It’s easy to join the chorus and say today’s youth athlete is not like those of years gone by. I have heard many long time coaches blame social media, video games, sport specialization and personal entitlement as factors that differentiate the modern youth soccer player from those of thirty years ago. Times are changing, people are changing, and the world is changing right before our eyes. Yet, we must push forward. We must persevere; as coaches, as mentors, and as friends we must “Stop with the excuses!!!”.
Every era has its challenges, but one constant remains for youth coaches, amatuers, and professionals. Do you want to coach a sport or do you want to encourage young players to be better people?
In our soccer program, where I spent 31 years coaching hundreds of young men and women, we always focused on the players’ development as human beings. We recognized the small window of opportunity from early to mid adolescence and how that impacts character development and growth as we guide the younger generations into the next phase of their life. We taught to the 4 pillars of the game of soccer for sure (Tactical, Technical, Physical, & Psychological), but our emphasis was always on the personal responsibility of each player to the team. We demanded that each player be responsible for their own progress in each area so as to contribute to the wider goals of the team. We did this by insisting that things consistently being done right. We taught them not to “Just Do It...Do It Right!” Punctuality mattered, academics mattered, social behavior mattered, everything mattered because everything reflected back on the team and our goals. We taught them to compete against each other every single day and structured our training sessions to reflect this; a lesson we learned from UNC’s legendary coach Anson Dorrance. As we emphasized personal responsibility we saw how it created a bond amongst teammates that was stronger than your typical team building techniques or anything you could teach in a classroom. When everyone knew the other guy was doing what he had to do to make us more successful it led to mutual respect. When someone faltered, teammates rose up to carry them forward. We didn’t have to teach them that, they taught it to each other. We worked to develop a culture of personal responsibility so we, as coaches, could focus on getting the best out of the group.
One tournament game, our best player and team captain brought the wrong shorts to the game and thus couldn’t play. We as coaches didn’t have to solve that problem, one of our reserves swapped shorts so the captain could play. No one made him do it, it was his idea. He started the next game and others followed. Creating this culture took years and there were plenty of challenges, but this culture becomes infectious.
We remain in contact with many of our players as they mature (my first class are now in their 50’s!). We hear from many of them that their success in college, or in their profession, was aided by the lessons we taught about personal responsibility, competition, and commitment. One former player shared that he had gotten lazy and fat, so he reverted to our philosophy and training regime to shed 60 pounds and run a marathon. He’s 45 years old!
Coaches of the past and coaches of the present. Don’t be blinded by the fallacy that “today’s athletes are different”. Yes, they are different, because today is a different world than in years past. What they need to understand is that the lessons we impart on them today aren’t just for becoming a better player, they’re for becoming better people; for themselves, for their family, and for their teammates. They are young and we can teach them to be successful human beings first and foremost. The state championships will follow. Focus on the little things in life that often get overlooked so they know that when things get tough they have the strength to keep pushing.