Kids, cleats, a ball, goals, corner flags, parents along the sideline in folding chairs. Sounds like your average youth soccer match, except for one thing. The only people by the team bench are the kids. One of the players is calling for subs. Where did the coaches go? How can you have a soccer match with no coaches?

Welcome to the Coachless match.

You’ll hear from a lot of experts that kids in America are over coached and in many cases that is true. You aren’t going to get that 5 year old to do a step over (on purpose anyway) or shoot with precision. Young kids DO need to discover the game for themselves. That said, I’m still a firm believer in showing kids HOW to do things and coaching them towards the result, even if HOW they manage to do it is more from self discovery than they way you showed them. But that’s another post.

As the kids get older (around U10), not only are they learning and attempting more advanced skills, their personalities are becoming more prominent on the field and off. They are finally starting to ‘get’ what competition, teamwork, and sportsmanship is all about. But just like trying to teach a 5 year old ‘the scissors’, you can’t teach a 9 year old leadership. They need to discover it.

Enter the coachless match. Setup a scrimmage with another team or within your team and explain to your team that they will be responsible for their performance during the match. No coaching from the sidelines – the coaches won’t even be by the benches. You expect the team to coach themselves. Pick a captain or two and explain that they will be the field marshals and also will take care of who plays where and substitution, however you expect everyone on the team to talk and help each other. Stress everyone needs to play (you might want to have preset substitution times/breaks). The kids should also be expected to referee themselves with the coaches only stepping in if a particularly egregious foul is let go, etc. During breaks, go to the bench and be a moderator. Don’t tell them what you saw, ask the kids what they saw and what they could do better.

Sounds crazy right? My son’s U10 team did this a couple of times during December and it was fantastic. The kids talked more on the field than they ever had, and they had a LOT of fun. Certain players discovered some leadership potential inside themselves as they worked to position their teammates and highlight ways to handle the opponent better. The best part was hearing the kids on the bench during breaks talk about what they saw and how they thought they could do better. It really got them to pay attention in the later parts of the match and it was fun to hear them describe what they did wrong and what they could do to improve.

So if you’re looking for a way to get your team to ‘gel’ and work better together, consider a coachless match or two. Combined with active coaching and skills work, it’s a great way for the kids to feel like they are in charge of their destiny and part of a team. I’m still not sure how many I’ll do during the regular season. I think we’ll probably do one right before matches start and another before the end of season tournaments.

Have your coaches organized coachless matches? How did they work for your team?