The Coach as Critical Friend

Last week I wrote about reflection.  It’s come out of an excellent article I’ve been reading on the subject provided to me by Dr. Wade Gilbert from Fresno State University.  The article  is a real boon in the area of reflection research.  I’d seen it referenced many times in recent work on reflection that I’ve read.  And now I’ve got myself a copy.  It’s titled The Reflective Journal: A Window to Preservice Teachers’ Practical Knowledge by Dawn Francis who at the time of writing was at James Cook University of North Queensland in Australia.

I’ve been getting the players I’m coaching to try and engage in reflection but it’s not an easy process.  Just saying to them buy a journal and then get writing isn’t enough.  Reflection is a skill to be learned and many people have not had much or any practice at it as noted by the comment of this particular student teacher from Francis’ article:

“I find it difficult to write my personal thoughts.  We have been trained not to do this.  It took me a long time to learn to write as an academic and now I see no purpose in doing this (personal writing).  If it is not for evaluation, why do it?”

Most of us were put through a system of education where there was one right answer to every question posed.  It seems the same still holds true today.  Therefore, what’s the sense of reflecting? You either know the right answer or your don’t.  In fact, reflection in such a monolithic environment like school can actually lead to real (but also laughable) confusion as noted here by the comment of another student teacher from Francis’ article:

“I have so many questions and I know so little.  I wish you would just tell me what to do so that when I’m in the school I can do the right thing.  The more I write, the more questions come out and I still don’t have the right answer.”

I find that hilarious.  Just tell me the right answer!  I find such behaviour to be the prime affliction of 20th century education and its still bleeding its way into our current century.  The notion of leaving an environment that is dedicated to learning feeling confused and lacking closure is not acceptable in they eyes of most learners.  It seems to mean that you, the teacher or coach, have not done your job.  You’re supposed to answer their questions, not give them more questions to think about.

And many teachers and coaches over the years have obliged as this student teacher from Francis’ article notes but also shows a real growth in appreciation of the power of reflection:

“I feel I’m really understanding when I am forced to write in my own words.  We never get time to do this in the rest of the week.  We’re always pressured to remember some theory that fits the lecturer’s view even when they say they are promoting critical thinking.”

I believe critical reflection is necessary to developing the skill of critical thinking.  It’s hard to feel safe to express yourself and your thoughts when you’re wondering if what you might think is the right or wrong answer.  And I believe that coaches can help develop that comfort in expression by taking on the more modern role of critical friend.  Finding your own voice and using that for reflection is one thing.  Hearing another’s and using that  perspective for your own reflection is completely something else.

Yet the role of critical friend is  much more than providing feedback.   A student teacher from Francis’ article sums the role up beautifully:

“My first perception was that as a critical friend your job was to provide solutions.  Instead, the critical friend should extend your thoughts so that you can reach your own solutions.  Questioning and understanding your partner’s beliefs is vital to being a critical friend.  The type of language you use is vital, especially in forming mediating questions directed at engaging thinking.”

I think it’s brilliant.  We’re all so used to the coach creating the boundaries of truth but real meaningful learning comes from the coach blurring – even breaking – those boundaries forcing the learner to look deeper.  Farther.  To strain more.  To question more.  To think about what he/she knows and believes and in doing so, to learn.

Giving them the answer is the easy thing.  It’s what many learners have been conditioned to ask for, look for or simply just wait for.  Giving them the answer doesn’t prepare them for a real journey into understanding though.

The key to unlock the door to this journey?  As the quote above states, it’s a meaningful question.  Great coaches ask great questions.  Their athletes can’t help but think and therefore engage actively in the process of exploration of the topic through that powerful question.

Now if only somebody could give me the “right answer” to asking great questions I’d be all set.

Next post Saturday, October 10th.

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Reflection: Making Sense of Sense Making

Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.

I’m sure at one time or another we’ve either heard that phrase uttered to us or said it to our own kids.  The belief being that if you take the time to think then you will learn and therefore act differently next time.

An outdated view of how we learn sees our brain like an empty vessel.  Learning is as simple as pouring knowledge in.  No thinking is required – only listening, or reading or watching.  A more modern view of how we learn sees our brain like building blocks.  Each block is some piece of knowledge.  New blocks constantly get added and there is always the possibility that the existing order in which the blocks are placed can be changed.  Changed in a multitude of ways as a matter of fact.  Therefore, thinking is required.

Learning then is not as simple as just absorbing the new information.  Instead learning involves the use of past experiences, beliefs and values to figure out what to accept from that new knowledge, what to modify and where to store it for easy retrieval (i.e., remembering).

Being a very analytical kind of guy, my brain is at full tilt from the moment my eyes open in the morning until the moment they close again at night.  I always find it fascinating that some people, for example, have no idea what they’re feeling or don’t understand why they do the things they do.  They spend very little time actually thinking about things that have happened to them or that are happening to them.

Telling children to go to their room to think about what they’ve done is a way of helping them to make explicit the implicit things inside their heads.  After said time interval, the child emerges from his or her room and seemingly more easily verbalizes the chain of events that led to the detention and what needs to be done next time to avoid it.  Kids definitely need practice doing this (some self-imposed time outs would probably be good for us adults too).

In that type of situation, children are being asked to reflect.  In other words, to make sense of sense making.

An alternative to that parenting approach would be to lecture children in the art of good behaviour.  We’d ask them to make sense of what already makes sense to us.  No need to figure it out for themselves, simply listen to us and think about what we’ve said.  The first challenge then with that approach is do they actually listen to what we’re saying.  The second challenge, which serves logically to follow the first, is do they take the time to think about what we’ve said.  So instead why not let them make their own decisions about what makes sense out of the existing experiences and knowledge they already have?  Ask them simply to think about what has happened from their own perspective.  Isn’t that the more valuable, albeit risky, approach?

I think it’s valuable because we’re asking kids to do their own thinking about their own thoughts on the matter.  We’re not asking them to make sense of our thoughts.  I think it’s risky because some kids may not have the slightest clue how to reflect.  They may perceive that what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is just fine and therefore miss the opportunity to refine their behaviour.

So in order to make reflective kids (and adults too) we first need to ask what is it that’s out there that needs to be understood by us.  Then we must ask why it’s important for us to want to better understand that thing.  And finally we must think about why an alternative approach to what we currently think or do could be of value to us.

In doing so we play with the arrangement of those blocks of knowledge in our mind and as we rearrange them we allow ourselves to see different perspectives and different interpretations of the same information.  We grow.  We see something that wasn’t there before.  Well actually, it was always there.  We just never saw it until we were either made to see it by someone else or we self-analyzed and found it from our own reflection.  Either way we had to think about things to get to that point.  By reflecting in action (i.e., thinking on our feet) or by reflecting on action (i.e., thinking after the fact about what we did) our knowledge and understanding grows.  The end result is we learn.

Many parents over the years have intuitively gotten it right.  Thinking is a good thing.  Thinking is learning.  Therefore, reflection is a vital skill to teach kids both on and off the fields, courts and rinks.

Next post Saturday, October 3rd.


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Experimenting with the Processes of Learning

Let’s say you ask your players what needs to be done to improve their team.  You get a lot of different suggestions that fall across the entire spectrum of possible ideas.    One player suggests that a formation change is required.  She says that the current choice of arranging players on the field does not work for them, for the types of players available.

Of all the ideas presented this is a very interesting one because of the possible directions you can take with it.

  1. You can ignore it and continue doing what you’re doing the way you’re doing it (silly kid!  Why would she ever think she knows more than you!)
  2. You can shoot the idea down, tell her she’s wrong and that your choice is best because you know best (after all you’re the coach and you should make sure the players know you’re as omnipotent a human being as they’ll every see!)
  3. You can turn it into a guided discovery exercise in order to give them the opportunity to explore different formations (with the whole point being though to guide them to why the current choice – your choice – is still best).
  4. You can hand the entire exercise over to them to explore and come up with an answer that, as a team, they feel is right (even if it means doing something that you don’t believe will work).

I think numbers one and two are 20th century ways of dealing with the problem.  In the 21st century they are what a coach can do when he/she realizes that engaging in this exercise is just going to take up too much time and disturb, in a negative way, the team’s current form.

The third and fourth ways are more 21st century.  Number three gives the players a chance to ask questions and explore the topic but it’s still very much like #1 or #2 because the goal is to end up at the current formation as the best answer.  In that way, the coach is still driving the program with his/her version of the truth; the right answers.

The fourth one is a very modern and very experimental approach to learning.  You are allowing the players to drive completely the learning experience.  You allow them to take their learning in any direction they want – even the wrong direction.  And in a way, that’s what makes this one so powerful.  You, the coach, are allowing the players a say over their learning.  When they steer themselves in the wrong direction they truly see why that’s the wrong direction and why they need to try something else.

The problem?  It takes time – a lot of time.  First of all the players have to decide on how they’re going to go about exploring the problem.  That in itself will take a long time as the players work together to make a collective decision about their plan of action.  Next, content needs to be discovered.  That means players finding answers about formations.  Then it means practising those things and then trying them in games and then discussing their success and then making alterations.

Oh boy.  This.  Takes.  Time.

Doing it that way also means biting your lip when you see that the players are going to take a wrong turn.  You know it’s wrong but you let them find that out for themselves.  In doing so, the team could end up not performing their best and losing a lot of games as the players experiment with their different ideas.

As a coach, you don’t have to stand idly by and let them make every turn wrong until they find the right ones.    You could facilitate.  Steer them a bit.  However, the more you steer them the more it becomes guided discovery and the more it goes back to you being the one who is truly directing the experience based on what you believe is best.

The advantage of self-directed learning?  It’s learning that is truly meaningful to the players and therefore long lasting or even permanent.  After all that’s what learning is – a permanent change in behaviour.

And isn’t that what we want?  The most permanent change in behaviour possible?  The thing is, telling people what to do doesn’t bring about meaningful learning.  Letting them take an active role in their learning does.

A coach can teach a player but a coach can’t learn a player.

Learning is the responsibility of the learner.  And in self-directed learning so is teaching.  Therefore in organized sport, shouldn’t coaches find the best ways possible to allow the learners to learn?

Next post Saturday, September 26th.

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From Helicopter to Lawnmower Parenting

Failing well is a skill.  Learning to fail takes practice.  When kids fail or don’t get what they had hoped for they are given the important repetition they need in learning how to cope with negative outcomes.

Learning to let kids fail and to struggle takes even more practice.  Not many parents can just stand there and watch their child suffer.  We seem hardwired to rescue.  And yet, in many cases, that liberation we think we are providing them is actually not liberating at all.

Our desire to assist comes completely from love no doubt.  However, our children deserve to be strengthened and not smothered by that love.  There’s advocating on behalf of your child to help them with things that they truly cannot do.  And then there is something else. A something that actually works towards handicapping children’s long-term development for the appeasement of short-term happiness.

Jessica Lahey, author of a new book titled The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed is interviewed in a Time article by Rachel Simmons and notes the problem:

“Lahey says parents defail their kids’ lives in order to minimize kids’ pain and extend their need for mom and dad’s support. When kids are dependent on parents, mom and dad can enjoy kids’ wins as evidence of superior parenting.”

The hovering of helicopter parenting is now rapidly being replaced by the brute force of the lawnmower parent as noted in a New York Times article by Julie Scelfo.  In her article, which deals with suicide on university campuses that result from the pressure to be perfect, Scelfo relays a discussion she had with the dean of students at Stanford University: 

“She was also troubled by the growing number of parents who not only stayed in near-constant cellphone contact with their offspring but also showed up to help them enroll in classes, contacted professors and met with advisers (illustrating the progression from helicopter to lawn mower parents, who go beyond hovering to clear obstacles out of their child’s way).  But what she found most disconcerting was that students, instead of being embarrassed, felt grateful.  Penn researchers studying friendship have found that students’ best friends aren’t classmates or romantic partners, but parents.”

There’s plenty of research out there now to show that praising effort over intelligence is the way to go.   Celebrating an individual’s hard work instead of their smarts is what fuels intrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation is what makes the pursuit of excellence and lifelong learning possible.

The problem is that we still praise smarts, ability and talent.  We make the pursuit of trophies and straight A’s the priority.  In doing so, we create extrinsic motivation – the need to be driven by trinkets, and praise bestowed on us by others.  We teach them to learn to crave the validation more than they learn to crave the journey – complete with all its obstacles.

And when we jump in and solve problems for our kids we not only rob them of the opportunity to learn from that experience we also potentially erode the development of their intrinsic motivation.  Our help that we provide, we truly hope, will make them stay involved longer but it actually stands a chance of making them stop sooner.  If they can’t always be right or be the best, they will quit.

The thing about failing is that once we remove the stigma and emotions that surround it, we become more durable and comfortable in its grip.  We don’t feel as vulnerable.  We stop fearing it and start embracing it as the true path to excellence.  We need to do this for our kids.  The thing is, before we do it for our kids, we have to do it for ourselves.

Next post Saturday, September 19th.


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Back to School

Take a look at this.

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Canadian, along with British, New Zealand and Australian doctors have all decided to stop investing in fossil fuels.  As the doctor above says, it’s the best thing they can do to show that something needs to be done about climate change.  Something needs to be done to save us.  It just won’t be done by doctors.

So who is going to be the saviour?  Who is going to have the problem solving capability to get us out of the environmental hole we’ve dug ourselves into?

Now take a look at this.

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This is an excerpt from the United States Soccer Federation document titled Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States.  I think it’s pretty clear: a great coach creates autonomous decision makers.  And here’s how FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, suggests that coaches of players 12 and under can do that.

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While we see many of the traditional 20th century ideas of coaching still present (organizing, demonstrating, correcting) we see even more usage of 21st century techniques like free expression, guided discovery and discussion that are employed to create 21st century learners.

So if the game of soccer requires players to be able to make moment by moment decisions of their own accord and the world we live in is in need of big time problem solving super heroes than why, as a coach, would I ever engage in a style or in methods that do not lead to those outcomes?

Oh…wait a second…I remember why I’d be swayed and sometimes well advised for my own sanity and personal well being to coach like I did in the 80’s.  People still recognize and value more traditional 20th century instructional methods.  It’s valued because to those individuals, that’s what good coaching looks like.  If the players aren’t being told what to do after every mistake and if they don’t go home with sweaty brows and red cheeks then they haven’t been part of a good program designed to help them maximize their development.

Of course coaching in sport takes many of its cues from teaching in education.  While I do have a teaching degree, I haven’t been in a classroom since 2005.  However, I am very confident in saying that most schools and many teachers are still following the transmission method of instruction.  That 20th century method is the teacher talks, the students listen and learning mirarculously happens without further intervention.

Also, this method is a curriculum-driven approach.  The students have very little say in what they learn, when they learn it and how they learn it.  While I haven’t been in a classroom in ten years I have listened to the players I’ve coached over that same time period and not much has changed from when I was a kid.  While there are many things about school that make it enjoyable, the content and how it is taught I hear over and over again (and remember from my own days in school) leave many kids demotivated and not interested to learn.

How do I know that many kids become not interested in learning?  Well, how have most kids over the years spent their summer breaks?  Doing more school work or doing things that they want to do (which often means anything and everything but learning)?

The end result of this two hundred-year-old process (which by the way hasn’t changed much in that same time) is the natural curiosity to learn that we all start with gets snuffed out and replaced by mechanisms of obedience and compliance.  Follow the rules, don’t ask too many questions and learn what you are required to learn.  Jump through those hoops year after year and you’ll become a “smart” person.

So school learning, I guess, is like old age.  It just happens to you and you have very little control over it.  There’s no need for a learner to take an active role in their learning.  However,  there’s the kind of learning that’s going to be needed to both solve global issues as well as a to solve a soccer opponent that defends in a very low block and plays on the counter.

And that type of learning is not school learning.

There’s (school) subject smarts and then there’s street smarts.  Street smarts is not a specific content with a curriculum like math or English.  Street smarts is a set of skills.  These skills help the person possessing them to adapt to their surroundings.  Subject smarts often makes you believe that there is only one right answer to a problem.  Street smarts makes you question the one right answer.  Subject smarts requires people that can answer questions.  Street smarts requires people that can ask questions.  And tough questions too.  Questions that might make the people on the other end of them squirm and shift uncomfortably.

Street smarts is like cutlery.  You need tangible items (like the content of a subject area) in order to best learn how to use them otherwise you’re just pretending to cut, spear and scoop make-believe food.  So street smarts and subject smarts could easily go well together at school.  It’s just they don’t seem to be paired together very often.  They weren’t in my schooling and they still don’t appear to be in the schooling of the kids I’ve worked with over the years in soccer.  The soccer programs I’ve been involved with over the years have been full of passive learners simply waiting to be told what to do and when to do it.

As a person who was taught as both a student and as a soccer player and trained as both a coach and teacher in the 20th century, I’m trying to evolve into a modern 21st century coach.  I take 21st century skills like collaboration, critical thinking and growth mindsets and use them in teaching the subject of soccer.  While “a” goal is for the kids to learn to be better soccer players “the” goal is for the kids to learn and hone these important skills.  After all, this skill set will help them succeed both on and off the field.

So now I try to convince those passive learners the importance of them taking an active role and help them try to rekindle their youthful curiosity.    It can be a very tough transition though.  Even teenagers can already become very set in their ways about what learning looks like.  It takes a great deal of time and patience to encourage them for 90 minutes a day that they are the keys to their own learning when they spend another five hours a day being told its the teachers and the hoops of the system that they need to jump through that will be important to their long-term success.

One could argue that the coaching examples above seem to apply more to kids under twelve and therefore a more traditional approach is still better for older kids and developing high performance players.  I don’t think so.  I’ve seen reference made to guided discovery being used with national team athletes in Australia (and the athletes loving it).  Unfortunately though these modern approaches to player development are still not being used enough at any age of development.  Too many coaches still coach the way they were coached and, more importantly, treat learning as it is done in school.

An education is not the same thing as learning.  An education is something that happens to you; it’s prescribed.  Learning is something you do for yourself; it’s self-driven.  Education is finite.  Learning is infinite.  Life, including the time one spends in school, should be less about getting an education and more about learning how to learn.  When you have the skills to learn, you have the ability to learn anything you want and learn it well.

While doctors around the world are doing what they can to make a difference about global warming, they’ve not signed on to save the world.  That daunting job is still open.  Let’s hope some candidates emerge soon.  And when those knights in shining armour are one day interviewed so that we may learn more about them we might just find out they were pretty decent soccer players as well back in the day.

Next post Saturday, September 12th.

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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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