As a soccer referee, I am usually assigned to high school aged players and up. But when tournaments come around, I take whatever games are assigned to me in order to make life easier on the assignors.
This past weekend I was working a Columbus Day Tournament and was assigned to three U11 girls games as the only referee (which is pretty standard). For me this was a great break from the usual high level games, played a high speed and requiring a much faster speed of thought. This is not to say that I don't take these games seriously, but it is different.
In the three games I was assigned, which included on semi-final, the third place game and the age group final, I saw five different teams and the level of play was pretty good, with some decent skills and clearly some burgeoning tactical awareness among the players. The games were clean, only a few careless fouls, and only one "blowout."
Now before I get to the real sad part of the afternoon, I have to explain a philosophical concern. These are 10 and 11 year old girls on so-called "elite" teams. While I fully endorse the idea of competitive games on a regular basis, I think that there should be no pressure to win and certainly no pressure to win a tournament like this. I don't think you should be classifying players at this age as "elite" either. I would much rather see tournament organizers have a guarantee of 4 games, three games in group play and a fourth game against another team in another group. No trophies, no medals.
The reason for this philosophy is that at age 10 and 11, players should be focused on individual skills, such as dribbling and trapping and basic team skills, passing, tactics and set plays. These games are small sided (8v8) including a goal keeper so there is plenty of opportunity for getting touches on the ball. Yes, they should have regular games but with lots of training sessions in between, on average I believe in a 3:1 training to competitive game ratio.
For me the most important factor in training for players at the 10-11 year old range is for them to HAVE FUN. We should be teaching players to enjoy the game first and then become the best player they can be second.
Having said all of this, for four of the five teams I saw, they were having fun. Even the team that suffered a 5-0 defeat, they were smiling at times, they were playing the game. Their coaches were being helpful, guiding and in my view coaching they way coaches at this level should be doing, instructing their players to be better by pointing out an error and then suggesting a correction or asking the players for a correction.
However, there was one coach that truly made me sad and quite frankly angry. I saw this team twice and in 100 minutes of play by his team, I never, not once, heard an encouraging word from him--not even when his team scored goals. Some of the things I heard from this coach's mouth:
"Do that one more time and I will pull you from the game."
"You are doing it wrong."
"You are in the wrong position."
"Stop doing that."
"You absolutely have to make that pass or we will lose" (this at a time when his team was 2-0 down and the game was about 2 minutes from ending)
"You are always losing the ball."
In one incident, he pulled a player to the side line and spent 30 seconds wagging his finger in his player's face while chastising her for a careless pass that ended up out of bounds when her teammate couldn't catch up to the pass. It was the kind of pass that professionals sometimes mess up and this girl was 10 years old.
In 100 minutes of competition by this team, not once did I see them smile. Not even when they scored because the coach was not congratulating them for scoring but was chastising them for being out of position.
Finally, out of all five teams I worked, he never sent his players out to shake my hand--every other team did, every other coach did and even some parents did. This was after all of them (including some players) complained about some of my calls. I don't require players to come shake my hand after the game nor do I expect coaches to do so either. But the omission was obvious.
This man is what makes me sad about sports in America. The families of these kids pay an significant amount of money for the privilege of having their children publicly chastised (borderline abused) for a game that should be fun first. If this coach were coaching my daughter in this manner, my daughter would not be on that team for long.
Coaching at this age is about teaching love of the game as much as the game itself. These girls had skill, there is no doubt about it, but if this man continues as their coach--most of these girls will quite the sport in 3 years no matter how good they are. They don't like playing the game, they don't look like they are having fun.