Player feedback can be a touchy subject with parents and a difficult thing for coaches. As a coach, you want to be as supportive of your kids as you can. However, at some point (and age), you just have to be honest with your kids and that honesty usually isn’t good news. When exactly is the right age and situation to simply tell your kids they just didn’t play well, followed up with how they can get better?

I’m not talking about U6 or for the most part U8. But once kids hit U10 and above, soccer gets a bit more serious. Faster, more physical play. Some hoping to make travel teams in a year or two. Bigger field with more players, etc. I tend to think this is the time that coaches also need to stop being cheerleaders and be directly honest with their players when the time is right.

I’m not saying a U8 or even a U6 coach should never tell a kid if they did something incorrect. Teaching correct ‘core’ skills is essential – you have to have the tools before you can build masterpiece moves. I know a coach who is GREAT with kids. Parents love him. But he never tells the kids when they do something wrong so they often don’t improve in some areas. Self discovery is important, but you do need to point them in the right direction along the way.

But the point of this post is for U10 and above.

One of my goals, with both my Rec and Challenge teams is to motivate the players to get better. Some kids are ‘all in’ no matter what. But others who may enjoy soccer, just aren’t very driven to improve in practice. So I try to motivate them with positive encouragement and also some constructive criticism when we don’t do well in matches.

No – I’m not screaming at them like some lunatic telling them how bad they are. But I often wonder when I’ll be striking the right ‘balance’. Tip too far one way and the kids won’t have any reason to improve because they’re always doing a ‘great job’. Too far the other way and they’ll never think they’re doing anything right. Here are a few recent examples (and one not so recent) of post match discussions I’ve had. 

The first is personal. My eldest was playing a U10 Challenge match last year and he just wasn’t in it. He was walking at times and others running hard. But he wasn’t his usual self. They got beaten and he was really bummed. We got to the car and he asked me how he had done. I told him he had flashes of his usual dazzle on the field, but it was clear his heart just wasn’t in it and that overall he hadn’t played well. I wondered if he hadn’t felt well because that wasn’t like him. Then I asked him what he thought about his performance. He was, obviously, bummed. But he thought about it and finally said ‘Yeah… I really should have pushed harder in that one, huh?’ I nodded and then asked where he wanted to go for lunch. He ran his butt off the next match.

My U10 Rec team has had an interesting opening. We lost our second match in a wild affair with 13 goals scored (6-7). The kids were bummed because they had clearly played well against this team. But they had also passed the ball to the middle on defense three times and the team had scored every single time. What made it worse was the keeper wouldn’t pick up the ball and kept kicking it to clear it. On two of those three defensive crosses, he kicked at the shot, right into another player (once one of our own), and it ricocheted into the goal. So when the match was over, I told them they HAD played well, they had WON that match, but they gave it to the other team because they continued to do things the coaches had been telling them not to, both before AND during the match. So the other team got three freebie goals. We used it as a time to talk about focus and really listening to what the coaches were saying during practice, lulls in the match, etc. Lesson learned – don’t cross to the middle on our end of the field. Was it learned? Well let’s just say we did it 2 or 3 more times in our last match. But this time when I asked them why they had lost, the first thing they said was ‘We crossed it to the middle too often!’ when we had the ball on defense. I joked that if they crossed to the middle that much on offense we’d be unstoppable.

Challenge is a bit different. If a Rec team loses a really close match and is upset about it – I tend to be more delicate afterward lest they get discouraged. With Challenge, the emotions tend to run a little more intense and I try to leverage that a bit. But I’m also dealing with ‘tween’ girls. This weekend was a case in point. My U11 Girls went out this weekend against an undefeated team and played VERY well. Improvement all around – even saw midair volleys and players staying in position. They toughed out a 1-1 draw and were ecstatic to get their first point. We had a LOT of chances and they knew that match would just as easily have been a win. They were happy. We talked about that improvement, but also about how committed athletes are never satisfied. Proud? Absolutely – they should be proud of that match, but then we spoke about ONE thing to improve on. Balance. They seemed to get that and went home happy, ready to prepare for match #2 on Sunday. But I’m not sure any of us were prepared for what happened…

We played a team from a nearby league where there is always an undercurrent of rivalry. The girls played hard, but were not passing like they had and worst of all, the wings weren’t staying wide, so we clumped in the middle of the field and made the other team’s job easier. It was still a hard fought match and our defense did a great job of keeping the ball sealed into our opponents end of the field. We dominated possession. Their best player got a fortuitous bounce at mid field near our defender, who didn’t react fast enough and she was gone. 0-1. Well earned goal and a beautiful shot on the breakaway. But the girls toughed it out. We continued to pressure, but the shots were just not going to goal. Over, to the side, missed kicks that dribbled to the keeper. Meanwhile, the match was getting more physical. I had a player taken out from behind hard – no call and a slightly twisted ankle. Another got taken out in full stride, no ball contact, and almost flipped. But there was significant ‘stoppage’ time spent on the field by our coaches for both injuries. Then the ball gets brought in close to their goal and their goalie is trying to get control. She is on her knees, but the ball bounces off her knee, rolls around, and one of our girls pokes the ball in. The ref signals goal and the ball goes to center to restart. But the goalie is hurt – her hand got stepped on in the fray. So the ref goes back to the goal and the coach tends to the keeper. The ref asks her AR if the keeper had control or her hand on the ball – the AR says no – it was a goal. She then asks the keeper (?!?!?!) if she had her hand on the ball. The keeper says yes. Ref waves off the goal. This took at least another 2-3 minutes to resolve. My girls are VERY upset, but we tell them to shake it off, lets get it back. We pack in our front line with shooting strength and push our defense way up. We played with increased fervor, but we still don’t stay in position and give up a LOT of chances to pass to the wing area and shoot because nobody is there. When my right wing is on the left touchline throwing in a ball – we have problems. But we have time. Then the whistle blows at 31 minutes (halves are 30 minutes in U11) We’re dumbfounded. There had to be at LEAST 6-8 minutes of stoppage time with all the injuries and debate over the goal, so we figured we’d get four or more added to try and get one back. No such luck. Total frustration, which setup probably one of the best teaching moments we’ll have this early in the season.

So the girls come off the field VERY upset. I had to herd them onto the touchline to shake hands, and implore them to be good sports, that it wasn’t the other team’s fault the goal had been disallowed. Their opponent had played hard and done a good job. When we collected the girls off to the side for a little post match chat, they were all either crying, angry, or saying “The ref lost us the match! That’s not fair!” Emotions were high, so we sat them down and told them this: They lost that match. Not the ref. We were playing a team we should have beaten. They had no subs. We had a deep bench. We dominated possession and kept them chasing. We had a lot of shots. But we didn’t stay spread out up front and didn’t get our shots on goal. We dribbled into defenders ALL the time. This was not the ref’s fault or anyone else’s. We explained that bad calls are a fact of life in soccer and being mad at the referee gets you nowhere. Instead you need to play that much harder to make sure you score enough goals to overcome a call like we saw. We also highlighted the good things. We ruled possession. The game stayed in our opponents side of the field for the most part. Our defense did VERY well stopping attacks from a team that DID stay spread out. You could tell they hadn’t expected this.

Then I asked how many were mad, REALLY mad. All their hands flew up. I suppressed a smile – this was a good sign. They cared. So I told them to channel that anger. We had practice on Monday and instead of the fooling around we had had in previous weeks – it was time to focus and work hard to get better so something like this didn’t happen again. I had a recent post from Old Soccer Guy in mind about playing with heart and being driven to improve when I told them they needed to be proud of their accomplishments, but never satisfied. We could always do SOMEthing better and now they knew what that was. Nobody argued and I’m pretty sure no eyes rolled :) I took this as a good sign.

The point of all this was we were on a razor’s edge. The girls were VERY upset, but we wanted to try and get them to use the emotions they were feeling to come to practice ready to go. We’ll see if it works. But regardless, it gave us a GREAT teaching moment about officiating and how sometimes it just doesn’t go your way and there’s nothing you can do but go back out and keep playing your hardest.

So what do you think? Too honest? Not honest enough? How would you have handled a post match discussion like that?