I am a Pre-K soccer coach. I lettered in college football and I have coached U9, U10, and U11 travel soccer in the past. However, coaching Pre-K is a new and exciting experience for me. I have a parent that is clearly frustrated with Mikey's (4-year-old) game skills. Mikey is the oldest child and it is becoming painful for me to see that his father's frustration is starting to negatively impact Mikey's interest in playing. Mikey has above-average potential and is certainly as coachable as any other 4-year-old on our team. I want to help both the parent and Mikey but don't know if I should intervene. Any suggestion would be greatly appreciated.
Response by PCA Trainer Jeff Karnes
Great question and one that comes up for all age groups. The topic is especially important at earlier ages as kids and parents are getting to know youth sports. Big kudos for noticing this and seeking guidance, and yes, you are empowered to address this with Mikey and his Dad.
I am also a college-athlete-turned-youth-coach, having coached thirty-five+ teams spanning 6U through middle school from recreation to club. My daughter is a collegiate rower, and my son is a three-sport athlete in high school. Youth coaching evolves and changes with the different ages, so expect to tune your approach and emphasis, and always have a growth mindset! At this early stage, creating a fun and positive environment is the highest priority. It’s early to use concepts such as “game skills” as it’s hard enough just to keep the kids’ attention and shoelaces tied! Aside from the modified format, rules, and field size, introducing higher-level concepts might only frustrate you and those around you. I have been there and admire your desire to help Mikey and his Dad. This is a trait that will continue to serve you well.
Here are a few suggestions to help.
1) Set the tone. Hopefully, you’ve established the culture by sharing via email and a team meeting your coaching philosophy and season expectations. If you haven’t, this is my first recommendation. Write it down and keep it simple for this age group with an emphasis on a PCA concept called the Emotional Tank, or E-Tank. Athletes with a full tank are more coachable and enthusiastic. One way to achieve a full tank is using the 5:1 magic ratio when delivering feedback or criticism. That’s five positives (verbal and non-verbal such as high fives) for each piece of feedback. Example: high five + “Mikey, I really enjoy coaching you” + “you give a lot of effort” + “and really hustle to the ball” + low five. Then deliver your feedback. This approach is a great tone-setter and way to get athletes into the mindset of receiving feedback.
2) Connect with Mikey’s Dad. Before you do, have a game plan with the goal of connecting and opening a line of communication as opposed to solving the issue. As you know, skill development is a journey, and Mikey is just starting his! Reiterate your coaching philosophy, team culture, and goals for this season. Ask open-ended questions, including his goals for the season, and arrive at a common understanding of what is “frustrating.” You may actually find that what you perceive as frustrating is not what’s going on. As for team and individual success metrics, a PCA Double-Goal coach teaches life lessons while striving to win. Adopt success metrics that are controllable such as effort, learning, and honoring the game. Metrics such as wins and losses, playing time, or goals scored are not advised.
3) Connect with Mikey. Again, with a game plan and focused on his E-tank and the controllables. A strategy used at PCA is to ask Mikey’s permission to discuss his overall interest in the sport and in-game participation. Players almost always agree, but if not, ask him to tell you when he’s ready. Begin with truthful and specific praise using the magic ratio, and explain what you’ve been noticing. Listen to his response and discuss a few controllable strategies such as effort, bouncing back from mistakes, and having fun. Here is a nice example of explaining the E-tank concept to younger athletes in a fun and engaging way. You might introduce this to the team first, then have your 1:1 with Mikey.
4) Follow-up. Connecting with athletes and parents is an ongoing effort and can be incredibly rewarding. Use your judgment regarding frequency and check-in with both Mikey and his Dad to see how things are going. Another tool I have used is sending weekly emails with the upcoming schedule while adding positive comments on how the season is progressing. Use this as a way to reinforce your philosophy and goals, and it also provides an opportunity for families to engage. This takes maybe 10 minutes at the beginning of each week, resulting in many positive effects with the families.
5) Finally, at the end of this season, reflect upon how the team measured up to your philosophy and how Mikey and his Dad responded. As this is your first time with this young age group, write down any key differences you noticed and lessons learned in how to coach and communicate. Congratulations, you have now improved your coaching playbook!
Thank you for your commitment to youth sports.