I remember the exact moment I found out sports weren’t about fun — the first time I ever felt humiliated doing something that I thought I loved. I was in 10th grade and tried out for the soccer team. I’d been to a soccer camp one time, but didn’t really understand the strategy involved in the game. Despite being athletic and an accomplished lacrosse player, I was still learning the basics of soccer. I was really enjoying practices, competing for the ball, running hard and pushing myself. Sometimes, I felt lost in the concepts, but the coach spent most of the time teaching ball handling or scrimmaging without much correction. I didn’t realize how much more there was to the game.

I remember playing Severn High School in Maryland. We were losing, and it was a tough game. But I was quickly discovering that my sprinting speed, combined with having fresh legs from not playing much, was giving me an edge in the game. I saw an opportunity and I ran to the ball, tackled it from a player and saw nothing but open field in front of me. I heard a huge blast of cheering from my teams bench, the coach, the parents. I was suddenly  very aware that I was on stage, something I’d never felt before. I was a defender, sometimes a sweeper. My job up until that point had been to use what God gave me – powerful legs! I was ordinarily told to kick that ball as hard and far as I could and I was good at it. But I was playing midfield in this game, and I was out in front with the ball. At the sound of the cheering I felt what can hardly be described. It was adrenaline, pride, excitement. Here I was, a bench player and I’d done something heroic. I looked ahead, readied my powerful quad muscles, fired em up, and kicked that ball as far ahead as I could. It soared at least 50 yards. A beautiful kick.

The cheering stopped. I immediately heard a loud shrill NOOOOOOO! I can still hear it, it was 22 years ago and I can still remember exactly what it sounded like.  It was followed by WHAT ARE YOU DOING! and as the opposing goalkeeper scooped up the loose ball I heard my name being screamed from the sideline. I hustled off, knowing I'd done something bad, feeling utterly humilated in front of a crowd of people just seconds after feeling a surge of confidence I’d never felt before. My coach didn’t tell me what I did wrong. She turned her back to me. I didn’t see the field the rest of the game. No one ever explained what I clearly know now should have been a controlled fast break.

The rest of the season, instead of excitement when the ball came near me I felt fear. It held me back, it got in my head. I was afraid of being publicly humilated on the field in front of a crowd of people and in front of my teammates. I was more frustrated at practice, I didn’t look forward to it anymore. I lost the connection with my coach. She never did tell me what I did wrong, she never apologized for humiliating me, she never took me aside and gave me some encouragement. I saw exactly what I meant to her, and it felt like nothing. I laid awake that night, haunted by it, tossing and turning, feeling so embarassed. She probably never thought about it again. These players are deeply affected by some of our communication choices, they are still learning how to process correction. How we do it matters. How we clean up after our mistaken outburst matters.

As a coach, this is a scenario that I try not to forget, that I try to never let myself be on the other side of.  To this day, when I coach with my husband in basketball, if he yells out NO onto the court after a mistake he gets a quick slap in the leg to stop it.  It’s something I can’t tolerate.  Can you imagine yelling NOOOOOOO in front of an auditorium as your child sings a wrong note in a solo?  We’d never do it, we know that would be humiliating!  Yet in sports? I’ve never heard so many corrections, insults, frustrated NOOOOOs or groans coming from both sidelines.  It may not be a coach, it might be a parent, that verbal correction while  they are daring to do something brave could be the stifling end to the freedom they have to truly try, learn, and love what they are doing.

Corrections are best done one on one, by the coach, in a teaching environment.  Are you coaching your kid? Dinner or the car ride isn’t a great place to add more coaching, end the coaching with practice and go back to parent mode. Not the coach? Wait til they ask for help. Offer to play in the back yard together. Avoid giving unwanted direction, be their cheerleader instead.

Think about how you communicate with your players. Next time you’re at work in front of your boss imagine being called out with a verbal NOOOOOOOO or yelled correction in front of the entire room and realize it’s no easier for these kids. Imagine the parents screaming everytime you make a correction, or a subsitution, you probably wouldn’t last the season under that sort of verbal thrashing.  These kids need our support not our verbal frustration.

(Note: The second half of that year I transfered schools, and despite being not a great soccer player, a very awesome coach, who had every right to cut me from a perenial state championship team, told me he was putting me on varsity because I had heart. Becuase he valued what I brought to the team other than my not so great understanding of the game. Becuase I had worked my tail off during tryouts and I had earned it. I’ve given that opportunity to many athletes as a return on that kindness since then.  Thanks Coach Seivert!) 

Kate Leavell is a high school varsity and youth girls' lacrosse coach now living in Minneapolis, Minn. A US Lacrosse Coaches Education Program trainer, she is the author of the Coaches Emergency Practice Guide. Read more of her thoughts at kateleavell.com and follow her on Twitter: @kateleavell