One of my favorite memories from my youth soccer days: My teammate shot high with a golden chance to score and our coach screamed at him, "Come on, David! You gotta shoot low!" David turned to the sideline and screamed back, "Don't you think I know I missed!" The players on the bench tried hard to suppress their laughter and David became our hero for having the guts to yell back at our coach.
I recalled the incident recently while observing how U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter seems to be so successful in keeping his players' confidence level high through thick and thin. In fact, I've long found it remarkable how high-level coaches often seem more sensitive to players' self-confidence than many coaches at the youth level.
I've seen youth coaches substitute players after they made a mistake, which adds to the public shame and denies them a chance to make up for it and an opportunity to test their ability to cope with a setback. When I referee, it's clear to see how players react to their coaches' negative body language on the sideline and admonishing comments. It doesn't help. It increases the fear of making mistakes. It should be obvious that when people take on a task, feeling self-conscious about the possibility of failure doesn't increase the chances of success.
In some cases, the negative body language I see from youth coaches tempts me to ask them whether they even enjoy being on the soccer field with kids. I can only imagine that they're not conscious of what they look like when kids glance over to the bench. I would advise them to pay attention to some of the world's most successful coaches.
Pia Sundhage, who guided the USA to two Olympic gold medals, and Jill Ellis, the two-time World Cup-winning coach, watched their games from the sideline with body language that conveyed confidence and trust in their players no matter how tense the games got -- and always looked like they were enjoying themselves. Surely coaches who look calm under pressure will ease the nerves of their players instead of adding to anxiety.
Among the many remarkable aspects to the U.S. men's 3-2 win over Mexico was how they rebounded from mistakes and kept their composure during a roller-coaster of a game that included interruptions from VAR and fan misbehavior. The Mexicans took a 1-0 lead in the second minute after a blunder from Mark McKenzie. The 22-year-old misplayed another ball in the first half and looked so nervous I figured he'd be a halftime sub. But McKenzie went the 120-plus minutes and contributed to a milestone U.S. victory.
"I was a defender as well, and I just know the feeling when you make a mistake that leads to a goal," said Berhalter. The USA back twice against Mexico, whose coach, Tata Martino, was ejected and whose players' composure deteriorated.
We're privy only to glimpses of Berhalter's coaching behind the scenes, thanks to the "Behind the Crest" videos, but those must be pretty well representative of the positive approach he takes inspiring his players. We do get his detailed descriptions of his players' performances from press conferences, which if heard or read by his players would surely be inferred as respectful and confidence-building.
Since taking the helm two and a half years ago, Berhalter has been fielding extraordinarily young lineups and has remained steadfast in a tactical approach that creates risky situations while playing out of the back. The recent victories prove he's created a team atmosphere in which players aren't stifled by the fear of mistakes.
When I witness youth coaching that dwells on players' mistakes, I recall Anson Dorrance saying he's been constantly amazed at how little confidence even his most talented players have. If coaches of players at the highest level make great efforts to consider their players' mindset, then certainly the coaches of youth players should be even more conscious of how players interpret criticism.
Amid an infinite amount of coaching education, youth coaches can be well-served by watching how a coach like Berhalter handles his high-stakes challenge. If he can coach with a calm demeanor that instills confidence, then surely it's an approach for youth coaches to embrace.