Along with strong individual skills, and a vibrant team concept, good communication is one of the hallmarks of a good soccer team. Teams that talk – “man on,” “turn,” “down the line” – keep everyone aware of opportunities and peril. The best coaches do their talking in training and at halftime, but in much of youth soccer, there is an incessant din emanating from the sideline. Coaches and parents shout conflicting commands, confusing the players and robbing them of their autonomy and creativity. Eliminating this chatter is a worthy, if difficult, goal. Deleting the list of terms and exhortations below from the vocabulary of coaches, parents and all soccer devotees would be a heckuva start.
1. Shoot. Most often bleated by coaches and spectators when a player is within striking distance of the opponent’s goal. Designed to hasten the decision-making process, the player hearing this often freezes or uncorks a hastily prepared and poorly struck ball right to the goalkeeper. In a recent game, one parent shouted “Shoot” to his U10 daughter every time she touched the ball – and she was playing defense fifty yards from the goal. When the urge to shout “Shoot” strikes, stifle it.
2. C’mon, Ref! (Or any variation… Probably the phrase uttered most frequently in a match, always pegged to a perceived slight or grievance. That the protest will compel the recipient to amend or reverse his call is a vain hope that dishonors the game and demeans the yeller. Good calls and bad calls, like good and bad coaching (and good and bad playing), are an integral part of the game. Leave the ref alone.
3. Hand ball! An involuntary, heaven-rattling exclamation erupts from an entire sideline the instant a ball touches, or appears to touch, a player’s hand or arm. Meant to alert the referee, who is usually only inches from the alleged transgression, and coerce him to assess a foul on the other team. The charge elicits the equally-aggrieved “no way!” from the opposite sideline. Usually the call is of little consequence, but when flagged in the penalty area, the fate of mankind can hang in the balance. Best advice? Breathe. The sun will come out tomorrow. This is California.
4. Big Kick. An alarm raised when the ball is rolling or bouncing towards a defender under pressure, the term encourages a desperate and uncontrolled response. In soccer we don’t “kick” the ball. We strike it, pass it, cross it, drive it and shoot it. We chip it, volley it, curl it and, even occasionally, toe poke it. All of these terms denote a specific – and directed – response. Soccer strives for elegance, poise and clarity of action and communication. Keeping one’s head and intelligently playing the ball out of danger, by looking for a smart outlet, is to be preferred over blindly whacking the crap out of it, which by the way, in youth soccer often results in a big whiff.
Yes, there are penalty kicks, corner kicks, direct and indirect kicks but these are nouns, not verbs; they refer to precise, unambiguous actions, not the act of hitting the ball.
5. Send it! A smarter-sounding cousin of Big Kick, this one also fails the specificity test. The screamer is demanding that the ball be “sent” upfield, but to where? Towards the touch line? Towards the open midfielder on the left? Towards the forward smothered by two defenders? Apparently anywhere out of immediate danger is good enough. But for the care and feeding of budding soccer players, it shouldn’t be.
And then there’s the frantic Away!, the soccer version of the Harry Potter disappearing charm, “Expelliarmus.” Panicked keepers and coaches will command their defenders to make the ball disappear. Banish it to Azkaban or anywhere else away from the goal.
6. Goalie’s out… He’s scrambled to the edge of the box to make an acrobatic save and is out of position when the ball lands at your player’s feet. Everyone wants to let this potential hero know he’s got a wide open, if 30 yard, opportunity. Problem is it takes great self-possession to strike or chip (not kick) a ball over distance or the flailing-to-get-back keeper’s head. When prompted by a crazed sideline, the task becomes even more difficult. See SHOOT above. And watch the ball sail over the crossbar.
7. It’s 0-0. No, it’s not. One team has just scored. And they’re leading by one, two or three goals. As the players trot back to midfield for the kick-off, the coach shouts out, “all right, gang, it’s 0-0!” Designed to prevent a let-down (teams often do get scored upon right after they’ve netted a goal) and urge the troops to focus and recommit, this silly phrase rallies no one but the mathematically challenged.
8. Take a lap. And with that the coach sends his team or a player on an unsupervised, unfocused trip around the training ground. Out of touch and usually out of hailing distance, the “lap” gives the players license to goof around, cut corners or even walk. Less odious when ordered for a warm-up than as a punishment, a lap has little relevance to the game of soccer. How much long distance jogging does a player do in a game? Exactly. Still committed to laps? Try sticking a ball at your players’ feet. At least let them get some touches on the tour.
9. Are you kidding me? What are you thinking? Or… How did you miss that? All of these expressions weep with frustration and disbelief. Yet none of them (or any variants, expletives added or deleted) serves any positive purpose. A player knows when he’s screwed up. Putting an exclamation point on it only delays his ability to shake it off and redeem himself. Substitute the neutral “Unlucky!” and witness the player’s miraculous rebound.
10. Anything uttered by a parent or spectator that is more instructive or critical than “Nice play,” “Great effort,” or “Way to go.” The game many of them are watching has only one kid in it: theirs. Even the most visually expansive, when sending up a cry or a protest, are denigrating the dignity of the game. Parents don’t coach. And they don’t criticize. They cheer. Try it. Your kids will thank you.
11. Trash talking. Mostly a player phenomenon, this can rear its ugly head at any age. From the U6 high five line, with one team smacking hands, saying, “bad game,” to the older hormone-riddled gangsters of U13 and up. It’s a regular and disturbing part of the game. My 15 year old, however, learned a valuable lesson this past weekend. Returning to his position he passed the other team’s defender and started to dish out a helping of abuse. The defender held up his hand. “I don’t trash talk,” he said. “I don’t have anything against you or your team. I just want to play good hard soccer.” My kid stopped, thought for a moment, then fist-bumped the kid. “Respect,” he said.
Respect is what it’s all about. Respecting the players, the officials, and the game itself. Lose a little of this lingo and you’ll see how much better life on the sidelines can be.