Navigating the Fine Lines of Coaching

As a boy, I lay on the couch one Friday morning before the school day began, eating my chocolate Pop-Tart and watching the Mighty Hercules cartoon on the tv.  It was in that moment that a few things hit me like a ton of bricks.  It was an absolutely beautiful June day.  It was the last day of school for the week.  After school I’d be able to play with my friends and then I’d have the whole weekend to play too.  Tears of joy welled up in my eyes and a few rolled down my cheeks.  I was so happy to be alive.  Life could not have been any better.

I was nine.  I remember that day with the clarity to make it feel like it was only twenty-four hours ago that it happened.  To say that life was so much more simple then is an understatement.  God, I long for that simplicity.  I’m so jealous of that boy.  He didn’t know just how lucky he was.

Now I coach youth soccer players  Many of them trying to move on to play at the highest level possible.  My adult life has been complicated by the challenge of somehow trying to help these kids continue to experience that simplicity of youth for as long as possible while also instilling in them the hard core habits that they will require to excel at the game of soccer at an elite level.

It’s a balancing act that on most days I wonder if I’ve managed to get right.  If I push hard, I risk being portrayed as negative and too demanding.  If I don’t push hard enough, I’m at fault for being too casual and blasé.

Take a look at these two definitions.  I hope you then see what I mean.

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Instructor or bully?  There’s a fine line there.  At what point does commanding someone to do something turn into intimidation?  And who gets to make that determination?

What I find has happened over the last three decades of coaching is that kids seem a great deal softer to me than they were when I first started coaching.  I know I’m far less “old school” than I used to be and yet there are days where I really feel guilty for pushing as hard as I do.  I find they get discouraged so easily.  It has become more and more difficult to be honest – especially if that honesty is to let a player know it isn’t going as well as it could or should.

And it’s at that point that I’ve often felt I’ve been the one fingered for that player’s resulting lack of motivation and passion to continue with the game.  I’ve been unfair with them or too hard on them and this has destroyed their passion and desire to continue.

But from my perspective, many of these situations are just drops in each player’s failure bucket and yet they’re being experienced by them  like tidal waves.  I think to myself if they’re being mentally and emotionally washed away by these minuscule difficulties then how in heavens name are they ever going to succeed in the adult world let alone on the soccer field?  In speaking with other coaching colleagues about this dilemma, it is a commonly shared concern today.

However, I do my best to be optimistic about the players’ chances.  Like my Nana always told me, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.  Unfortunately, that’s not a great coaching philosophy though.  Saying too little can be seen as just as bad as saying too much.  Yet there have been days in my coaching career where finding something positive to say has been very difficult.  And the last thing I want to do is concoct positivity where no positivity exists.  Kids can smell a patronizer from miles away.  They have no time for such a person.  Who does?

So I find myself transitioning between coaching spurts of going easy and going hard.  I don’t want any player to quit because of me and yet my job is to prepare these players for the realities of playing at the very highest level.  Only a very few will actually ever get there because of the severity of those realities.  However, without some base level of mental toughness, some level of grit, I worry that we will produce an even smaller number of potential players capable of playing at the highest level of the game.

How much of this dilemma is coaches like me being too hard on players and how much of it is the players being too soft?

Let me shift from coach to parent for a moment.  As a parent, I want my two boys to grow up completely capable of dealing with all the drops, splashes and tidal waves of failure that they’ll experience over their lifetimes.  The way that I can do that is by not jumping in every single time they get in trouble.   I can also let them experience the raw emotional pain of failure, as hard as that may be for me to watch and not try to fix.

Blogger and mother of two Stephanie Metz, I think it’s safe to say, shares a similar philosophy.  Her 2013 post “Why My Kids are NOT the Centre of My World” got over a million hits and garnished over 1600 comments to read.  As the Heretic Coach, I’m a pretty hard core writer but when I read her post on the state of parenting and social expectations for kids today versus a time way back when I blushed.  Here’s an excerpt from the post that talks about her two young sons:

“Everyone parents differently, and I respect that. The current generation may be one that expects nothing less than everything from this world. But I know of two gentlemen that are going to be able to accept failure and move on having learned something from it.

I know of two gentleman who will be hurt emotionally, but who will be able to work through the hurt and carry on with life. I will cushion the emotional fall as much as a mom can, but I will not completely prevent it from happening. They will not expect whoever hurt them to be punished. Heck, I might even teach my children the power of forgiveness.

These two gentlemen will understand the value of hard work, and know that hard work is required to get where one wants to be in life.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up the way I will also raise my two boys and it sums up how I feel I’ve gone about my coaching of youth soccer players over the last three decades.

Next post Saturday, September 5th.

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Week #38: Chasing Consistency

38 weeks into the program with the two developing high performance youth soccer teams  and the end is in sight – two months left.  Our biggest challenge this past week was trying to practice in the dark.  With day light dwindling, practising until 9:00 pm is just not possible any more.  About 8:30 and you already start to get a new definition of the soccer term blind side run.  But we do the best we can to offer a good product with what we’re given.  This week we’ll have to overlap the start-finish times of the two sessions to try and make sure that the later session does not get gipped.  Soon I hope (really, really hope) we’ll be switching to a lit field.

Since the mid-season break, the players have now completed three weeks of training.  The routine is there.  The improvements are coming.  Consistency is now what I’m after.  Each week I see some of the new things we’ve been working on come out in our league game.  At the same time, each week things that we have already learned disappear during a league game.  Where’d they go?  It’s still very positive and you can still talk of progress but it’s not consistent.

During our games this weekend the younger team ended up with a really big surprise.  They battled hard with their opponent, as they always do.  They worked collectively to defend and keep our opponent’s number of shots down to a minimum, which we’ve really been doing better at over the last few weeks.  They also attacked in numbers, which again is something we weren’t doing at the beginning but that has really improve recently.

So today was another good day for seeing those positives.  And then towards the end of the game something else happened.  Something unusual for us.  We kept our mental focus so we didn’t give up any soft goals.  Our attacking has gotten better but our attacks (shooting on goal) has been very weak.  And then today we had players in front of our opponents’ goal making it difficult for them to clear the ball.  These were girls busting a gut and throwing their bodies about to try and stop their opponent from clearing the ball.  That gave us more chances to shoot and shoot we did.

We were down 2-0 over two thirds of the game – a relatively good day for this group – and in the last third scored two goals to tie the game.  This was only the third time this season that we’ve scored and the first time that we scored more than one goal.  A very good performance and a very good result for the younger group.

The older group had a game that I think could be best characterized as the one that got away.  The opposition was, on paper, very weak.  An opponent like that I hate preparing for.  Human nature is such that we think games like that are going to be easy and then they end up being hard.  This one was hard, much harder than it needed to be, and we were the ones that sometimes throughout the game over complicated our own play.

With the older group, I’ve given them the opportunity to take part in the selection of their attacking and defending tactics.  In particular, the last number of weeks during the pre-game they’ve decided when they want to defend from a full press and for how long and when they want to shift to a lower defensive block and for how long.  The last two weeks we’ve been really trying to pay attention to the tempo of our play – particularly on attack but also on defense.  So today I gave the starting midfield the chance to control the tempo by giving them the call on when we should slow the game down and when we should speed it up.  They were to communicate that to the rest of the team as the game was played so that all players would be on the same page offensively and defensively.

The beginning started well enough.  We pressed very nicely trying to use Barcelona’s famous 6 second rule to immediately swarm and smother the ball as soon as we’d lost it.  If that immediate push didn’t get us the ball then we were to back off, give our opponents’ more space and time with the ball and defend closer to our goal.  While the pressure was good, that sort of defending makes your brain stay at a fast pace.  I’ve seen it before many times.  The end result is that you then automatically start attacking very quickly.  That turns into rushing and rushing doesn’t make for good soccer.  The first few attacks worked out okay but as we started to get tired from constant hard pressing and constant fast attacking, we started to make mistakes and give away the ball when we were spread out across the field and not in great positions to defend collectively.  We gave our opponent the chance to get a foot hold in the game.

We scored first, deservedly so, and for the most part were in good control.  It was at that point that the midfield should have slowed the game down a bit and managed the 1-0 lead.  They should have made sure we didn’t do anything stupid to give up a goal.  Unfortunately, we did get caught.  We got caught very badly and a very fast forward went 1v1 with one of our centre backs and scored.

They scored again and so did we.  We spent most of the third period in their half, trying to score the elusive winning goal.  They played on the counter and gave us some pretty good scares in the process with their speedy forwards.  We created some very nice attacks but we just could not pull the trigger and find the back of the goal.  That’s something that’s really been haunting the older group – an inability to finish.  Scoring some more goals would take so much pressure off of our back line to have to keep the goals out.  Scoring some more goals would just shift our mentality to where it is I’ve been trying to get us since the beginning of the season.  If (and when) it happens I see things coming together very nicely.

At the end of the game I asked the starting central midfielders how hard it was to make a decision about the tempo and then communicate that with their teammates.  They said it was very hard.  Upon review, they could see the moment at which point they should have slowed the game down in the first period.  A good lesson learned.  I could have made the tempo and defending decisions myself but I want the players to own that experience.  I want their strong play to be a result of their own excellent preparations.

I’ll give them the chance to do so again next week.  Hopefully they’ll show they learned from this weekend’s game.  The younger group have shown that they are learning and adapting to their environment.  The older group is very capable of doing that too.  We just need to see it weekend in and weekend out

I know we’re close and with only a few weeks left I hope we’ll see it soon.  If (and when) it shows up – in all it’s glory and completeness – it will be pretty to watch.

Next post Saturday, August 29th.

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Is the Customer Always Right?

I’d like, as I always try to be in these posts, candid and forthright today. My writing, I really do hope, resonates with someone out there. Besides providing me with the catharsis I need, I always imagine that a similarly struggling youth sport leader stumbles across one, reads it and feels some sense of relief, insight, lucidity or a combination of the three. Of course, what I’m about to say could also be perceived as a rambling diatribe. So be it.

With that said, let me share some observations from my experiences in coaching thus far. These are my opinions and mine alone. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of any organization that I have coached with either previously or currently.

Those of us involved professionally in organized youth soccer recognize the significant dilemma that we face. We service a bipolar market. And I don’t mean that in the psychiatric sense but simply in the sense that there are two parties here that are at different ends of the spectrum. First of all there are the customers – the parents – the ones who do the paying. At the other end of the spectrum are the consumers – the kids – the ones who use the service.

Often (which makes things much easier) your customer and your consumer are one in the same. But not in youth sport. As the service provider, I have only one question: who do I service? The people who don’t pay but for whom the programs are intended or the people that do pay but for whom the programs are not intended?

All I can say about that is that if in organized youth soccer we follow the motto “the customer is always right” to the letter then elite player development in this country will continue to sputter along, well behind the rest of the world.

Let me make an analogy to try to explain my point.

You go to a bakery and buy an item. You like the item but you’re also certain that if it was just a little more sweet/savoury it would be even better. You make your recommendation to the baker. “I really believe if you made this alteration you’d have an even better product,” you say to your baker. Your baker thanks you for your feedback but never does make the change.

You don’t understand. You’ve made what you feel is a valid and helpful suggestion that’s going to increase not only your satisfaction but probably the satisfaction of others who buy that item as well. You seek out and find others that buy that item. You speak to them about your suggestion, selling them on the merits of the idea.

You grow an allegiance and with that backing you approach the baker again. “See, all these people agree with me that you should make the change. You should listen to us. After all, we are the customers and we do the paying.”

What is the baker to do?

So, here’s some food (excuse the pun) for thought:

  1. The customer and the baker both want to do the best that each can do. Neither starts from a position of ill will.
  2. While most of us have done some baking in our kitchens at one time or another, the majority of us are amateur bakers. We are not qualified to make such professional judgments. We also may not be aware that as much as we’d like to see certain items changed in certain ways, that may not be possible. It may actually ruin, not improve, the item. Again, we may have the best of intentions just not the full understanding of the science behind baking.
  3. While all bakers are trained. Not all trained bakers are excellent bakers. There may be things that this baker could do to truly improve his/her skills and therefore enhance the business. Yes, it is a two-way street.
  4. The baker at that bakery may not be an independent business owner. Instead he/she could work for someone else who makes the decisions about what the baker can and cannot do. The baker’s hands may be tied.
  5. Not all bakers may be driven by the same instincts. While some may be driven by profit or success others may be motivated to honour the art of baking. For the former, changing products may be as easy as the blink of an eye if it means people keep coming back. For the latter, that sort of concession may seem an egregious violation of the baking code. For the virtuous baker the customer base may end up being a smaller group but one that follows loyally because that – a more artisanal product – is what they are looking for. The baker and/or the baker’s employer must decide what they stand for.
  6. Customer suggestions can be valuable. However, making a suggestion guarantees only that you’ve been heard. It doesn’t guarantee that the suggestion will be followed.  That is the just limit of any suggestion.
  7. After submitting a suggestion the customer truly feels the baker could have and should have done a better job than the services of another baker at another bakery can always be procured.  This is a free market system at work.

Coaching, like baking, is art married harmoniously with science. However, developing a youth soccer player is far more complicated than anything produced in a bakery. The “customer is always right” slogan works within a sensitive range.  Pay it too little attention as the service provider and you’ll have no customers.  Follow it too closely and the mark that is left on long-term development, on our ability to get elite player development done right in this country, is indelible.

Next post Sunday, August 23rd.

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Week #37: Big Turn Around?

When you coach in a program where the investment in money and time by the families involved is so high, you realize very quickly that you conduct that program in a fish bowl.

This week at training was a nervy one for me.  While trying to focus on each training session and take it one day at a time, I couldn’t help but look ahead to our opponent on the weekend.  We’d played them before – the second game of our season – and now, to start the first game of the second half of our season, we were playing them again.

The first time around was not pretty and I wrote about it in a post here where I took full responsibility for the results.  To sum that last performance up, the two developing high performance girls’s soccer teams I coach lost on that day by a combined score of 15-1.  It was shocking for everyone, devastating for me.  Even though it was only our second game of the season, we’d already been training for five and a half months in preparation.  The performances and the results on that second game day certainly made it feel, and probably to many look as well, as if all that had gone before in the form of preparations had been a total and utter waste.

So with another ten weeks behind us since that awful day, we squared off again.  I prayed to the soccer gods the night before the games, “Please, let us show we’ve improved.  Don’t let us have a bad day tomorrow.  Don’t make it seem like nothing has changed since the last time we played.”  I knew we’d improved but in youth soccer you just never know when the kids are going to show you that improvement.  Despite all the work we’ve done on mental preparation to help them be the best they can be, some days are still a crap shoot to see which team you get.

The older team was up first.  It was a 9:30 am kick-off and the temperature was already twenty-two degrees celsius.  They sputtered their way through the first period, still struggling as they’ve done the last few games, to get their collective full pressure defending right.  We’d had a run of about four games earlier in the season where our collective performance – attacking and defending – was excellent.  Now, the last three games and we have been struggling to put all of those elements back together again.  Yesterday, both teams had chances to score.  They shot and missed, we took extra touches and made extra passes and never even get our shots off.

Before the game, we talked about our defensive strategy in that first period being divided into ten minute segments.  The first ten we’d go high pressure.  The second ten we’d back off to midfield and defend from their.  The final ten we’d go high pressure again.  In that final ten minutes we never did shift to high pressure.  We didn’t get the first ten of high pressure right and were struggling with our midfield pressure so I just couldn’t justify going back to full pressure.

For the second period, I made whole sale changes to the line-up.  There were players on the bench that weren’t getting as much time as the players who had started the game.  I figured now was as good a time as any to give them the chance to play, prove themselves and help turn the game around.  We were shell shocked in that period.  Our opponent had eleven shots and probably another half dozen attempts that narrowly missed.  Really, we should have been down three or four goals.  Thank heavens for a great performance from our keeper and our opponent forgetting their shooting boots at home.  I guess the soccer gods took pity on me as we were still scoreless after two periods.

In the third period, we brought many of the original starters back in.  I urged the players to get their high pressure team defending right (when we lost the ball, we had to get together then go together and hunt the ball as a team).  When we’ve done our defending well, we’ve been a very good team.  Finally, in that third period, I saw signs of the presence of that defending again.  It created for us more attacking opportunities  Our opponent had a few chances and took shots.  We had a some chances but continued to fail to take shots.  0-0 final.

In the end the stats said four shots for and eighteen against.  Our goal was to get fifteen shots and to limit them to less than ten.  We were out played at times and definitely out shot and yet managed a point.  Last time was a 6-1 loss.

The younger team had a fantastic start taking the game to our opponent while, like the older team, still not getting much generated in the way of shots.  For almost fifteen minutes, we were the better team both in offence and defence.  And then one player made an individual error that led to a goal.  She got down on herself, others got down as well.  Within a five minute period they score two more and we were down 3-0 at the break.

After a scoreless second period where we really did a good job of finding our focus again through solid mental toughness, we went into the third period in the blazing heat with the makings of a very improved performance under our belts.  One more lapse in concentration late in the third period costs us another goal.  4-0 final.

The stats say we had six shots (the most we’ve had in over three months), we were aiming for nine.  Still a small victory there.  We wanted to limit our opponent to fifteen shots, they got thirteen.  That was a huge victory as we’ve consistently struggled with the athleticism and physicality that most teams bring to this league and we typically get peppered with shots.  Last time we played this team we lost 9-0.  And if it wasn’t for a period of about 8-10 minutes who knows, we might have even pulled off a tie.

However, at the end of that game I’m speaking with the head coach of the other team and I find out that in that game he chose to play a number of his players out of their strongest positions.  So does that mean our improved performance was the result of their unfamiliarity with the roles that they were playing?  Does that mean they still would have beaten us 9-0 (or more) if he’d kept everyone in their strongest positions?

So at the end of round twelve of our league schedule I find myself asking if we really did show that we improved yesterday.  The results say that we did.  Big time!  However, the performances themselves are less clear.  The younger team definitely showed an improved performance all around but was that aided by an opponent that was out of sorts because of position changes?  The older team showed fits and spurts of improved play but was it that improved play or luck or both that benefitted us on the day?

All I know is that I milked what I could to build up the belief and confidence in the players on both teams yesterday.  I shared the stats with them at the end of each period as well as the totals at the end of the game.  We celebrated what was positive.  Now, my job is to ever so delicately bring in to frame the other stats and issues – the not so flattering things  that did not punish us to the fullest yesterday.

Maintaining positive momentum in the face of those blinding glimpses of reality will be the challenge.  Praise the players without being patronizing.  Admonish them without being demoralizing.

Swimming in my fish bowl, all eyes on me.

Next post Saturday, August 22nd.

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Defining the Leadership Style of an Imperfect Coach

What does a great leader look like?  Is that someone you put on a pedestal and worship as untouchable?  Always right.  Never unsure.  Simply perfect.

Well, if that’s the case then that’s not me.

I hate that I’m not perfect.  I hate that I make mistakes – mistakes that are made in the wide open for everyone to see.  We say that youth athletes are vulnerable?  Heck, youth sport coaches are vulnerable too.  Unless you’re very good at disguising it, your dirty laundry, in the form of your bad habits, are hanging out there in the wind for everyone to roll their eyes and comment on.

And comment they do.  I think some take comfort in pointing out to you that you are not perfect.  Knocking you down a peg seems to be an enjoyable exercise.  Some, in reminding you that you aren’t perfect, use that as leverage to advocate more for their kid (Coach, you kicked a garbage can.  How can my child be expected to control her emotions if you can’t control yours?).

Fair enough.  I can’t argue with that.

So maybe then I shouldn’t be coaching.  I don’t know why I ever got into coaching really.  I fell in love with it though from the first moment I started.  It has always provided for me something that I’ve needed.  As I age, though,  I see that coaching was probably an unusual choice for my personality.

Yet here I am, coaching.  Almost thirty years of coaching and I still screw up as if I were just in my first season.  Geez!

But I do try very hard.

However, I don’t know if you have to be perfect to be a leader.  In the 21st century, I don’t think you do.  Case in point.  I love gardening shows.  But I hate how almost all of them take you to peoples’ gardens that are already well established and simply mind blowing.  While it is inspiring to see and makes me want to get out in the backyard and do the same, I know that it really sets up false expectations.

As a novice gardener, I don’t need to see the expert’s final product all the time.  I need a dose of the struggling intermediate – the gardener who’s more experienced than me but not yet an expert.  I need to see their gardens and hear about how some things they’ve tried just haven’t worked.

I need to see their failure, not just success.

See, because as a novice gardener, I’m going to fail.  I’m going to plant things that don’t work and even when I do show I have a slight green thumb, sometimes Mother Nature is still going to screw it for me and leave me second guessing myself.

If I only ever based my horticultural tutelage on what I saw from the experts, I’d probably quit from frustration.  If I get to see and hear the experiences – the trials and tribulations of gardeners that have tried and failed – I can learn some valuable lessons about life and the human condition.  I need both final product and struggling apprentice.  I need to see the finished product and I need to see the work in progress.

With that said, I can say (even in middle age) that I’m a work in progress.  Really though, what human being can honestly say that he or she isn’t a work in progress or doesn’t have to be a work in progress?  Someone unwilling to acknowledge their faults, that’s who.

After almost three decades of coaching, I don’t know if I’m the “failing intermediate” but I am still getting it “wrong” as well as getting it “right.”  My leadership looks like this.

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Really, I think I’ve said enough about this already.  I’m human, I make mistakes – just like the players I coach.  But does that mean I should lower my standards and ask any less of the players I coach just because I make mistakes?  I don’t think so.

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When I’ve realized I’ve done something – a thing that isn’t in the best interest of a player centred or long-term development environment – I do feel it at the deepest of emotional levels.  You’ll have to take my word for it, although my wife can attest to this as she gets to see first hand the pain I experience when recognizing the error of my ways.  Coming from a figure skating background, she looks at the politics of youth soccer and asks me regularly why I continue to stay involved in an environment that is a such a catch-22.

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When I make mistakes and live the pain of the realization of that imperfection, I want to do better.  I commit to do better.  However, changing a habit you’ve had for a long time is a difficult process.  I wish to do better.  I really do.  I have a plan to do better but sometimes that plan goes off the rails because the habit – a bad one obviously – is so well engrained.  Sometimes I simply forget to follow my plan and fall back into ways that show how I am still stuck in a 20th century coaching mode.

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Going through this process, the business of putting your best (and worst) self out there –  is an exercise in intestinal fortitude.  More than a few times – including this past week – I’ve said to myself, “I quit! I’m done.  I give up.  Why do I put myself through this?”  And then, inevitably, sadistically, I come back to my senses (or leave them again) and decide to continue trying to be a good youth sport coach when I’m still working to make myself a better person.  I just can’t give up.  It doesn’t matter how bad it’s been or how bad I’ve been treated.  I can’t quit.  Coaching, at any level, is not for the faint of heart.

And so there you go.

I think a 21st century leader can be fallible, yet penitent and conscientious in the face of that vulnerability.  You don’t have to be perfect.  In the spot light of that pressure of needing to be an idol on a pedestal a great modern coach must also be resolute.  You will never, ever, ever please everybody.

So, am I an appropriate leader of youth?  Am I a role model?

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I know my philosophy and my methods are 21st century, I just need to get all my actions and behaviours out of the 20th century and into the 21st century too.

I realize I’m not always at my best.  I apologize when that impacts the players I coach and I vow to do better.  Most times I do get better, sometimes I don’t.  When I don’t, I apologize again  and share with my players my own vulnerabilities about the situation.  I show them that I, like them, am struggling to be a better me.  I do my best to make failure okay and in the process show them that the journey to success goes directly through failure.  This is how I justify to myself that I am an appropriate role model.  I’m fallible, penitent, conscientious but still resolute.

I demand the best from myself.  I hold myself accountable when I have not met those high standards.  I keep trying to be better today than I was yesterday and hope that I will be better tomorrow than I was today.

Which is exactly what I ask of the players I coach as well.  Hypocrite or good 21st century leader?  Depending on your perspective it’s can be so hard to say for sure, however, I know what I believe.

I’m not perfect and I know it.  I don’t fear it or avoid it.  I embrace it.  That’s what makes me a good role model.  A good leader.

Next post Sunday, August 16th.

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Week 36: Goal Drought

So the developing high performance soccer players that I’m coaching have started up their programming again after a two week periodized break.  A week of training and a game down and I have to comment on what a struggle it is for both of the teams I’m coaching to generate offence.

I knew this too.  I knew in the beginning that we were going to struggle to generate and (more importantly) score goals.  Part of my master plan, therefore, was to create a philosophy around a style of play that focused on playing attacking soccer; dominant soccer.  I’ve encouraged them to take the game to their opponent by controlling the space (defensively) and controlling the ball (offensively).

Why, you might say, would I ask teams that aren’t goal scoring machines to assume a playing style that’s all about attacking and goal scoring.  For that exact reason I guess.  I find that with female soccer players, belief is just as important as ability.  I created a philosophy of play that built them up as dominating attackers that could control a game.  In many ways, asking them to go out and attack – expecting them to do that – seems to allow them to be better at it then they actually should be.  What the mind believes, the body can achieve I guess.  As they talk themselves up as that type of player they actually play like that type of player…well…sometimes they do.

This mindset strategy has given me some time to try to help develop their attacking abilities.  But creating goal scorers is not an easy thing to do.  Like sprinters, some say that goal scorers are born, not made.  That seems to be holding true for us so far.  The younger of the two teams struggles to create attacking entries let alone get shots.  Three shots in a game is a good day for them right now.  The older team is able to create chances but they lack the composure in front of goal or often don’t pull the trigger, taking an extra touch or making another pass instead.

What makes it so much more difficult is that many of the teams we play can score goals.  Some of them can’t do much else but when you’re winning games, people tend to over look those minor details.  Those goal scoring players are athletic – fast and strong.  They have a matter of fact kind of confidence – almost as if they just know they’re going to score.  But most importantly when there’s a ball in the goal area, they’d run through a brick wall, let alone a few human beings dressed in cleats and shin pads, to get to it and score.

And that’s where both teams I currently coach lack significantly.  We’re just too darn nice.  We don’t seem to want to knock any body over or to be the one to mentally crush our opponents by putting the ball in the back of their net.  That would just be too mean and unfriendly of us!

Anyhow, the journey continues to try and get these girls to think they’re perfectly capable of controlling games while teaching them what I can about making and scoring goals.  It would sure be nice if one game very soon it just all came together.  Alas, I’ve probably watched one too many Walt Disney movies.

A coach can always hope.

Next post Saturday, August 15th.

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Doing things for Kids they can do for themselves

Over the last two weeks of July, the high performance youth soccer program in which I coach was on a periodized break.  It was nice.  Leading up to the break was very busy.  I had 34 individual player-parent meetings to conduct while also trying not to take too much time away from my presence at training sessions.  I was also working at summer soccer camps for the club I coach for during those weeks prior to the break.  It was very busy.  So when the break officially started it was lovely.  It was one of the few times where I felt I could drop everything and actually relax.  It was one of the few times where I thought I deserved the opportunity to drop everything and relax without feeling guilty; feeling that I should still be working.

But like all good things, the break came to an end and we’re all back at it now, training four times a week and playing a game on the weekend.  During the break, I came across an interesting ebook in my files – one I hadn’t even started to read yet and had forgotten about.  I came across a statement in a set of statements, what author John Mason, in his book Researching Your Own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing, calls a protasis (meaning a premise or assertion).  This type of statement, when compared to one’s particular experiences, may cause tension that leads to the action of questioning those experiences.  The end result of a good protasis, says Mason, is that we either change outright or gain greater clarity on who we are and what we believe.  The protasis that stood out for me was this one.

Try to do for students only what they cannot yet do for themselves.

I couldn’t agree more.  My philosophy has been to get the kids I coach to take a more active role in their learning.  In doing that, I only do for them the things that they cannot do for themselves.  This includes things they do not know.  After all you don’t know what you don’t know until someone makes you aware of it.  And it also includes, when it comes to coaching soccer itself, making the tough decisions like who gets to start each game and how much playing time each player gets to play.  Otherwise, the players I coach have a say in everything we do, including the tactics we use during our games.

I’m sure many people would agree with that protasis but there will be variation.  There will be variation because we all have different ideas on what it is that kids cannot do yet for themselves.  Some people, like me, expect them to be able to do a great deal by themselves while others expect very little from kids and are prepared to do most things for them.

In deciding what kids can and cannot do for themselves, the first metric I would use is developmental appropriateness.  A child’s maturity level and rate of growth physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally will determine a great deal of what they can be expected to do.  Using rate of development as an indicator of accountability means that we should all be more or less on the same page when it comes to what expectations we have for a four-year-old versus a fourteen-year-old.  Mind you, there are always exceptions and some kids don’t fit the curve when compared with their peers – they are either further ahead or further behind.  Still, it provides some consistency to the issue of their abilities.

This I would term the nature factor in relation to what kids cannot do yet on their own.  Growth and development affects us all but the timing of that development and the rate of that growth will differ amongst us.  Sooner or later, however, we all reach the same place in our journey – adulthood – and are considered equal or similar to each other.

Then there is the nurture factor.  This is the influence of the environment – the people surrounding those kids and the culture that they are raised in.  While the nature factor contains a great deal of objectivity, I find the nurture factor is extremely subjective.  It’s like we’re not using the cold, hard facts created by the nature factor to influence our decisions around how we should treat (nurture) kids in learning environments.

For example, in many ways a 12-year-old today is no different than a 12-year-old thirty years ago.  So why do we assume at present that they are not as capable of doing things as 12-year-olds were thirty years ago?  Or maybe people just don’t realize that they’re coddling kids today too much.  I’ve been coaching for almost thirty years and I think that anyone that has been involved with kids that long can appreciate what I’m saying.

If you don’t have that long-term experience then you may look around at how most kids act and behave today in learning environments and come to the conclusion that you’d just better do it for them/give them the answer because that’s the way it’s always been.

Well, it hasn’t.

By following along in that mould, all you’re doing is perpetuating a cycle of learned helplessness.  Those kids you see have learned to depend too much on adults (or adults have assumed that kids are more dependent on them than they really need to be).  By continuing to do too much for them we reinforce the proliferation of the current behaviour.  Nurture, then, overrides nature.

I must say I find it extremely difficult to encourage accountability to the level that I seek with the players that I coach.  You try to create the space for them to take an active role in their learning but most don’t know how.  If I pose a question, then I’ll get lots of hands up willing to answer but very rarely do I get questions from them.  Occasionally, a player will show her natural curiosity for a topic.  She’ll show that the wheels have been turning (without my prompting) and in doing so she’s begun to follow a path towards self-directed knowledge.

However, that is currently the exception and not the rule.  I hate to say it but school has turned most kids into question answerers, not question creators.  They have become passive, not active learners – waiting to be told what to learn and when to learn it.

And trying to break a decade of those ingrained habits in the players I coach is challenging to say the least.    Especially when most of the players I coach get good marks at school.  They’re already “smart” kids.  But I’m not interested in their smarts, I’m interested in their ability to learn.  It wasn’t until the school year ended that I’ve really felt the players I’ve coached have truly opened up to the possibilities of taking an active role in their learning.  Maybe they were just too busy during the school year to commit mental energy to the process.  Maybe now they don’t have to try and resolve the mental dissonance that existed during the school year between the expectations of them in education and the expectations of them in their soccer environment.

I wish I could say that in the last few years I’ve seen kids who have been primed towards self-directed learning.  Unfortunately, it’s been just the opposite.  Sadly, I feel the expectations for what kids can actually be envisaged to do has dropped.  Don’t misinterpret my post either.  I don’t think it needs to be raised to some unrealistic level.  I don’t want kids to become miniature adults.  The expectations just need to be consistent – consistently higher than what we’ve let them become.

Next post Sunday, August 9th.

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Week #35: Effecting Positive Change?

We are now at the two-week break for the two developing high performance youth soccer teams that I coach.  That means we’ve played ten league games and had 97 training session (109 in total for the younger team) since it all began over six months ago.  As such, it seems like a good place and a good time to look directly at myself and ask the following question:

Have I effected positive change in the players I coach?

Obviously as a coach that is my job after all – to help players improve.  So I’ve spent the last  ninety minutes reading through my own journal entries that I write after every practice and game all the way back to our first session of 2015.  And have I effected positive change up to this point?  The answer: yes, but…

Yes, I’ve given the players a more balanced learning environment by providing content from all four corners of development but it hasn’t always been as valued as I’d envisioned it would be.  Technical and tactical development still holds top spot in most parents’ and players’ minds.  It’s also what I’m better at instructing and so I know I have to continue to present content from those lesser used corners in order to get better at coaching them.  In doing so I hope to have people see their importance.

Yes, I’ve given the players more individual development than I’ve ever done before but it’s still not as much as I’d promised to provide.  Tied in with the 4-corner approach, I’ve worked with each player and her parents to go beyond the standard weekly training content and work personally on improving areas of weakness through the setting and pursuit of appropriate goals.  The extra time it has taken to deliver this piece has astounded me.  The plan had been to have two assistant coaches per team working with me.  In doing so, I’d have plenty more time to conduct one-on-one work with each of the 34 players I’m currently coaching.  Unfortunately, the Club was not able to make that happen and so I’ve had to do more of the team coaching then I’d originally intended.

Yes, the players have improved in their skills but there are a number of areas where they have fallen behind or haven’t improved much at all.  These girls have become better dribblers (where before many would have chosen only ever to pass the ball) and they are now becoming more proficient at using both their dominant and non-dominant feet.  They are willing to shoot more now than before and they’ve become better at defending one versus one.  These improvements in important areas seem to get overshadowed though by the fact that their passing and control of the ball is not as strong as it should be.  I feel that lack seems to get noticed more than the other gains.  Again, I see more balanced players now but maybe I should have just continued to add to what they were already good at.  We’re back to working on passing and receiving now so hopefully it’s not too little too late.

Yes, the teams have improved in their performances but still seem to be struggling compared to last season.  Each of the two teams have a core of players that were together as a team last year.  I don’t know for certain what their records were but I get the feeling that where we are now is no where near where each was this time last year.  I know the overall playing style and philosophy I’ve brought forth is a challenging one to implement.  However, I believe it to be a reflection of the modern women’s game and think it vitally important to teach the players.  In other words, it’s a long-term approach that may not always bear fruit in the short-term.  When we’ve performed well, we’ve performed quite well but when we’ve not been able to follow the game plan, we’ve been very poor.  The consistency will come but in some ways I’m sure people wonder why I just couldn’t have taken a more pragmatic, middle of the road philosophy instead of this high ideals one.

Yes, the training sessions have gotten more intense and involved more hard work than earlier on but it’s not been enough and it’s been too late in coming.  I wanted these players to take as much responsibility as possible for their own development.  I wanted them to see and understand that learning is not something that happens to them but something they do for themselves.  That is, you have to take an active role in your learning.  You have to be engaged and curious, not sit back and wait for things to happen to you or for you.  I wanted to release that responsibility gradually over time but it seems that I released too much too soon.  I also waited too long to reign back in the control and direction the girls were expecting from me.  It’s a shame really this one.  It makes me feel very sad.  I know the kids are capable of doing more but quite honestly the education system has made its mark on them.  Many have gotten into the habit of believing that learning is a passive exercise – something that happens to you and that learning is something that only occurs ten months of the year, Monday to Friday.  Thanks to school, I think they also have come to believe that learning is all about the content – what needs to be learned – instead of skills (how to learn).  Bottom line: good learners (those with the skills) can learn pretty much anything they want (the content).

And finally, yes I’ve improved as a coach myself in these last number of months – probably more than I ever have before in the same period of time but it’s still not enough.  It’s not enough because I haven’t effected as much positive change as I could have; as I should have.  Could have.  Should have.  I hate those statements.  They smack of regret and disappointment.  They’re things I lecture players about not letting happen to them.  We still have three months to go and more than half of our league season to play.  So the goal at this point is not to sit and feel bad about what I didn’t get done.  The goal is to learn from what has and hasn’t happened – to take an active role in my own learning – and continue to effect positive change in myself so that I may be able to do the same thing for the players I coach.

Never happy with the status quo.  Always striving for more.

Next post Saturday, August 8th.

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Impulse Control, Kids and the Future

The last two weeks I’ve been involved in soccer camps.  Two weeks ago it was 10-year-old competitive players.  This past week recreational players ages 4 to 12.  First of all I know I’m going to sound well past my prime in this blog.  Old and crotchety.  I know this because yesterday I was asked a question – did I know who Fetty Wap was – I didn’t (in fact I thought it was Feddy Rap, I actually had to look it up on line to get it right).  So yes, I’m officially ancient now that I no longer recognize today’s pop culture figures.

With that said, I’ll tell my story.

These last two weeks were tough.  Incredibly tough.  I wouldn’t have wanted to do another.  For those who don’t know me, know that I’ve spent the better part of my life working with kids.  Heck, I was working with kids when I was still a kid myself.  Therefore, the statement that I’d not want to do another camp might come as a shock.  In a way it does shock me, in a way it doesn’t.

I spent the better part of the last two weeks repeating myself.  Over and over and over again.  I had to repeat myself because kids today don’t listen.  It’s not enough to set the ground rules at the beginning of what is and isn’t acceptable.  That’s not enough.  It’s not enough to explain that only one conversation can occur at a time and that everyone else needs to listen to the person speaking.  It’s not enough to show that good listening involves making eye contact with the person speaking.

That used to be enough.  It used to be that explaining why and showing how to be a good communicator was enough to keep discipline problems to a minimum.  Back then, it was only a very small number of kids who couldn’t follow along with that.  Now, it appears to be the exact opposite – it’s only a small number that can follow along with that.

20 years ago at soccer camp I only had to ask once for quiet and to have kids listen.  Now I can say it multiple times and still not have everyone listen.  What used to take a few seconds now can take minutes.

This past week, knowing the clientele that I’d be working with, I even extended my opening day rules & regulations speech to talk about urges.  Impulse control.  Over the years, most young kids I’ve worked with have done one or two things here or there that they really shouldn’t have.  I think it’s quite normal for kids to be challenged in that way to control their urges.  However, that’s how they learn about things like what’s right and wrong as well as how to delay gratification.

This past week, I went so far as to talk about the kids needing to control their urge to run over to the playground equipment or to kick a soccer ball that was just sitting there on the ground.  I told them it was okay to do those things when they were given permission.  I told them if they didn’t hear permission to do them then they could even ask for permission to do them.

Long ago, when you disciplined a child for following his or her impulses, she felt sad for a bit and then it passed and things were fine again.  This past week when players were disciplined in the same way for the same things, there was profound sadness in their faces.

How can you win?

If I disciplined, the kid seemed almost depressed and no longer interested in being there.  All of a sudden, it seemed soccer camp became the worst place to be. If I didn’t discipline that kid didn’t listen.  And when kids don’t listen instructions are missed.  And when instructions are missed rules aren’t followed or understood.  And when rules aren’t followed or understand those very same kids get hurt.  And if that happens then I’m not doing a very good job.

Physically hurt or emotionally hurt?  Boy, what a great set of choices.

Some kids are still as impeccably behaved as the majority of kids I dealt with almost 30 years ago when I started coaching and teaching.  They are the exception now though.  I have a 3-year-old son and I know there are times when trying to get him on that path to proper impulse control seems difficult.  Sometimes I just don’t have the energy.  So maybe the fact that most parents today both work has something to do with this change in kids.  Maybe it’s that today’s parents have made the commitment to raise their kids differently than they themselves were raised.  In doing so, maybe we’ve gone from one sort of old school authoritarian extreme to a 21st century laisez-faire type of attitude instead?  I can only speak for myself and I can say that’s not an option for my son.

Where our parents used to ask if we were good to our teachers’ and coaches’, I find that many of today’s parents ask if those teachers’ and coaches’ were good to their kids.  We’ve made the jump from one end of the parenting spectrum to the other.  If I messed up when I was a kid, I was in big trouble.  Today, that same thing holds true for my oldest son.  There’s no immediate blaming of a teacher or coach for my kid’s difficulties or bad behaviours.

This past week I let the kids I was coaching at soccer camp know very clearly that I believe there are no good or bad kids, just good or bad choices.  Over time though, I told them, your choices define who you are.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Just like a good person can become bad because they fall off the straight and narrow path so too can a bad person change his or her ways and become reformed.  It all has to do with the choices you make – how you choose to behave.

I figured this sort of thing would have been general knowledge and general practice amongst all kids and the adults responsible for their development.  I’m not so sure any more if that is the case.  And don’t even get me started on how little most kids today can deal with failure!  The slightest little bump in the road can destroy many of them emotionally to the point where the time you need to spend with them to build them back up to where they were only gets defeated when another failure pulls them right back down to where they were before.

I guess that ties into impulse control though too and is why they didn’t respond well to me saying no you can’t do that during soccer camp this week.  I’m certain that I could have made a difference with many of the kids I coached at that camp.  Some responded well during the week.  However, a week is just too short a period to change behaviours that – even for a 5-year-old – seem to have already been developing for years.

Next post Sunday, July 19th.

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Week #34: The Ups and Downs of Measuring Player Progress

So far in the season out of the two high performance you soccer teams that I’m coaching, I have one team struggling and one team starting to perform quite well.  Both are following the same philosophy and more or less the same program.  One of the things that I’m required to do is complete soccer report cards on each of the 34 players that I coach and to do so at regular intervals.  These report cards are created by the organization that delivers the elite program that I coach in and I return them to this organization for their review and archiving.

Measurement is a funny thing.  It sounds so easy but in reality is so hard to do properly.  Don’t get me wrong, I can do lots of different measurements.  The problem is trying to get a straight forward measure that actually transfers to what the players are doing on field.  The measurement tool the League provides to us is pretty cool, however, it’s still not sensitive enough to rank the player’s I coach the way my mind’s eye sees each of them.

Wait a minute.  Maybe the tool works and it’s my mind’s eye that is skewed.  Maybe the order that they are ranked in is the correct order!

Anyway, the point is that what I believe subjectively and what this objective tool tells me are two different things.  I guess it’s not completely objective because it still requires me to make an opinion on a number of different factors for each player I coach.  Still, you’d figure if your gut was what you were using to come up with scores, a spreadsheet full of macros and formulas would then take that subjectively and organize it objectively.  But as I said, there’s a disconnect between subjective and objective.

I must say I’ve toiled laboriously to complete these soccer report cards.  Part of the problem was the ambiguity of the instrument.  Many times there wasn’t an appropriate scoring for the player I was providing feedback on.  I had to pick a score within the limited parameters that I was provided.  Sometimes the habit on which I was assessing the player was compounded with multiple components.  So then what do I do?  The player, for example, is supposed to be able to power shoot with both feet and with disguise.  That’s one criterion on which I must judge each player a one (sometimes), two (mostly) or three (always).  Okay.  So what if they can power shoot with one foot but not the other?  Or they can power shoot with both feet but without disguise?  How do I mark that using the scoring system that I’m provided.  The problem is that it’s not one criterion.  It’s multiple criteria.  Each could (should) be its own habit on which I assess a player.

And to make things worse, the marks that I’ve given have been deemed inflated by the club I coach for.  I’ve given one player a 91% and the League has said that players with that high a score on the report card are professional players.  Really?  Do they actually have examples of report cards they’ve filled out on said pro players cause I’d love to see them.  A key problem is that the tool has not been tested and proven reliable and valid but yet it is mandated that we use it and fill it out in a certain way.

I understood the hoops that I was supposed to jump through as they were laid out by the League.  The issue arose once I started filling out each one.  I realized that I wasn’t going to easily be able to fill them out in the way the League wanted me to.  The assessment tool is composed of habits from all four corners of development (technical-tactical, physical, psychological and social-emotional).  The players I coach, quite frankly, all do very well on the social-emotional habits and even the psychological habits.  They are girls after all so they are, on average I think, stronger on these two corners than are boys.  This is the inflation that my soccer report cards suffer from.

I have all kinds of girls who regularly commend teammates, help keep things positive when negative momentum threatens and help to set up/clean up the field all the time, as just a few examples of the habits that fall under the social-emotional corner.  So I’ve given them three’s – the highest score – because, in my opinion, they do those things 80% or more of the time (the criterion established for awarding a three).  And they rightly deserve those three.  But then their overall percentage for the report card goes above the line that a player at this level should have.  So to bring them in line with what the League wants, I’d have to lower marks.

Again though I see that as the untested theory and not the proven reality of the document.  What it should do and what it does do are, at the moment, two different things (in my humble opinion).

Any good researcher worth his/her salt knows that anyone can go around espousing any sort of opinion.  The assuredness in your theory comes when that hypothesis can be shown to be replicable in the same situation by different people numerous times over.  That’s the difference between fact and opinion.

Unfortunately, right now we’re dealing in more opinions and theories about player assessment than we are facts.  Aside from this particular tool, I struggle myself to provide meaningful feedback to my players and their parents (and I’ve tried harder than ever this season to make that a goal to achieve).  It’s just too easy to wax subjectively about how they’re doing then to show actual data or other artifacts to prove what you’re saying.  Again, it just goes to show the difficulty of trying to create specific and measurable ways of providing meaningful feedback to players without making those methods overly complicated, time consuming and expensive.

Oh, the joys of youth sport.

Next post Saturday, July 18th.

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