Coaching the AYSO Way
Why We Do What We Do
It was 13 years ago when Joy Hackett watched her 8-year-old son, Joshua, on the diamond and noticed that he wasn’t playing baseball. He was playing in the dirt.
“Maybe he should try soccer,” a friend of Hackett’s suggested. Seeing as baseball wasn’t active enough to keep Joshua intrigued, Hackett liked the idea. She signed up Joshua and her 6-year-old daughter, Carissa, for AYSO. For Joshua there was a team, no problem. But Carissa and a group of other girls needed a coach. Joy was asked to volunteer.
“I didn’t know anything about soccer!” Joy says. “I knew there was a soccer ball. But I didn’t even know there were different sizes of soccer balls.”
I don’t know soccer, can I still coach?
She insisted there was no way she could coach, but was told not to worry. AYSO would train her.
“I was like, ‘OK,’” recalls Hackett, who grew up playing baseball, softball and swimming. “So I went down to a school one morning for the AYSO coaching clinic. I basically learned how to kick a ball and pass.”
The AYSO instructor also showed the novice coaches how to keep the children active during practice. But the most important lesson Joy learned was that her main duty as a U-8 coach was to ensure that the children were enjoying themselves. If they were, she was doing a good job coaching. And with that in the back of her mind she gained the confidence to embark on an adventure that turned into more than a decade of coaching in AYSO.
Are you a successful coach?
The ability to gauge how successful she was as a coach by watching how much fun the players had gave her the self-assurance to weather criticism from parents.
“Some of the parents from my first group of kids were very harsh,” she says. “The parents told me we goofed around too much. That I wasn’t strict enough. They complained the kids weren’t going to learn.”
The children were 6-year-olds! The parents who criticized didn’t understand that the main objective when children are introduced to soccer is to give them a chance to explore it and enjoy it. Whether the players on the field might be the next Mia Hamm, Landon Donovan or are out there simply for fun and exercise, the approach should be the same: help them enjoy the game.
“It’s true that my practices can look chaotic,” Hackett explains. “I don’t run practice like a drill sergeant because that’s not fun. And maybe by watching one of my practices people might think the children weren’t actually learning. But when they went out on the field for games, it was almost shocking how well they played. It proved they were learning.
“And every year the parents would come and say, ‘My kid really did progress and really did learn.’ It was great to hear.”
Practice doesn’t have to be perfect!
In fact, one of the things stressed by AYSO National Coach John Ouellette is that coaches needn’t worry if their practices for young children get a little chaotic.
“There’s no coach who’s going to get a bunch of 6-year-olds or 8-year-olds or 10-year-olds to look perfect,” Ouellette says. “A coach is going to have a 6-year-old who’s not paying attention or an 8-year-old with his finger up his nose. Just because we call them athletes doesn’t mean they’re athletes. They’re still 6-year-olds. They’re still 8-year-olds. They’re still 10-year-olds.
“I was military for 20 years, so I loved structure. But soccer is the most unstructured structured game you’ll ever play. It’s a fluid and unpredictable game and some chaos actually helps them become better players.
“If anybody goes through a U-6 or U-8 training session and there’s not some chaos, then we want them to go back to the Marines. And hollering and screaming doesn’t change chaos. It puts fear in the game.”
Don’t over coach.
Sigi Schmid is one of AYSO’s most famous alumni. He played AYSO in its inaugural year of 1964 and became an AYSO coach when he was still a teenager. All four of his children played AYSO. Now the coach of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Seattle Sounders, Schmid won NCAA titles as coach of UCLA and MLS titles with the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Columbus Crew.
“You don’t want to over-coach, especially at the young ages,” Schmid says. “They’ll figure it out. What I would tell novice coaches is you want to create an environment where the kids are being active and they’re enjoying themselves and they’re having some fun.
“If along the way you can teach them how to kick the ball better, that’s great. That’s a bonus.
Play games instead of doing drills.
“Avoid trying to get everybody in one line to do a drill. Play some games that have soccer in them. The more you put kids in a situation where they have to figure it out and control their own play time, the better it is.”
One of the crucial aspects of AYSO coaching education is that it’s not just about coaching soccer, but about understanding what children need at certain ages.
Hackett ended up climbing the ranks and coaching all age groups. Each year she moved up she took the age-appropriate AYSO coaching course, enabling her to understand what soccer challenges and what type of training the players were ready for.
Take AYSO Coaching Courses.
“When you take the coaching courses one at a time while you’re moving into the next age group,” says Hackett, who is now the Regional Commissioner for Region 922 in Tucson, Ariz., “you understand the steps. You don’t pile anything on that’s too much for the kids. Coaches who follow the AYSO courses know why certain things don’t work at certain age groups.”
When a coach tries to introduce a practice game and after a few minutes the children don’t comprehend it, it’s a sign that they’re not ready for that stage. And parents who coach can help themselves be successful by using their parenting skills.
“As a parent you know what you have to do to get children to do some things, or get their attention, or get them involved,” Schmid says. “What’s important is that you get the children excited about what you want them to do. Sometimes it takes the parents to kick-start an activity for the kids. At soccer practice, it’s a matter of the coach bringing energy and conveying passion.”
Be ready to have some fun.
Go out to the practice field ready to have fun and the children are more likely to enjoy themselves.
Hackett remembers one of her first practices. A little girl stood next to her mom crying and pleading that she didn’t want to join in. Hackett asked the mom if she might have a moment with the youngster.
“I gave her an airplane ride into practice,” she says. “That got her smiling and ready to go. Of course, it meant I had to give the other kids an airplane ride, but they were laughing and having a blast, and the next thing you know they were having a fun time playing soccer.”
Schmid also warns about approaching training as a disciplinarian.
“Pay more attention to their good deeds than their misdeeds,” he says. “If you’re paying too much attention to the kids who are misbehaving, the other kids are thinking, ‘Well if I misbehave, he’ll pay attention to me,’ and you’re losing the whole team.”
Let ‘em play!
And if you’re keeping the practice moving, with plenty of games, chances are pretty good that the children won’t act out because they’re bored.
Ouellette points out that children come to practice after spending the day at school and are in need of some exercise and free play. Waiting in line to perform drills isn’t likely going to bring much joy. Hence the mantra of “Let them play!”
“If you let them play, you’re developing soccer players,” says Ouellette.
Positive Coaching is one of the six foundation philosophies of AYSO — but what does it mean? Is it just about saying nice things? Can real soccer learning come from only positive comments?
According to the most successful soccer coaches, “catching them doing something good” is actually the way the soccer learning happens best!
The concept behind Positive Coaching is from both soccer and child development. Children need room to try new things and not be afraid of making mistakes. That’s how they learn. If someone is constantly yelling about this wrong thing and that wrong thing they learn one lesson: don’t try something new again. It makes it harder to learn and the experience less enjoyable.
Every player should walk away from their AYSO practices and games feeling good about what they did on the field and how they may be able to improve the next time. It’s a coach’s role to give positive, specific encouragement. If a player makes a good move, let them know and tell them what they did right. But what if they weren’t successful? Let them know it was excellent that they took a risk and tried something new. Ask them what they learned from trying the new technique or tactic. Ask what they learned and how they could improve it the next time.
Most importantly, don’t tell them they did something wrong. As soon as a player hears the word “wrong,” they feel they let you down. No one likes to be criticized, especially children. Next time try something like, “I really appreciate all the hard work you are putting out there on the field. You are doing a great job. What if next time you try it this way?” That bit of positive encouragement will show the player you aren’t upset at him and that you see how hard he is trying. Suggestions are always taken better with some positive encouragement.
As an AYSO coach you have a unique opportunity to affect children’s lives. With Positive Coaching you will help them develop as soccer players, but also help raise their self-esteem and their ability to try other new things. Something as simple as “you played really well today” goes a long way with not only six or seven-year-olds, but also for 15 and 16-year-olds!