Week 27: Epic Fail, Who’s to Blame?

Yesterday was game day #2 for the two developing high performance teams that I coach.  It was not a great day.  Hah! That’s a big fat understatement.  The two teams lost by a combined score of 15-1.  It’s really hard to put those first two sentences together – high performance and losing 15-1 – in a way that can be taken seriously right now.

Both teams had solid starts.  They played very positively and gave you the feeling that everything was going to be just fine.  And then something happened.  Defensively, both teams struggled with opponents who played direct and had some very good athletes to get on the end of those forward balls.  And, despite the scores, both teams continued to work hard trying to follow the game plan right up to the end.

Does that really matter though?

Seriously, 15-1.  That’s all that needs to be said to discount anything else positive that I might be able to say about yesterday.

At the end of the second game I felt overwhelmed. Anger, sadness, desperation, frustration.  Any other emotion I’d already experienced through the course of the two games.  I was spent.

On the drive home I expected to be more analytical about it all.  I normally would have been.  I must have been in shock because I started to feel it later on that evening when I went for a walk with my wife. It would hit me like a hot flash – a crashing wave of pure guilt and anxiety that would leave me feeling almost dizzy then disappear as quickly as it came.

I woke up early this morning and it was the first thought to enter my mind.  So I got up and started to write this blog.  In those moments of reckoning it became very clear what the issue was.

Both teams I treat with the same philosophy.  Therefore I train both the same.  Both teams lost big yesterday and made many of the same mistakes.  The club head coach that I report to said something similar.  The feedback he was going to pass on to me was to be pretty much the same between the two teams.  Also, both teams lost their opening league game by a score of 2-0 and in copy cat fashion that day too.  It’s clear to see the pattern.

This is my fault and mine alone to bear.

“A gentleman is one who doesn’t and can’t forgive himself for a self-committed mistake even if others forget it and the self-criticism is a mark of his right attitude towards life.” – Anuj Somany

I’ve come into this organization with a less than traditional approach to coaching.  It’s a style that has required significant adjustment by players and parents.  Given the push back that said approach usually entails, that in itself would have been enough on the plates of most normal coaches for a single season.  

But not me.  Nope.  No way.  

I then went and created a game philosophy of colossal idealistic proportions.   One built on controlling the game, attacking constantly and scoring goals.  

“I am trying to do two things: dare to be a radical and not a fool, which is a matter of no small difficulty.” – James A. Garfield

Well, if that seems utterly laughable to me right now, I can only imagine what the parents think of it all.  With the amount of money and time that they’ve already committed to have their daughters’ as part of this program, I can envisage how upset and disappointed they must be.

Disillusioned.  That’s the word.

So what else is there to say?  Not much.  Although this quote reminds me of something I should have said and never did.

“I give you my word that we will put in an effort. I don’t know if we’ll win, but we’ll persist. Put on your seat belts, because we’re going to have fun”.  – Pep Guardiola (Presentation by the new coach of FC Barçelona 2008/09 to the fans)

Yep, the only guarantee that a coach should make is that there is no guarantee.

So what else is there to do?

Persist.  A radical idea when it works is amazing.  A radical idea when it fails, fails in epic proportions.  That I know to be true (less than 24 hours ago).  As a heretic coach, I know what I do is valuable but not always is that value felt in the short-term.  Unfortunately, a common story for my coaching over the last few years is that people have appreciated that value more once I’ve moved on.  For that reason, I hope that those around me recognize the choice I’ve made in the name of development.  I choose an approach that I know will have long-term benefits to the players I work with even if it doesn’t give me the short-term plaudits to stroke my own ego.

I will continue to evaluate myself and look to see what I can do better.  What I can tweak.  Otherwise, I will stay the course – have the strength of conviction and belief to be true to long-term development in the way that I can best deliver it.  I know there will be moments still to come where we can all be proud of the lofty ideals that have been set forth.  Just not today.

I own this mess.  I got us into it.  I will get us out of it.

Next post Saturday, May 30th.

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You can Talk About the Score and Still Develop Players

Last  Sunday I spoke about my concern that I’d gone too far away from my long held beliefs about how to play the game of soccer.  I don’t believe I have but it was worrisome all the same.  I think the concern is how I go about teaching the game of soccer to players.  I want the players I coach to

  1. Strive to be the more sporting team
  2. Strive to play the more exciting and entertaining brand of soccer (but not at the expense of #1) and
  3. Strive to win each and every game (but not at the expense of #2 or #1)

The two teams of developing high performance players I’m currently coaching have, over the years, been taught to keep the ball (play possession soccer).  That’s obvious to see in the way they try to play.   The way that I think that it’s been done for the most part is that these girls are told that booting the ball is bad, they must learn to control the ball, pass and move.  Hours upon hours is spent teaching players this.  Reminding them not to just kick the ball and chase it but to use their skills and pass the ball around.

In my own experiences of observing other coaches and trying to do it myself, the biggest problem I’ve seen with that approach is that these players stop being so direct and start playing more indirectly.  They move the ball side to side and back.  That eagerness to go forward, the kind you see in most games featuring players 8 or younger where everyone is chasing the ball, gets coached out of kids.

Playing forward requires risk taking as not every foray forward will lead to a goal but a loss of possession instead.  I think that’s the biggest problem.  I think coaches get upset too often at players when they lose the ball by playing it forward.  In turn the players reaction then is to play it sideways or backwards (the safer options) and keep possession.  But what gets lost is that the whole purpose of going side to side or backwards is to find a way to play the ball forwards.

I want the same answer on the right-hand side of the equals sign as any self-respecting soccer coach does – players that are creative, skillful and tactically flexible.  However, I’m playing with the elements that are on the left-hand side of the equation – arranging them in combinations that, to some, may look like they don’t add up.

So I’ve made playing the ball forward a priority:

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

And sure, sometimes right now it looks a little messy.  A little bit like the Timbit soccer days.  However, I’m confident we’ll sort it out as the season progresses.

One key thing that I’ve tried to push in order to promote attacking and entertaining soccer is what I’ve called shock and awe.  Basically, its all about playing dominant soccer.  You attack with the ball and then when you don’t have it, you attack the ball to get it back so that you can attack with it again.  You are always attacking and therefore you are always trying to control the game, the tempo and, of course, your opponent.  It doesn’t matter how strong your opponent is either, shock and awe means having the belief and confidence in yourself and your teammates to carry out that game plan regardless of the opponent.

A key part of shock and awe is getting off to a quick start.  I want the opposition to chase us, I don’t want us to have to be chasing them.  Each game, one of the main aims is to try and get a shot on goal in the first two minutes and a goal in the first five minutes.  This week at training we talked about the power of scoring.  We talked about how scoring the first goal can sometimes be a bad thing as it wakes your opponent up (and sometimes makes you get a little cocky).

That’s why pushing for a second goal is so important (one of our objectives is to try and score two goals each and every game).  One goal may get your opponent playing better against you.  A second goal puts them back on their heels.  But most everyone knows that a two-goal lead is the worst lead in soccer.  The third goal changes the game.  If you score it (3-0) the game is practically over.  If they score it (2-1) and it’s game on.  So a second goal puts your opponent on their heels but a third goal sends them reeling.  And a fourth goal?  Well that is definitely game over.

Here’s a quick little video that was put together for the players to show them this in action and review this mindset about goal scoring.

Another part of getting off to a quick start is a proactive kick-off.  For me, that means going forward with the ball instead of backwards.  Try to put your opponent on their heels (and in their half) right away instead of playing the ball back into your own half and letting your opponent come and pressure you close to your own goal.

Here’s another quick little video that was put together for the players to show them the elements that go into a proactive kick-off.

When you read through this post (heck, when I read through this) it may be easy to see why it looks like I’ve forsaken development for winning.  Right now I believe in game-based coaching.  Coaching players all parts of the game all the time so that the transfer from training to games is as complete as possible because what we do in training looks and feels exactly like what we do in games.

It’s hard to talk about a game without talking about the flow of it.  Who’s attacking.  Who’s defending.  Therefore, it’s hard not to talk about scoring goals or preventing goals.  Still though, that’s not the same as “The Score.”  Getting players to learn to play attacking and entertaining soccer means scoring goals – lots of goals!  To do that I need to create players who are great dribblers, great passers, great finishers and able to put all of that together into a great team attacking effort.

In other words, I’m using the scoring of goals (not necessarily the score line itself) to help develop creative, skillful and tactically flexible players.  I think there are coaches out there who truly feel you cannot talk about the score and still develop players properly.  I don’t think it just possible, I think it necessary.

Next post Sunday, May 24th.

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Week 26: Forsaking My Ideals?

It’s been an interesting week for the two high performance youth soccer teams that I am coaching.  Six straight days of programming.   Four training sessions sandwiched between our first league game and an exhibition game.  With this being a long weekend in Canada, we had no scheduled league game which is why we put an exhibition game at the end of our week.  I’m very glad we did.

Last Sunday I talked about the ups and downs of our first league games.  And yesterday, I talked about getting the players to practice the way they play – my continued pursuit of the development of intensity and assertiveness within them.  Both teams had good training weeks based on the work we’d done to remind them about treating their training with the same effort they would a game.  And our endeavours to help players learn to properly mentally prepare before a game and stayed prepared during a game showed itself during our exhibition games Friday.

Mind you, I also pushed the two teams very, very hard before and during those exhibition games.  I did far more coaching than I want to do, however, short of running on the field myself and playing, I was committed to making sure that I helped those players execute the game plan.  I wanted them to see that it can be done.  I wanted them to realize, as I still don’t think they all 100% believed in it or themselves, that following the game plan can and does work.

We got the positive outcome that I’d hoped for (and for both teams!).    Finally, all the work that the coaches and players have put in over the last four months showed.  And yet I still feel…well…guilty about how it all came about.

First, I think (no, I know) I did too much coaching.  I over coached.  I joy sticked my players into getting that positive outcome.  Granted, they still had to play the game but I was on the players in both games from opening kick to final whistle.  In a way I don’t think they would have gotten the results they did if I hadn’t.  I’ve justified it to myself by saying, as I did above, that I just wanted to help them get a taste of success so that the belief and confidence they had in themselves would increase and the buy-in to the program philosophy would solidify.  Still, I’m disappointed with myself and quite frankly it’s ruining my enjoyment of what was accomplished.

Second, I worry the overall game philosophy that I’ve created is too focused on outcome and that I’ve forsaken development.  To understand how serious this is for me I’d say imagine some sort of religious zealot losing his/her faith.  I feel a little more than lost.  Foundationless.  It’s a little scary.

But I’m really tired of the outcomes I’ve gotten doing it the way I have been doing it.  I want the players to be skilful.  I want them to play beautifully.  It’s just a lot easier to do those things when the players – especially girls – believe in themselves and their teammates.  And it’s a lot easier to build that belief and confidence when the players themselves can see the tangibility within the plan.

In our exhibition games to end the week I believe that palpability was felt.  I believe the players experienced it.  I believe I saw the lightbulb go on for those that were still on the fence about it all.  Or maybe I just saw what I wanted/needed to see to justify this all to myself.    Maybe we won both games but played very ugly soccer in the process.

So conflicted.

All I can figure at this point is to continue with the plan and see it through.  This is a new approach for me.  It’s going to take some time.  I still whole-heartedly believe that this can work.  There may be some critics along the way that trash our playing style saying we’re too direct, however, I know I can defend what it is we’re trying to do.

These groups of girls that I’m coaching have been taught to keep possession.  Being girls they willing share the ball with each other and that means that taking risks that could see them lose the ball are rarely taken.  That is one extreme on the spectrum.  The other extreme is getting them to become heavy risk takers and selfish individualists.

So to those that will openly criticize what we do I say that sometimes you have to know where the ends of the spectrum are before you can find middle ground.  The happy medium between attacking and defending.  Developing technical players and tactical decision makers.   Playing beautifully and winning.  That’s my job right now, to help the players discover the extremes so that they can find the balance between the two.

Only time will tell whether this is visionary or delusional.

Next post Saturday, May 22nd.

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But I am Trying my Hardest, aren’t I?

I’m trying to remember from when I was young how aware I was of my overall level of effort.   I’m curious because the last few months of coaching has made me realize that kids of present-day don’t seem to have a good grasp on the concept.  I know I was aware of the times when I didn’t work my hardest.  Kids still seem to be able to recognize that today.  I know the players I coach are trying to work hard.  When asked if they’d worked their hardest, they tell me that they’ve worked at or near their maximum and yet I have my doubts.  I know there’s more in them than what they’ve shown.

So am I the one over estimating their abilities?  Or do they just really not know how to judge their effort?  Or are they really working as hard  as they think they can because the do not realize if they dug deeper they could actually work even harder?  Maybe in saying they’ve worked their hardest when I don’t think they have it’s their attempt to try to save face (they don’t want to admit that they aren’t working their hardest)?

I don’t know.

In trying to answer some of these questions, one of the things that I’ve done is get the players to take their heart rates during bouts of activity. They’ve also calculated a few different target heart rates based on the required intensity of the activity.  They can then compare their heart rate during their activity with the actual target heart rate they should have for that type of activity.  It’s one way that I can help them learn to match how they think and feel they’re doing with how they’re actually doing.

We’ve also had them assess their own performance and that of their team’s at selected sessions.  They give themselves a mark from one to ten and they give their team a mark from one to ten.  We compare the individual mark average to the team mark average as well as to the average mark the coaches gave the team.  That provides plenty of discussion because typically the coaches’ marks have been below the team’s marks.  To help the players decide what a 9 out of 10 should look like, we came up with a set of action words that we turned into an acronym – PACED – Pressure, Attentive, Competitive, Efficient and Demanding.  Each of those words has a series of descriptors that tell the players what doing that particular action item well would look like.

Another good one – especially with kids I find – is exposing them to the experiences that show them how other kids their age can do a certain thing.  For example, both teams I coach played their first league games last weekend.  Since January I have been working with both groups to promote a higher level of intensity and assertiveness in their play.  However, I don’t think until we actually played our first league game the other day and the players saw with their own eyes other girls their age being intense and assertive that they saw (experienced for themselves) what it was that we’d been talking about all winter.

Raising their intensity level over the last couple of months has been challenging because of that.  Sometimes you don’t know that you can do better until you push yourself against someone else who is already doing better.  At times, both teams struggled in their league openers with the intensity and assertiveness of their opponents.  We had bad first touches and bad passes all over the place because of that faster and more physical pace.

When we started the program back on January 12, 2015 the very first thing I had them write down in their journals was this quote: “Practice the way you want to play.”  I knew that we needed to raise our compete level if we were going to have any chance of feeling this whole program was a worthwhile experience.  I also knew that that meant learning to work as hard in training as they would in a game, something I knew they weren’t yet accustom to doing.  I started with that to set the tone.   Coaches reminded them of the need to practice the way they play for a number of weeks and then it drifted a bit into the background as other things got emphasized.

It came back out again this week in training as we reminded them that the many errors they made during league play were a result of them not being acclimated to the other developing high performance teams that we play.  “I know you haven’t been practicing the way you play,” I told them, “Because those errors we made in the game we have not made during training.”  If we’d been following the quote, we’d have been comfortable under the pressure we were under last weekend and would not have made so many mistakes.

And so back to the drawing board we go.  Back to the training field, asking the players here or there to give us 50% intensity or 85% or their full effort for this, that or the other activity.   We try to motivate them through our words when we see that on the field they’re not delivering the level needed.   We continue to talk about their perception of their effort and intensity versus our perception.  We continue to discuss discrepancies between players and coaches and try to understand why they exist.

It’s a very different approach I must say then what I grew up with in sport or what I did when I first started coaching.  I remember getting yelled at as the default when we weren’t (quote, unquote) trying hard enough.  Whether we actually were trying hard enough or what we thought about the whole topic didn’t seem to matter too much.  This modern day approach is more meticulous in nature.  It takes longer I think then some of the more traditional and old fashioned ways of getting players to produce.  However, it helps the players own their effort, helps them learn to evaluate their effort and gives them the opportunity to learn how to manipulate their effort.

After all, a stick or a carrot is only good when it’s in someone else’s hand and is wielded/dangled in front of you.  What happens when that person is no longer standing there holding it to your face?

Next post Sunday, May 17th.

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Week 25: Start of League Play

While the two girls’ high performance soccer teams I’m currently coaching started two new themes in training this week, the key happening to note was that it was game one of our league schedule today.

After spending the first four months of training on attacking themes, we’ve now switched to working on defending.   We’ve also started working on our shooting and finishing too.  The defending we’re working on is ball-oriented defending.  I’m trying to help the players understand that a player is not a threat nor is a space if the ball can’t get to her/it.  If you don’t deal with the ball then opponents and spaces are a threat.

Shooting and finishing is an interesting topic.  So much of what I see out there for activities and exercises is very technical.  Yet shooting and finishing is such a read and react type of skill.  We do need the work on technique but just as importantly we need to work on decision making.  Decision making only becomes involved when their are opponents trying to stop you from scoring.  I think the ideal is probably small-sided games of 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3 in small spaces where the distance almost begs you to try and score as soon as you can.

Still, if you have no technique then even making the right decision and selecting the right method to finish doesn’t look so valuable.  The debate is complicated further by the fact that we do shooting and finishing on Mondays.  That is our recovery day after our weekend game and so represents a lighter session.  That means we end up doing less intense game-like exercises and focus more on the technique of finishing.

Game day #1 was interesting.  We travelled to play our opponent at a neutral central venue location – a university stadium field.  It’s a nice experience as most Canadian competitive soccer players don’t get to start their pre-game routine in a change room and then walk out onto the field to start to play.  I think for some it also adds another element of noise through which they need to work in order to keep their focus.

Both teams showed commitment to the pre-game routine.  For the younger group, nerves still got the best of them so it tells me that they’re going through the motions of this extended preparatory routine without completely benefiting (or seeing how to benefit) from it.  The older group had a much better start to the game than the younger group.  However, both groups did not effectively use their in-game routines to help them keep their focus.

The end result was that while both teams tried their hardest to follow our game plan and achieve the goals we’d set out for them, some positive moments were eclipsed by more moments where, as a coach, I realized we have a lot of work still to do.  Tonight, as I sat down to try and write this, my head was swimming (drowning is more like it) in thoughts.  All of a sudden I felt as if the direction wasn’t so clear.  Watching both games today and seeing all the things that need to be done added up to a pretty lengthy to-do list.  At times today it became almost overwhelming to think about (grab a paper bag and breathe into it kind of overwhelming).

But then I realized, I was suffering from the same problem that these two teams I’m coaching were suffering from today.  I was letting the noise distract me and pull me from the plan.  The plan is the plan.  The plan is there to not only give me something to follow but to remind me simply to FOLLOW THE PLAN.  And so that’s what I’m going to do.  Business as usual this week at training as we regroup and prepare for a May long weekend that sees us playing an exhibition game because of League policy not to schedule games during holiday periods.

Next post Saturday, May 16th.

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Mental Skills and Game Day Routines

A few weeks back I wrote in a post that I’d be sharing a mental skills training program I was putting together for the players I was coaching.  Well, I finally got around to it.  Here it is.

Mental Skills Training Program

I wanted it to be as practical as possible so I tried to keep it simple.  There are five mental skills (positive self-talk, energizing, relaxation, concentration and visualization) prefaced with an introduction to a concept called the ideal performance state (IPS).  Each skill is presented on a single page – a tip sheet – that briefly explains what the skill is, why you’d want to use it and how to practice it.

These mental skills are used in the service of our game day routines.  The routines actually cover from the night before the game to moments before the first training session back after the game.  So the pre-game routine is the time period from the night before right up to kick-off.  The in-game time period is pretty self-explanatory.  Post-game is from last whistle to moments before the next training session.  Each routine – pre, in and post – have specific actions to achieve.  They also tell the players how they should feel both physically and mentally.

The players have their pre, in and post game routines on posters.  They refer to these posters each weekend as they prepare for game day.  The mental skills that are listed on their routine posters they can then find in their mental skills training program.  Here they are:

Pre- and In-Game Routine Posters

The objective of the pre-game routine is for each player to prepare herself individually.  By the time she arrives at the game day venue, she should be full of belief and confidence.  That’s the first part of the pre-game routine.  The second part is the coming together of individuals to get ready to play as a team.  It’s the point where we move from ‘ME’ to ‘WE.’  This second part is all about developing understanding.  The players need to see within each other belief and confidence.  They need to see this because they need to be able to trust that each one of their teammates is ready and able to perform at her best – her ideal performance state (IPS) – that day.

Belief, confidence and understanding.  This is what our pre-game routine aims to do.

The in-game routine is more of a scenarios list then a routine.  It presents a number of common scenarios that could happen during games and provides players with an appropriate response/reaction to these scenarios.  The scenarios selected are primarily elements that could distract players from the game plan and make them lose their belief and confidence in themselves and their understanding with their teammates.

The post-game routine is all about self-reflection.  The girls have a seven item question list.  They will go through each question and review in their minds as soon as possible after the game their answer to each one.  That critical reflection (and lots of rest) becomes the basis for the start of our next week of training.  While we will do a small debrief during the cool-down directly after the game, we will also debrief on the first training session of the next week.  It gives us a focus and purpose in training for the rest of that week.  Here are the reflection questions as part of the post-game routine:

Post-Game Routine Reflection Questions

And of course, game day prep wouldn’t solely be just mental prep, there’s the physical too.  The players have been given information on nutrition and hydration for pre-, in- and post-game.  The goal is to cover all angles and to show them that the best prepared athletes are typically the best performing athletes.

My hope in all of this, when I close my eyes and see the vision of all this work coming to fruition, is a group of players that are consistently strong first half starters.  There’s not a good start this week and a bad start next week.  Consistently strong.  Also, they’re able to hold that strong start through the game.  And finally, they can close out games consistently as strong as they did when they began them.

Consistency is not something you’d probably associate with youth soccer players.  There’s plenty of ups and downs with them as far as their development goes.  So consistency of performance through proper preparation is my goal.  That doesn’t necessarily mean, we’ll win every game we play.  It just means that to those that are in the know (when it comes to youth athlete development), will be able to see the effort and detail that has gone in to these players’ preparations.

I know those types of folks will get it.  They’ll appreciate what it is we’re trying to do.  The challenge becomes keeping the kids and parents motivated if all of this extra effort above and beyond the regular call of duty doesn’t produce results on the scoreboard.  I just hope that they can find their way to seeing how this training will benefit more in the long run – both on and off the field – than it may during this current season.

Next post Sunday, May 10th.

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Week 24: Transition to Outdoor and a New Theme

As the two high performance girls’ soccer teams I’m coaching have hurtled into May, we now make the move from indoor training to outdoor training.  Also, our first league games are a week from today.  It’s time for a new set of themes to work on.

I am attempting to take a tactical periodization or non-linear periodization approach to training these two teams.  I’m trying to train all elements all the time.  More accurately, I’m trying to train all elements not coach all elements.  The environment in which I train the two teams is as game-like as possible.  That way it has the fitness requirements, the communication requirements, the decision making requirements and so on that those players need when they play and actual game.  I do have themes but it’s not like I coach only those themes and nothing else.

Mixing BoardI think the best analogy is that it’s like a sound mixing board.  All elements (physical, cognitive, socio-emotional, technical and tactical) the players need are present on that board,  in other words, in each training session.  However, it’s just that at certain times some of them are turned down quite a bit while others are turned up.  None of them are turned off though.  They’re always on, just not always emphasized to the same extent.

We’ve spent the last four months working on attacking themes.  For me, that’s par for the course.  I like to try and do two to three times as much attacking work as defending with youth players.  I find defending easy to teach and easy to learn.  I find attacking easy to teach but hard to learn.  Younger players are more willing to take the risks necessary to learn to become better attackers so I figure focusing more on that now while they’re young is the better long-term progression to their development.

Our attacking themes have focused around two attacking mantras.  The first mantra:

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

And the second mantra:

  • Shoot first
  • Pass second
  • Dribble third

These mantras have represented the framework for helping the players understand how what they’ve been doing in practice relates to the big game.  The first mantra is all about mindset.  I want the players I coach to want to attack, to want to play entertaining soccer.  We’ve worked on vision and awareness (which ties into look forward), dribbling and running with the ball and turning and receiving (which ties into play forward).  We’ve also worked on when to pass and when to dribble (which ties into the second mantra).

I like the second mantra because it reminds the player who is about to receive the ball how she should prioritize her decisions when she gets the ball.  First choice is, “Can I score?”  If not then the second choice is, “Can I play the ball to a teammate that’s in a better position to score than me?” That represents the play forward of the first mantra.  Finally, if a player can’t shoot and she can’t pass then the only thing left to do is dribble (or run with the ball or shield).  I think we often forget that possession in soccer is not only a team concept.  It is an individual concept too.  If a player cannot keep possession of the ball by herself when she is under pressure then how could she ever expect to keep the ball as part of a team?

Another theme we’ve just finished has been the attacking and defending principles of play.  We introduced and defined each attacking-defending counteracting pair of principles over the course of a number of sessions.  The girls got to experiment with them and see why they are important.  Now we can use those terms in our discussions with the players (and the players with us) and we’ll all be able to understand what each other is referring to.

So after four months of working on attacking, it’s time to do some work on defending.  A couple of new mantras while drive this theme over the next three months.  The first mantra is:

  • Get together
  • Go together

This one is all about treating defending as a collective and not as an individual action.  The team, when they’ve lost possession, gets together.  Then the teams hunts the ball together (strength in numbers!).  I also like to use the phrase swarm and smother.  The team swarms the ball and smothers all options for our opponent to keep possession.

The second defending mantra is:

  • First to the ball
  • No turn
  • Jockey
  • Tackle

Just like on attack a player receiving the ball needs to make a decision about what to do with it, on defense each player needs to make a decision about how she is going to defend.  Being first to the ball is at the top because if you can be first to the ball then there is no defending.  Period.  End of story!  If you can’t nick in to intercept the ball then you at least try to get close enough to keep the player from turning.  By doing so, you keep her playing back towards her own goal instead of towards yours.  If you can’t be first to the ball and you can’t stop her from turning then you must jockey.  That is, keep her from getting into the space behind you with the ball.  Finally, at some point you will probably have to tackle or, even better, try to insert yourself between the ball and the opponent and dispossess her.

Inserting yourself between the opponent and the ball is sort of like being first to the ball.  The idea isn’t just to tackle the ball and kick it away as that may end up simply knocking it to another opponent.  Taking possession of the ball means you have now become the attacker – a much better outcome then just kicking the ball away from the player.

I’ll have more to share in the coming weeks as the particular kind of defending I will be working with the players on is called ball-oriented defending.  Of course, I have some interesting methods for introducing players to the concept.  I’ll share them here and let you all know how it’s going.

Next post Saturday, May 9th.

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Coach Education Research Update

I was struggling for a topic to write about today so I decided to update my coach education research article page with a handful of new additions.  If any of them sound interesting, please let me know and I’d be happy to send you a copy.


Next post Sunday, May 3rd.

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Week 23 of Indoor Training: Mental Skills Testing with Youth Soccer Players

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that the two high performance soccer programs that I’m coaching have been working towards developing a pre- and in-game routine for the start of their season.  The goal of those routines being to develop belief, confidence and understanding (pre-game) and then maintain that belief, confidence and understanding (in-game).  Also, with distractions often pulling their young minds from the game plan, they are being taught how to re-focus once they recognize they’ve gotten off track.

These routines involve the development of a series of mental skills – relaxation, activation, concentration, visualization and positive-self talk.  I’ve had the players complete three questionnaires designed to point out the aspects of their game that give them trouble, psychologically speaking, and then that helps to better identify which one of the aforementioned skills they need more.

The goal is to get a baseline now, just before the season starts, and then a final measurement at the end of the season in order to compare results and (hopefully!) progress.  Also, collecting this information is a way for me to understand more what the results are of a mental skills training program applied to 13- and 14-year-old Canadian female developing elite soccer players.  It’s one thing to theorize how good mental skills training is for young as well as older athletes.  It’s another thing to actually try to put it into practice.

Here are the three questionnaires:

The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory-28 (ACSI) – This comes from the work of Smith, Smoll, Schutz and Ptacek from 1995.  It was designed specifically for older adolescents and tests for coping with adversity, peaking under pressure, goal setting/mental preparation, concentration, freedom from worry, confidence/achievement motivation and coachability.

Development and Validation of a Multidimensional Measure of Sport-Specific Psychological Skills_The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory-28

The Sport Orientation Questionnaire (SOQ) – This was designed for older adolescents by Gill and Deeter and 1988, however, I couldn’t get my hands on the original so the article I’ve included here is a group that used it on Iranian martial artists in 2013.  The SOQ assesses competitiveness, desire to win and interpersonal competition.

Validation of an Instrument for Measuring Athletes Sport Orientation in Iranian Martial Artists Community

The 12-Item Grit Scale – Designed by Angela Duckworth and colleagues in 2007, grit is a hot topic right now.  Call it a person’s mental toughness and his or her ability to keep persevering even when faced with the challenges of pursuing long-term goals.  I do not have an original research article for this one, just a copy of the questions and the scoring that someone else pulled together which I found on the internet.

Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals

All of these developmentally appropriate objective youth sport measures came from a 1993 article by Harris, Blom and Visek.  In this article they “provide an understanding of the practical issues and best practice guidelines pertaining to assessment during the provision of sport psychology series to children and adolescent athletes.”

Assessment in Youth Sport_Practical Issues and Best Practice Guide

It’s a great article if you’re interested in learning more about the delivery of sport psychology to a non-adult population.  It also provides around 30 references to developmentally appropriate sport and social psychology-related measures for assessing children and youth.

Next post Saturday, May 2nd.

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Coach Kids and Save the World

This past Wednesday was Earth Day.  It was the forty-fifth anniversary of the event.  In speaking about some factual differences between 1970 and 2015, I heard a journalist on CBC Radio comment that in that time the population has doubled and the number of species of plants and animals has dropped by half.  But what really caught my attention was his story ending statement, something akin to the following:

“It’s not a matter of whether the planet will go on.  It will.  The question is how long will plants and animals be able to survive.”

A bit dramatic?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

This immediately made me think about the way I deliver the two high performance girls’ soccer programs I’ve been hired to coach.  As silly as it may sound, I feel that my coaching duties tie completely into our future as it pertains to the mission of Earth Day.  That statement from the journalist haunts me.  It reminds me of why I contemplated ever having kids (even though now I do have one and another soon to arrive).  Prior to becoming a father, and even still now, all I could think about is the legacy I’d be leaving my child.  “Here you go son, enjoy the plight I’ve left for you!”  I never thought it fair to bring another person into this world only to have him or her deal with all the crap that was created by the rest of us.

“The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” – John Scully

So over the years I’ve done what I can to teach the kids I coach to take an active role in their learning.  To become critical thinkers.  To develop the skills necessary to become adaptable and flexible.  To go beyond the simple X’s and O’s of being good soccer players.

Often times though that might look a lot less traditional than the typical youth soccer environment that kids and their parents are used to.  I feel this only proves my point.  We’re not very adaptable to change and we’re passing that lack of flexibility on to our children.

How do I know that the parents of the players I work with have a problem with what I’m doing?  I don’t really but I’m pretty certain they exist.  Some are very supportive and they let me know that.  However, those that aren’t never seem to speak directly to me about their concerns.  Instead, the technical director of the club that I work for seems to get fairly regular calls from some of these people asking why it is I’m doing things the way I do them.

I think it’s pretty obvious why I do what I do.

Do we not yet see that it’s about far more than learning soccer?  With all the melodrama of a great blog post, our very future is at stake here and kids growing up today in the 21st century need a set of skills that growing up I (and probably my parents and their parents…) did not get, but could have certainly benefitted from.  If we did, we’d probably have a healthier planet than we currently do.

21st century kids need to be able to show the following:

  1. Resilience – able to handle and bounce back from failure
  2. Resourcefulness – able to adapt and to have a Plan B (C, D, E or Z)  if Plan A goes out the window
  3. Reflection – able to self-analyze and to understand how who they were can help them become a better future version of themselves
  4. Relationships – able to see that the group is far smarter than any one individual within the group and therefore committed to the group

Sure, I can take a traditional approach to coaching and just teach these kids how to play soccer.  Or I can do my part to help them learn a set of skills (which manifest themselves in the form of the 4 R’s, for example) that will not only help them become better soccer players but also autonomous and responsible 21st century citizens.  Adults capable of solving the serious problems that we’ve put in their laps.

Why do I choose to be a heretic?  Well, I don’t think I can change the world but I can help prepare today’s kids (including my own) with the skills necessary to do their best to change it.  I don’t believe that education is the sole responsibility of schools and teachers.  I am far more than just a “soccer coach.”  So I will do my part in the best way I know how to try and reverse the mess that we’ve so unceremoniously left for the current, and the coming, generations.

Next post Sunday, April 26th.

And here are 11 more great Earth Day talks.


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