teams in the world—is being told to pass backwards and sideways most of the time, why are we screaming “Go forward!”?
This type of parent is dreaded by coaches because the intent is so noble, but the actual effect is counterproductive to the athlete’s development, the team, and the long-term benefit of sports.
This post is for the parent full of positive energy and encouragement for their athlete but isn’t sure where to pour that energy.
By the end of this post, a soccer parent should know what to really look for in a game and how to cheer on your kid at a soccer game in the things their coach is encouraging.
Following this simple guide will make a big difference in how your child learns the sport, and possibly even views life.
Coach and Parent Share a Goal: Encouraging Growth
Why did you sign your young athlete up for soccer? Hopefully to find some friends, learn some skills, enjoy staying healthy, and have a lot of fun!
Soccer is foremost a game of skill and secondly a game of athleticism. Both are required, of course, but skill beats athleticism. The soccer world is full of stories of short, scrawny, or slow athletes who outperform their “big, tall, and fast” opponents.
As a parent, you want to encourage your young athlete. On game day, it’s hard to sit there quietly like you’re at a formal function. But you also want to cheer the right stuff and help your athlete along without causing resentment or focusing on the wrong things.
Problem: Game vs. Skills
Much like having an early growth spurt (“can you believe the height of that nine-year-old? She looks twelve!”), early success in the outcomes of soccer games may actually hurt an athlete in the long run. Wins, losses, and ties don’t tell us anything about an individual athlete either.
We don’t want to encourage one-trick ponies. Soccer is a beautiful game and requires an artist’s palette of skill.
Great players may be found on losing teams, and poor players may win a whole lot. We all know this intuitively. Focusing on the game’s scoreline, especially when you may have had almost no influence on the game, simply doesn’t focus on the betterment of the individual athlete.
Cheering for acts of heroism and strength, like hoofing the ball up field or taking a long-shot attempt on goal, may succeed in a positive result for that particular game. But a soccer athlete built to outpower opponents will wash out when facing a skill ceiling—and they will have no idea why they’ve plateaued. That’s because athletes need to first set a skill foundation.
The foundation of soccer is skill. Skills are displayed during a game. Skills may not result in goals in any particular game. Over a lifetime, skills will result in wins, all other things being equal. Gaining confidence in a variety of skills is vital for player development.
Case Study: Moves
Every good soccer player develops an arsenal of moves. These are dribbling sequences and combinations, much like memorizing “tion,” “ing,” and “ently” suffixes when learning to type. If all the parents are cheer to “kick a ball hard” and “shoot,” an athlete will often not learn to execute these moves under pressure.
So it’s important to learn which moves your athlete worked on in practice, so you can encourage those specific skills. Cheering on your kid at a soccer game with encouragement such as “do a turn!” or “chop the ball!” or even “do one of your moves!” may be the best thing you could shout at a game.
When my eight-year-old daughter plays a match I love to name which moves she did that I saw and then ask which move she plans to show me. Then I’ll look for it and cheer extra loud. There’s nothing quite like doing exactly what you intended! Even if it doesn’t “work.”
Case Study: Spatial Awareness and Passing
Skills should also be developmentally appropriate. Passing is one of the key skills in soccer. So how should you encourage a young one to pass?
Take an average eight-year-old. It is likely that spatial awareness is only just beginning, so expecting strategic sense may be simply asking too much. At this age, coaches train an athlete to “look for an open window” and begin starting to kick to someone who doesn’t have an opponent blocking the path. Encourage this athlete to simply name someone with an “open window” to them. Successfully seeing it, even if the pass isn’t successful, is a massive success!
On the other hand, take a five-year-old athlete. This youngster is most likely just grown out of toddler brain’s “mine!” vision where “the ball is mine.” Asking this athlete to pass is a silly waste of time. Encourage this athlete to go the right direction, do a dribbling move, turn around, or any number of skills. Especially do not expect this athlete to identify an “open” teammate AND successfully weight the ball to that teammate, using proper technique.
And then take an eleven-year-old. There’s enough spatial awareness and field vision to start looking for where the smart passes may be. A smart pass doesn’t guarantee that the next display of skill (possibly a shot) will be a good one, but that doesn’t mean the pass isn’t a smart pass. Encouraging the pass out of two or three available options that seemed like the “best” option may be what’s worth encouraging! As mentioned at the beginning of the article, FC Barcelona passes 80% of their passes sideways or backwards, so here you may want to encourage a pass that “keeps possession,” instead of a forward or attacking pass.
The Rewards of Encouraging Skill
And now we get to why it’s so important to focus on skill. Think of any great team you’ve been on at work: did you spend more time investing in doing the “right kinds of things” or was it only viewed as the right kind of thing when it worked?
Trusting the process of doing the right thing over and over is something youngsters can learn from sports. Nevermind that the ball didn’t end up in the goal if you personally won 80% of your 1v1s during the game!
And then there’s the aspect of learning: you don’t really know if you can do something until you try it. But do you think you’ll execute your first Half Zico Turn (a complicated move!) perfectly in a game? Of course not! You probably should try it quite a few times, until you get it, even in a game.
That’s why coaches encourage attempts. Attempting to do the right thing is the first step to actually doing the right thing, and adding whatever skill that is into your arsenal.
Giving up when you try your first pullback in a game and botch it merely guarantees you’ll never learn the skill. So encourage the attempted pullback, and eventually you’re going to see a few every game!
Encouragement like this can reward process consistency over results-driven thinking, which is a positive lifelong habit.That’s how we train people to do the right thing in tough circumstances. This mindset helps you be happy too and to be able walk away from a bad situation saying you have no regrets because you did all the things you knew to do. And you’d do them again. And more often than not, the right investments will pay off.