The effect of coaching on players’ behaviors

When I referee soccer, and especially when I am an assistant referee, I hear exactly how coaches coach during games. Often, it is apparent that they do not understand how their behaviors affect their players on the field. 

Yesterday, I was an AR for a glorified scrimmage in a local tournament. The host team’s u16s played their u18s, and the primary purpose for the tournament, beyond fundraising, was to get a few games prior to the bigger President’s Day tournaments next weekend.

Because these were among the top teams in the state with many of the top players, the coaches are assumed to be among the top coaches. I only see the games, so I have no knowledge of practice, and I will assume that they are experts in soccer.

One coach, however, is not an expert coach, in my opinion. He yelled at his players for the entire game, engaging in playstation coaching. He told them where to move, when to pass, where to pass, etc.

Ironically, in the few moments when he was not yelling at his players, he complained to his assistants that the players did not talk to each other. He said that the communication should not come from him.

He is correct. However, how do players develop this communication when the coach is yelling constantly from the sideline? His behaviors that are aimed at short-term success (the immediate possession, game, tournament) interfere with his long-term goals (player communication). To develop the player communication that he desires, at some point, he must risk a loss (of possession, a game, or tournament) and be quiet to enable/force the players to fill the gap.

Because the players have been coached in this manner for some time, it is unlikely to be a quick fix. It is not a matter of the coach keeping silent, and the players immediately filling the void. The players currently are reliant on the coach for constant instruction and feedback, and they need to break this habit. One game or one tournament is unlikely to be sufficient to see permanent change.

However, when his team fell behind by two goals in the second half, he left to coach another one of his teams. With the coach absent, the players started to communicate. Not as much as the coach would have desired, but more than they had when he was there. They also managed to score in his absence. The assistant coach who took over yelled, but not nearly as much, and his yelling was primarily feedback after a play (mistake) rather than the head coach’s immediate instructions that aimed to direct the action as it occurred.

This example is not a one-time occurrence, as I see and hear the same thing almost every weekend when I referee soccer. It also occurs in basketball in many ways. Over the weekend, I spoke to an AAU coach about a college player. The college player played as a freshman for a coach who told her not to shoot, and as a junior, she remains a reluctant shooter, despite almost two seasons of shooting close to 40% from the three-point line. As the AAU coach said, her previous college coach messed with her head, and two years later and with a new coach, she still is affected by those instructions.

Our behaviors as coaches have a large effect on the players’ behaviors. When coaches immediately solve the players’ problems, coaches limit the players and create a reliance on the coach, which often is the opposite effect of the one that the coach desires. It seems counterintuitive, but oftentimes, a coach has to allow the players to fail in order for them to learn or to break the reliance.

When I take over teams, the players oftentimes are accustomed to lots of structure, as many coaches coach in this manner. To have immediate success, I would need to continue with the structured approach. Instead, when I attempt to give control to the players, there are a lot of mistakes. When I coached a men’s team, my best player yelled at me during a practice and said that maybe they were not smart enough and needed more structure. It was not a matter of intelligence; it was a matter of habits and comfort. Learning to play basketball rather than run plays was new and different, and whereas some players, especially the younger players, were excited by the change, the older, more established players were less enthusiastic. They were established and had success playing in one style, and they wanted to continue with that style of play (I was hired to change things, improve the defense, and develop the young players).  They were reliant on the coach to do the thinking, and I was forcing them to think on the court and make decisions, and when they struggled initially, they were frustrated.

From the time that children leave the playgrounds until they reach my team, most players are told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it by their coach. Leaving a coach-dominated environment for a player-centered approach can be a shock to the system. In the same way, these soccer players were accustomed to a coach yelling constant instructions, and if he were to be quiet for a few games, it would be a shock to their system. Players would learn to fill the silence with their own communication, or their team would falter. similarly, my players learn to make their own decisions or we struggle. However, these opportunities for learning, growth and improvement, which often result in initial mistakes or failure, are not available if the coaching persists in the same manner. Players do not learn to communicate by yelling over top of their coach, just as players do not learn to make decisions by ignoring their coach’s play calls.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

4 thoughts on “The effect of coaching on players’ behaviors

  • Two take-aways:
    1.) People love to talk about the “process” or “the Journey” over results but when push comes to shove they don’t mean it or succumb to parent pressure/criticism or their personal desire to win. Every travel/AAU/HS program will stress development as a goal but many do not have the patience to allow kids to develop before benching or cutting a player or even in extreme cases, going out and getting a better player. It can be difficult to be a coach/parent and see players or a team struggle and keep your mouth shut, or provide feedback rather than instruction but is imperative to the growth process. An organization has to be very supportive of coaches who preach development over wins because it can be a lonely place.

    2.) I think a lot of coaches are well-intentioned but ill-informed when it comes to the development of athletes and even children. I have three young children, the oldest of who is not even six and I have parents ask me what sport teams my kids are on. Ummmm………none. Their attention spans are a maximum of 30 minutes and often much less, they aren’t ready for organized sports yet (my opinion). However, this doesn’t mean they don’t play sports. They might kick a soccer ball or throw a ball or go sledding or skating in the winter. Kids don’t learn like mini-adults, they don’t take in all the information before trying something. If it looks interesting, they dive in and make adjustments along the way if they are left to their own devices but they try many options before settling on the one that works for them. It is the difference between learner/player created knowledge and teacher/coach created knowledge.

    Think back to all the subjects that we took in school because we were required to and the subjects that you chose to learn about… which do you remember more of?

  • Great points.

    In my first year out of college, I wrote somewhere about actually having time to finish and think about the books that I was reading, as opposed to my undergraduate years as a literature major when I never had time to finish a book and just read whatever was necessary to complete an assignment.

    My favorite advertisements (that I have seen) are ones that say: XYZ Developmental Basketball Team needs a 5’10+ 5th grader for its spring season. To me, any team that has tryouts and cuts players is not a true developmental organization. I understand time constraints, gym fees, etc., but a true developmental organization in youth sports is interested in keeping as many players involved as long as possible. Little League is a developmental organization, and unfortunately, for many parents today, it is not competitive enough so they jump to AAU teams as early as possible because nobody wants his/her son/daughter to be left behind. Race to nowhere.

  • Great points. When I started a “travel” basketball team for 4th/5th grade players I called a local school/AAU coach. His very first words to me were “Well Trey, I feel like I have the best players around here, and we had to go to Charleston ( our “big City” ) to fill my roster. ” I replied ” I’m not worried about winning the big tourneys”. He then says ” You will be lucky to get the ball up the court because I , and whatever other coaches name was have all the best players”.
    Mind you , we are talking 4th and 5th grade age kids. I continued my pursuit to start a team , mostly for practices and 2, or 3 tournaments. That was in August of 2015. Since then I have practiced with and had an awesome time with a minimum of 30 kids. I now have what we consider a “club” team with 11 4th graders, and 10 5th graders , as well as my local YMCA All Star team, which consists of 9 players.
    We aren’t the “best” team, and probably won’t win any tournaments but, every single kid that’s been at one of mine , or my 4th grade teams coaches practices, or scrimmages are developing their skills , learning how to play basketball , but mostly they’re HAVING FUN. Just my 2 cents – Thanks
    Coach Trey W – ” Mountain State United Basketball”

  • Trey:
    It really is amazing that so few coaches want to develop players anymore. It’s a race to nowhere focused on winning at young age groups with strategy, size, and athleticism. In many instances, it works for the players because it discourages many smaller, younger, less skilled and experienced players who quit before they have a chance to grow and develop, leaving the earlier maturers to continue through the competitive stream. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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