Coaching in the Game

Go to any complex around the state and you are likely to see ten completely different coaching styles. Some shout the whole time, others are slumped in their lawn chair, one is suspended, watching from his/her car, and then there’s the one who still thinks he or she is a player so keeps creeping on to the field. Here we go over how to coach during games, how to deal with substitutions, other teams, referees, and parents. As with all of these sections, there is no one right answer to any of it, just a whole load of suggestions from people who have tried to find a way that works for them.


The first question you should ask yourself is what are you trying to get out of the game and in what order? Priorities could include winning, player development, player fun/enjoyment, trying somethincoaching1g new, not losing, and even avoiding injuries. Most coaches will have some or all of these factors motivating how they coach each game, but it is important to recognize which one is above all of the others for the game you are about to play.

If short term winning is the most important thing, it will probably mean keeping the ‘best’ players on the field for more of the game, taking greater control over the decision-making on the field (shouting more!), taking more risks and being more aggressive. If player developement is top priority you will probably leave the majority of on-field decisions to players, to improve their understanding of the game. You will probably balance out the playing time so that everyone gets the chance to play, but you might still encourage players to take risks. Final example, if avoiding injuries is the biggest goal, you will probably ask players to avoid 50/50’s and aggressive tackles, and you might ‘rest’ some of the stronger players. As you can see, the top priority will dictate a lot about how the coach acts in the game.

Role Models

There are some factors though that remain present regardless of the situation. The first of these is that as a coach you are a role model. Psychologists have shown that until age 10-11 parents are the biggest role models in a child’s life. After that age they start to look for other figures to emulate. Who do soccer kids see four or more times per week? You! This makes their coach a prime candidate for players to learn from. Despite their age, young people are very perceptive. If you say one thing and do another they will recognize it. Telling a player that shouting at referees is bad, but then doing it when they are coaching a game is a coaching2common example of this. For this reason we recommend that you hold yourself equally accountable for any rules that you set up for your players.

Coaching Comments

We’ve all seen the coach the constantly shouts instructions. They seem to think that there is a giant chess board in front of them and they need to do all the thinking and move every piece. Ask a player what it means to them and you often hear how they learn to shut it all out, making the coach useless when they actually have something important to say. You may also have seen the lost sheep coach, nervously checking his watch from the bench, not knowing what to say or when to say it. When one of their players loses focus and forgets to track back, the coach says nothing, leaving a huge hole for the other team to exploit.

Clearly there is some kind of happy middle ground between these two guys, but finding it usually takes trial and error. Your personality will determine where on the scale you are starting from, and how far you can move along it to improve yourself. The following points are general rules that will help improve what you say: –

  • Keep It Simple, Stupid – why say something in 20 words when you can say it in 3? Players don’t have time or want to listen to your story when they are in the middle of the game. Start with their name, then tell them what you want them to do. Simple as that.
  • Use Keywords – during practice teach your team words or phrases. That way in the game you can use 1 word and everyone knows exactly what you mean (e.g. step, slide, channel, recover).coaching3
  • Believe in yourself – if you are not sure about what you are saying, your players will sense it. Either don’t say anything, or have confidence that what you are saying is right.
  • Never be negative about players on the field when players on the bench can hear you. They will assume you say the same about them when they are out there.
  • Leave the referees and the other team alone. You do your job, they all do theirs. They will make mistakes, but so will you. It is all part of the game. Your job is to focus on what you can control.
  • Be Positive. “Well Done” needs no explanation.

What the professionals say: –

  • “Instant judgement, taking little or no time … and never the use of six words when two would do” (Brian Clough on Peter Taylor)
  • “When I reached decisions quickly I was drawing a positive response, especially from the players … If I was unsure, I would encourage more dialogue until I worked out a sound reply.” (Alex Ferguson)
  • “…you could still have that authority with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.” (Terry Venables)
  • “A manager mustn’t let his players know he has doubts about anyone in the team … otherwise they will think: if he thinks that about him, what does he think about me?” (Sven-Goran Eriksson)coaching4
  • “You must never justify yourself … once you start explaining you undermine your position.” (Gianluca Vialli)
  • “Make it simple, make it quick.” (Arthur Rowe)
  • “It doesn’t matter what the papers say or the fans. All that matters to me is [coach]saying “well done” (Joe Kinnear)

Whether you relax in your chair or pace about the touch line is up to you. Although it is possible to change you may find that it doesn’t match your personality and affects your ability to coach. We recommend experimenting with different approaches and then honestly assessing your own performance to see what worked best for you. For some coaches it is a matter of finding which way calms them down, for others it could be the opposite! Previously we looked at coach communication to the field, which can be done from almost any position on the sideline.

In this second section we examine what coaches should do during games. Earlier we looked at what they should say to the team.

Setting Goals

As a coach, you communicate with your players in a variety of different ways. As a large group, individually, through spoken word, through body language, or in emails. Different approaches will work best for different players. For many, we recommend that you make time to offer a brief word or two during the warm up. Walk around as they train and give them a few simple goals and words of encouragement. Players are motivated in different ways. Your job is to find out what works for each of your players. Everyone puts in more effort when they are working towards goals though. Set them for your team and set them for your individuals. An example might be something as simple as “I want you to focus on your tackling today. Stay on the goal side of the player and the ball and be patient for that mistake. Remember when you played so well against the red team last week? I want you to see if you can be even stronger than that today.”

Managing Expectations

When players go on and off the field you are presented with another golden opportunity to give individual instructions and encouragement, but also to manage a players expectations. By this I mean you could tell them why you subbed them or how long you expect that they will be on the field and why. You can also do this before the game and even in some situations after it. Generally, if you are honest and direct with a player they will appreciate it as it lets them know what they have to do and how to do it.coaching5


Colorado Youth Soccer allows for unlimited substitutions during the game. The level and age of the team you have, the expectations of the players, and the priority you have for the game will all impact your substitution policy. Some coaches rotate every player in order at certain times to give everyone an equal amount of time on the field. In recreational soccer this is often a rule, but in competitive it is not. I have also seen players who spend the entire game on the bench, or come on for a minute or two, only to be immediately dropped back to the bench.

As we said above, the key to this is managing expectations. If players understand and buy into their role on the team, you can avoid the issues that can arrise from players and parents. This begins at tryouts. Here you should explain what a player’s role should be and how you allocate time on the field. If you sub only when players get tired, it is easy for a player to understand why they came out. If you sub when you see a weakness in your shape, they can probably understand that too if you explain it.

Your job is to read the game from the sidelines. Try to see where the problems are and what is causing them. Can you fix them by giving out instructions or moving players around? If not, can someone on the bench (with the right information) solve the problem for you? Equally you should try to see where your team’s strengths and opponent’s weaknesses are and ask yourself the same questions. Substitutions should rarely be made for the sake of make changes (except for those who do it to waste time or slow down the momentum of the game!). Choose your moments wisely too. Should you make a change on the first sign of trouble, or do you wait to see if it was a one-off moment? Judgment is key to successful coaching and unfortunately it is something that will improve mostly with trial and error. As a young Alex Ferguson once said “I was learning something new about management every day and, although I was making mistakes, I was not repeating them.”

What the professionals say: –

  • “if deal honestly with people, what you lose in the short term you will get back in the long run.” (Terry Venables)
  • “All you have to do is treat your players well, be honest with them and never lie to them. In return, they’ll do anything for you.” (Matt Busby)
  • “When you mature you start observing more and that’s when you become a better manager.” (Alex Ferguson)
  • “All great successes, all great lives, have involved the coincidence of aptitude, talent, but also the luck of meeting people who have believed in you. At some point in your life, you need someone who will tap you on your shoulder and say, ‘I believe in you'” (Arsene Wenger)
  • “Some teams win in spite of their managers, not because of them.” (Gianluca Vialli)
  • “One of the first things I learned as a manager was that there’s no point in simply making changes for the sake of making changes.” (Bill Nicholson)
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