It’s difficult to come out of a match against children with your dignity intact. Try too hard and you come across as insecure, try too little and you get your players dabbing on you. Are there times when it’s appropriate for a coach to join in? Or is it an unwinnable situation best avoided?
As always, the most important factor is what the children want. As such, the coach’s ego needs to be checked at the door. Children can benefit from a coach’s involvement, most obviously for demonstration purposes. If they can see a skill used effectively they can try to copy it. This relies heavily on the coach’s selection of an appropriate skill however, as adults have such a physical advantage that some skills may be impractical or impossible for children to copy, for example hitting long goal kicks.
Some children will work a little harder to meet the challenge of beating the coach, which helps their motivation and concentration. Some children will go in the opposite direction, giving up immediately as they perceive the situation as being unfair. Again, it’s hard to win. If the coach doesn’t try hard enough, their own teammates will perceive the situation as being unfair, or may lower their own exertion levels to match the coach’s.
Demonstrating your ability can show the players how much they can learn from you, similar to the professional game in which a high level player-turned-manager gains more respect from their players. However, this isn’t the professional game, and trust is more important than respect. Trusting that the coach has your best interests at heart means more to a young player than how many keepy uppies they can do.
There are practical issues to contend with as well, as a recently retired ex-pro player I once worked with found out after they got over-competitive and injured a young player. They lost their job over that incident, and only then learned to dial back their competitiveness. Joining in with games can also shift the coach’s focus from coaching to playing, and restrict their view of events on the pitch. There’s a reason most coaches work from the sidelines.
It’s always worth considering how well your practices translate to the match you’re training for, whether that be at the end of training or at the weekend. Your teams won’t be playing against adults, so any lessons they learn about playing against adults will be wasted. As much as a demonstration can help, players only need to see it once or twice before going and trying it themselves. If you’re trying to teach players about crossing, but you’re the one putting in the crosses, they’re not getting an opportunity to learn firsthand.
Are there times when it’s more appropriate for a coach to join in? Yes, players tend to enjoy an end of year coaches vs. players match, especially if it ends up being a close win for the players. There are practical solutions for adult players to avoid the potential pitfalls too, for example in a locked in area as a target or neutral player. Risks of playing in matches can be minimised by the coach being disallowed to score or tackle. Playing in goal can be safe enough, as long as no physical challenges are made, and may be necessary to give players time on the ball.
There are positives and negatives to the coach joining in, however the negatives outweigh the positives in most situations. The advice given to me on my level 2 FA course was to never join in the session, as you have so much to lose and so little to gain. Hard to disagree with that.