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Kids First Soccer
Coaching Philosophy

by Daniel Frankl, Ph.D.

Legendary UCLA Basketball coach, Dr. John Robert Wooden Legendary UCLA Basketball coach, Dr. John Robert Wooden (October 14, 1910 - June 4, 2010), winner of an unprecedented and unmatched ten (including seven consecutive--1966-73) NCAA Men's Basketball championships during a 40 year career 885-203 win-loss record, simply describes himself as "teacher."
"When the game is over, I want your head up--and I know that you did your best...This means to do the best you can do. That's the best; no one can do more...You made that effort."

"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merly what others think you are."
John Wooden

When "excellence" is the goal, everyone is a winner!

Some of the most common forms of child abuse take place on athletic fields.

The Coach

As a group coaches are often criticized for their overemphasis on winning and their overly serious attitude toward the league experience. Most studies, however, point out that in general Little League coaches get involved for the love of the game and for the love of their participating child. Coaches that angrily shout criticism from the sidelines are not appreciated or liked as are relaxed, supportive, and knowledgeable coaches who emphasize the improvement and learning of new skills. Coaches that develop close and personal relationships with the child and her/his parents are the most likely to contribute to a positive learning experience.

Coaches are first and foremost role models and teachers. Good coaching is not about producing winning teams; it's about asking every day before practice or a game: "Is what we're planning to do today in the best interest of the kids?"

The best lesson a coach can teach is that playing fairly makes everyone a winner, and that:

"...To be an athlete, you first must learn--
that it's ‘self-respect' you'll have to earn
You must conquer you, or you'll surely get beat,
‘cause you are the one, against whom you compete¹

¹ Robert L. Kleine

"If there were no sports, life would be easier because you wouldn't have to go play games
every other day. . ."

Fifth grade student, Colorado Springs

"I stopped going to gynmastics and soccer because after a while it became like work, no fun...
I used to like it..."

Eleven year-old, San Fernando Valley, CA

Why Coach?

"They ask me why I coach... And I reply... Where could I find more splendid company?" Glennice L. Harmon

"To love what you do and feel that it matters -- how could anything be more fun?" Katherine Graham

Principles of Proper Instruction

  • Boys and girls ages 5-7 can play together equally. Younger children may participate with older ones. The dividing factor should be devised by a combination of skill level, size, and fitness, and not chronological age and/or gender.
  • If children are not learning and improving their skills, it can't be fun. If it isn't fun, children won't want to come back to play soccer. So be prepared, know the game and the proper skill progressions, and provide the child with numerous opportunities to explore and discover through active participation.
  • What ever we decide to do during the 10 short weeks of Soccer League, we should never forget that it is the "needs of the kids that we are here to serve and not our own." So let's adopt a "child centered approach to coaching and competition."

Athletics does not develop character. Athletics reveals character. James Michener

Below is an example I would strongly recommend not to follow!

"Sometimes the preparation is so hard, so intense. . . The crying, the screaming. . . We are not in the gym to be having fun. The fun comes at the end, with the winning and the medals."
Bela Karoli, Gymnastics Coach (1992)

Note that:

"Sports are most rewarding when the judge of skill and the definer of challenge is the individual athlete. That is when the athlete receives two rewards: the joy of participating and the satisfaction of learning to know oneself." Ewing & Seefeldt (1990, p. 6)

Developing a Coaching Philosophy


A casual observer of any little league game site will notice the excessive seriousness and tension exhibited by coaches on the sidelines. Coaches and spectating parents get very involved with their children's game. Some fail to realize the deleterious effects of their vocal protests regarding game referee decisions or their disapproval of their child's performance. Several soccer leagues that I am familiar with have on record a very appropriate league philosophy statement. These statements emphasize learning, fair play, fun, equal opportunity, etc...over winning. Ironically, the same leagues use "trained" referees and linesmen, for example, to officiate a game between two teams comprised of nine-year-old players. Players are often assigned to positions in which they are most productive or least destructive. And, coaches, parents and players exhibit excessive celebration when a goal is scored (even when the goal resulted from a clumzy goalie error) and when a game is won. Overly formal game control, early specialization, and excessive celebrations seem incompatible with a child-centered league philosophy.

Should the league experience serve best only the most talented and promising individuals at the expense of the less skilled? A typical league reality of "winning first, child second," seems to prevail over the same league's beautifully crafted philosophy statement.

The stress associated with coaching a losing team stems from the distorted view that winning equals good coaching and losing equals poor coaching. The child that is allowed to play a variety of positions will learn and progress irrespectively of her or his team's winning or loosing record. In the soccer league that I joined as assistant coach during the Fall of 1999, the head coach knew which were the two best teams on the league several weeks before kickoff. Who gets the credit for coaching these kids? Four of the kids on our nine-year-old boys' team never played the game. How are they going to learn and improve if we are not going to allow them to make mistakes? Sticking to a child-centered game plan can get very tricky and involve tough decisions.

A Coaching Philosophy

Some coaches get turned off by the word "philosophy." They cannot see how any one "philosophy" can have an impact on their daily problems and work. One's teaching or coaching philosophy, however, is actually a very practical matter. An analogy to one's philosophy may be equated to a pair of glasses that filter reality through one's personal experiences, opinions, values and beliefs. It has, therefore, a direct influence on how we see and understand the world around us, what actions we take, and why we choose to behave in the ways we do.

In fact, every coach, whether aware of it or not, is following certain principles or his philosophy while coaching. It may seem reasonable to assume that the philosophy that directs the coach's everyday life thinking and actions would be also applied by her/him to coaching. Yet, this often seems not to be the case. For example, most coaches would agree that a less skilled child with little or no self-confidence needs special attention and time investment. Yet, who are the kids that usually get the most attention, the most playing time, the most praise?

Still, let's assume, for example, that a businessman discovered that the firm he is negotiating with was dishonest. He decides to do his business with another group despite the fact that he may end up paying more for essentially the same product. This may not sound like good business, yet many a businessman I talked to expressed willingness to stick to their principles even if it meant higher expenses. How many coaches do you know that would stick to principles of sportsmanship or fair play rather than win a game?

Obviously, we can readily see a gap between what a coach may think is the right thing to do in every day life situations, and the actions he/she ends up taking on the playing field.

Developing an Alternative Coaching Philosophy
Dr. Rainer Martens, a world renown sport psychologist and publisher, explains that the development of a functional coaching philosophy involves two major tasks:

  • become a student of your own feelings and who you are, and
  • prioritize and delineate your coaching objectives
Developing Self-Awareness

Children are great imitators. Therefore, you are more likely to shape them into your own image than into what you would actually like them to become. The coach is a very powerful role model. This is why it is important that the coach be honest as he/she evaluates her/himself and get in touch with here/his own feelings. The coach needs to discover whether he really likes who he/she is. A quick subjective self-awareness test would be to ask oneself "When I was a child, would I have liked to have my current self as a parent? As a coach? If the answer is "yes," explain to yourself why do you think the way you do. What is it that makes you a good parent, teacher, coach?

If you realize that you do not like everything about yourself, don't panic, nobody's perfect. The key factor is not for every coach to be a perfect individual. It is crucial, however, that the coach be honest with her/himself, and willing to take the appropriate steps to change for the better. Dr. Martens suggests that one such first step would be to form an open door policy and solicit feed back from the kids, assistant coaches and the parents. This, according to Dr. Martens means that the coach needs to learn to listen--to be attentive to both overt and covert communication patterns. Good listening skills ensure two way communications and thus decrease the "filtering effect" that often distorts the true message delivered by the other party.

Prioritization and Delineation of Coaching Objectives

It is an indisputable fact that children are their parents' and nation's most precious asset. It may seem natural to assume, therefore, that the majority of adults mean well for the kids. Yet, how often do we wish something for our child, and then step back and take the time to find out whether this is what the child really wants? More often than not, adults feel they know better, and thus, exclude children from the decision making process. Youth sport, unfortunately, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

In 1987 the Athletic Footwear Association in America sponsored a study of 10,000 students ages 10-18 regarding their feelings about sport. The students reacted to questions such as why they participate, why they quit, and what changes they would make in order to get involved again in a sport they dropped.

The most important finding of the study was that winning, which is the most publicized and pursued goal of sports, never ranked higher than seventh even among the most competitive athletes. "To have fun" and "to improve my skills" were consistently the first two choices why the students chose to play sports. When asked why they dropped from sports three of the first five reasons were "I was not having fun," "coach was a poor teacher," and "too much pressure." How many coaches you know would have predicted this outcome?

Dr. Martha E. Ewing and Dr. Vern Seefeld of the Youth Sports Institute of Michigan State University who conducted the study, and Dr. Steven J. Danish, chairman of the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University who added psychological and developmental interpretations proposed the following "truths" about children and sport:
  • Fun is pivotal; if it's not 'fun,' young people won't play a sport.
  • Skill development is a crucial aspect of fun; it is more important than winning even among the best athletes.
  • The most rewarding challenges of sports are those that lead to self-knowledge.
  • Intrinsic rewards (self-knowledge that grows out of self-competition) are more important in creating lifetime athletes than are extrinsic rewards (victory or attention from others).
The American Youth and Sports Participation study authors proposed the following tips for coaches and parents who are willing to develop an alternative coaching philosophy:

For Coaches
  • Become a communicator (a listener and a giver of feedback).
  • Recognize the needs of your kids and balance your needs with theirs.
  • Develop perspective: remember what you were like at their age and what you could do then; don't judge the kids by what you can do now.
  • Remember the "truths" and plan activities with them in mind.
  • Seek out workshops and educational programs that teach not only sports-related skills but also communication and interpersonal skills that will help you work with parents and get the most out of your kids.
  • Try to work with parents and make them part of the team rather than viewing them as critics to be avoided.
For Parents
  • Remember the "truths" and talk to your children with them in mind. (After a game, ask about "fun," "skill improvement," "learning experiences.")
  • See yourself as part of the team and supportive of the coach; avoid setting up a conflict in your child's mind between his or her parents and coaches. If you want to affect the coaching, volunteer to help.
  • Develop perspective: remember what you could do at your children's ages; don't judge them by what you can do now.
  • Develop an understanding of what your child wants from sports--not all children want the same things. Determine if he or she wants to be involved at all.
Based on the discussion in Rainer Martens' (1987). Coaches' guide to sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics (CH. 1, pp. 3-14).

Copyright © 1997-2016 Daniel Frankl, Ph.D. Back to top gif
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Last Modified: 5-17-2016