During my year of soccer coaching in Denver, Colorado I have been startled at how loud and rambunctious a group of players can be off the field, yet as soon as they step over that line onto the pitch, a painful silence pollutes the air.
On one side of the pitch, you have the loudest and most enthusiastic parents I’ve ever seen in the world, and on the other side of the pitch you have coaches who are constantly giving feedback and instructions to their players.
Yet in the middle I hear an awkward silence, almost an unwritten rule that players aren’t allowed to talk to each other. And even with encouragement to talk, players are shy to communicate to one another.
I have seen players that are wide open and clean through, waving their hands to the player with the ball (who has their head down) in the hope that the ball would be passed to them. A look of disappoint and surprise comes across their face when they don’t get the ball.
As a coach and player who does nothing but talk on the pitch, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game in youth soccer. Something so simple to fix and do and yet it is rarely done.
So let’s help our players, and teach them how to talk. Teach them it is a positive thing, and teach them how to do it correctly.
Why on-field communication doesn’t happen:
First let us identify why it doesn’t happen. Confidence is the main reason on the pitch talking doesn’t happen in youth soccer. Players are essentially worried what others may think of them. Some see it as being bossy and don’t want to be talked about by their teammates when they get off the pitch.
It is the job of coaches to instill a team culture that sees on-field communication as positive and extremely important. Any team that doesn’t communicate properly with each other is going to find it very hard to be successful.
Another reason why communication might not happen on a soccer team is that the players might not know what to say to each other.
What to say:
Obviously the greater your understanding of the game, the more useful and advanced your communication can be. But for the youth level I’m talking about, here are some basic, but great ‘shout-outs’ that should be happening all the time:
“Man-on” – There is an opposition player coming towards you and you should shield the ball or pass/shoot the ball ASAP.
“Time” – You have time on the ball to look up and see what your options are. There is no pressure on you.
“Turn” – Players don’t have eyes in the back of their head, so telling your team mate to turn means they know they can turn without being tackled.
“Yes, Fred, Yes” – I hear the term “ball” used a lot when a player wants the ball from another player. But such a short instruction can sometimes be missed by the player with the ball. “Yes, Fred, Yes” is an assertive alternative that will almost guarantee you getting the ball.
Even if players can say these four instructions, they will be so much more successful as a player and teammate.
How to say it:
This is SO important. That old adage of “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”, couldn’t be more true on a soccer pitch.
It is useful to think of the instruction as barking it, rather than saying it. Short, sharp, clear and demanding. It doesn’t have to be rude, but it should be demanding and said with urgency.
Now that’s obviously useful for the simple instructions that were mentioned above, but for actual feedback and longer instructions, these should 99% of the time be positive and be reinforced with positive feedback.
I always say to players, the only time I’ll lose my cool, is if they are not concentrating hard enough or not putting in their best effort. Both of these are a choices.
However, making mistakes with control of the ball, a wayward pass etc., are not a good reason to start ripping into someone – it’s highly unlikely they will have done that on purpose! So teammates should keep their cool and be positive with each others efforts, even if mistakes are being made.
Consistent, positive communication can transform a team’s moral!
Benefits of on-field communication:
- More information for the players to make better decisions
- More trust in your team mates
- Improve a player’s confidence
- Improve the team’s moral and energy
- Everyone knowing what is expected of them
- More likely to gain possession of the ball
- Less likely to lose possession of the ball
- Improvement of team shape and formation
- Much improved team organisation
I could go on…….
Getting players to communicate:
So this could be the tricky part and will need tons of reinforcement until it becomes a habit.
The players on the team should know that on-field communication is an integral part of soccer. It is an expectation that everyone should be doing it. If you’re not talking, you’re not playing soccer as well as you could be.
Make it a habit
It is during training sessions that players will have to make talking as much as a habit as kicking the ball is. Make it the focus of sessions so players realize the importance you place on communication. If you only talk about it here and there, players are only going to think of it and do it here and there.
Reward those that talk
Rewarding behaviour that you want to see is the best way to make the whole team complete that wanted behaviour. Voice your encouragement when the players talk, make them and everyone else know that talking is an extremely positive thing.
Make sure they know what to say and when to say it
You will have to do some coaching on this so the players are very clear and explicit on what should be said and when it should be said. Some players might already know it, but that’s ok, it won’t do them any harm to have these lessons reinforced.
Once players start to communicate on a pitch, they will never go back to “silent soccer”. They can’t. They’ll see how the positive effects it has on the whole team and individual players, as well as themselves. Get your team to start being the loudest on the field and see what a difference it will make to both individual and team performance!