I coach my son’s soccer team, and at a recent game, one of our players took the ball to the corner and passed back to his friend in the middle. Just like we practiced. His friend was about to get swarmed by defenders, so he took a great one-touch shot. Just like we practiced. The shot hit the crossbar and went out – a miss.
I went nuts. I yelled, “That was awesome! Let’s do that again!” I made sure the shooter and the passer knew they’d done great, and I praised them as much as if they’d just scored a goal.
A kid on the other team laughed and said, “Your coach wants you to keep missing shots. He’s stupid.”
Ah, the impertinence of youth. Maybe I should’ve challenged him to an IQ test – I can tell you who would win!
Or maybe I should’ve reminded the little brat of the score.
Or maybe I should’ve told him that every boy on my team is getting valuable lessons in decision science and will therefore probably have a better, happier life than him.
‘Cause I’m a nice guy, I didn’t do any of that. But I did stare him down, nodding my head, when the same play scored about five minutes later…
When you play soccer, you try to score goals. To score goals, you have to take shots. But here’s the rub – you typically have to take a lot of shots to score a single goal.
All coaches, especially at recreational 10-year-old leagues, go nuts when their kids score a goal.
What’s far more telling is how they react to a missed shot:
- Some of them provide a little encouragement. “It’s OK guys, don’t worry!” The message is that something bad happened, but we’ll get through it.
- Some of them groan and moan in anguish like a golden opportunity has just been missed.
- Some of them actually get angry and yell at the team for not scoring (this is part of a broader strategy of yelling at the team a lot). “C’mon!!! You’ve got to finish better than that!”
I’m the only coach I know who celebrates great shots that miss as if they just scored a goal.
Focus on the Process, Not the Result
Because scoring goals is a low probability affair, what should you celebrate? Great shots, or scoring? Which method actually produces the most goals?
If you end up just celebrating goals, kids start to see that:
scoring a goal = good
missing a shot = bad (especially if you yell at them when they miss)
That changes behavior. Kids will try to dribble closer to the goal (often losing the ball to a defender) and will only take high percentage shots (of which there are very few in soccer) because they want to get the reward. And “assists” (where you “assist” your friend by passing him the ball so he can score) become meaningless – why pass to your friend and let him get all the glory?
That is a really bad way to play soccer. By focusing only on the reward, you end up scoring less total goals.
So when my team passes the ball like we’ve trained, moves to the goal like we’ve trained, and takes a shot like we’ve trained, I go nuts. I celebrate it with them as if they’ve scored. At first the kids were a little confused (“But I didn’t score…”), but they’ve learned through time that if you make the right decisions, the goals will follow. Plus coach will brag about you after the game in front of everyone.
When we actually score a goal, I celebrate just as loudly. But do you know how much a little kid needs to be encouraged after he scores a goal? Zero. His little buddies are cheering around him, he’s dancing like a professional, and he probably can’t even hear coach’s words.
And before I ever congratulate a goal scorer, I call out – LOUDLY – anyone who made a great assist or started our possession with a great challenge. Those often forgotten plays are essential to creating scoring opportunities. My players see that those supporting plays are equal (at least in coach’s eyes) to taking a great shot, so they start selflessly making decisions to give the team the best chance to score.
Decisions versus Outcomes
This is, of course, not just a post about kids soccer.
We’re in a world where outcomes are everything. We glorify wins and loathe losses.
But there’s a real risk when you only celebrate the shots that score.
Uncertainty is a factor in every endeavor, and there will be times that a really poor decision gets lucky and times that a really great decision gets unlucky. That doesn’t make the poor decision any better, or the great one any worse.
If you only celebrate great outcomes, you’ll end up worse off in the end. You’ll hog the ball, and wait to take shots, and miss many opportunities to score. You’ll still get a goal from time to time, but those don’t make you right.
If you celebrate great decisions, you’ll have to accept that sometimes you’ll be celebrating a missed shot (and some 10 y.o. will call you stupid), but you’ll score the most goals in the end.
Focus on great decisions, and the great outcomes will follow. Not every time, but more so than any other strategy you might follow.
Or, as I’d tell my team, don’t chase goals, chase great shots.
Picture courtesy of Tania Dimas