The effect of mixed messages on player performance

Early in an u11 boys soccer tournament championship game, with his team trailing 1-0, a fullback went to take a goal kick. Up to this point, the goalie had taken the goal kicks, but he could not kick over the first line of defense, and the parents on the sideline near the goal kicks were anxious. The players sensed the anxiety and yelled at the biggest player, the fullback, to take the kick.

As this player set up the ball, his teammates stood around and watched. Nobody moved to get open. They yelled at him to kick it far. As he started his run up to the ball, the parents yelled at him to move back further. He took a few more steps backward, now more than 10 yards from the ball, and a parent yelled at him to move back further. His coach on the other sideline was exasperated and questioned under his breath why he was back so far.

As the player stood ready to start his run up from almost 15 yards from the ball (the ball is 6 yards from the touchline; he was significantly off the field at this point, nearly to the fence that enclosed the field), the parents yelled more directions. Kick it far. Pass it to a teammate. Don’t kick it to the middle. The player stopped again.

Finally, after close to a minute of setting up the ball, moving back, thinking, etc, he kicked the ball, and the defense inevitably won it back.

I watched this scenario and felt bad for the player; for all of the players. How can you perform when parents constantly instruct, and the instructions often contradict the coach’s instructions. In a game the previous weekend, with u13 girls, I heard a coach walk to midfield at halftime and politely yell at the parents to “please shut up because your instructions are different than mine and you’re confusing the players.”

This was the first real tournament of the year. The teams were from relatively prestigious clubs; the championship game was contested by two teams from the same club. Everyone knew who was the heavy favorite. By halftime, the players barely looked like they wanted to play anymore.

Is this what we want from youth sports? When parents sign up for youth soccer, is this the image in their minds? Parents screaming at their child with conflicting instructions, dejected players walking off the field, coaches admonishing parents in the middle of a game?

Parents are so anxious for their child’s success, and so intrusive, that as a referee, I constantly had to ask them to move. On the parent sideline, they all stand right on the line, hovering on the field. The father of the goalie attempts to stand directly behind the goal to shout instructions until we ask him to return to the sideline where he belongs. Other parents pace around the field, never stopping long enough to cause a problem for the referee, as there are multiple fields with people going back and forth throughout, but always walking closer to their child to yell out more instructions.

It appears that their actions are guided by a desire to prevent their son from making mistakes, but the constant directions and yelling makes the mistakes inevitable. A player cannot play when his attention is directed toward his parents. A player cannot play well when his coach and his parents tell him different things. He practices during the week doing one thing with his coach, but then his parents yell at him to do something different. Many times, it is the coach focused more on learning and development – playing the ball out of the back rather than booting the ball as far as possible – and the parents getting nervous on the sideline and shouting at the players to kick the ball as far as possible. The players listen to the immediacy of the parents, and practice no longer transfers to the games.

The coaches, in many cases, are not perfect, and the players are 10 and obviously will make mistakes, but that’s the point. They are 10. They are not professionals. If they could play the game mistake-free and score goals on every touch, they would not be playing in this tournament with this age group. But, as long as the parents constantly yell instructions and encourage players to ignore the coach’s instructions, the players will not learn. They will not improve. They need the freedom to make mistakes, to learn, and to improve without the mixed messages and anxiety from their parents.

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

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