One of my soccer teams had a rough weekend this past weekend. It had been building for a while and reached a breaking point on Sunday. It involved team chemistry, respect, and trust. It also cast the team in a less than stellar light. One of our parents summed it up quite nicely.

The team we played was professional. We were amateurs.

He wasn’t talking about the play, though this was a very good team. Instead he was talking about how the teams carried themselves, treated each other on the field, and how they acted. Now my team is a wonderful group of girls, who are VERY good sports. Our issues related more to how they treated each other, not the other team. But sportsmanship can go way beyond a post match handshake.

Soccer Postgame Handshake by Banana Custard @ Flickr

So it got me thinking about the little things that can go a long way towards instilling a sense of professionalism in your soccer team. Some of these can also help your players improve their sportsmanship.

Obviously this list is not all inclusive and is geared more toward older teams than younger, but there’s nothing wrong with trying some with younger teams.

  • Shake hands with opponents afterward and mean it. Kids don’t understand how their emotions can bleed through (slapping hands harder, sneering, etc.) when they lose, so teaching them to be true sports in the handshake line can be difficult.
  • Even better? Saw this last weekend – have your players go to the referee crew and thank them personally after each match. Classy.
  • Have the players run over to their parent sideline and applaud after the opponent/ref handshakes. Other variations I’ve seen include girls going over, linking up arm and arm and bowing to their parents. Harder to do this after a loss, but can also perk kids up.
  • My teams have done this in Rec and Travel – when you line up for an equipment check, already have your jersey tucked in, stand straight and still, and have your hands behind your back. Saying “No Sir” or “No ma’am” when asked if they have any questions = bonus.
  • If your league requires player pass checks, my U12 girls team started doing something on their own and it shows solid team camaraderie. As players are called, they turn to show their jersey and walk behind the referees. As more of their teammates arrive, they stand arm in arm until the entire team is there. That’s when I give my prematch pep talk. They came up with this all on their own, but a subtle suggestion to a team captain might trigger in on your team.
    Lunachicks Team Spirit
  • Wear pinnies on the bench if you’re at a level that calls offside. This accomplishes a couple things. First, it helps ARs trying to make offside calls when they are opposite your bench, especially if the players stand up or warm up. It also helps with substituting if you’re known to substitute large groups. Nobody goes on the field until they hand that pinnie to someone coming off. I have four different colors which helps, including pink, which the girls hate. I break that out if they’ve been slacking off or disrespecting each other. Subtle, but they notice and we have a good laugh about it.
  • If your team has backpacks – ensure they get lined up. Not only does this help keep you and them from tripping over them strewn all about, it just makes things look more organized. Trivial, for sure, but makes them easier to find for water bottles and less likely to be underfoot. Bonus tip – screen the player’s number on one of the straps or the top flap – makes them MUCH easier to find.
  • My girls have always formed a tunnel for their opponent after the post match handshake, win or lose, something they started on their own. It seemed to be appreciated more in the lower travel division, but now that we’ve moved up, not so much. I may have the girls reconsider this. Sometimes a team after a hard loss just wants to be left alone.
  • Before the kickoff, have the players on the field up on their toes, moving their knees back and forth. Helps them get ready to play and shows they’re ready.
  • If an opposing player gets hurt and play stops, give their team possession on the restart. Some refs will do this on their own. But if they kicked it out of bounds, have your players throw long towards their goal and allow their defense to possess it. If it’s a drop ball in their end of the field, let their player take the drop. If it’s in your end, then obviously you need to participate in the drop. But that shows an amazing amount of class and teaches great sportsmanship.
  • When your players make a mistake on the field (errant cross to a striker, etc), have them learn to say ‘My Bad!’ or something like that. If a teammate scores off a nice pass/cross – make sure the goal scorers know to thank whoever gave them the assist. I’m still amazed at how intense the intra-player rivalries and emotions can be – so stuff like that helps.
  • Shake hands with your opposing coach before kick-off. I’m amazed how few coaches do this, though I’ll admit I forget to do it sometimes.
  • If your player takes an opponent down and play stops, encourage them to extend a hand to help them back up.
  • Obviously on field behavior is a big part of appearing professional, though most of the time kids aren’t mouthing off (though parents and coaches certainly may be). But still helps to instill the idea that they talk only to each other, not opponents, parents, or referees (except for captains).

These are mostly minor things, but can have a big impact in how your players view themselves and obviously how others do as well. What other things have you seen or does your own team do to come across professionally and to instill good sportsmanship in your players?