The Joy of Silent Soccer

For one blessed Saturday, parents and coaches shut up and let their kids play. Not everyone likes it.

A mom on the sidelines with duct tape over her mouth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports. This essay is adapted from a segment on the May 21 edition of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen. You can listen to the original segment here.

When I started coaching my daughter’s all-girls rec soccer team, the Power, nine years ago, the first rule I imposed on parents was this: Don’t shout instructions at your child, or any other child. Applaud, cheer, celebrate, sure. But keep it under control and generic: “Go Power.” “Nice job, Anna.” “Woo-hoo.” Clap for the other team. Don’t question the referee. And, in case you missed it the first time: Don’t shout instructions at your or any other child. The team has one coach, and the girls need to learn to listen to the designated adult in charge.

As for me, that designated adult, I applied some strict guidelines: consistent encouragement, positive language, constructive criticism, limited in-game instruction. (When the girls were little, we had a code word to spread out: “Popcorn!”) Eight girls who were on the Power in second grade are still on the team in 10th grade, which for rec soccer is a sick retention rate. I think I’ve been a pretty good coach!

But while I shamed my parents into being chill, my Power power only goes so far. There was the coach in elementary school who openly lamented bad plays, criticized his players, and felt threatened by a talented girl on the Power: “IF SHE PUSHES YOU, YOU PUSH HER BACK!” he shouted. (“I hate her, but I respect her,” he told me after the game. You hate a 9-year-old?) There was the parent who refused to move from behind the goal where, against league rules, he was coaching the goalkeeper, presumably his kid. And the parent who followed the ball up and down the sidelines barking commands all the way. And the coach who never not for one second didn’t scream orders at his players—his high school players—and would wander obliviously (or maybe not) into our bench area to continue his booming monologue. “He’s making me really uncomfortable,” one of my players said.

A few weeks ago, my club, D.C. Stoddert Soccer, designated a day of Silent Soccer: Everyone except the players had to zip it. No sideline mom reminding Gabby to mark up; no dads telling the 13-year-old ref she missed that offside call; no loudmouthed coach barking needless, nonstop instructions. Let the kids play.

The idea dates to at least 1999, when the president of a girls’ soccer league in suburban Cleveland, fed up with noise pollution at games, instituted a single Silent Sunday. “We want kids to be able to learn and to be able to think and play without the constant yelling,” he said at the time. Clubs around the country have been doing it ever since. The New York Times wrote a trend story in 2004. Last fall, South Carolina’s Youth Soccer Association made parents and coaches STFU for an entire month.

Silent Soccer is a splash of Gatorade in the face of parents and coaches who get too invested in the outcome of the Pink Panthers–Cheetahs game, and in every footfall of their little Pulisics and Pughs. By forcing adults to conform to an extreme behavior for one weekend, the goal is to get them to tone it down on all the other weekends, to give more agency to and reduce pressure on their children.

In a survey conducted by D.C. Stoddert, some parents and coaches confessed to recognizing their own voluble tendencies. Others reported that players communicated more and were less distracted, tentative, and self-conscious. “The point of all of this, I think, was not to prove that grown ups should never speak at soccer games,” one coach of a third-grade team wrote, “but to just help us to consider what we say, how often we say it and how it actually affects the players on the field. I, for one, would like to maintain a practice of saying less, but making my feedback more focused and meaningful.”

But the survey, of nearly 300 parents and coaches, also revealed just how ingrained the notion of soccer as an opportunity for adults to shout at kids truly is. Some coaches had inflated views of their importance to the players. “They missed my real time feedback, which incidentally is always given in a kind and supportive way,” one coach said. Some parents made it about their needs. “It felt unnatural to sit on the sidelines in silence,” one said. “Parents just chat and don’t feel like part of the game,” said another. “I hated it.”

Others asserted that sports are about screaming and that screaming at children encourages their development as both athletes and humans. “It really is just not real life,” one parent said. “Team sports have noisy sidelines.” Another artfully combined the my-kid’s-game-is-really-about-me and sports-are-for-screaming genres: “Part of what makes watching sports great is the ability to cheer, encourage players, and generally be loud. I didn’t love having to control my impulses.”

“Please stop experimenting with our children’s athletic development. It is extraordinarily narcissistic behavior on management’s part,” said one parent, possibly misidentifying the narcissistic party and misunderstanding the role of a youth sports league. And then, finally, there was this comment that could be a chyron on a Fox News segment about Silent Soccer: “breach of First Amendment and too Big Brother Comrade for adults.”

Youth sports aren’t that complicated. They should be about kids having fun, kids getting better at something, kids working together, kids applying instruction, and kids learning to make decisions on their own—observing their surroundings, analyzing a situation, taking action. Believe it or not, children can figure out where to pass a ball and when to take a shot without a screaming adult telling them. And if they don’t do it “right,” the time to offer advice isn’t the instant the error occurs, at top volume. It’s when they come off for a sub, or at halftime, or at practice.

When I posted about the Silent Soccer weekend on Facebook, Tom Farrey replied. Farrey is an ESPN reporter who also heads Project Play, an ongoing effort by the Aspen Institute to build a better youth sports system. “Why not do this all season?” he wrote. “Or at least for one entire month? Hard to change a culture if we are only asking parents to change the culture one weekend during the season.” Or, to avoid the predictable backlash to forced silence, rebrand the initiative, as Colorado’s soccer association did last month, to focus on eliminating negative comments and modeling positive behavior.

I’d be fine if adults more or less shut up forever. But making them shut up once, then teaching them why less talk is more productive for their kids, is at least a start.