We’ve all been there. Myself included.
A soccer game on a Saturday morning where your player didn’t play their best. OK, let’s be honest, they were awful. Maybe it was staying up late or perhaps they didn’t have the best breakfast. It could have been the lousy coach or the blind referee. Either way, it was the most frustrating 60 minutes of watching them play you’ve ever had. Did they have led in their shoes? Why did it look like they were playing patty cake with the defender? How dare the team mom hand out snacks after that performance?
Your player knows they didn’t play well. They are stalling getting their bag because they know what is coming. You are speed walking off the field for fear someone might overhear your displeasure with your player and call CPS. Your spouse is seriously considering walking home.
You arm wrestle your chair and force it into your trunk and nearly create a flesh wound on your toddler getting them buckled into your car seat. You start the car and shake your head in dismay at the other parents walking to their car as you pull out of the parking lot. Your player looks out the window wishing they could be anywhere but there. Detention. Grandmas. Cotillion. But, there is no stopping the inevitable. The next words out of your mouth seem harmless but the damage they can cause is greater than you imagine.
“What happened out there today?” Or “What was wrong with you today?” Maybe, “Were you even trying?” Regardless of the exact exchange, the message is loud and clear: You are not happy with their performance and there must be a reason for it. To you, it’s unfathomable that your player could not perform their best. To you, it seems like a waste of everyone’s time if your player isn’t going to be firing on all cylinders when they have the jersey on. Here is the thing...it’s not about you. I know, crazy right?
Not the above hypothetical is a bit extreme but admit that at least one sentence had you nodding your head in agreement. It’s ok. We’ve all been there. I’m not just speaking to the Dads either. Many a time I’ve heard about moms who can get just as heated or just as blinded by a meaningless game on a Saturday afternoon. Does it make us bad parents? No, we are allowed moments of absurdity and insanity or else we wouldn’t be able to survive youth sports. But, hopefully this will serve as a little bit of perspective from someone who has been there and observed that. So the next time you are feeling that frustration start to bubble up, here are a few thoughts I’d like to share…
Saturdays are not a silo. Although we were all raised in a time that Wins & Losses meant the difference of a good weekend and bad weekend the fact is that in sports, and especially soccer, Saturdays do not decide the success of a season. Instead parents need to think of Saturdays as milestones on the long road of a season. They are just checkpoints to see how the players and the team are developing. How often have you watch the worst game of the year only to have the next Saturday be the best? Most players get 3-4 hours at most of training per week. There is not a lot even the best coaches can do between Saturdays. A good coach will talk to the parents about what the players are capable at the beginning of the season and give you an idea of what they will be capable by the end of the season. Progress and development do not move in a straight line.
So what are Saturdays for? Saturday is the day that players get a chance to showcase their skill for their supporters. To measure the growth between them and a similarly skill team. They are also a chance to learn about competing, sportsmanship and loving and respecting the game. Sure some games are more important than others but they are all simply that..a game.
Predicting a player’s performance is like predicting the weather or the stock market. I’ve tried it all. No sleepovers before games. Stay up as late as you want. No breakfast, healthy breakfast, ice cream for breakfast. Promise of money, no chores, a spanking, whatever and guess what? The kids always seem to play the game they were destined to play. Mood swings, hormones, allergies or a tummy ache can all affect a child’s ability to play the game. As parents, we have to accept that there will be some days that our child just doesn’t have it. Deal with it.
Children play games, it’s adults who can ruin it. Too often I’ve been apart of or witnessed games where the coach, the ref or the parents affect the game to the point that it affects the kid’s play. Humans make mistakes especially refs. Kids seem to understand this better than coaches or parents. Coaches create tension when there is no need and parents all become coaches themselves from the sideline. You know what kids hear? Imagine Charlie Brown’s teacher at the decibel level of an airplane. Think that might affect their play a bit?
So, before you let your frustrations take a hold of you, be sure to consider the above. But, now even with all that advice the next frustrating Saturday comes, what do you do?
Here is some practical advice on the post-game ride home:
There have been more than a few studies on what youth players would most like to hear their parents immediately after a game. The number one response? “I really enjoyed watching you play.” Simple huh? No mention of how well they played, or how bad. No critique about how awful the ref was or how lame their coach is. Youth players want to know that you actually had as much fun watching them as they had playing. You know why? Because it’s a game and games should be fun, for all. Now I’ll admit where there have been times I’ve had a number of things I wanted to say first to my child as they walked off the field. Some positive and some not printable. But over the past several years since I first learned about the most desired response, I am proud to say that after every game the first sentence out of my mouth is, “I had a lot of fun watching you play.” If it can work for over-eager, passionate soccer junkie dad it can work for you. Try it. Trust me.
The next step is the one that is a lot easier driving home from the school down the street than the soccer complex in Lancaster. The car ride home is a moratorium for soccer talk. Both good and bad. Although it seems like the ideal time to go over what went right and what went wrong it can have such a negative effect that it actually drives your child from the sport. Consider it a cooling off period or a time for reflection, however it makes sense to you. Beyond losing your temper or analyzing the X & O’s of a game like you were John Madden it has other effects.
First is when you are driving it prevents you from making eye contact with your player. Children are not as intuitive as adults and lack a full understanding of tone and context. Your simple question of, “What happened out there?” turns into “Why did you play so bad?” or “You feeling alright?” turns into “What’s wrong with you?”
Second, is that your player needs time to process their own thoughts about the game. They haven’t had a chance to accurately assess their performance or how they felt about the missed call or being substituted at a critical part of the game. Performing an exit interview or debriefing when they are still enjoy their juice box is not going to yield the results you want.
Most of all, you’ll find that giving them time and space will show you how resilient they are. A tough loss doesn’t mean anything once they’re at the pizza party or with their friends. Best of all, you’ll find that sometimes they will even come to you to talk about the game. When they do it’s because they are ready to talk and ready to assess and surprisingly you’ll find that often they will agree with everything the soccer John Madden has to say about that weekends game. And if they don’t? That’s OK too because to them it's only a game and you’ll realize that it as only a game too.
Beau Barnhart is the owner of HB Soccer Academy, offering private camps and clinics for elite youth soccer players.