Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dear Coach

Dear Coach,

I was refereeing your team's game yesterday afternoon in the Natick Columbus Day soccer tournament. (This was eleven-year-old boys.) You didn't like one of the calls I made, the one awarding a penalty kick to the other team. You demonstrated this, first, by throwing your clipboard energetically on the ground and yelling. Even after the kick was taken -- and missed -- you loudly yelled out to me across the field in complaint.

As the game proceeded, you proceeded, in word and deed, to let your team know how often you disagreed with my calls.

Here's what I noticed on the field. Your little boys, in their own way, followed your lead. And why wouldn't they, in that you had modeled the behavior so clearly? Every time they felt aggrieved by a call, or by the lack of a call, they would mutter to themselves or sometimes to me. While they did this, they would stop playing, giving the other team an advantage.

So, dear coach, you succeeded in weakening the resolve and effectiveness of your own team. Plus, you taught the boys a really bad lesson about sportsmanship and politeness.

Another lesson, by the way, is that the referee is always right, even if s/he has made a mistake: A player never wins in the long run by dissenting. If children are to be effective players as they grow older, it is best to learn that lesson, too.

These are small children who have come to kick a piece of leather around a field, build skills, and have fun. You are supposed to set an example for their behavior. Please try harder today when you come back for the second day of the tournament.

P.S. I was also embarrassed by the fact that you live and coach in my home town.


Anonymous said...

Are there such things as technical fouls in soccer?

Anonymous said...

You can penalize a player for "dissent" by awarding a yellow card (warning), and if the player persists, by issuing a second yellow card, which then results in a red card (ejection of that player, with the team playing with one fewer player for the rest of the game.)

You can also issue a red card for abusive or foul language.

In many leagues, coaches cannot be cited for such violations, as the official FIFA rules deal mainly with players' behavior. In our regional league of children's teams, however, coaches can be warned and ejected for persistent dissent.

A problem arises, though, if a team only has one coach and you eject him. A team is not allowed to field a team without an authorized coached; so if you eject that person, the game has to be discontinued. That leaves the kids, on both teams, to get the short shrift. (No, you can't just ask any parent at that point to be the substitute coach: The person has to be certified by the league.)

Most coaches respond appropriately to a first warning.

Vicki said...

From Facebook:

I'm sorry to say that I took my son out of competitive sports for this very reason. I witnessed many coaches, refs, and parents who's "spirit" was the antithesis of what the best of team sports calls for. I hope that "coach" reads your letter and takes it to heart, however I think that it would probably just cause him to "throw his clipboard" once again.
He not only failed to teach the right lesson in sportsmanship and politeness, he undermined the opportunity to teach RESPECT - which is most important in the midst of disagreement.

Many adults are failing children in this way; they often "dis" adults that are supposed to be models in the child's life (like a ref - or even worse a teacher), which gives the child license to do the same. In the end who loses? The kid - who ends up without people to look up to because they've all be "dissed" by one adult or another.

Shame shame.

Alexa said...

From Facebook:

Been a long time since I have coached or reffed. Boy, do I remember some of those parents.

John said...

From Facebook:

It always amazes me how important winning a youth game can be to the adults who must be living vicariously via their kids. As you know this type of adult behavior happens almost every week in our city and in others across Massachusetts. Ultimately the kids are the losers especially those at this age group.

Alexis said...

From Facebook:

Glad you are calling this coach out on his behavior and explaining the impact he has on these kids... it's amazing how stupid some adults act when they are supposed to be the role model for children. Hopefully this coach and maybe other learn a lesson from this. Good luck today! (p.s. I miss those Columbus day t-shirts!)

Juline said...

From Facebook:

Bravo !!! Well stated Adults sometimes loose sight of the reasons that we are all there on the field

Aunti Disestablishmentarian said...

Respect mah authoriteh!


Alice Ackerman said...

I have been a long-time reader but this is my first time commenting. I adore this blog and the kind of topics you bring in, Paul. I am a pediatrician, pediatric intensivist, physician-in-chief of the Carilion Clinic Children's Hospital in Roanoke, Va, site of the very new (our first class started this August) Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. I say all this, not to brag, but to put into context the comments I am about to make.

The "role modeling" you described in this post is not dissimilar to the role modeling our students and residents are exposed to every day. Many of us, who are supposed to be wise and experienced, and who certainly demand respect from our trainees, do not always act the way we want them to act. How many times do we say things that are inappropriate about a patient or a family member?

A number of years ago, I was honored to have been invited to deliver the graduation address for the pediatric residents at the University of Maryland School of Medicine where I practiced and taught for over two decades. This was my second or third such invitation. At a loss for what to talk about, I titled my talk "The inadvertent role model" giving examples from my own life of times that my (fortunately exemplary) behavior had changed the way a trainee behaved or thought. I contrasted this to examples that were similar to your description of the coach's behavior and its impact upon me or others.

The most humbling for me was to have heard from a wonderful pediatrician years after she had achieved a certain amount of greatness, that she considered ME to be "the reason I went into peds" Apparently I had been her senior resident for about 4 days during her third year of medical school.

I didn't even remember being her senior resident, yet obviously those four days had had a profound impact upon this young physician.

That single example lives with me today, and reminds me that even when we least expect it, others are watching. Most residents feel that they are not a significant part of the healthcare system, and do not realize their impact on more junior residents, students, nurses and others with whom they interact daily.

I try to teach my residents, students and faculty (and sometimes colleagues in leadership) that they are always on stage, like the coach of the soccer team, and that others will invariably emulate their behavior, regardless of what lessons they hope they are teaching with the words they say. Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to say I am perfect, but I do try to notice when I say or do something inappropriate (and it happens more often than I would like), and correct it on the spot.

Steve Ahnen said...

Thanks for the post...couldn't agree more. Reminds me of a great book on youth sports, "Season of Life," by Jeffrey Marx...should be required reading for anyone involved in youth sports.

Ralf said...

From Facebook:

Paul, emotions are strong on the field. Coaches have to be the role models to keep emotions down to strive for excellence of the team.

Seems to be that the coach in question himself has a lesson to learn. I wonder what would happen if the team of 11-year old would approach him directly and ask him directly in which way he thinks he had supported the team loosing the game?

Sydney said...

From Facebook:

I have no idea what that coach's problem is! I would be very happy to have you referring one of my games!

Tony said...


It always does my heart good to hear from parents and coaches like this. Great post and an all too familiar situation. I've dedicated an entire radio show to topics just like this. Many of you might enjoy it and also be able to participate and contribute to it. The show can be heard globally on Sunday mornings at 9 am eastern at Please stop by my blog and let me know what you think of some of my archived shows. I truly appreciate people like you getting involved and furthering the cause.

Great blog you have here!

Anonymous said...

Whilst I agree with the general gist of the article that coaches should lead by example I think you make a couple of dangerous statements:

'The referee is always right': We are not always right - and the best referees are those that acknowledge that. We make mistakes, we are only human. Sometimes its good to accept you've made a mistake, apologize at the end, and move on. I often find this reduces the level of dissent on my F o P.

However I completely agree that the coach has no right to express his dissent in such a way - I always allow coaches to approach me at the end of games and explain why they thought I may have made a mistake. Again, as humans, we are always going to disagree.

I also think this article proves the coach has won - its obviously on your mind or you wouldnt write about it. Thats all he set out to achieve - get inside your skin, and it appears he has. If he was to read this article he would do so with a large smile on his face - especially when he reads your statement that the referee is always right.

I would advise that rather than taking that stance you say: The referee only gives what he sees and we all see things differently, and that can lead to mistakes.

Nevertheless, a good article on the lack of respect in football.

Level 3 UK referee and referee assesor.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon,

Of course you are right about referees making mistakes and acknowledging them (after the game!) Thanks for the reminder.

But, no, he didn't get under my skin. I just thought he presented a great case study in how to make your team perform worse by complaining to and about the officiating.

And by the way, in our league, there is an explicit policy of non-dissent by coaches. This fellow will not be pleased to read this post.

Gene said...

It's great to be able to assess an antagonist's behavior from the quiet of a keyboard but what matters happens in the moment, not during reflection on it. A person can apologize for behavior or remarks made in the thick of things, but it doesn't erase that they happened. So the unpaid volunteer coach isn't perfect or even close to it. Neither is anyone else - as good a lesson as any other to learn in youth sports. I think 11 year olds are a little more savvy than they are given credit for in seeing "blame the ref" behavior as a loser attitude. Maybe coaches, and refs, should be screened to make sure they only behave in ways that promote positive outcomes when they participate in youth sports. There's the real world for you.

Anonymous said...

In any FIFA-sanctioned game, the referee has the following power granted to them. From the FIFA Laws of the Game (Law 5):

"The referee takes action against team officials who fail to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and may, at his discretion, expel them from the field of play and its immediate surrounds."

Nothing a coach does can ever benefit the opposing team as in basketball with a technical foul (e.g. a free kick being awarded to the opposing team for his behavior can never happen) but the standard for his conduct is, in theory, very high, as he only has to do something deemed irresponsible to be expelled from the technical area. Throwing the clipboard would be enough in my opinion, as it is so flagrant that, if not dealt with, undermines the authority of the referee, not to mention the possibility that he could hit someone with it.