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In the US, the role of the coach is one of the biggest cultural differences to most other nations in the world. Raised around a number of sports where the coach is one of the most important decision makers, it’s no wonder that many coaches/parents have a different idea of the role of the coach. Think about baseball, basketball and football and tell me who the best coaches in those respective sports are. They’re seen as authority figures who meld and bend players to their will and when a player is giving his all or wins a game, oftentimes the coach will take the praise.

In a game of basketball or football, who decides the plays during the timeouts? Who is making those decisions?

It’s the coach. He’s the one calling the shots and making those decisions for the team, the players merely carry out his instructions. That’s why coaches in the US are romanticized and revered. That’s not to say that doesn’t happen in soccer, it does, but for slightly different reasons.

Who makes the decisions out on the field in a game of soccer? Is it the coach, or the player, that makes the call while they’re out there playing?

It’s the player! This is the concept that I believe a lot of American parents/coaches struggle to get to grasps with. Once players leave the training field or the pre-match huddle, the coach is no longer in control. For 45 minutes they can bellow, shout and jump around on the sideline (as can the parents), but to little effect. The players are now making the decisions.

The coaches role in soccer is very different to those roles in American sports. They aren’t the power-wielding, playbook referring force they can be in other sports. Instead, their job is done on the training field and reduced significantly on game day to pre-match and half-time team talks. This reduced decision making on the coaches part should in theory lead to two outcomes that are tightly linked:

  1. Players on the field take what they learned in practice and apply it to the game and make the decisions for themselves.
  2. Coaches (in theory) shouldn’t be bellowing out instructions and making decisions for the players (the term joysticking was shared with me recently and I think it sums it up brilliantly). 

If coaches/ parents can’t get their head around this role of the coach, then outcome number two doesn’t happen. As a result, coaches and parents continue to yell at the top of their lungs, trying to dictate how the game is played. This leads to various outcomes, none of which are beneficial; 

  • players becoming flustered trying to deal with all the stimuli of the game as well as these incoming instructions
  • stress overwhelms players trying to listen for instruction and they are unable to perform to the best of their ability
  • decisions are made by the coach and we end up with players incapable of choosing options for themselves
  • the yelling becomes white noise and players learn to filter out what the coaches are saying. Meaning that when a real coaching point needs to be gotten across, no-one is listening!

One of my favourite Jurgen Klinsmann quotes addresses this phenomenon, “Parents and coaches think they are making the decisions. I tell them, no, you're not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field. So maybe here and there you should just shut up and let the kid figure it out.”

Therefore, I’m a big advocate for a coach taking a seat on the bench with his substitutes and making notes on his teams performance. This way, he has valid points to make at half-time or full-time and evidence to back it up. Alternatively, he can identify what he needs to work on in practice next week or little things he can add/tweak/adjust in his sessions.

Some coaches take the time to get their points across to players on the bench (do they learn much if it wasn’t them on the field - purely visual learners?) or even better they’ll talk to players as they come off the field during a substitution. While I think this can be an effective method of communication and a good time to make a point, it can also be detrimental to the game itself if subs are used purely for this purpose (the argument against unlimited subs can be made another time).

Once coaches start to shift their mindset about the role of the coach, they can truly focus on what really matters - the coaching itself.