Sixty Minutes of Youth Soccer

Sometimes you’re over-matched. You come into a game and there’s no change you can make in strategy, formation, or personnel that makes any difference. Sometimes it lasts for one half, and sometimes it’s the entire game. Sometimes much longer. Interestingly, your first reaction is to want to change what you’re doing in order to fix it. But if you’re already doing your best for your players, then you’re already doing the right thing.

Youth sports can be an amazingly valuable place for kids to learn life lessons. It’s perfectly okay to want to win, and to let players embrace that as a goal. But a coach’s job
has another layer. They create a situation that challenges their players, because when
they’re required to ask more of themselves they expand their abilities. You challenge an
athlete exactly how you challenge a student with academics.

I’ve told players a thousand times that the scoreboard matters when you’re fighting for your first state title. Until then, you’re making yourself better and hopefully having fun. I have coached winless teams and I have coached undefeated teams. My job changed very little each season. Managing discouragement in blowouts can be a challenge, and you sometimes use a bit of redirection and slight-of-hand in your talks, but you can be honest with your kids when focusing them on what to work on.

Soccer is a unique sport when it comes to lopsided games. Four players who are simply at a higher development level than their opponents can be overwhelming. But when you’re talking about 13-year-old kids in a region that plays soccer part-time at best, it is more often than not a momentary snapshot. Where that player’s skills are at 14, 15, and 16 may be very different. Other players reach their potential later, while some players find different interests. Kids in part-time soccer regions can seem untouchable at thirteen because of their physical development. Faster and stronger often dominates in a part-time region. But if that player doesn’t develop skills, he or she will reach a frustrating plateau. I’ve met an awful lot of cocky coaches and parents standing next to a smirking 12-year-old boy who’s just scored five goals. And I’ve seen more sad outcomes than eventual college scholarships.

How to manage games when your over-matched is fairly simple. Have your players forget the score and give them the goal of winning each moment. Think about it from your opponent’s perspective. If you’re winning 5-0, how frustrating is it to see a weaker player win the ball from your super star? How can he let that happen? And then it happens again! Win those moments and to hell with the five easy goals you gave up. And if your opponent scores five more goals, your players’ jobs remain the same: win the next ball. Youth soccer isn’t about and hour – it’s about sixty individual minutes. It’s sixty opportunities – many more, actually – to have players grow.

How to manage unbeaten years? Funny, but it’s exactly the same thing. Sixty opportunities to have players grow because the hour didn’t matter. But don’t waste a single minute because they fly by.

About colealpaugh

Cole Alpaugh's newspaper career began in the early 80s, starting with small daily papers in Maryland and Massachusetts, where his stories won national awards. His most recent job was at a large daily in Central New Jersey, where his "true life" essays included award-winning pieces on a traveling rodeo and an in-depth story on an emergency room doctor that was nominated by Gannett News Service for a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. Cole also contracted with two Manhattan-based news agencies, covering conflicts in Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Thailand and Cambodia. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines, as well as most newspapers in America. Cole is currently a freelance photographer and novelist living in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he spends afternoons in a virtual running race around the equator, and evenings watching his daughter's magical stage performances. You can find him online at
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