Week 15 of Indoor Training: Time to Coach Some New Themes

Another week of training has come and gone.  January and February have come and gone too.  Hard to believe really but that means it’s time for a change in training themes.  The two girls’ teams I’ve been coaching have been working hard the last two months towards their pursuit of one day becoming elite level players.

During January and February we worked on dribbling/running with the ball, vision and awareness and their overall competitiveness.  For March and April we are going to be working on turning and receiving, when to pass and when to dribble and principles of play.

A key task for me now is to make sure that the Jan-Feb themes continue on along side the Mar-Apr themes.  It would be a shame to have put seven weeks into their development and then have them tail off only to be replaced by the next set of themes.  Sort of defeats the purpose if every time you work on something it gets forgotten or doesn’t get used enough to make the change in behaviour permanent.

Finding ways to work on vision and awareness is easy enough.  Turning and receiving can be a part of vision and awareness so really we’ve been working on the two all along.  When to pass and when to dribble is the decision making attempt to continue to reinforce the actions of  dribbling/running with the ball that we’ve already done.  This also ties nicely into both turning and receiving and vision and awareness as the question to answer is: can I move the ball forward?  If the answer is yes then the next question is do I move the ball forward with a pass, a dribble or a run?

The principles of play is going to be an interesting one.  It really is an area of great weakness amongst Canadian soccer players in general (at least what I’ve seen in my travels).  Most coaching I’ve witnessed focuses on teaching players positions within systems.  In other words, very specific ways of going about learning and performing.  Principles, on the other hand, allow the player to have an overarching understanding of how the game of soccer works in both attack and defence.  Positions may change, formations come and go but principles always remain the same.

What will make the teaching of the principles even more interesting is that we will be using small-sided games since we’re still indoors for the next two months.  By the time May arrives my hope is to help transfer their understanding of principles from experiencing it with 4 or 5 other girls (indoor) to experiencing it with 10 other girls (full field).

In order to do that, I believe my best option is to help these players take ownership over their learning.  To simply fill them up with the knowledge of principles of play like filling a pail with water will only give the false impression that progress is being made.  The test (when they play a full field game) will then show that there was little transfer.  There will be little transfer because giving a person knowledge doesn’t teach them to think critically about that knowledge.  A player in that situation doesn’t seem to realize that the principles of play that they learned playing in 5-a-side games still apply when they play 11-a-side.

Instead, I am going to try to challenge both their convergent and divergent thinking abilities.  Instead of providing them with answers, I can use questions.  These questions can guide them step by step towards a single answer to a problem (convergent thinking).  The other choice I have is to use questions to come up with multiple solutions to the problem(divergent thinking).

I don’t actually have to ask the questions either.  I can let the games, and the conditions/rules associated with the games, pose the problem for the players to solve.  Only when I see that they’re struggling to recognize those problems will I jump in with some questions to try and push their thinking along.

In the end, owning the learning will make it more meaningful to the players and make it stick longer with them.  Getting them to think critically about the content will also help them be more flexible in their application of the principles, which will hopefully serve them well when the move from the small confines of indoor games to the open expanses of full field games happens.  Or at least that’s the theory.  We’ll see how it transpires in practice.

Next post Saturday, March 7th.

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Does Gender Make a Difference?

Are you a coach?  If so, have you only ever coached one gender or have you had the opportunity to coach both?  If you have had the fortune to coach both boys and girls, do you find that one is more suited than the other for playing the game of soccer?  And I don’t mean which gender would you prefer to coach.  I mean do you think the characteristics of one specific gender are more suited for a soccer player?

If you are anything like me then you have probably come to the conclusion that when it comes to soccer, each gender brings strengths and weaknesses.  Here’s some of my thoughts over the years regarding my experiences coaching both genders.

As a coach I wish that…

boys dribbled less and girls dribbled more.

girls were more driven to compete and boys were less driven to focus on the outcome at the expense of the process.

boys were less judgmental of my technical mistake in a demo and girls were more willing to question some of my decisions.

So there have been days in my coaching where it’s been easy to see that boys sometimes dribble just for the sake of dribbling.  They’ll dribble, beat a player and their ego will make the decision to do it again.  They may get a second beat which typically means their swollen heads now require a third beat (usually the guy they beat the first time).  Girls, on the other hand, I find will pass the ball even when they are not under pressure and all their teammates are marked.

Dribbling is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  You dribble in order to do something else – usually shoot or pass.  For that reason I wish girls had more confidence or desire to hold onto the ball and I wish that boys had more humility and sense of group.

I cannot get over how little competing can mean to female players.  Equally staggering is how stuck on results and winning boys can be.  Try to teach a group of young male players to pass the ball back in order to better keep possession and you’ll get resistance.  They’ll resist because they recognize the danger if a mistake is made.  If they mess up, they could give up a goal.  When I have told boys in that situation that that is okay, again I meet skepticism.  It takes a lot of work to convince them that their development and learning is more important than whether they win or lose.

On the other hand, I currently coach a group of girls who are developing high performance players.  One of the routines we go through weekly right now is something called the competitive cauldron (modelled after Anson Dorrance’s original design at the University of North Carolina).  We do this because the girls need to raise their intensity and their fight.  So the cauldron requires them to compete against their teammates in contests in order to see who can collect the most points and make it to the top of the ladder.  As such, the other coaches and I have to record scores (we need to know who wins and loses).  We’ve been doing this seven weeks now – every Saturday – and I still get times where I ask a competing pair of players what the score was in their contest and neither of them knows.  That would never happen with a  male player at any age.

Girls are so much more forgiving than boys.  It must be the difference in capacity for nurturing.  For boys it’s all about ability.  If you’re good, they’ll like you.  I’ve often heard it said that both girls and boys when asked to join a new soccer team will both ask the same question: who’s on it?  However, the reason for asking that question differs.  Girls ask that question because they want to see if there is anyone they know or like on the team.  Boys ask that question because they want to know if the players are any good.  As a coach, I cannot begin to count all the times where I was weighed and measured by male players that I’ve coached.  You want to make it about collaboration and delegation which you can do with girls.  With boys, unfortunately, sometimes it comes down to sheer displays of authority in order to get their obedience (which is a shame).

So my conclusion is simple.  I don’t want boys or girls.  I don’t want ladies or gentlemen.  I want soccer players.  In fact, whether I’m coaching males or females I will refer to them as players.  Not guys.  Not gals.  Players.  It’s my way of reminding myself (and them) that a soccer player has a balance of qualities present in both genders.

Mind you, these are just the mad ramblings of one heretic coach.  You may have a much different opinion.  If so, I’d love to hear it.

Next post Sunday, March 1st.

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Week 14 of Indoor Training: Inclusion is not just for House League

Practice the way you want to play.  This was the very first thing I got the 2001 and 2002 girls high performance soccer players that I coach to write down in their journals on the first day of 2015 training.  It was followed by:

When you work, work and when you rest, rest (in other words, make sure people can tell by your actions when you are working and when you are resting).

Speed kills (most actions in sport are solved decisively when they are done with more speed or more power).

Kill each other on the field, friends off the field (an adaptation of a quote from a professional women’s soccer player talking about how she and her teammates prepare during national team training camps).

So beyond trying to teach these girls to become better soccer players, it is probably clear to see that I would also like to create leaner, meaner and more competitive players as well.    Trying to get them to increase their intensity and work ethic is easy enough if you’re talking a single session here or there.  Trying to get them to do that consistently session after session is much harder.

Brick Walls

I believe there are a lot of barriers in their way.  Some are logical (i.e., they’re just 13- and 14-years-old), some are real (i.e., it’s hard to be at your best at 7:30 am in the morning when there’s scientific evidence out there to show teenage brains don’t work optimally until later in the morning) and some are perceived (i.e., talent is something you’re born with).

As their head coach, my job is to make them aware of what they can control (and change it) and what they can’t control (and accept that).  So last weekend, after a less than optimal session by both groups, I gave them the following quote:

What’s in the way is the way.

I let that percolate for a few days and then hit them mid-week with what is probably the most important piece of information I will pass along to them in this program.  It came in the form of this quote from the famous Carnegie Mellon Last Lecture by Professor Randy Pausch:


My goal was to show how these two quotes tied together to .  Take, for example, that many of the girls are not at their best when we have our weekly 7:30 am training session.  The fact is, we can’t change that right now.  It is what it is.  For many of them who look like they literally jumped out of bed and walked onto the field, t is a brick wall.  So what do you do?  You find a way over it, under it, around it, through it.

What’s in the way is the way.

Normal people get to a brick wall and they stop.  They think that that’s it.  That’s as far as they can go and they acquiesce.  People who want to go on to be great at something don’t let brick walls stop them.  That’s why they’re successful.  Then again, that’s also why there are so few truly great, amazing, excellent people in the world.  If there weren’t any brick walls then we’d all be astoundingly successful and life would take on a far different feel than it currently does.

What’s in the way is the way.

The Slanty Line

In yesterday’s blog, I lamented about the fact that team sport coaches (I didn’t just want to take all the blame myself so I lumped others in there with me) coach to the middle.  The only commonalities that the players I coach truly share are the following:

  1. They’re all girls
  2. They’re all (well, mostly) born in the same year
  3. They’ve all been selected to partake in this high performance soccer development program

Beyond that, they’re very different.  A scan through the faces, hair styles and body shapes confirms just that.  So, if on the surface they look different, than it only goes to stand that they’re also very different on the inside as well.  Each has different strengths and weaknesses.  Each has different beliefs about learning and talent.

Again, my job is to help them learn what they can control and to do something about it – hence the brick wall quote.  I can’t have them believing some of their perceptions (at least the one I think are wrong and can be changed).  If I do then we’ll never have teams that truly practices the way they want to play.  And I’ll be responsible for not giving these girls a chance to advance to the next higher level.

Enter the skipping ropes.  Yes, skipping ropes.  Parents of these players must have wondered what in heaven’s name we were doing at training a few nights ago when I placed skipping ropes in the following way on the ground and had players jump over them.

Slanted Line

Every player, regardless of jumping ability, was able to find a place where they could be challenged.  That meant a spot where, if they applied themselves to their maximum, they could make it across.  Which is the way it should be.  Every player deserves a chance to experience development at the edge of what is their personal capability.Parallel lines

Then I put the skipping ropes parallel.  The distance between them was at almost the maximum width of the slanted ropes.  So that meant that only some players were capable of making the jump successfully.  Some couldn’t make it at all and some found it as easy in one as they did the other.  The parallel line approach is what training is like in soccer (and what I imagine is most team sport) – one size fits all.

The Message

My job is to develop every single one of the 35 players in the two teams that I am currently responsible for.  I can’t do that by treating all the players the same and giving them all the exact same training.  Every player in this program has weaknesses.  Sometimes I’ll group these weaker players together.  It won’t take long for those players to realize they’re in the weaker group.  And then it will take even less time for them to start questioning their ability and feeling like failures.

They now have a brick wall to deal with.

So I explained to the players that this approach to training is like the slanty line jump.  This approach is giving them the best opportunity to experience individualized development.  It may not feel good in the beginning (it wouldn’t feel so bad if kids in general were put in these situations earlier and more often in their lives) but once they get past the initial social image and get down to work on fixing their weaknesses it doesn’t seem quite so bad.

Getting these kids to embrace their weaknesses instead of mask them within the strengths of their teammates is challenging.  But once they realize that these brick walls are what’s in the way, they are more wiling to look these boogeymen in the eye and stare them down.

Survival of the fittest.  We seem to believe that competitive youth players should be exposed to exclusion.  The strongest move on and the weakest disappear back down to the lower leagues.  But high performance youth players deserve an inclusive environment as much as a house league players.  How are they ever supposed to realize their full potential if they’re not made to come face to face with their weaknesses?

Next post Saturday, February 28th.

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Why do we Coach to the Middle?

As a coach, the fairest thing I can do is to treat each of my players differently.  But how does that work when you coach a team sport?  My job is to help each individual player improve and get closer to realizing his/her potential and yet some of the main training methods I use involve groups of players working together and against each other.  How does that equate to individual development?

It doesn’t.  Yet I’m certain that, like myself, team sport coaches have for years went about suggesting our philosophy is to develop each and every player on our team, then go about doing that by treating every player in the exact same in training.

We use a single, standard design for each task we want players to learn.  Sure, we might have progressions in our exercises but we shouldn’t let those fool us into a false sense of security.  Just like the main exercise, the progressions are done based on a composite.  That composite is our subjective opinion about improvement.  We base that opinion of improvement on an assessment of the entire group.  When we feel that the group has improved enough we either progress the exercise or we move on to the next.

Here’s the problem.  We’re coaching to the middle.

Sure, a good portion of our team seems to be better at the exercise (that’s why we’re moving on).  There’s two problems though with progressing based on coaching to the middle.  One problem is that a small percentage was already capable before you even started the exercise.  That advanced group could have started with the progression as their “easy” option.  They get lumped in with the average because they can already do the exercise.  However, they’ve not been challenged to reach a higher level.

Mediocrity has reached up and pulled them back down.

And then there’s a second disadvantaged group who lives in the tail on the opposite side of the bell curve to the advanced and the average.   This small percentage is as uncomfortable with the exercise at the end as they were at the start.  We’re moving on and yet there are still some kids struggling.  Forget about them catching the advanced players right now, how do we just get them caught up to the average?

But we don’t get them caught up.  We move on because the majority get it.

Those struggling players simply need to do more work on their own at home, right?  Isn’t that like telling someone that is bad at math that he/she just needs to do more math problems at home?  Maybe what that person really needs is individualized instruction – a tutor.  So in the same vein, maybe those struggling players need more of your attention in a one-on-one manner (or at least in a smaller group).  Not every problem can be solved by telling players they need to practice more on their own at home.

Personalizing the instructional experience to the needs of each individual player is the only way to ensure that you have the strongest team possible.  Anything else is simply trying to sweep the weak links under the rug by not giving them as much playing time or hiding them within the team in less important positions surrounded by stronger players who can carry them along.

Dr. Ben Bloom realized this team sport instructional dilemma over thirty years ago but in the field of education.  Teaching a class of students is, of course, similar to coaching a group of players within a team so there are similarities here for comparison.  His research showed that there is no substitute for one-to-one instruction designed to help an individual learner master the topic.  Standard group instruction methods, many of which have been transferred from the classroom to the coaching of team sports, pale in comparison.  The challenge was then, and still is today, how do we as coaches (and teachers) find methods of group instruction as effective as tutoring.

I don’t think there is an easy answer.  Ideally, a team should have a coaching staff (plural).  Each coach on staff helps to lower the player to coach ratio.  It doesn’t make it one-to-one but it is a start.  The rest is in the commitment and principles of the head coach.

As a team sport head coach myself, I felt it was time to put my money where my mouth was.  So I’m putting in the work to try and personalize the learning environment for the players I coach.  And it is a great big load of work.  For that reason alone the majority of coaches probably don’t attempt anything like it.  My motives for doing so were two-fold.  First, I wanted to provide added value to a program that already comes with high expectations and do something that I am certain is not being done in any of the competing programs.  Second, compelled by Bloom’s research, I was curious.  I had to answer the question: Can I do this?

Can I?  We’ll see.  The jury’s out and probably will be for a while yet.

Next post Sunday, February 22nd.

If you liked this post you may also enjoy reading:

The Fairness of Inequity

Getting Personal with Player Learning

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Week 13 of Indoor Training: Player and Coach Motivational Bank Accounts

Conversations.  Plenty of conversations are happening between myself and the two high performance girls’ soccer teams I’m currently coaching.  We’re five weeks in since the start of January (13 weeks in total) and I’ve been trying to ramp up the intensity and standards as we move closer to the start of the season. That means a lot of conversations.

Honeymoon’s Over

I think it’s fair to say that the novelty of making it into this program has worn off.  Training four times a week is starting to takes it toll on the players – especially the 02’s, the younger of the two groups.  Focus has wained, intensity has dropped and this at a time when I need the focus to start to sharpen and the intensity to start to elevate.

It’s not unexpected.  We are talking kids after all.  So I have conversations with the teams about the standards and what it is they need to do.  There’s been plenty of ground work laid with each team.  There’s nothing that should come as a surprise.    The key themes each team has heard since the first day I had a chance to work with them.  And everything is linked together.  So quotes that I give them, topics for training, conversations that we have.  They all tie together piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle which makes the big picture – the vision for their development – more clear.

You are Responsible for you

The key message that threads through all themes is my insistence on any young person I coach acquiring the ability to take an active role in their learning.  Think about it.  Some of the most enjoyable things you’ve probably done you’ve done of your own choosing.  And because of that you put your whole heart into it – sometimes even more so than your job.  That’s self-driven ambition.  That’s intrinsic motivation.  And that’s what I want these kids to pursue.  The current medium is soccer and hopefully many of them will find that passion for soccer.  However, I hope that what I do within this program simply inspires all to find their passion wherever it may be.

So they’re reminded on a regular basis that they need to show accountability for their own development.  It’s tough for some of them.  You can see they’re not yet used to that request.   I know that some of the most enlightening and meaningful learning can come from self-discovery, not from what someone else wants you to learn.  However, I would have to venture a guess based on what I’ve seen and say many of them are still used to traditional learning approaches.  The teacher or the coach does the directing and they do the following.  The teacher or the coach owns all the decision making.

Yeah, you can get a lot done with that approach but I don’t think you can get a lot of meaningful learning out of that approach.

Me, on the other hand.  I’m trying to share the decision making process with them.  By the end of the season I hope that there will be parts of the program in which they will have been able to make all or most of the decisions.  I think great coaches and teachers over time make themselves obsolete to their learners.  They not only provide them with knowledge about a subject, they provide them with skills and in doing so equip the learners with the potential to solve all sorts of complex problems in and outside of that subject matter area.  And those learners can solve those problems independently of the coach or teacher’s assistance.

Motivational Bank Accounts

At the end of the last session of week #13 I had yet another conversation with both teams.  I told them that it wasn’t my job or any of the coaches’ jobs to motivate them.  And I explained it to them using the analogy of a bank account.

The session had been rather flat and I thought throughout the session that I should raise my voice some.  Get a bit animated.  Start to get on the players’ cases.  And then I stopped myself.  It was way too early in the program to be making those kind of withdrawals from my motivational bank account.

I’ve been here before – many times.  Youth players shows up to a session with an almost empty or completely empty motivational bank accounts.  A coach sees that that players are not motivated and so the coach light’s a fire to rectify the issue.  Those players then get used to that.  They rely on the coach to drag them towards excellence.  Quite frankly, nobody gets dragged to excellence.  If anything, a person pursuing excellence feels like it’s pulling her/him towards it.  

And so in order to maintain the high standards, the coach must continually fill the tanks of those players.  In doing so, that coach drains his or her own tanks.  Session after session.  Week after week.  Season after season.  It takes its toll and it’s not fair to the coach to have to do that all the time for so many players.  When in possession of an overdrawn motivational bank account you can’t help but ask yourself the question: why should I care so much when it seems that the players don’t care themselves?

So I made it clear to these two teams that it is not fair for the coaches to have to have to deposit so much motivation into the players.  Our job is to top the players up, not fill them up.  Sure, players are going to show to sessions once in a while less than their best.  A coach, on those infrequent occasions that it should happen, can then withdraw from his/her own motivational account to help top that player up.  Otherwise, the players are responsible for doing all the things necessary to show up to each training session motivated and ready to go.  They’re showing self-determined behaviour.

Where do coaches replenish their accounts after players make withdrawals?  I feel, at least for me, it comes from seeing players who can’t wait to get on the field each session.  Players who give their full effort, pushing themselves and their teammates to the maximum.  That refills my account and allows me to be at my best so that I can help struggling players get back to their best.  Which then recharges me more as I see the results and so on, and so on – the cycle continuing positively upward.

When players help themselves – when they actively pursue excellence – it helps me to help them on the hard days.  But like most things in this training program, this is just another skill.  A skill that needs to be taught and takes plenty of time to learn.

Move over wins and loses.  I’ve got far more life changing skills to worry about developing than you.

Next post Saturday, February 21st.

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Practicing and Playing Deliberately

In today’s blog, I want to bring back a couple of posts from 2011 that I think should be dusted off and re-hashed.  The question: is there room for play in training high performance youth soccer players.  With that, I present the first post on a subject called deliberate practice.

Click here to read about deliberate practice

High performance youth soccer players need deliberate practice if they expect to reach excellence.  They’ve got to work very hard continuously through failure and bad days.  They have to commit to the process all the time, not just the days they feel like it.

Okay, now here’s a perspective on player development that is not yet well known.  However, there is research as well as best practice examples popping up more and more to support it.  With that, I present the second post on a subject called deliberate play.

Click here to read about deliberate play

A high performance youth soccer player needs deliberate practice.  A high performance youth soccer player also needs deliberate play.  I think for us adults the former statement makes sense.  It’s the latter statement that many get hung up on.  Play, after all, is play and isn’t supposed to be taken serious.  It’s something you do in your spare time when the real work has been done.

Well, as long as we hold on to that belief we will probably continue to see plenty of kids stop trying to realize their full potential and, worse, dropping out of the game altogether.  As a coach of high performance youth soccer players, I do my best to navigate the balance between deliberate practice and deliberate play in my programming.  I don’t know if that balance is always understood by players or their parents.

And yet if us adults are really and truly doing this for the right reasons then we’re going to employ and accept the employment of any methodology that puts the holistic and long-term development of the player first.  It is for that reason that high performance youth soccer players must both practice and play deliberately in order to become the best.

Next post Sunday, February 15th.

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Week 12 of Indoor Training: The Conundrum that is Transition

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 8.12.55 AM

Week four of the January-April phase of indoor training (week twelve overall) has come and gone.  Besides a facility double booking and the usual lightning-quick passage of the week, the other notable discussion point was the mid-week training session.  Two of the sessions see the 01 and 02 girls training squad-style at the same time.  The Wednesday session is one of the two days where the teams have their own training slots.  The other session like that is Tuesday and that is fitness training.  So Wednesdays represents a key opportunity to work specifically with each team on their needs.

The theme on Wednesdays to this point has been vision and awareness.  It may seem odd to separate that from say receiving or passing as you need vision and awareness to both receive and pass.  So needless to say the training features plenty of passing and receiving/turning in order to talk about vision and awareness.  We could very easily coach the players on their passing or their turning at the same time (and we will be moving there shortly) but for now it’s been on their ability to follow this mantra:

Play the way you face but try to face forward

The players have been asked to become entertainers in their play.  That means attack and attacking means goals and in order to do that you must

  • Think forward
  • Look forward
  • Play forward
  • Move forward

And in order to do play forward and move forward you first must be thinking and looking forward.  The thinking forward is the mantra play the way you face but try to face forward.  The looking forward is the vision and awareness part.    So to play entertaining soccer, the girls must score goals and attack.  You can’t do those things if you are always playing the ball sideways and backwards.  A player who scans the field before receiving the ball in order to ask herself the question, “When I receive this ball, can I play forward?” is showing good vision and awareness.

The player who is on the ball also must scan the field, however, without a comfort level with the ball this is difficult as the player’s gaze is often directed towards the ball and not to what’s happening around her.  Finally, body shape is important.  That is, how you stand when you are on your field.  What is your front facing and what is your back facing?  Can you stand so that what your front is facing is most important and what your back is facing is least important from a vision and awareness standpoint?  Thus, we talk about players getting sideways on as their body position as often as possible so that they can see as much of the field as possible.

This past Wednesday we were continue to work the girls on these topics.  We were using a small-sided game that featured an interesting transition.  The game did not feature goals for both teams to score on.  The attacking team had to play a pass to a teammate inside a square in the centre of the playing area.  The defending team had to win possession and then bring the ball outside the playing area (by crossing one of the perimeter lines) in order to switch their role from defending team to attacking team.

Boy, did that task make things difficult.  For the 02’s they struggled badly with that rule and the overall flow and performance of the game suffered.  The 01’s did have more success with it but they have been in this high performance program for over a full year now so you’d expect that they’d pick things up quicker.

The conundrum was the transition for the defensive team to attacking team.  The idea of playing the ball over a perimeter line was foreign I think.  After all, when a ball goes over the perimeter line normally it means it’s out of play.  So there was a real hang up over when the ball was actually out of bounds and when the ball was being transitioned from defence to offence.  And that ambiguity then made it difficult to concentrate on the rest of the game.  Who was the attacking team and supposed to have a player in the square?  Questions and uncertainty led to tentative play and tentative play led to an overall poor performance.

As a coach, I can do my part to try and modify the situation for the next time in order to try and bring more clarity and therefore help the players to feel more comfortable and free to play their best.  However, I think it’s worth acknowledging that the transition moments of the game – from defending to attacking and from attacking to defending – are not well understood or well rehearsed and yet they are just as important to a game of soccer as are attacking and defending.

Even for these girls when they did seem to understand the transition element of that small-sided game, there was still a habit of stopping once they completed the transition.  It was like the player on the ball was saying, “Ok, I’ve accomplished the rule of getting the ball under control over a perimeter line.  Now I can concentrate on helping my team attack the square.”  And similarly, it was if the player chasing  the player on the ball to try and stop her from making the transition said, “Oh, I couldn’t stop her from getting the ball over the perimeter line so I’ll pause for a moment and wait for her to start playing again.”

As I reminded the players, at the end of a transition there would be no pause in a real game.  There’s no breathing room or stoppage until the tweet of a whistle.  Play would continue and so that was what I’d wanted to see happen during the transition in this small-sided game.  But as I thought about it after the session, many times the exercises I have used or seen other coaches use do feature a pause when transition happens.  There is  an artificial pause that we put in there giving players a mental break before making the switch between attacking and defending or defending and attacking.  So again, I feel that what I have done as a coach is as much a cause as is the player’s inexperience with the transition.

I keep replaying it in my mind though.  Was their cognitive sluggishness a result of inexperience or poor coaching methodology.  Maybe it was a combination of both.  In any event, I’d like to do something similar this coming Wednesday in order to see what sorts of things happen.

Next post Saturday, February 14th.

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Engineering Sport for Intrinsic Motivation

Last Saturday and the Saturday before that, I wrote about motivation.  In particular, I’d talked about Self Determination Theory.  I’d concluded based on everything I’ve seen around this theory and the topic of motivation in general over the last few years that I (we) cannot motivate anyone.  We can manipulate people – through punishment or reward – to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have done.  However, true motivation is self driven and therefore the best kind of motivation to possess is intrinsic motivation.

As coaches or parents, the best we can do to enhance motivation in kids and youth is to inspire or to stimulate.  Maybe you see these words as one in the same.  I don’t so allow me to elaborate.  When you target a person’s emotions you look to inspire that person to find and increase his or her motivation.  When you target a person’s thoughts through the presentation of novel ideas or unique ways of saying things that people already know you look to stimulate that person to find and increase motivation.  The stimulation is cognitive.  The goal, in the words of the immortal C&C Music Factory, is to present things that make you go hmmmm.

So that’s what individuals can do to help nurture motivation.  Coaches, and more particularly, youth sport organizations can still do more than just that.  The key is to focus on manipulating the environment in order to best produce self determined forms of motivation.  I’ve seen this process called competitive engineering.

According to Dr. Damon Burton et al., competitive engineering, or CE, is a structural-based approach to changing the competitive environment of youth sports to provide more nurturing competitive experiences.  The outcome of such a process is more opportunities for participants to experience competency, autonomy and relatedness (i.e., Self Determination Theory) thereby enhancing their intrinsic motivation levels and keeping them engaged in sport longer.

Burton and his colleagues wrote a research article on the topic of CE.  They see CE as a way to enhance a variety of psychosocial outcomes through the manipulation of the organized youth sport environment.  They propose a working CE model comprised of four strategies – modifying game structure, modifying rules, modifying facilities and modifying equipment. You can access the article here:

Competitive Engineering_Structural climate Modifications to Enhance Youth Athletes Competitive Experience

While the article presents some intriguing ideas, little is known about what type and combination of competitive modifications are most beneficial.  There are many sports, including soccer, that have been competitively engineered over the years in order to promote more positive development outcomes for the youth involved.  However, most of these changes have been implemented without a strong conceptual framework to guide their inclusion.  Yet many of these changes have persisted over the years and therefore seem to be considered the tried and true way of doing things now.

While the theory is compelling and in practice there does seem to be pockets of successful implementation of these modifications, resistance amongst youth sport organizers can still be a challenge.  Organizers often worry about the potential negative, not positive, impact of changing things.  It just speaks to the need for continual education of coaches, administrators and parents in the journey towards offering sport for youth that is developmentally appropriate.  If you know someone that could benefit from this series of blogs on motivation, please pass them along for his or her benefit.

Are you a coach?  What do you do to competitively engineer your athlete’s environment in order to provide the best opportunity to build his/her intrinsic motivation?

Next post Sunday, February 8th.


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Week 11 of Indoor Training: To Fitness or not to Fitness, that is the Question

This week of training with the 01 and 02 girls high performance soccer teams has been quiet.  I was away to a conference and missed two of the four sessions so don’t have as much to talk about as normal.  While I was away, both girls’ teams started their weekly fitness training routine.  Once per week now for the rest of the season they follow one of their strength and conditioning coach developed fitness sessions.

I also had a question from one of the assistant coaches I work with.  The question: shouldn’t fitness training just be built into the soccer-specific training.

First off, I used to think that fitness training for youth players was important enough to warrant it’s own session.  Kids had become very unfit compared to when I’d first started coaching.  They needed fitness training as much as they needed soccer training.  I would take flak for it from some of the coaches I oversaw as they felt the field time that we used to do the fitness training could have been used for more important things like building their skills. It was soccer-like fitness but still the sessions weren’t soccer-specific enough for those particular coaches. Thank heavens for their protests as it got me to thinking about their point of view from those days on.

Second, now I think we should be training all things – technical, tactical, physical, cognitive and social-emotional – all the time within a game-like environment.  While all things happen all the time, the coach can manipulate the conditions on order to intensify one of those elements more than the others.  But at least that boosted element can be trained in and around the presence of the other elements thereby making it akin to real soccer.

This is a point of view that has come to fruition for me only very recently.  I was trained in traditional periodization which is very linear in nature.  Everything has its order and is trained singularly on its own, not amongst all other things.  Now, the support for non-linear theories of planning are becoming more and more prominent.  One in particular comes from Dutch soccer conditioning expert Raymond Verheijen.

Although he’s been around for a few years now, its only been in the last year or so that his philosophies have gone mainstream to youth soccer coaches.  He was interviewed for the Jan-Feb issue of Soccer Journal and said this:

“Tactics are trained by soccer coaches in soccer training.  Technique is trained by soccer coaches in soccer training.  But for whatever reason, fitness is traditionally trained by non-soccer coaches in non-soccer training.  So, the first challenge is to bring fitness back home to the soccer world.  The soccer coaches are responsible for planning soccer training.  As fitness is an integral part of soccer (training), these coaches are also responsible for fitness just like they are for tactics and techniques.”

Third, I’m not sure fitness is the accurate descriptor of what it is we should be doing with youth athletes under the age of fourteen.  And I’m not talking about the fact that prior to the growth spurt, fitness training serves little purpose either (since our physiology isn’t primed yet to benefit from fitness efforts).  I’m referring to the fact that physical skills, like technical skills, are mechanical actions.  They need to be taught and trained.  Getting fit is one thing.  Learning to move efficiently so that you don’t fatigue as quickly or get injured as a result of poor form is completely another.

It would make sense then that prior to puberty, fitness training is actually movement training.  After all, no parent ever says to their child, “Stand tall, lean from the waist, strike the ground with mid foot.”  They just say run!  And so it is with so many other movement skills.  With few or no physical education specialists in school, kids are not learning anywhere how to perform these actions.  So now it becomes the job of sport coaches to teach their athletes how to move efficiently and effectively.

It’s this sort of movement training that needs to preface fitness training.  Otherwise, you end up with teenage high performance soccer players who don’t know how to do a proper somersault let alone land properly from a jump or do an appropriate push-up.

Ideally before the age of fourteen, it’s really physical literacy that we’re responsible for developing, not fitness.  And from fourteen on our goal should be to train fitness along side the other three corners of development in an environment that looks and feels as much like our sport as often as possible.

Next post Saturday February 7th.

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To Develop Motivation Manipulate the Climate, not the Athletes

Last Saturday, I talked about motivation and offered a different way of understanding that topic as it relates to our role as coaches and parents.  I hope you took the time to watch Daniel Pink’s video on the subject.   If you didn’t, here is a quick summary video which then goes into more detail about how, at least in the business world, people can and should be motivated  (if you watched the video in last Saturday’s post than skip to about the 4:30 mark in this one to get the new content).

Autonomy, mastery and purpose.  In the grown-up world of work, if you pay people enough to satisfy that basic need and stop them worrying  about their ability to survive, then what matters most to people can be summed up as autonomy, mastery and purpose. And this has its applicability to sport.

Autonomy, the desire to direct one’s own life, mastery, the desire to be good at stuff, and purpose, transcending Maslow’s lower hierarchical needs and reaching the highest level – self-actualization.  When I hear Dan Pink talk about these three things, I hear Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

SDT originated in the 70’s.  However, it was Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, professors at the University of Rochester, who during the mid 80’s created for us the sound empirical theory that social psychologists widely use today and that I want to relate here to our role as leaders of children.

The theory itself is widely structured around understanding the concept of intrinsic motivation.  SDT looks at the social contextual factors (e.g., coach or parent behaviours) that seek to facilitate or undermine intrinsic motivation.  According to the theory, growth of intrinsic motivation is the result of three factors – autonomy, competency and relatedness.

Ah!  And there’s the connection between Daniel Pink’s autonomy, mastery (i.e., competence) and purpose (i.e., relatedness).  I’ve not read Pink’s book Drive so it is quite possible he talks about SDT in there.  Or maybe he’s just created his own Pinkified version of SDT in order to better represent his own philosophy.

Either way, intrinsic motivation is what we’re looking for as coaches and parents.  So we want to avoid things that threaten to extinguish intrinsic forms of motivation.  When intrinsic motivation is undermined, it is usually a result of attempts at extrinsic motivation – rewards for good behaviour or punishment for bad behaviour.

In Deci and Ryan’s work on SDT, they propose motivation on a continuum composed of varying degrees of self-direction.  At one end is amotivation which is a complete lack of motivation or total disinterest in the pursuit of a goal or task.  At the other end is the most self-determined form of motivation, intrinsic motivation.  In between are levels of extrinsic motivation.  They differ in the degree to which they are considered self-determining and therefore move you along the spectrum from no motivation at one end, to complete self-directed motivation at the other.

Motivation produces outcomes.  Call them behaviours if you like.  If we perceive that there is choice in the initiation and regulation of our behaviours then that is an internal locust of control.  Therefore, an external locust of control is one where we are not able to initiate or regulate our choice of behaviours.

The very first forms of extrinsic motivation that fall on the continuum just after amotivation feature an external locust of control.  In the world of leading kids, you can call these forms coercion and obligation.  For example, some behaviours are non inherently enjoyable but necessary in leading kids (take some sort of fitness training for example).  A coach then manipulates the athlete or player – through reward or punishment – in order to perform those aspects of training.  Or, the players feel guilty if they do not complete the fitness training and therefore they do it to please the coach.  Obligation leads to guilt, which the child of any Catholic mother knows all too well.

The next levels of extrinsic motivation, those that move closer to intrinsic motivation, have to do with conscious valuing or accepting of tasks.  So athletes/players who have to perform fitness training do so because they realize it will help them reach a goal of becoming a great performer in their sport.  A step up from that, is that the players realize that that training and the physiological outcomes of that training resonate with their personal beliefs about health and fitness enhancement.  Mind you, they’re still doing the fitness training because someone else – the coach – said to do it, which is why we’re still talking about external motivation (because that’s still an external locust of control).

Once the athlete/player internalizes the regulation of these important training activities (i.e., internal locust of control), intrinsic motivation has been reached.  The player does it because it is what he/she wants to do and extrinsic rewards are no longer required or wanted.

So, practically speaking, how can SDT be used in coaching kids?  Instead of manipulating the kids, manipulate the learning environment.  Here are a few ideas.

  1. Learning to make a behaviour a habit takes time and commitment.  A learner has to be actively involved in that process.  That means being engaged, not passively just along for the ride.  If you want engagement, self-direction (i.e., autonomy) is better.  Therefore, coaching methods and styles that are more facilitative and guided are better for promoting intrinsic motivation.
  2. It’s not enough to teach kids the how’s, they also need to understand the why’s.  Coaching methods that focus on the athletes/players being decision makers as well as performers allows them to couple information and action together.  Getting players to perform actions with limited opportunity to make decisions as to why to use those actions lets them down.  The more a player can understand the rationale behind learning certain things, the more relatedness or purpose he/she stands to develop.
  3. Simple linear tasks (i.e., Step one – do this, step two – do this, etc.) are accomplished better with incentives.  In coaching, linear tasks equal drills.  That is, exercises that don’t require a great deal of thought, only action.  This is the equivalent to Dan Pink’s if-then tasks he quotes in the business research.  Incentivizing players with rewards in these situations can be helpful but keep #2 in mind and move players away from these types of drills and subsequent use of extrinsic rewards as soon as possible.
  4. Relatedness/purpose is important to the perception of being in control.  It’s why coaching courses teach that kids come to sport for a variety of reasons – some to compete, some to become competent, or fitter and some to hang out and socialize.  This is a good reminder that your coaching philosophy should be driven by a four-corner model of development in order to meet all of the players’ needs.
  5. Competency/mastery is important to the perception of being in control.  Therefore, set up a mastery training environment.  That is, an environment where players are motivated as much to answer the question, “Can I do it?” as they are to ask, “Can I beat you?”
  6. At all levels of sport, whether it is the appropriate focus or not, the principal goal is to win.  Sport that focuses on outcome and incentivizes performers for winning (or actions that lead to winning, like scoring goals) has the potential to sabotage intrinsic motivation and shift the locust of control from internal to external.  You’ve heard it said many times before – don’t focus so much on the score, focus on the development.  SDT gives us yet another reason why it’s a good thing to do just that.

Next post Sunday, February 1st.

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