Soccer Parent Landmines

By Tony Earp

Being a parent is difficult, but being a parent of a soccer player poses additional challenges that can put a lot of stress on parents and the child. The soccer community is not the easiest to navigate, and it can be overwhelming, especially for parents with kids going through the process for the first time. There will be a lot of things that go on throughout the season that can distract parents from what is most important; their child having fun and learning the game. With all decisions a parent must make, it is important that the result of each decision is in the best interest of the kid and it helps make their playing experience better. There will always be bumps in the road, but those bumps can quickly turn into large sink holes that can torpedo a season and child’s enjoyment playing the game.

It is not just the kids, but the parents, who feel the pressure of the club soccer experience. All want to be doing what is right to help their child have success on the field. The heart, I believe, is always in the right place, but the pressure and culture of the competitive environment can lead parents to act or get involved in the process in a way not originally intended.

Based on my experience in youth soccer and working with parents, here are some tips for getting through the season that makes it enjoyable for everyone.

Do Not Reward Performance to Motivate Kids

There are parents who decide to motivate their child through “rewards’ for good performance on the field. With the goal to try to help their child have more success on the field, work harder, or “play better,” the child is offered something in return. Now, do these rewards work to help a player work a little harder, focus more, or maybe score a couple more goals? Sometimes they do work, but only in the short term. This type of reward system begins to make playing the game about getting something in return; not playing the game because it is fun or it is something the child wants to do. Once the excitement of the rewards wears off, the child’s desire to play the game will also diminish or a bigger reward will be required to reach the same level of motivation.

Outside of that, it can affect performance in a negative way. For example, a player who is being incentivized to score goals may start playing differently or making bad decisions in order to try to score more goals that do not help the player improve. What if the player does not score a goal but has a great game, works really hard, and played very well? Even though the player had success on the field, the player will still feel like they failed because he did not score and will not be rewarded.

Should kids be rewarded for great effort and doing their best? Absolutely! I am not advocating otherwise, but parents need to be very careful about using rewards to try to get the child to play differently or enjoy the game more. In short, you should go out for ice cream after the game to celebrate having a fun day at the soccer field, but you do not take that away or hold it over a child’s head based on their performance. Quickly, what was meant to make a player want to play better will turn into a reason why a player will not want to pl

Avoid the Drama of the Parent Sideline

The sideline of a soccer game or practice can be a tough place to sit in peace and just enjoy the game or watch your child play. Parents are constantly faced with the uncomfortable conversations or the “soccer gossip” from other parents who are “in the know” or are frustrated about… whatever. As you are watching the game, you will hear parents talking about other parents, the coach, other players, or other teams. It will start with, “Did you hear?” and end with, “So..what do you think?”

NEVER ANSWER THAT QUESTION. Well, you can, but I strongly suggest avoiding it. It can lead you down a road you had no intention of being on.

Although I think all of us are somewhat drawn to conflict or at least enjoy hearing about it, I would do everything you can to avoid getting sucked into these types of conversations. The conversation may be prefaced with “just between you and me” but that is not how it will stay. It will always get back to whom it may concern, and then it will work its way back to you. Something you really did not care much about to begin with, will quickly become something that totally consumes you. My suggestion is avoid the conversation or change the subject when someone tries to have this type of conversation with you.

There is a fear of not being “in the know” so sometimes parents feel the need to seek out this information, so they are “informed” and can help make decisions to help their child. The one thing I will say about that is these conversations rarely consist of accurate information. In the end, you will not be more informed, but you will feel you are and that will lead to additional issues.

If through the course of the year, you feel the need to address a concern or discuss an issue, only do it with the person who it concerns. If you want to be informed, go to the source. Whether it is a coach or another parent, address all concerns and issues directly with that person. If you choose to “gossip” about it with others, eventually the person whom with you have the concern with will hear about it, but not in the way you would want and not told really what you said. Or worse, you will think you are informed and you are not, and you make a decision or choice that will affect your child adversely using bad information.

Be the Parent Not the Assistant Coach

It is important that your child has their parent waiting for them when they leave the soccer field and not an assistant soccer coach. Ask your child about their practice and show an interest in what they learned or if they had fun, but avoid giving tips and advice on how they could have played better or what they need to do next time when they are on the field. Leave that for the coach. That is the coach’s job, and you can always ask the coach questions if you need to about those things, but your child just needs you to be their parent and show you care about how they did and you love to watch them play.

Again, because all parents want to help their child have success, it is hard to stop from doing this when your child comes off the field. You might have seen something that you feel can really help them play better or have more fun, so again, I believe parents are just trying to help. But do your best to let that information come from the coach. If your child asks you how you think he did, do not be afraid to answer his questions. Dodging the question or acting like you are uninterested would not be beneficial either, but be careful when answering to try not to correct the issue for the child. Be more general with your statements and allow the coach to correct the finer points. Encourage the player to discuss it with the coach. The key is let the child ask you. Let the child determine if it is something he wants to talk about.

We all have our opinions of how things should be done, and as I said before, if you ever have concerns or questions, the best thing to do is ask the coach directly. The worst thing you can do is undermine the coach and tell your child to do things differently than what they are being asked at the soccer field. It just confuses the child, and it will cause conflict in the relationship between the player and the coach, and in the relationship between you and your child.

Avoid Emotional Public Responses

I do not like to be the bearer of bad news, but there will be things that happen throughout the season that upset you. Even the best coaches and parents, will make mistakes and say or do something that you have a real, and legitimate, issue with. Often, a bad situation can become much worse than it needs to be by a knee-jerk emotional response… especially in public in front of others.

Whether at practice or in a game, something will happen or be said to you or your child that will light your fuse and ignite your natural parental response to protect your child. Again, completely understandable, and I have seen a lot of situations where it is justified (but still not appropriate).

Although before responding or making a very public response and embarrassing scene for your child, I would suggest digesting what you see and take a more thought out and reasonable (not emotional) approach to responding to what happened. Why? First, what may have happened or what you heard may not be an issue if you completely understand the context behind it. Second, usually what is said out of an emotional response, even if justified, is not what you wish you would have said after the fact.

To ensure a proper and pragmatic response to negative events throughout the year, gather all the necessary information, examine it, and then proceed how you see necessary in the best interest of your child and yourself. Again, the soccer field, especially during games when competition is tough and emotions are running high, situations occur that do not have to be a major issue but are exacerbated by an emotional response from a parent (or coach).

Do Not Make Decisions out of Fear

This is the most important piece of advice I can give a parent, and the one that will make the biggest impact on your child’s experience. When deciding anything for your child, the decision should be based on what is best for your child to have a fulfilling, fun, and appropriate experience on the soccer field learning an awesome game. Decisions made out of fear will lead you and your child down a road you really do not want to go. 10 teams later, thousands of dollars spent, and many relationships burned, you will wonder how you got to that point?

A common fear parents have, and make a lot of decisions based off of, is the fear of their child being left behind. Something currently happening or missing in their child’s soccer experience creates a fear that their child is not progressing as fast as he should. Parents make decisions to change clubs/teams, force kids to train or practice more, or do not allow their kids to play for certain teams in trying to make sure their child does not fall behind their peers. The first sign that their child is lagging behind his peers, a decision is made to make a change. The parent will try to change the environment in the hopes of finding a better one will help their child have success and advance their skill.

With a decision based on fear, often all the facts are not taken into account and the actuality of the situation is skewed by the fear. The bigger and long-term perspective is not considered. With these types of decisions, we only look at a small and possibly insignificant piece of the puzzle. An “issue” may have nothing to do with the environment, the coach, or other players on the team that a child is falling behind. It can be for a lot of reasons that are out of the player’s control (developmental changes – both physical and cognitive), or possibly a losing interest in the game which will happen with some players (like with anything). Granted, there are definitely situations that kids should be moved off certain teams and moved to others, too many to mention here, but too often the move is not really necessary or appropriate. Often a change is an emotional reaction to the first sign of any type of obstacle or struggle for the player.

Most kids will not play this game at a “high” level. Moving kids from club to club or team to team to try to improve their level is not the best way to do that. Forcing a kid to train or practice more than he desires is not beneficial either. Yes, the proper environment to develop and extra training can help improve skill level, BUT ONLY WHEN IT IS SOMETHING THE PLAYER WANTS TO DO. Change does not help if the kid does not want it or a change does not address the real issues.

**Final thought… ** the one thing all of these items have in common is focusing on doing what is best for your child. Making the experience completely about them, and making it very little about you or the other adults along for the ride. When parents get distracted by all the other things that happen over a course of the season that cause a loss of focus on the real reason your child is playing, the experience quickly turns negative for everyone involved. Soccer is a game. We sometimes forget that. It is best to sit back and let your child discover the game, learn how to play it, and decide where he wants to take it. Avoid these soccer parent landmines, and you will not have to spend your child’s soccer season rummaging through the debris of the aftermath of these types of situations.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at tearp@superkickcolumbus.com

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