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Deflections: This Coach Gets It

Youth soccer gets it. Or at least this coach does.

Paul coaches a team of eight-year-old girls in the Toronto region. On this warm summer evening, Paul has 18 girls for his 90-minute practice.  At first I wonder how he’ll keep them motivated for so long, hydrated, and avoiding exhaustion to boot. He divides them into three groups of six with coloured pinnies. The first 45 minutes is in a space of about 20 x 50 metres. He lines them up along the side of the space. There’s just enough room for each child to manoeuvre without bumping into a neighbour. Back and forth go the girls practicing ball skills, their enthusiasm exceeded only by his own to teach them.

They practice a variety of skills. At no time does he exhort them to go faster or better. It’s merely, “Try this; now this.” The one quibble about his teaching techniques is that his demos are performed facing away from the girls and often in front of the same group. So only about half the team is truly able to follow his lead at any one time. Still, they mostly pay attention. They are eight, after all! The skills are simple. He doesn’t make them do multiple repeats of each one either. There and back perhaps twice is sufficient.

They have three water breaks during this part of the practice with each break taking a couple of minutes. The girls cavort over to the water bottles, some doing cartwheels or round-offs. Paul sees this and does one of his own, rather poorly. Parents offer polite applause for his effort. He responds with a good-natured sort of curtsie. Who’s having more fun here, him or the kids? Hard to say.

In the second half, the girls play a 5 vs. 5 mini game across the field. The third team does more skill work on the side with an assistant coach. In the game, one child is the goalkeeper. The sixth player is a sub who is rotated in every few minutes. During the mini game, Paul bounces around the field, encouraging, congratulating, applauding. Sometimes he stops the play to direct a girl to look for passing options. “If you’re the striker, where should you look for the ball?” A girl dribbles in front of her net, is stripped of the ball and the opposition scores. His reaction? “I like your patience, but was that the best place to dribble? But you do have great patience.” Perfect feedback.

It’s less team play instruction than the principles of team play and the girls eat it up. The three teams play each other with no scores kept. At the end, they all assist with the equipment. Ninety minutes has whizzed by. Most importantly, it was clear the girls had fun and learned.

I’m later told Paul is a phys. ed. teacher. That makes sense. He’s a terrific coach.

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