You always hear that coach before you see them. They’re yelling something about being out of position or not running hard enough for the ball. On a recent Saturday morning, the coach on the next field over was yelling at a pair of boys running past that they should “play soccer.” They stared at him with confusion. The girls on my team giggled because we were all there to play soccer.
I turned to the goalie on our team and said with a smile, “Oh man, I didn’t know I was supposed to be yelling at you. I’m sorry, I’ll do that more.”
She smiled back, showing me the gap in her front teeth. “Sounds good, coach.”
That dad—and plenty of other parents—are sucking the joy out of recreational sports from the sidelines.
I have been coaching girls’ and boys’ soccer for the past six years and I’ve learned one key lesson: If you’re not having fun, your kids are not having fun. Recreational leagues exist because sports are supposed to be fun. Let’s not wreck that. So in case you’ve forgotten what fun looks like, here are a few simple steps to make sure everybody is enjoying themselves.
Channel your inner child
Remember how fun kindergarten was? Bring kindergarten back into practices. I have been a dinosaur and a fairy during practices over the years. I once made a fellow coach growl like a bear and meow like a cat. (He’s mostly forgiven me.)
There’s a dribbling drill that I still run with 11-year-olds that makes them giggle like they’re five-year-olds. I ask them to magically transform their ball into something else (an egg, baby dragon) and then ask them what would try to steal that baby dragon. I then try to “steal” that baby dragon away (and have discovered that most of my animal accents sound like cows).
Remember that you can play, too. One of the highlights of the season is our annual kids versus parents game. The girls manage their own team and run circles around the coaches and parents, many of whom haven’t played since they were in elementary school. The game ends in laughter or whenever it gets too dark to play. The kids always want to keep playing.
Cheer for the hits and the misses
Cheer loudest when things go wrong. I cheer for effort instead of results. In life, you tell your kids things are going to be okay after something goes wrong. Find the same compassion as a fan or a coach.
Remind yourself and your kids that the other team are also kids. I cheer for great saves and nice plays on both sides. After the game, I always tell a member of the other team one great thing I saw them do.
I don’t just do this for them. I do it so my team and my daughter see me do it. Bill Snyder, the longtime and recently retired head coach of the Kansas State University football team, wrote hundreds of handwritten notes to encourage opposing players over the years. Sportsmanship is a big part of sports, but it’s learned by example.
After the game, don’t fall into the competition trap. If soccer legend Abby Wambach doesn’t offer advice following a game, you should probably hold your tongue, as well. Your kid knows if they didn’t have a good game and so does their coach. Odds are it’s something they’ll work on in practice or just forget in a few days unless you remind them in the moment about how they failed. Then you’ve just created sadness.
Never stop bringing snacks
Think about how you feel when cake shows up unexpectedly in the office break room. That’s how your kids feel about free fruit snacks and orange slices. Snacks may be the best part of the game. Want to go above and beyond? Bring snacks for your team and the other team. (Then soak in the adoring cheers of your new fans.)
The truth is that it’s easy to yell. But it’s empty calories. You yell and then you don’t feel great that you were yelling. That dad? The one from the next field over? A few plays after losing his mind, he shook his head and said to nobody in particular, “Why do you make me yell?”
Nobody is making you yell. That’s a choice you’re making. Make a different choice next time. Remember, you’re on the sidelines because you are on your kid’s side.