An Undisciplined U15 Girls Soccer Team - Too Late?

A soccer coach writes that the team he's had for several years isn't showing up for training but players come to matches. Here's the brief e-mail...

Question

Question for you about my U-15 girls soccer team. Our team is anything but disciplined. For 3 yrs we have moved up with very little discipline. Is it too late, do we need discipline, or should we just try to get a happy medium? I feel our team could be so much better if the players would have discipline. The players rarely try in practice but show up for games. What do you think?

Some Ideas

In practice, the problem you are observing is the area that is most troublesome for both of us and for most other coaches of players in the transitional years, leaving U14 and heading into U15 and U16. There's a big difference between how kids feel about soccer in elementary school and middle school, and how they feel about it during the early high school years.

Here are a few ideas about the situation and some options you could consider to try to make improvements. There's no way to know which of these apply to your situation, so maybe you can just pick the ideas that you find relevant.

Why Discipline and Participation Problems Happen

1. Coach's uncritical and unrealistic vision of who the players are, who owns the team, and the nature of players' motivation. It is easy to be overly sentimental and uncritical of a younger team of kids that you have worked with for several years. The coach may come to look on the team as his or her own team. This may seem only natural and reflect the coach's care for each of the players and dedication to the coach's vision of the team's future. Unfortunately, this isn't what the soccer team or players need to be most successful, and sets the stage for decay. First, the soccer team doesn't belong to the coach. Instead, the players and parents have their own agendas and have different expectations about the team. In many cases, it is likely that the players and parents have less confidence in the coach or team than does the coach, and the team may not be very important to some. In any case, having a sentimental or overly optimistic view of the players and team prospects is the root cause of most of the rest of the problems listed below.

Sentimentality or a misplaced sense of ownership can lead the coach to excuse, rather than fix, poor skills and game habits, or to settle for less than the best each player can give. Lack of critical vision leads to inconsistent expectations, slack practices, low intensity, lazy practice participation, lowered morale, less effective player development, and frustratingly inconsistent match results.

The hardest thing for any coach is to realize that player's and parents aren't the coach's "friends", that the coach does not own the team, and that the coach is responsible for the technical, tactical, physical, and mental development of the team. This has to include not only setting demanding goals and creating challenging training, but also doing critical assessment of players abilities and potentials, and planning to replace players who are not committed and making good progress in developing their abilities.

Lack of critical vision and sentimentality is the most common problem for parent coaches, and the biggest differentiate between the results obtained by parent coaches and those obtained by hired trainers who have no kids on the team. This difference also gives rise to the feeling among parents that hired trainers are too cutthroat in recruiting and replacing players. Sometimes true, sometimes sour grapes, but either way, this is the greatest differentiation, much more of a factor than coaching ability and experience in many cases.

2. Inconsistency in setting, communicating, and enforcing reasonable team rules. Inconsistency in rules and enforcement kills morale and angers parents and players on either side of any problem or incident. If the rules go out and then change, or are not followed, parents and players question the coach's seriousness. Team rules that have clear line-of-sight traceability to the development, management, or safety of the team and its players. All the parents and players have to understand the rules and purposes they serve.

3. Failure to set, refresh, communicate, and work toward very demanding expectations. For success, players have to more concerned about meeting the coach's expectations and the expectations of other team players than anything else. If challenging expectations are not in place, the kids fall back on other concerns, like impressing other kids. If the other kids are slackers, then being cool can involve slacking off, making fun of the coach, or skipping practice. All the parents and players have to understand the expectations.

4. Delivery of training that lacks focus, flow, vigorous competition, and intensity. Lack of competition in practice that meets or exceeds competition in matches makes practices boring and pointless, and does not improve the team.

5. Use of training that has no pace or that is crowded with line drills. Kids enjoy action and learn by doing. Boring practices have a lot of players standing around watching or listening. Boring practices repel players and kill team motivation.

6. Being the parent of a player on the team. Having a player on the team is a serious challenge for most coaches. It can be done, but if things are going well, it is one of the most important issues to review. In some cases, the parent coach is a lot more enthusiastic and committed than the player - a disconnect.

7. Retaining lazy players, or players with bad attitudes or lack of true belief in the team. Laziness and bad attitudes can spread like cancer through the players and parents.

8. Giving playing time to kids who don't come to training or who don't train hard, just because they are "friends" or kids who've been with the team a long time. This not only rewards bad behavior so that it becomes permanent, but it de-motivates other players who had good attitudes and work hard.

9. Failure to observe and correct player behavior immediately during training. This reinforces bad behavior, and gives players the impression that you either are not paying attention, don't care, or are over your head and don't know the difference. Either way, it gives players the understanding that training is not important.

Salvaging the Situation

1. Get another coach. If you have been coaching the team for several years, and particularly if you have a child on the team, it may well be best to pass the team on to another coach with successful experience in the age range of the team. The most demanding transition years are the U14 through U16. The new coach can set more demanding expectations, run off the players with bad attitudes because they aren't "friends", bring in true believers, and set a higher level of intensity and competitiveness in training.

2. Change your view of the team. Start thinking about the team as a temporary assignment, not a hobby or social activity. Look on your players as patients, and yourself as the medical doctor or physical therapist. Some of your patients will recover and move on, some will have a more limited but useful recovery, and some will may not survive. You can hope for their survival, but avoid getting emotionally involved. You have to stay professional. You have a short term job to shape up the team, it's not forever. What's your plan? What does the team need? Which players need to be replaced? Step back and realize that most of the players have some doubts about your ability, and many have other priorities. Rank the players, on paper, as to attitude, ability, and willingness to work. Make a list of whiners, slackers, and players with bad attitudes that need to leave the team. (It only takes one bad apple to ruin your team.

3. Set, communicate, and enforce some reasonable team rules. Make sure these connect to the goals of the team. Start with "no whining". Be consistent about sticking to the rules. This is a good time to explain that practice attendance, enthusiastic attitudes, and hard work in training are required to get playing time beyond the minimum required by the league or club rules.

4. Set, communicate, and work toward demanding and challenging expectations for the players and the team. Find out who's up for a challenge, and who was just on the team as legacy players from the days when the team was a social club at U10.

5. Make practices competitive and challenging. Build practices that are focused, simple, and very challenging. Spend more time preparing training, make practices simpler, Instead of a lame passing drill, put in an opponent and challenge the passers to beat the opponent. Instead of skills in open space with no pressure, restrict the space and add an opponent as soon as possible. Make most warm-up, training, and fitness activities competitive.

6. Train from play. Train from play as much as possible, and avoid excessive use of drills. Instead of a shooting drill from a line, play 1v1 or 2v2 to small goals. After a brief warm-up at the beginning of practice, put the team into a 6v6 to goals with keepers, and then start coaching during the game, stopping play to make your points and to credit good play. This involves nearly all the players, keeps up the work rate, and makes practice more competitive.

7. Solve your kid issues. If your child is on the team, get input from other coaches, your coaching director, and other players and parents to form a more realistic understanding of your player and how your player interacts with the team, positively or negatively. Fix problems you find.

8. Get rid of lazy players with bad attitudes. No amount of good coaching and team building can fully overcome the negative impact of whiners and kids or families that aren't up for the challenge. Let them move on to some other team or activity where they will be happy. Get input from your coaching directors, from other players, from parents, and find out what's really going on. Be more observant and take note of how the players are interacting, look at body shape and eye contact, enthusiasm, and verbal support from the team. Get to know who is really committed. If you have a great player with a terrible player, and you can't get the family squared away, let the player and the family move on. Don't hang on hoping for improvement that never comes, you'll just put yourself and the team through hell. Hardworking players with good attitudes, and their parents, will become angry with you and disillusioned with the team if you don't have the courage to dismiss bad apples and problem parents.

9. Reward commitment, hard work, and good attitudes with more playing time. Your team attitude will improve tremendously as soon as you start giving less playing time to kids with bad attitudes or those who don't show up for training. At the same time, you'll get some parent anger from the family of the "star" player who doesn't come to practice or who slacks off and shows attitude.

10. Be more observant in training. Get rid of sentimentality and emotion, and start looking critically at what players are actually doing in practice. Don't let screwing around go on at all. Demand performance and good behavior. If there's a problem kid, send the player home for the day and deal with it later. Know your training by heart so your head and eyes won't be glued to a practice plan. Keep your eyes on the players, and listen to what they are saying. Is it positive, competitive, and enthusiastic? Are the kids supporting each other or "ragging" on each other? Are you allowing whining to go on? Cut it off immediately. After practice, take out a roster list and grade each player's practice performance, including attitude and enthusiasm.

More Ideas

Hopefully you'll find some ideas in here that can help you. There's a short article at http://www.soccercoachingnotes.com/coaching/mental/energize.htm that talks about energizing a lazy team.

Your Comments

If you'd like to add a comment or suggestion about this topic, please send a note to the "business" e-mail address shown in the footer. We'll try to post additional helpful ideas or criticism.