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‘I wanted them to know it was okay to be upset’
I cried in front of my team twice last season.
The second time was having been presented with a book of pictures from the season with personal notes from all of the players – I will allow myself those tears without much explanation.
The first was after a semi-final we had lost. Getting to that stage was some feat in itself – the team had gone from a string of losses and draws in the first half of the season, to really finding their identity in the second half, showing determination and spirit.
Five minutes after the final whistle had blown, I had 14 sad faces staring up at me from the grass. One player was sobbing uncontrollably and a couple more were trying to hold back the tears.
As I tried to console them, it all hit me at once – how far the team had come, and during a disruptive and emotionally draining pandemic as well.
When all of us coaches, parents and carers were struggling to make sense of the world, these girls showed up twice a week – when restrictions allowed – and gave us all something to smile about. For me, that was far bigger than any result.
As I tried to explain this to them, I could feel myself welling up. I remember making an active decision not to turn away. I let them see me cry. I wanted them to know that it was okay to feel upset.
At the next training session, a few days later, word had got around about my tears. I was asked, in a jovial way, why I’d been upset and told that I ‘cry at the drop of a hat’.
It got me thinking about the emotions we show, and the ways in which we show them, particularly in the grassroots game. Soccer has always been a game of high emotion – as a Newcastle United supporter, I am used to seeing adults flit from complete elation to burning anger at St James’ Park.
But it is a sad fact that on Sundays, in grassroots leagues, I have seen levels of anger from coaches and parents that would not look out of place in the pro game.
I have seen coaches swearing at 12-year- old players for not taking instructions to the letter, watched parents follow their children around the pitch, screaming at them when they don’t make a challenge and I’ve heard stories of fist fights between parents on the sidelines.
Those of us involved in the grassroots game have become accustomed and slightly desensitised to these displays of anger.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to show the whole spectrum of human emotion…”
Yet rather than just accept them as part of the game, we should be challenging them.
What is this release of anger doing to players in the long run? Are we making them scared of making mistakes and preventing them from improving? Are we setting an example that they, too, can be angry with coaches, referees or team-mates?
And then comes the stuff outside of training. As coaches, we have as much of a responsibility to develop our players as people. If you are more concerned about winning in grassroots sports, rather than developing kind, well-rounded humans, you are in the wrong job.
I am not saying there’s never a place for anger in the grassroots game – we all get frustrated for various reasons. But it’s perhaps a far smaller place, or a different place. And, in turn, that opens up space for the expression of other emotions.
As coaches, we should be conscious of the emotions we are displaying, what we are attaching those emotions to, and the impact that has on our players. And we shouldn’t be afraid to show the whole spectrum of human emotion: after all, players are human too.
We are one week into the new season in England as I write this, and I am yet to shed a tear. There are likely bets on when it’ll happen next. But that’s fine by me: I’d much rather be known as the crying coach than the angry coach.