Thoughts on positive, supportive coaching from a former youth soccer player
by Ariel Schwartz
I grew up playing Rec and Travel soccer in Arlington Soccer Association and had some wonderful experiences. I also had some less-than-positive ones.
There were coaches who sent me home in tears.
There were also many coaches who had a huge positive impact on both my soccer experience and my development as a person. They did this by cultivating a sense of belonging and purpose that shaped my actions and self-understanding outside of soccer.
I will always appreciate how my coaches helped me develop skills and my understanding of the game I love.
But what sticks with me most about those positive coaches is how they made me feel.
Those positive ones – who identified my strengths both on and off the field – influenced how I approach the game, school, my career, and my interactions with others – more than 10 years later, I can say they had a lifelong impact on me as a person.
They may or may not have been aware, but through my current work I now know that they used approaches suggested by Positive Youth Development theorists (part of my field of research now). Sports are a natural setting for positive youth development principles called the “big three”:
- Positive and sustained adult-youth relationships
- Skill-building opportunities
- Youth leadership
Below I’ve outlined specific aspects of each of the ‘big three’ in coaching terms.
Positive and sustained adult-youth relationships
- Care: Coaches who acknowledged our lives and interests outside of soccer ensured that we felt good about ourselves, even if we had a bad game. They asked – and listened – about school, other interests, and praised us for our character and effort, not just our skills.
- Trust: Some coaches trusted us to take care of fitness on our own. Not only did that leave more time to practice, but it helped us develop a sense of responsibility and feel respected.
- Admitting mistakes: By admitting mistakes, coaches created an environment of collaboration, mutual respect, and modeled how to take responsibility for one’s actions.
- Playfulness: Coaches who reminded us that soccer was a game, even on my most competitive teams, helped keep soccer in perspective. It is possible to work on skills while taking a break from drills with games of soccer volleyball, juggling competitions, and “world cup.” Most importantly, was that our coaches took a break from evaluating and teaching to be joyful and play WITH us.
- Individualization: Players are people, and not all people respond to the same type of feedback and instruction. Coaches who recognized that players had different personalities and learning styles were able to promote development in all of their players. Treating players differently doesn’t mean playing favorites but rather that you are attending to them as unique individuals.
- Goal-setting: The ability to set goals and work towards them has numerous positive outcomes. Goal setting involves identifying a goal, making a plan to achieve it, evaluating progress, and making a new plan if the first one does not work. This youth-centered approach makes it about what they’re doing for themselves, not the coach. Some coaches had us set seasonal goals for the number of times we could juggle as a simple starting point. Other goals included taking more shots per game, increasing our fitness, speaking louder when we were open, or learning a new skill.
- Identifying individuals’ strengths: On some teams, formal leadership opportunities were reserved for captains. However, some of my favorite coaches found a way for each player to take on a leadership role. Based on our individual strengths, we may have led warmups, drills or team meetings, organized a team event, or been asked to provide support for a new player on the team. Leadership, even in small doses, helps promote youths’ sense of purpose, autonomy, and self-confidence.
- Collaboration: Coaches don’t need to be 100% in charge all the time. Coaches demonstrate respect for their players through collaboration. Coaches who asked the team to weigh in on team decisions, evaluate strategy at half-time and after the game promoted confidence and competence.
The above strategies can be implemented for any player, at any level, without sacrificing soccer skill development. When each player feels supported and recognized as an individual, they work harder, support their team mates better, and contribute to a more positive, welcoming environment for everyone.
I can’t promise that they’ll all grow up to make positive, healthy choices but your impact as a coach can last a lifetime – just like it has for me.
Ariel Schwartz played soccer in *Arlington Soccer Association for many years as a youth. She played for Optimists rec club, Arlington United (travel). She also was a Travel Player Rep and helped to run TOPSoccer. Now 27, she conducts research in collaboration with young adults with disabilities aimed at furthering their rights and participation in valued activities.