As any youth coach who has taken a USSF coaching class knows, you are encouraged to pretty much sit quietly on the sidelines during matches and not instruct players. This is great advice – the idea being if they don’t know it already, they aren’t likely to figure it out in the frantic activity of a match. Note what needs work and mold your upcoming practices to address those problems.

Fair enough. And for U10 and above – I think this is sound advice, advice I continue to try to adhere to in my U10 matches, talking with players when they sub out instead of while they’re on the field. I’m not completely quiet by any stretch, but I’m letting the kids play and learn. At most it may be a frantic ‘Look at the middle!’ when we leave an attacker wide open, etc. while at the same time encouraging my keepers and other team leaders to be on the lookout for situations like this so they can point them out to their teammates. Of course the thing I hate about talking with the players on the bench to point some things out is I always end up having my back to the field when we score! But in all seriousness, it’s been great just watching the U10 kids play and seizing on those ‘teaching moments’ when they pop up here and there.

However, I’m beginning to think coaching from the sidelines has a place in the younger divisions, especially in the Fall. U6 is a given – the coaches officiate the matches anyway and are usually on the field with the players. Matches are full of great teaching moments. But even in U8, (remember, we play 6v6 w/keepers – not 4v4 no keeper) I think its better to use matches to teach. Now I’m not advocating an overbearing, coach never shuts his/her mouth during the entire match style of coaching. But when you have younger kids lining up on the wrong side of midfield on kickoffs, running clear across the field to get the ball that another teammate already has possession of, etc. you need to let them know what’s going on. You can try to return to the problems in practice, but what better time to point out that yes, leaving that kid in the ‘other’ color alone in front of the goal is bad? Especially when they score 🙂

There can be a happy medium, especially in early matches. As I pointed out in an earlier post, I’ve spent much of my U8 practices working on footwork and ball skills which the younger kids sorely needed. While we scrimmage a fair amount, there’s nothing like a full blown match to teach them about the flow of the game, basic positions, and more. Face it, those first few matches in the Fall, your kids who just came from U6 are going to be completely lost unless you spend a LOT of practice time getting them used to the more structured small-sided game compared to the 3v3 scrum that is U5/U6. Doing that means less footwork = bad move. You may lose your first couple matches, but I’d rather have kids with better footwork and a few ‘L’s than spend precious practice time teaching the flow of the 6v6 game. So in U6 and U8, matches can be a key part of your training and the only way to do that is to speak up from time to time on the sidelines.

Take the coach who is super positive. Everything his players do is re-enforced with positive commentary. The players are never corrected or told they’re doing something incorrect during a match, the idea being they’ll figure it out on their own. Is that realistic for a 6-7 year old? Just like an overbearing coach can end up with players afraid to do ANYthing without looking at the sidelines, a coach who doesn’t point out problems early and during the situation they occurred can at best extend the learning time and at worst, indirectly reinforce incorrect methods. I’ve seen it happen.

So if you feel a little guilty coaching from the sidelines during a U8 match – don’t. Early fall matches are FULL of coachable moments as the kids adapt to the new format. As the season progresses, you’ll find you can ‘coach’ less and let more discovery take place. But if you just toss them to the wolves up front and let them play with no guidance, they’re liable to rarely touch the ball enough to learn. Again, I’m talking about the younger kids. You should be able to find a happy balance where they can learn from early matches both via your guidance as well as on their own.

That’s been my experience anyway. Your mileage may vary.