Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall and the real Mike Ditka as three extreme soccer coaches who show you what NOT to do
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
| 4 min read
At first, it’s easy to feel bad for Phil Weston, Will Ferrell’s character in the 2005 family comedy Kicking & Screaming. He’s spent his life trying to please his father, the ultra-competitive Buck Weston (played by Robert Duvall) who happens to coach Phil’s son’s soccer team.
Things quickly go south. Buck kicks Phil’s son (yes, his own grandson) off the Gladiators, his top-rated team. Phil ends up coaching his son’s new team, the last-place Tigers. Soon, Phil begins to channel that winner-take-all energy from his father, even bringing on Mike Ditka, played by the legendary NFL coach himself, as assistant coach.
It all could end badly. And for most of the 1 hour 35 minute run-time, Kicking and Screaming is a lesson in what not to do. But it’s also a family comedy, so, by the credits, we’ve all learned a few valuable lessons.
Here are four that any youth coach can take to heart.
1. It’s not about you.
Kids usually sign up to play soccer to have fun, learn and improve their skills — not to make you, the coach, look good. In the movie, Phil quickly forgets all that and becomes focused on one thing: beating his father after a lifetime of disappointing him. In a pre-game pep talk, he encourages the kids to play dirty. He runs off Ditka, who dares to question his attitude. And he turns his own son off from the game.
This is a Will Ferrell vehicle, so it’s a bit over-the-top. But we all know how easy it is for coaches to lose sight of why they’re coaching in the first place, as they worry about standings, parents’ expectations or how others might perceive their abilities because of what happened at the last game.
2. You can’t always “pass to the Italians.”
The goal of youth sports goes far beyond the scoreboard.
Phil fails here on several levels. To win, he recruits two new highly skilled players from Italy and tells the other kids that their only job is to “pass to the Italians,” missing out on countless opportunities to teach the Tigers anything about soccer. And he keeps the same players on the bench instead of taking advantage of their abilities. He even says as much, once he realizes what he’s done.
“You guys are great kids,” Phil says. “You’re unique with your own strengths and talents, and I should’ve been promoting that. Instead, I wasn’t, ‘cause I’m a lousy coach and I didn’t teach you anything.”
Then he sends the team back on the field with this instruction: “Do exactly the opposite of everything I’ve taught you.”
3. They’ll learn from each other, if you let them.
Youth athletes have plenty to learn from their coaches and the adults in their lives, but they can learn from each other, too. In one montage, the skilled Italian players teach the Tigers soccer moves. Together, they’re having a blast and encouraging each other to keep working so the entire team can improve. By the end, Phil’s own son surprises him with some fancy footwork he learned from his teammates — and it ends up making a big difference in a game.
It’s a good reminder: Giving kids some freedom and allowing them to work together can net big gains.
4. It’s not about the ball.
Phil may not know a lot about soccer, but he seems to understand, implicitly, that youth sports is about cultivating connections. He hosts a campout in his backyard and a party at his home. And when the Italian players can’t show up for a game, the team works together to make sure they can (though, to be fair, Phil doesn’t have the best of intentions here).
As Phil comes to realize — on many levels — it’s not about the ball. It’s about the relationships we build together. And when young athletes look back on their time on the field, it’s up to coaches to make sure it’s experiences of fair play, friendships and team-building that they remember.