"Hello, I am a parent of 4 young competitive soccer players. My oldest has moved up over the past few years to the top U13 team in our state. He had the same coach last year on the second team of our club. He has moved up due to consistent dedicated practice at home and generally bringing his best to team practices. His coach has transformed this year from a laid-back former college soccer player focused on player development to almost a singular focus on winning. While we knew that playing time would not be even at this level, it has gone the other way to the extreme. Sometimes we are winning games by 2 or 3 goals and the starters are still playing 80+% of the game. It reached a peak this weekend when in an intense state cup game only one sub was used, and 6 other boys stayed on the bench the entire game. This occurred even with several of the starters playing poorly at times. The elation of our wins and advancement to state cup finals was offset by tears from the bench. This was the first game in which players did not see the field at all. But even worse, some like my son could have had a real impact in the final game (a 0-0 tie, which ended up being enough). I feel that the psyche of the boys has been seriously damaged and the team spirit broken. Is this normal at this age? Doesn't feel right to me for 12/13-year-olds. If not, what should I do about it? Just don't want to see my son quit when he's improved so much and has so much potential. Thank you!"
Response by Joe Scally, PCA Trainer in Chicago, IL
The big silver lining I see in this situation is that your son has experienced success as the result of consistent dedicated practice at home and doing his best at team practices. Learning that hard work leads to accomplishments is one of the great life lessons sports can provide. It sounds like it’s frustrating and concerning that his hard work has not resulted in playing time on his current team. Sitting on the bench can be difficult for a competitive young man like your son.
From your description, it does not seem that this coach has been abusive or demeaning to the players. If emotional abuse did occur the coach needs to be accountable. However, issues about playing time are of a different nature. As a parent of a child who played soccer from kindergarten to being a starter on her college team, I have seen the type of situation you describe. Sometimes I understood why my daughter was not getting more playing time. Other times I was befuddled by the coach’s decisions. I can’t say that I always responded in the right way. When I was at my best I encouraged my daughter to see what lessons she might gain about working harder, being a good teammate, respecting the coach, and, most importantly, learning to manage negative feelings like disappointment, frustration and sadness.
I believe the key is to assess in each situation what is best for your child’s development as a person. This requires a discussion with him about how he feels and the reasons he feels that way. If he feels, as you perceive, that he wants to quit soccer, then the benefits of playing on the top team in the state with this coach may not be worth the costs. If he does want to quit, ask him why. There may be reasons that go beyond the coach’s approach. Understanding these will help you guide your son. You could have a talk with the coach, but you must recognize that decisions about playing time are the coach’s prerogative. Preferably, you’d encourage your son to talk with the coach about what he can do to get more playing time. Learning how to advocate for himself can be a great, and developmentally appropriate, lesson for a 12 or 13 year old.
The good news is, that if this coach and his style are not a good fit for your son, there are lots of other teams where he can play, learn, and enjoy soccer if he chooses. One option might be to take time off from soccer to focus on another sport. As you know, valuable life lessons are available on every team in every sport if we’re open to them and respond in productive ways.