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Danny Jackson on Boys vs Girls in Youth Soccer
Danny Jackson on Boys vs Girls in Youth Soccer | Korrio, Danny Jackson, Soccer, Seattle Sounders, Coaching Girls

Danny Jackson in action - Photo Credit: Jenni Conner

Danny Jackson on Coaching Girls: How to get the best from your team

I would never pretend to speak for women. I have a sister, three sisters-in-law and numerous female cousins, and I’ve coached enough girls on the soccer field to know better. But...

Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle SoundersSN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.  So many kids dream of going pro, few accomplish this and fewer become team captains and then go on to become youth coaches.

I would never pretend to speak for women. I have a sister, three sisters-in-law and numerous female cousins, and I’ve coached enough girls on the soccer field to know better.

But interestingly, over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to coach more girls than boys. And my experience as a girls coach has caused me to reflect on how different the sexes really are, as players and teammates. I have enjoyed some success with my girls’ teams, such as winning the state cup in Washington and receiving the Washington State Competitive Girls Coach of the Year award. I’ve coached young women of all ages and abilities, from premier to recreational teams.

With soccer now topping the list as the most popular sport for girls, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about coaching young women and hopefully provide a little personal insight to help other coaches lead their female teams more effectively.

Girls vs. Boys

There are many differences in how girls and boys play soccer, even at young ages. But I believe one of the most prominent is the difference in how coaches are perceived and the power they wield.

Boys have a never-ending supply of role models in professional sports, with a plethora of international stars to look up to. And they tend to draw a lot of inspiration from watching those players. I know as a young boy, growing up in competitive soccer in England, I spent hours watching soccer on TV and trying to emulate the stars. Paul Gascoigne, Glenn Hoddle, Gary Lineker, Eric Cantona and Gordon Strachan are all players I looked up to as a kid. Yes, coaches play an important role, but boys are also modeling their behavior off information they glean from a variety of sources: TV, video games, magazines and web media.

These professional players can be so influential, and it would be nice to think all sports stars are great role models both on and off the field. But unfortunately, this is not always the case. Negative role models are more prominent than ever before, or at least it appears that way: players drinking and using drugs, getting arrested, behaving violently on the court or field (or in public) or displaying bad sportsmanship. We see it all the time, because that’s what the media reports on.

Young female athletes, on the other hand, seem to draw inspiration from those a lot closer to home: their coaches, peers and teachers. Yes, they can be star-struck over celebrities. And since the 1990s – when Mia Hamm and her fellow teammates so famously captured the whole world’s attention during the 1999 Women’s World Cup  – there are more powerful, “super star” female role models in soccer. Just look at the exposure and coverage the 2011 Women’s World Cup received. When I played for the University of North Carolina, it was great to see the young female fans turn out to watch their local favorites – the college players. Players like Jena Kluegel, Lorrie Fair, Cindy Parlow and Tiffany Roberts were their sports heroes and it was heartening that these young women had such amazing players to emulate.

Women’s soccer was a new phenomenon for me, coming to the U.S. from England, which is still developing its female soccer infrastructure, in comparison to more established world players, such as the U.S., Scandinavia, Brazil and China. And to first experience it at UNC, which has such a revered program, was fascinating.

We are fortunate in this country. Because of the fantastic youth soccer infrastructure, college soccer will remain a powerful driver for ambitious young female players in the U.S for many years to come. And outside of soccer, female role models also come from more individualized sports, such as tennis, golf, skiing and other athletics. Internationally-famous female athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams, Michelle Wie, Picabo Street and Jackie Joyner-Kersee are, or have been, compelling role models for young women. However, female athletes get intense media attention somewhat more episodically, around the time of tournaments and the Olympics. They don’t enjoy the same relentless attention and scrutiny male athletes receive. (And therefore, not as much press, both good and bad.)

I think these factors contribute to girls seeking more personal role models. And this creates a very powerful opportunity for coaches.

In the general scheme of things, girls are more likely to put their coach on a pedestal than boys and they listen more carefully, following directions more closely sometimes at the expense of developing a more creative, risk-taking style of play. Coaches can be immensely influential and it’s an amazing opportunity to help players develop positive characteristics and traits that can serve them for a lifetime. Because of this, the responsibility to lead female players positively can feel much greater.

Girls, on the whole, just seem to listen and follow direction differently. Of course, they can be talkative. “Yap and take a lap!” was a practice I implemented to keep my team from chatting too much, especially when I was talking. But they fundamentally want to learn, improve and please their coach, parents and peers.

Boys often think they know better, at any age. They tend to be more vocal, independent and opinionated. They push the envelope further and, as a coach, the goal is to hold their focus and attention. These differences can play out in good and bad ways.

Girls take direction better, absorbing the coach’s teachings and they improve greatly under solid tutelage. Especially at younger ages, they’re like sponges, looking eagerly for direction and guidance from the coach. But they can miss out on the triumphs of taking risks and playing adventurously. So they sometimes need a push to be more creative and think beyond the coach’s direction.

Girls and boys on youth sports teams also compete differently. Regardless of the level of play, boys generally want to beat each other, even as teammates. Girls, with some exceptions, tend to even each other out during practice.

For example, if you tell your female team to run to the far line and back during practice, they often run at a similar speed.

There’s a sense that no one wants to elbow the others out, that they don’t want to outmatch their teammates.

But when there is a fitness test, you will be shocked at the girls who really excel. You will often find those you least expect to push to the front and pleasantly surprise you.

The challenge, then, is to encourage them to break out of their comfort zones more often. You must create a competitive environment in practice from an early age, making them feel comfortable competing against their friends.

Even if girls don’t always want to outshine each other in practice, don’t think for a second they lack a competitive attitude on the field. They will compete fiercely against other teams. And they are tenacious in their desire to push themselves, improve and win, playing with as much – and often more – scrappiness and heart than boys.

This is one reason I love to watch girls play; they just keep at it, coming at their opponents again and again and again. They’re so willing to stick their necks out for each other, to get the win. It’s impressive. And I enjoy knowing they will draw on this tenacity and spirit in other areas of their lives too.

Tips for Coaching Girls

So how can coaches get the best from their female players? Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. Because fewer role models exist for girls in professional sports, you need to tell them at a young age that they can succeed at a higher level and push them to compete. They may need a little extra inspiration to believe there’s a place for them in competitive sports. Expose them to positive female athlete role models at the college and national level.
  2. Stress how the characteristics and skills they’re learning on the field can apply to the rest of their lives.
  3. Never underestimate them. Give them responsibility, push them as much as you would boys, set high expectations and expose them to challenging drills.
  4. Repetition, repetition, repetition; first you’ll see them thinking about that new skill or play, then trying it and, soon, it will become habit.
  5. Corral the herd. Make rules and enforce them. During practices, for example, I ask my players to arrive early. They can chat socially during this time and then it’s down-to-business for the next hour-and-a-half. Set the expectation of hard work and focus.
  6. Emphasize that it’s OK to make mistakes if they’re giving their best. Give them the comfort and confidence they’ll need to make mistakes and they’ll be more willing to take risks. You almost want them to make mistakes so they can learn to fix them. Remember, if there is tension or stress on the field, girls are less willing to express themselves creatively in their play.
  7. Use real-life analogies. Boys respond well to references from the larger sports world, but in my experience, girls like more concrete analogies. For example, practice is like studying, the game is like an exam.
  8.  Make sure your tone is right. Don’t be afraid to enforce rules and foundational expectations, but do it constructively.
  9. Understand what’s going on in your girls’ lives. If someone is having trouble, get down on her level – literally on one knee – and really talk to her. Connect. Girls need to know you see them as individuals and care about what’s going on with them, on and off the field. You must build that trust, so they can feel comfortable sharing.
  10. Encourage team spirit. “Hunt like a pack of wolves” is a saying I used to illustrate good defensive strategy to my female players. Work together, not as individuals, and add a bite to it. They’ll work hard to improve and help each other and I believe they really wrap themselves around the team concept.
  11. Maintain a good relationship with parents, who can share what’s going on with their girls. It’s good to know if they’re having a hard time in some other area of their lives or are already vulnerable, so you can communicate with them most effectively. You can’t scream at them or take a harsh tone if they’re already feeling bad. 
  12. If you find yourself using the same tone of voice on the field all the time – either screaming or monotonously calm – you’re doing something wrong. Change it up and use your tone strategically and purposefully to remain effective, whether you’re shouting or directing more quietly.

Communication is imperative when coaching girls. You have to know what to say and when to say it, and this skill takes some time to learn. Please realize that, however important you feel soccer is, there is a lot more going on in your players’ lives.

There are so many outside factors to consider and the pressures on young women today are more intense than ever before. You must be mindful of your words and your volume, but don't think for one second that girls cannot take the heat. They can. Push them hard, expect too much, enforce good habits and the end results will excite you. Girls want to please, but make them understand they can fail, as well.

Nothing on the soccer field – or in life – is ever perfect, but one thing is certain: girls will always aspire towards that goal. And this will make your coaching role immensely enjoyable and rewarding.

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Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders for five seasons.  Jackson, the Colorado Rapid’s first round pick in the 2002 MLS draft, recently retired from professional soccer following a successful career in which he led the Seattle Sounders to two USL National championships. At the University of North Carolina, Jackson was a multi-year All-American, team MVP, and three-year team captain. His UNC team won a National Championship in 2001, and he was named Soccer America National MVP and National Championship MVP the same year. Danny was awarded the 2002 Patterson Medal as the UNC Student Athlete of the year.

Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.

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