I watched my nephew’s soccer game last Saturday.  Two teams of ten year-old boys went at it on a ¾ sized field. Over the course of two shortened halves, the two teams threw their full arsenal into the game. Everything they had been taught and a few things they just made up. Only once did a player forget which way he should be kicking the ball. My nephew’s team got clobbered 5 to 1. Good game for the most part. A striking contrast to soccer games then when grown ups walked onto the field, brought ice chests of beer, chain smoked, and cursed at the refs.

But, what element remained constant – the badgering coach. During last Saturday’s game, he mocked his players, yelled at them to wake up, and hounded them when they missed a kick. How had this approach survived from those dark ages until now? And the coach went hardest on his own son got the worst of the verbal assaults.

Just this week, I heard a high school coach – a woman – berating one of her complaining players. Pain, she said, is just the body’s way of releasing weakness. Shut up. Wow!

What does a coach want when he lets himself slip into primitive name calling? What’s the intention, what’s the method, and are to two at odds? Even in a low stakes Saturday Soccer Game, the old stuff comes back – come on Bobby, come on. Wake up. What are you doing there? Wake up. Watch the guy. Come on! Bobby happened to be a chubby boy in the fullback position slow to the ball, dreaming, watching two hawks flying overhead while three opponents rumbled by. What is Bobby doing out there and what is the coach trying to do?

If the point last Saturday did not crushing the opposition, here are a few fresh pointers that he might want to sit with – or have someone shout at him if that serves his style with greater efficiency:

  • Every single boy on the field last Saturday is an athlete.
  • Each boy can learn to make his body do what it was capable of doing.
  • The coach’s role is to find each boy’s next step.
  • Shaming as a way to improve performance, a technique favored in the last century, is ineffective.
  • Success for ten year-olds – and success at every age – comes when individuals are willing to take risks because they know that mistakes are among the best teachers.
  • The score is only one indicator of victory in a game. A boy who learns the joy of running, winning, and losing – these are the real prize.

To see how it can work in practice, check out a true 21st Century game: Ultimate Frisbee. In this game, coaches encourage each positive toss, ask boys and girls to play together, avoid the use of referees and instead ask players to confer when rules are broken and attain consensus regarding penalties.

Will coaches like the one from Saturday’s game keep coming back to foist their unresolved issues onto kids? Will they get the kind of compassion they need to get past their own stuff? Old ways of looking at victory miss all of the opportunities that have nothing to do with a better score. Dominance as a model for victory – that approach has died due to its failure to deliver. Welcome to pioneers who can show us how to enjoy what else matters besides winning.


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