Grace Santos
So, MF, University of Arizona

Let’s start with a story.

There’s this young lady, let’s say… fifteen years old. Amidst the onslaught of distractions that enter a teenager’s world, she happens to be very focused on soccer. Not only does she train every week with her club team, she seeks out extra training multiple times each week to further develop her skills. When COVID-19 (I mean, an “unpredictable global health crisis”) theoretically shuts her season down and all of her teammates lounge around for 3 months, she trains… harder. She works on her first touch, finishing, passing range, on being more deceptive, how she can individually impact the game on the dribble, as a playmaker. The more she works at it, the more skilled she becomes, and her confidence increases each time she steps on the field. She’s made incredible use of time that many spent doing nothing.

Team training starts back up and she’s, not surprisingly, excited – she’s visibly and demonstrably better in multiple facets of the game. The only thing left is to do it live. To put all of this hard work into play.

Now here’s where this story takes an unfortunate, albeit rather predictable, turn for the worse. You see, anybody who has ever become good at anything understands that nothing works every time. And things certainly don’t work all at once. She’s done the hard part, she has the ability, now it’s a simple matter of working through mistakes and putting it into practice… right?

Clubs and coaches love to regurgitate platitudes about not being “afraid of failure” and how the “path to success isn’t a straight line,” but how often do these coaches actually practice what they preach?

The instant she begins trying to implement these new skills in training, she’s rebuked by her coach in the most trite, formulaic, and uneducated and uninspiring ways.

“Play simpler.”

“Don’t take so many touches.”

“Don’t do stepovers.”

Now she’s questioning herself. She wants to showcase her new abilities, to be more influential in the game. After all, that’s why she’s been doing all the hard work. But the more this person in a position of (perceived and inflated) authority scolds, the more difficult it becomes for her to implement what she’s learned, to play with personality. Pretty shitty, right?

That’s not all.

Halfway through training, her coach pulls her aside.

You’d like to think this is the part where he recognizes her for improving. At least acknowledges that she’s sharper, quicker, more comfortable on the ball.

Far from it. He proceeds to explain that her work ethic is lacking, of all things. And as if that weren’t enough, he attributes this “bad work ethic” to the elite academy she has been training with for the past six months. No, you didn’t misread that or fabricate the irony. He calls out a kid voluntarily seeking out high-level training for lack of work ethic, and pinpointed the training program itself as the cause of this deficiency. Stupidity aside, this is at best petty, and at worst one of the most unprofessional and unethical displays from an adult in youth sports.

Quick recap: all in a single practice, in the span of little more than an hour, an at best, average club soccer coach (who, by the way, has no experience with high-level soccer other than occasionally tuning into MLS) discourages a young athlete in his care from utilizing her new skills. On top of that suck salad he then doubles down and makes it a point to criticize the work ethic that enabled her to develop those abilities in the first place. And further, blames this poor work ethic on the training program that she pursued in her quest to improve.

I wish this story was as rare as it is shameful… but it’s not.

We love to tell kids to “fail forward”. We relish sounding progressive when we inundate them with Michael Jordan quotes about how he’s “failed over and over and over again” in his life, and that is why he succeeded. Take a visit to the clubs’ Instagram page and you’ll see countless cliches about “player development,” “positive energy,” and, my personal favorite, “we have to be okay letting them struggle to overcome challenges and giving them the space to do it & learn.”

Yet, when it comes down to it, when are these truisms ever backed up by actions? What happens when players come to training and demonstrate the willingness to try something new in an environment that they think is conducive to growth, even if it means making a mistake?

I’ll tell you. They’re reprimanded for it.

As someone who is continuously working on their game and has the opportunity to train young athletes, I know what they’re capable of and I understand the impact that a culture of accountability, rooted in confidence, creativity, and freedom can have on players. I see what happens when they actually have a place to attempt great things, fail, and try again.

I see kids perform better than they thought possible. Grow and achieve things that they have been told are “out of their reach.”

Then I watch them go to club practices and be torn down by grown men with inferiority complexes.

When your child falls taking their first steps do you pick them up, or tell them to aim lower? Maybe just crawl for the rest of their life.

I started asking the players the question that all coaches should be asking, but it was clear many local ones weren’t, “what’s the difference-maker between a good game and bad game for you?” “What, if anything, is holding you back on the field?”

One answer. Over. And over. And over. Like Gyasi Zardes misses.

“I’m afraid to mess up.”

Clearly all of the bullshit about having, and building, confidence in players, and providing a place to learn and fail is just that, bullshit. I’ve lived it. I grew up in the same club environment, with the same people discouraging me from reaching my full potential as a soccer player. They demanded that I “play two-touch,” because they attended a few coaching courses and had the game figured out. When Division 1 coaches expressed interest in me (this is a true story) my coach attempted to pitch other girls to them instead. In my age group on the boys’ side the coach went so far as to stand up in front of his team and announce, “none of you will end up playing midfield in the ACC.” Weber, any thoughts on that?

You might argue that it all turned out fine for me. I’m playing PAC-12 soccer and have nothing to gripe about. And the first part of that is true. But, you see, kids like me, Weber at Tech, Savannah at VCU (who by the way, was told by these same club coaches that D1 soccer was “out of her reach”), Kyle at West Virginia, we’re the fortunate ones. We have a strong support system with each other, and at Gradum: people who knew enough about soccer and cared about us enough as people to build us up and counteract much of what was occurring at the club level.

That 15-year-old I told you about? In addition to parents who raised her to be the confident young lady she is today, she has us. People who are committed to making sure she knows just how admirable her efforts are and how much improvement she’s making. Not to blow smoke up her ass, but to make sure that we demonstrate the proper cocktail of accountability and respect for her work. We’re going to make sure she keeps trying new things, regardless of how much yelling her coach does, until all the pieces come together on the field. Growth, until you achieve proficiency. 

Why tell you any of this, then? Because there are impressionable young athletes (across all sports) who don’t have somebody to keep them going, somebody whose opinion they respect, somebody in their corner. These are the players who look to coaches as knowledgeable authority figures, who seek out feedback, and who when told “you have a bad work ethic, and it’s the fault of the program tasked with making you better” take it to heart, no matter how misguided or born of jealousy it may be. The influence that coaches hold over these players cannot be overstated. I – and it’s in these kids that the fear of failure is being instilled, instead of joy for games that are most fun when played freely and creatively.

And then we’re surprised when their performance suffers. We blame their technique. Commitment. Ability. Ignoring the obvious deterministic factors and eschewing all blame. Irresponsible and cowardly at best.

So, Coach, why is that? Not understanding the game at a high level and not being technically and tactically adept is predictable inadequacy. However, continually warning your players against self-expression and challenging themselves and thereby seemingly intentionally hindering their development, is entirely different.

Is a result against Roanoke Star so important you would rather squash your players’ personalities than have them try something that might not work? Are you so concerned about how it reflects on you if the team loses the Saturday game, that you’d sabotage your players’ long-term development? 

Are you so insecure as a coach, that you view a supplemental training academy bettering your players as a threat? Do you think that your players improving undercuts your already marginal level of authority? Are you so intimidated that you’re willing to attack the work ethic of a fifteen-year-old who has been putting in extra time?

Does that make you feel powerful? Good about yourself? Back in control?

These are rhetorical questions.

This is your “coaching” legacy.

Imagine if, rather than admonishing your players for taking risks, you encouraged them. Instead of benching them when something doesn’t work, you simply asked what they should have done differently. Imagine if, when a kid demonstrated the desire to improve, you didn’t knock their work ethic, but highlighted it. Maybe your players would begin succeeding because of you, not simply in spite of you.

Your call.