The Un-Coachable Moment

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the “teachable moment”:  a student, player, or child can be guided on how to improve their performance with just the right combination of advice or example from an experienced adult. Such a moment is gratifying to teachers, coaches, and parents, who are always on the lookout for that special opportunity to help our youth expand their understanding and ability, whether it happens in the classroom, on the field, or in the home.

During the past 6 years as a volunteer coach with the Arlington Soccer Club, I have thought a lot about the best way to find these “teachable moments” with my team. I’ve played soccer for nearly 50 years, including stints in Division 1 and later in Europe, and I’ve coached youth and high school teams for several decades. Thus I’ve had the opportunity to witness a wide variety of coaching styles, and to gauge their effectiveness.

In my experience, there are many, many opportunities for coaches to convey information to players. It can (and should) happen during practice, of course. This is our best opportunity to provide practical advice to players, and to let them absorb it through controlled opportunities and repetition. Coaches can (and should) also provide information during pre-game warmups, or via “chalk talks” and strategy sessions at halftime and on the bench. Coaches might also provide tips via videos, powerpoint slides, or handouts that explain the finer points of the offside rule or offer suggestions for good nutrition. Coaches can certainly counsel players individually at virtually any moment.

The only “un-coachable” moment, however, is when a player is actively engaged in a game, and particularly when that player is touching the ball. That is precisely the moment that coaches should not give information to their players. Consider the multiple impacts when a coach yells at, or even talks to, a player in the middle of the match:

  • It distracts the player(s) from focusing on the game itself;
  • it undermines a player’s self-confidence and faith in their own judgement;
  • it reduces the opportunity for player(s) to listen to their teammates;
  • it disrupts the natural flow of the game and the primacy of the players on the field.

One of the crucial aspects of soccer in comparison to many other sports is the fluidity and grace of the “beautiful game” as it is played out on the pitch. Unlike football or baseball or basketball, which feature frequent timeouts and opportunities for consultation with coaches, soccer is a game for players. Coaches are relegated to only one opportunity to speak with their team (at halftime), and that is as it should be. We must encourage our players to play the game as they see fit, not as we wish they would. We have multiple other opportunities to shape what our players do—but when the referee blows the opening whistle, we should sit down and be quiet.

The most effective demonstration that I have seen of this technique occurred several years ago when my U-8 team competed against one coached by Henry Brush (ASC Past President). To my amazement, Henry sat calmly on the bench with his players, dispensing advice quietly to them. No yelling, no wild gesticulation, no pacing the sidelines. I was taken aback by his demeanor, and wondered if perhaps he was ill or injured. But that was not the case—Henry was instead modeling the proper behavior for a youth soccer coach.

As we look ahead to Seatbelt Saturday, I urge my fellow coaches to respect the idea of the un-coachable moment, and to limit their interventions to opportunities when players are not actively playing in a game.

Chris Carlsmith (5/9/2018)