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Coaches Corner: Sometimes, Sports Just Need to Be Child's Play

Coaches Corner: Jock Mutschler

Great coaching is child’s play! Many sports pundits argue that by embracing a culture of organized sport and by de-emphasizing spontaneous peer-centered play we have succeeded in improving our players’ technical skills. However, this philosophy of intervention can simultaneously result in neglect of the development of other skills such as initiative, communication and creative problem-solving. While organized sport activity is ultimately what coaches are paid to orchestrate, our children will thrive in an environment that promotes a bit more child’s play.

“Sometimes the preparation is so hard, so intense…. the crying, the screaming…. We are not in the gym to be having fun.  The fun comes at the end, with the winning and the medals.” – Bela Karoli, famed women’s gymnastics coach.

Without constant direction from the coach, absent micromanagement, and with no prescribed, formulaic way to play, the game has the potential to devolve into one of creative beauty. Given freedom, players are unrestrained and have the ability to engage in a pleasurable pursuit together. They are engaging in child’s play.

This summer, during coach contact days, we took our boys’ high school squad to Bradford Beach, on Milwaukee’s east side. The boys enjoyed beach soccer, wheel barrow races, crabwalk races as well as some water conditioning in Lake Michigan. You couldn’t concoct a training session that generated more player interest and action-oriented activity.  In other words, it was child’s play!

Our day at the beach stands in stark contrast to the typical coach-centric soccer training session that emphasizes order, rigidity, obedience to adult direction and a strict division of labor. Players in this environment risk becoming so accustomed to following orders that they frequently cease play altogether if the coach is not directly supervising.

Inspired coaching recognizes that there is a danger of play being transformed into work. Players walk away from soccer for a variety of reasons but the most common reason that they disengage is that soccer is not fun anymore.

  • Here are a couple coaching tenets that, if incorporated into training, will cultivate passion and creativity, resulting in child’s play.

  • Let the Players Get on with It – Reduce coach intervention as much as possible. Coaches should be confident and relaxed, observing and ensuring training activities are running smoothly so players enjoy and learn at training.

  • Avoid Stereotypes – Coaches should avoid pressure to be someone they are not just because parents, fans and athletic directors are watching. Sometimes coaches feel as though they must be constantly yelling instructions to their team during a match. Otherwise, how do they justify their worth? Obviously, the instruction must come during training. The match is the time for the players to demonstrate their creativity and passion. They must be problem-solvers on match day.  

  • Release Players’ to the Game – Let the kids play. The experience belongs to them, not the coach.

  • Training Should Be Primed Toward Enjoyment and Learning – Players will not invest themselves in the team if they are not having fun. On field performance will suffer and team culture will be damaged. Sterile training sessions will likely result in players not fulfilling their potential. Players will not take ownership for their performance. Coaches will greatly improve their individual players’ chances of having a positive soccer experience by establishing a fun-filled training atmosphere.    

Society, parents and children would be better served if soccer training was focused on creating a de-centralized environment with a fun-filled atmosphere. This would result in a positive soccer experience. It’s child’s play!

Written by University School of Milwaukee soccer coach Jock Mutschler, who has been involved in a number of club soccer programs and holds a Master's Degree in Coaching Education from Ohio University.

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