By Tim Nash
We’ve all had them, whether we like to admit it or not, those forehead-smacking moments when you realize your mistake and get that, “I knew that” feeling. There are things we tend to forget when coaching kids, things that pop up and make you feel stupid for not remembering them.
I had a couple of those recently. Fortunately for my players, I was able admit I had been wrong, recognize the error, and change my approach. As a result, my U12 girls were able to end their season on the highest possible note.
The thing I had forgotten, the part of coaching kids that escaped me sometime in the seventh month of an eight-month season, was that the kids I was coaching were 11 and 12 years old. Seems like that would be pretty obvious, doesn’t it? In my defense, though, it is a pretty common mistake.
As coaches, we see a kid who is advanced in one particular aspect of the game. They may be very clean on the ball, able to receive it under pressure. Or maybe they can strike a ball with flawless technique, or possess an advanced ability to go one-v-one. Or maybe they have a less-tangible quality that catches the eye, like the vision to see and complete passes others can’t.
What do we instinctively want to do? We, of course, get excited, and want to make them more advanced. We start asking them to do things and think of things that we think will help. But here’s the thing, they are 11 and 12 years old. Some of what we are asking of them, they are not capable of doing or understanding.
Here’s how I came to remember that. I had two players, both advanced. The mistakes they were making with the ball were mostly all mental. Their decisions were sometimes poor or just plain bad – shooting from impossible angles or unreachable distances, taking on four players with two teammates wide open, things like that. I asked them to work on making better decisions, one of the more senseless pieces of advice I had given out.
A couple days later, one of the girls asked me what she could do to work on making better decisions. I realized the best answer was “get older.” She simply did not have enough game experience to draw on yet. So we agreed that I would try to point out the good and the bad decisions she made and we would talk about why she made them and why a different one would have been better.
Another player, one capable of having a multiple-goal game (meaning at least three) anytime she stepped on the field, went through a period where she would hit a crossbar or goalpost at least twice a game, or she would miss the goal ether narrowly or by a very wide margin. To help her, I tried to find tiny flaws and talked to her about not trying the place the ball in a certain part of the net, “just hit it on frame.” Everything I told her just served to make things worse. Her frustration grew. One day, she told me she felt enormous pressure to score. Oh, right. She’s 12.
I told her I could care less if she scored. I moved her away from her normal striker position and played her at both outside midfield positions, and let her play outside back with the instructions, “do whatever you want.” She relaxed and over the last four games, she scored six time. The smile on her face was back, her shoulders no longer slumped, and her confidence returned at the same time.
I had another player who went through a similar, yet more alarming period of time where the goal never seemed to be anywhere near where her shot went, whether she was 10 yards or one yard from goal. But this girl is one of the more mentally strong 12 year olds you will find. She can and will play anywhere and does not need elaborate instructions to do it. I leaned that early. I was explaining a new position to her and she didn’t seem to be listening. Our conversation went like this:
Me: “Did you hear me?
Her: “Yeah. Don’t worry. I got it.”
On another occasion, we tried a new formation. We play 8v8 and normally set up in a 3-3-1 or a 3-2-2. On my board, I drew two backs, two midfields and two forwards. Then on the left flank, I drew an arrow all the way down the sideline. The arrow pointed in both directions. I called her over to explain. She looked at it, pointed to the arrow and said, “That’s me. I got it.” And she did.
Now you would think she would be equipped to handle a lot, but her comedy show around the goal was wearing on her. It got to the point where it seemed to be a mental block. Disappointing me and her teammates was all she could think about. Then I remembered, she’s 12. Her shoelaces are usually flapping around untied and she might show up with her shorts on backwards.
I just kept telling her not to worry about missing goals. The important thing was that she was getting in position to get those opportunities. The goals would come, I told her.
Thankfully for her, they did. And they helped us win a season-ending tournament, which I’m sure you all know is really important for a bunch of girls playing their last games together.
In my case, it was important to remember they were just 12-year-old kids. You would think I should’ve gotten the clue when I was talking about winning and losing with Grace, and one of the players said, “Who is Grace? Is she new?” But no, I didn’t get the hint.
Coaches can also use that as an excuse when the kids aren’t developing as players. “Well, they’re just 12,” we will say. It’s a fine line between not expecting too much from them and under-estimating them. I think coaches really have to take the time to get to know each player.
You don’t have to drill into their family lives, but you can learn a lot just by watching and listening. What kind of questions do they ask? What are their non-soccer conversations about? Are they talkative or quiet? If they are quiet is it because they are shy, overwhelmed, or unconfident? Maybe it’s just that they are quiet.
If you don’t know them, you can’t help them. And each year with each group I coach, that’s my goal. Help them. I want them all to get better, learn more about the game and, most importantly enjoy themselves. A U12 not having any fun will not become a U13.