OFF THE PITCH: Pitch Perfect Parents

This time of year, we begin the annual ritual of forming and reforming expectations for parents as our youth teams form in the spring and prepare for summer tournaments. This week’s bi-weekly “Off the Pitch” column by Ruth Nicholson is the condensation of a piece on parent expectations written by Bobby Howe some years ago. Bobby is the former Director of Coaching for US Soccer. Ruth is the founder of GO!, a go-to expert resource for youth sports governance and operations.


by Ruth Nicholson with permission from Bobby Howe


There are four roles that you can have on game day:
1. Player
2. Coach
3. Referee
4. Parent

Unfortunately, parents, you are too old to be a player on this team, so #1 is out. As for #2, the club has hired someone to do that job, so that role is taken. The league assigns referees for our games, so unless you are a certified official and happen to be assigned to our game, that role is also taken. So, that leaves #4 for you to fill.


On the Sidelines

So, what makes an effective parent on the sidelines? It is critical that you are supportive and encouraging, not only to our players but to all the players on the field. We are working hard to teach new skills and ideas within the game, and it can be intimidating for the players to try new things. Creative players make soccer such an exciting and beautiful game to watch! Creativity only comes when players feel free to try new things. Rest assured, the coaches will channel their experimentation in the right directions.

It is also very important that you do not coach the players or give instructions for what
to do on the field. While this is hard when you see an obvious opportunity, it is in the players’ best interests to allow them to find opportunities on their own. The more you coach from the sidelines, the more confusing and muddled the message becomes, and the less impact the coaches will have when they have something to say to the players. The players can also become dependent on instructions and not develop the ability to think for themselves on the field.

Soccer is a player’s game; let them find their way! Mistakes are a fantastic learning opportunity!



Please do not, under any circumstances, yell at the referees or the opposing players. The officials are doing their best and, in most cases, are young referees learning the process themselves. We need more good referees in the game, and it is important that we support the development of our young officials.

When you yell at a referee, it causes several problems. First, you will create a confrontational situation which only serves to make the referee angry. No amount of yelling or complaining will change a call. It will only sensitize the referee to look for more problems from our team or sideline. More importantly, yelling at a referee models poor behavior for your player on the field.


Setting a Positive Tone

Please feel free to cheer for or congratulate a good play by players from either team. I find that congratulating an opposing player for a great effort helps keep games safer, more fair, and competitive.

Please do not offer external rewards for results to your players. When players are motivated by external rewards ($1 for every goal you score or ice cream if you win), they do not learn to find internal motivation for their play. It creates mini-professionals who will try to negotiate a raise at every opportunity. These things focus players on outcomes, things they do not necessarily have direct control of, instead of on the process of playing.

The Car Ride Home

One of the most difficult times for young players is in the car on the way home from a tough game. Be sure to ask your players what they enjoyed about the game, what they did well, what they learned, what they want to get better at before the next game. These questions, rather than a critical analysis of their play, and the faults of the team, will help them to deal appropriately with a loss and be prepared to come back to training with enthusiasm.


Older Players

For older players (ages 15 and above), we spend more time working on tactics (decisions on the field) and the mental aspects of competing. With competition, there are both winners and losers in a game, and it is important to know how to appropriately deal with both sides of that competitive coin.

The true champions are the ones who learn how to use a loss to improve and set their sights forward to the next opportunity to compete. This is an important life lesson that comes from playing competitive sports.

While I am an extremely competitive person, and I love to win, I do not endorse the idea of winning at any cost. We will compete hard within the spirit and the rules of the game and let the results stand. This is also an important lesson for players in what it means to have integrity of character. The lessons learned on the soccer field transcend the game and have life-long implications.



In summary, be reactionary-positive! Avoid giving instruction in the flow of the game or being critical of the players. We as adults will create the atmosphere and attitude for the team.

Players will watch, listen, and model how we react.

If we get upset, angry, or frustrated and show that emotion, the players will feel that way, too. If we a positive, fun, excited atmosphere that celebrates playing the game, the players will have a great experience and want to keep playing.

goThere is nothing we will teach the players this year that will make them great players by the end of the year. Instead, it is the attitude about playing the game that will have a lasting effect. We as adults control that atmosphere, both on the field and in the car ride home.

Ruth Nicholson is the founder of GO!, a 24/7 Asset and Training Library offering youth soccer organizations proven leadership and administrative tools. It includes resources from Bobby Howe’s private library in its GO! Learn Howe series.

To download another article from the GO! Learn Howe series on quality vs. quantity, click here: Gazelles Never Could Play Soccer.

Photos by David Falk,

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