I coach teenage girls in soccer in my hometown. The season has been successful so far, with some dips along the way. Such is football.
Probably the biggest challenge for me—an unmarried, thirtysomething, childless man—is accepting that you can’t talk to 15 year-old girls the way you would to similarly aged boys. I’m not a ranter by nature, and I don’t believe you get the best out of players by constantly (and loudly) berating them for a halftime talk. But I do believe that a raised voice or the occasional sharp word can act like italics: a good tool, when used sparingly, to quickly emphasize something that requires attention.
Girls don’t think like this. Girls die a little inside when they her you hiss "Shhhhhhiiiiiiiit" under your breath when a scoring chance goes begging. They assume you dislike them when they don’t get picked to start. They shut down when you try to make your pre-game talk in any way emotional or compelling. They freeze up on the pitch when you yell instructions. They will roll their eyes or groan at your attempts at humour and then shyly turn away and look at their cleats when you stare them down for interrupting.
I didn’t understand teenage girls when I was a teenage boy and I sure as hell don’t now. Which is fine; several parents have informed me their daughters don’t understand me so we all just get along as best as we can. That’s not just football, that’s life on any team. (And I admit I’m a bit eccentric. I don’t know if I would necessarily like me if I was their age.) But I do understand this: correcting their behaviour, and not merely technique, is very tricky.
I recently had a player who had back-to-back poor games. More importantly, her effort, her commitment, was seriously lacking. I had to speak to this young lady before the next match and I admit to being concerned. She’s got a sparky personality and I was concerned she would get defensive or blow up.
It’s only fair to mention here that I like this player as a person and my decision to keep her when cuts were made was partly influenced by the fact I believed she would be fun for the team and could help keep them loose. She’s got a good sense of humour, and I firmly believe that team spirit is crucial. She’s also demonstrated in past games that she will tell me what she thinks about tactics and she’s often been right. Hence both my trepidation in addressing her loss of form, and my very real disappointment with her.
But it worked out. I told her my concerns, I explained her recent lack of hard work was unacceptable, reminded her that I had spoken well of her importance to the team in the past, and that I expected more. I also told her that when I have to speak to someone like this, when it’s over, it’s over—I don’t hold grudges.
She responded well. She played a great game, we won, and all is on track again (well, for now). A good day for the squad, and I was obviously happy with how it all worked out. Of course it’s satisfying to see a player respond positively to what is, no matter how politely you phrase it, a serious dressing down.
But it’s best not to congratulate oneself too quickly. A coach getting it right once or twice doesn’t win your team medals. It’s the players—always, always the players—who do that. You just have to do enough not to screw it up for them.
One of the most difficult aspects of interacting with other people is figuring out how to extricate yourself from a conversation without appearing rude or mentally unstable. You aren’t allowed to just walk away - you need to have a reason to stop talking. And the reason can’t be that you want to stop talking. You need to find a way to end the conversation without making it seem like you want the conversation to end.
This unspoken set of rules can turn an otherwise rational person into a flailing, helpless victim in a sea of self-perpetuated social anxiety.