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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Straight ‘A’ Student-Athlete? Big Deal!

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend.  When it comes to discussing their soccer playing kids with me, parents are mentioning more and more that their children are straight ‘A’ students.

Okay.  So what?

What exactly does that have to do with being a good soccer player, or athlete for that matter?

Being good at school has come to mean being “smart”.  That smartness then tends to be carried over to other areas regardless of its actual transferability to those other areas.  Being smart in school simply means you’re smart at the game we’ve come to know as school.

Obviously a good soccer player needs athletic ability.  Beyond that, smarts is certainly important too.  However, athletic smarts is very different than school smarts.  School smarts involves a little bit of problem solving and a lot of memorization and regurgitation.  Athletic smarts can involve all problem solving all the time – especially soccer.  School smarts means pre-scripted and pre-determined learning.  It’s learning that on a given day at a given time needs to be remembered in order to become that straight ‘A’ student.  Athletic smarts is anything but scripted learning.  While there are rules to understand, the key decision making ability I see is that players need to be able to take those rules and change them flexibly to apply them to the situation on field.

And straight ‘A’ students can struggle with that as much as straight ‘C’ students.  The straight ‘A’ students that I see doing well as soccer players are those that know how to learn.  They take an active role in their learning.  They’re engaged and don’t wait for the information to be told to them.  They’re curious.  They ask questions.  They think about their play and situations that they were in and they come to ask me how I think they should have handled them.

That’s just good skill – the skill of learning.  Schools could do well with spending more time teaching kids how to learn and stop worrying so much about teaching them what to learn.

Bottom line is you need to be a good decision maker on the fly in order to be a good athlete/soccer player and, I’m sorry to say, education is rarely a place where kids are taught how to think on their feet.  As I said, just too much scripted content.  If you jump through their hoops then of course you’ll end up being a straight ‘A’ student.

The problem?

An education is important but then again so is street smarts.  That’s the type of savvy  shown by a person who can adapt to his/her environment (i.e., read and react).  People like that can take standard content and modify it to fit the situation, and do so in real time.  They aren’t just black and white thinkers.  They can muck around very easily in the gray too.

Street smarts and athletic smarts, I think, are similar.  I prize them far more than I do school smarts.  School has its benefits.  Teaching the majority of its students how to think under pressure and outside the box are not some of those benefits.

Next post Sunday, July 13th.

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Week #33: Groundhog Day For Soccer Players

My continuous efforts to improve and effect positive change in the two girls developing high performance soccer teams I currently coach moves onward.  I try a lot of different things.  Unusual things even – unusual at least to some of the parents.  Not everything works which is why I’m happy to try and modify (or trash) the things that aren’t showing any signs of long-term development life.

I’ve devoted a significant amount of time into mental preparation with these girls.  More so than they’ve ever done, I’m certain.  I don’t think some have ever really done any.  The end result is that they’ve spent a lot more time thinking about their performances.  As such, in many ways that’s hurt them and not helped them.  They’ve been used to showing up, playing and then heading home again.  They’ve done, not thought about what they’ve don.  Many have not necessarily handled well all of the thinking that they’re now doing.  And the reflex seems to be to respond with “Just let me play.”

Some changes have been made.

The first thing I changed with the younger group was to have them arrive at the field on game day later and not earlier.  We had been asking them to be there ninety minutes before the game but as much as we tried to show them what to do with that time, I don’t think they were able to successfully use it (not yet anyway, possibly next year).  In this weekend’s game we asked them to be there sixty minutes before.  I believe it made a difference but need to talk to them about it to see how they felt.

The older team still arrives ninety minutes before as they had asked to continue with that.  However, we tightened up their warm-up and are spending less time talking to them so that time period might now seem too long for them as well.  We’ll see when I talk to them about it too.  The older group has been the team to protest the most about having to think too much.  So as I wrote about in yesterday’s post, I’ve tried to show them when/where to think a lot and when/where to think a little in an attempt to help free up their minds to let their bodies go out and just do.

I think the end result in this weekend’s game for the older group was quite promising.  I felt they executed the game plan very well.  We started strong, we attacked and defended very well, we worked hard and we were united.  And, as I’ve said already twice in here, I’ll be interested to hear their thoughts about the whole thing.

The younger group suffers from Ground Hog Day Syndrome.  Ground Hog Day being the Bill Murray movie where he keeps reliving the same day and making the same mistakes until he finally learns what he needs to do to get time to carry on and stop repeating itself.  That’s exactly what the younger group does right now.  They keep making the exact same technical, tactical and mental mistakes.  I’m sure the mental mistakes have a connection to the technical and tactical mistakes.

As a coach, what can I do?  I remind each player when she gets into Ground Hog Day mode of what she needs to do to break it.  And yet I find myself reminding that particular player about that particular mistake on multiple occasions during a game as well as over multiple games.  “Remember,” I say, “We’ve worked on this in practices over the last month.”

The only thing I can do is continue to remind them what to do and also continue to remind them that every time I have to cue them about the same mistake it basically means they’re not learning very fast.  I’ve told them I want them to make as many mistakes as possible, just not to make the exact same ones.  They need to make a mistake, fix it (i.e., learn) and then make a new and different mistake and fix that, then move on to the next mistake.  The more they can do that, the better they will get.

They are trying.  I just hope that the players (and their parents) that are in these Ground Hog Day situations recognize that they may only be able to carry on in this way for one season and only one season.  If they don’t learn to fix it, they may find it an impossible struggle to make the team next season.

Not nice to say or think about, however, as a coach there comes a point where you have to recognize that you yourself have done everything you possibly can to create an environment in which the players can grow and develop.  The rest is up to them.

Next post Saturday, July 11th.

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Athletes Thinking Too Much, Thinking Too Little

A while back, the technical leader that I report to for the two developing high performance girls soccer teams I coach watched both teams play.  His comment: “they look like teams that are thinking too much.”  A couple of weeks back, I asked both teams to give me some feedback on their satisfaction thus far with the program.  One of the key themes that came out of the older team was “we think too much and need to just do more.”

Interesting.

If you’ve read this blog regularly then you’re well aware that I’m analytical.  I wake up and I start thinking before my eyes even open.  I don’t stop until I fall asleep (and sometimes my methodical nature delays that sleep).  So for me, I’m used to thinking.  I don’t really understand why people would get so worked up about thinking.  I was told once by a university soccer coach that I think too much and others have certainly pointed out to me my systematic thinking and behaviour.

What can I say.  I like to think.

Go to the internet and you can find plenty of reading about why athletes choke.  The common element is overthinking what you already know.  Paralysis by analysis I guess.  Now, I may be guilty of having my analytical nature rub off a bit on the players I coach but I definitely know I don’t want them to overthink their performance.  There’s a time to think a lot and there’s a time to think a little.

It is true, I’ve asked the players I coach to think a lot more about what they’re doing than any other coach (or educator in general) has probably asked them to do thus far.  That alone may have been enough to ruffle feathers among some of the players that are not at all comfortable having so many thoughts in their heads all the time.

I believe thinking is learning and therefore the best way to change your behaviour (because learning is a permanent change in behaviour) is to reflect critically on what you have done well and what you can do better next time.  Therefore, the players have a post-game routine to go through where they think about their game.  Then, at a later date, we talk about what they thought about.

I also believe that if you learn to control your thoughts and control your emotions, you can become an exceptional athlete (coach, leader etc).  The players have also been given a pre-game routine and we spend a good deal of our weekly training talking about those preparations and getting them to try some of the things during training sessions before running with them in games.

All in all, these players have a lot to think about and sometimes they play slow – like a bunch of players that have a lot to think about.  The thing is, they won’t always play slow.  The thinking will get easier.  Faster.  It will almost seem automatic in some instances which is exactly where a high performing athlete wants to be.

So the time to think a lot is after the game in order to reflect and improve.  The time to balance thinking and distraction from thinking is the pre-game.  Too much thinking and the player will be wound up (will probably choke).  Not enough thinking and the player won’t be mentally (and therefore also possibly not physically) prepared.  Finding that happy medium is very much an individual process.

The time to think very little is during the game.

But I don’t believe that that means that you don’t think at all.  On the contrary, a complex invasion sport like soccer always requires you to make lots of decisions.  You perceive your environment and you act based on what you perceive.  Conversely, you act and from those actions you continue to perceive what’s going on in your environment.  If you perceive and you act then you are thinking.

As most sport psychologists that I’ve listened to note, an average or above average athlete doesn’t want to have to think about every minute detail of his or her performance.  A novice one?  Yes, lots of thinking required.  Like I said above, some of the paralysis by analysis the players I coach are suffering from is just the fact that there’s so much for them to learn as developing elite players.  At times they have no choice but to think a lot but that’s still different than overthinking.

The team that reported that they have to think too much when I asked them for more details on that said that it was actually one of the coaches on staff that was filling their heads before games with just too many topics and too much information.  That definitely is the sort of thing that leads to slow performances and even choking.

We’re going to try and remedy that in this weekend’s game.  The players have a good idea of how we want them to attack and defend each game.  I know this because the day before we play, the players get a game plan that reviews what I want them to focus on during the game.  That game plan contains a lot of words.  If a player tries to remember and say to herself all those words then the moment will be lost on her.  She will most likely experience some paralysis by analysis.

I want the players I coach to have a quiet mind.  As the Canadian Women’s National team head coach John Herdman says, light, bright and clear.  Players need to focus on the game plan but thinking too much about all the details of what needs to be done hurts, not helps.  So we’ve created a few key words.  When spoken these words will remind the players of what they need to do when they attack/defend as a team or as individuals.

I can say any of those words out loud to remind them or the players can say them to themselves as they play.  That way they’re thinking without thinking too much.  They hear (or say) the word and then their bodies take over from there.  They have a quiet mind because they have not overthought the situation.

In trying to explain this to the players the other night, I likened the process to being in a movie theatre waiting for the movie to start.  While you wait, you are consciously distracted by friends and discussions.  Your mind is busy.  However, as soon as those lights start to dim, you quiet your mind and focus on the movie.  You don’t completely stop perceiving, you just train your attention to the screen.  I think the pre-game is like waiting for the movie to start.  The ref blows the whistle to start the game and that’s like the lights dimming in the theatre.  The movie – or game – starts and that is the time to stop thinking too much and to start doing.

We’ll see how it goes.

Next post Sunday, July 5th.

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Week 32: Separation?

When I coach I worry about how well I’m doing and I’ve been worrying a lot lately.  Currently, I coach two developing high performance youth teams.  Female players aged 13 and 14.  Painting the vision and laying out the plan for the parents and players at the beginning of the season was easy.  Making the plan work as quickly as everyone would like it to is hard.

Over the first four games of the season both teams were 0-4-0 and had only managed to score two goals between them (both by the older team).   And both teams combined for a total goals allowance of 39 in those first four games.

Ouch…

It’s easy to worry way too much when that’s the sort of start to the season you’ve had.  And with both teams losing each of their first four games, it’s even easier to worry that I – the coach – am to blame.  After all, both teams follow the same philosophy and training plans.  So the vision I painted isn’t working.  The coaching I’m doing isn’t working.  Another coach could take these teams and do more and better things with them than I am currently doing.  Or at least those are the sorts of things that run through my head.

And yet as often as those troublesome thoughts regularly float in and out of my mind, I’m also filled with the belief that what I do works.  I know my style and methods are different than the norm.  I know they produce results in the long-term and not the short-term.  I also know that those results have been inconsistent but I don’t know how much of that is my own fault (for being so idealistic and ambitious) and how much is just the reality of kids developing.

Oh, so very conflicted.

But the last three weeks have shown the potential emergence of a slightly different pattern.  Three weekends ago the younger team lost but the older team tied.  Two weekends ago the younger team tied and the older team won.  This past weekend the older team won again (the younger team lost…again).

So both teams are following the same plan.  The older team is starting to settle into that plan and have earned themselves some points as a result of their improved performances. The younger team is still struggling to find their way with the plan.  It looks as if there might be some separation there.

That’s a blessing for me.  It’s small confirmation that what I do and the way I do it does work (or at least that’s what I’m choosing to believe).  I don’t know if all the parents of the players I coach have understood the direction I’ve taken.  I don’t know if they’re soccer savvy enough to see the subtle improvements in our play.  What I do know is that they understand results.

You can talk development all you want.  Coaches can say they do it.  Parents can say they buy into it but at the end of the day results is a simple language that we all know how to speak.

Next post Saturday, July 4th.

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Great Players Must be Great People Too

I often wonder what goes on in the heads of the kids I coach.  How connected are they to their surroundings?  What do they simply ignore and what are they just naive to?  Here’s a case in point.

Two weeks ago at the end of our mid-week training session, the assistant coach for the older of the two teams I coach said to the players to grab a used water bottle on your way and put it in the bin.  He had his arms full with discarded water bottles that had been strewn around the bench, most of which were already there when we arrived.  A few more that then probably ended up there as a result of our players.

The players were chatting as they were leaving and when the assistant coach spoke to them, the stopped talking to listen.  Then there was a few seconds of silence and then they went back to talking while they headed home.  Nobody did any cleaning.

As a result of that event, this past week and at the end of the training session at the very same field I told the players to leave the bench area cleaner than they found it.  That’s been a standard request of mine of the teams I coach for the past number of years now.   Again, there were unwanted plastic water bottles in particular that were lying about making the green space a little more difficult to enjoy.  I stayed until all the players had left the bench.  I wanted to see what happened.  There was lots of conversing but no extra effort our attention devoted to dealing with the refuse.

I took a picture of the bench area and then showed it to the players at training the next night.  While I was tempted to ask them what their modus operandi was for the fact that two weeks in a row they seemed to ignore the call to clean, I kept it simple and tried to give them a vision for why I felt they should clean – even if it means tidying up after others.

I was able to tie the vision into a slogan that I use with this particular group of players.  That slogan comes from the title of a Jim Collins book – Good to Great.  These are players that when I took over their coaching were already good.  It was my job to start to help them make the move over towards being great.  I wanted them to understand that there has to be more to soccer than just becoming a great player.  As far as coaching goes,  it’s a perfect example of holistic development at it’s best.

The discussion contained elements like the following.  A great player is one who does things that most players don’t.  A great person is one who does things that most people don’t.  The two go together but aren’t always found together.  Too much emphasis gets put on training the great player part and not enough on the great person part.

As much extra work as it is when practice time is already limited enough, I believe we must develop great people, not just great players.  You really should not be a great player without being a great person.  It’s just too dangerous.  How many stories can you think of where athletes, actors, musicians – celebrities in general – have done rather stupid things?  They’ve ridden their talent to the highest levels but along the way forgot to develop themselves as human beings in order to balance that endowment.

It’s nice to have a world filled with great athletes, great artists, great academics.  It reminds us of our potential and excites our imagination.  It’s even better to have a world filled with simply great people.  It reminds us of our capacity for benevolence, caring and dignity.

Great people do the really big things well  but more importantly they also remember to do the little things.  Things the average (or even good) person never think of doing.  Leaving a bench area after a practice or a game cleaner than you found it is one of those little things.

There weren’t any comments or questions in reply to my response.  I couldn’t tell if they felt guilty, reflective or just simply patronized.  I’m going  to risk sounding old and crotchety now but it’s hard to figure out kids today.  I guess we’ll see what happens the next time we ask them to leave the bench area cleaner than they found it.

Next post, Sunday June 28th.

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Week 31: A Glimmer of Hope?

I coach two developing high performance youth soccer teams.  It’s been a hard start to the season on the score board for both.  Last weekend one of the two teams got it’s first point.  This weekend, both teams managed to get points.  The older team, the team that tied last weekend, won and the younger team got its first point in a tie.

Definitely, a long time in coming.  Lots of questions surface when you’re not winning.  And when you coach two teams and both of those teams aren’t winning, it’s hard not to see the finger pointing at you, the head coach.

It’s interesting though how a win (a tie, anything that isn’t a loss) changes peoples’ mindsets and attitudes.  Everyone’s a little looser, a little lighter-spirited, a little happier.  It’s just a win.  You scored more goals than your opponent.  You may not even have played well.  You may haven gotten lucky but it doesn’t matter.  Winning makes all the difference in the world.

You don’t even have to win every game but you can’t lose every game either.  You just have to win enough.  Enough to keep people happy.  If people are happy then you can much more easily develop players.

These two teams I’m coaching have lost a lot to start the season.  However, they’ve also accumulated a great deal of knew information to help them become better players.  And not just technical-tactical information either.  It’s an abundance of information that is going to help them become very well-rounded players in the long-term.  The problem with having all that information in your brain though is trying to remember it and use it/do it.

I believe their performances, despite the losses, have gotten better.  Not consistent yet but better.  And I hope that the win and tie that they achieved this weekend is not just a random blip on the screen that will come and go and then be replaced by more losses.  Otherwise, the pressure’s back on.  But I do believe we can both perform well consistently and win too.  It’s just going to take more time.

Next post June 27th.

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The High Price of Teaching Obedience

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

The phone rings.  It’s the taxman.  He tells you they’ve found an error in your taxes over the last few years and that you owe them some money.  He tells you they’ve sent you two paper notices about this in the mail over the last few months and that you’ve not responded to either one.  As such, the phone call you are receiving on that day is your last chance to pay the outstanding amount before more serious action is taken against you.

Sounds plausible, right?  Tax evasion happens.  Even if it was an error on your part in calculating.  Notices may have come.  Maybe they got lost.  Maybe you opened them but just never really paid attention to the content.  Filed them away thinking it was part of your tax return.

So the more serious action you face, the person on the other end of the phone tells you, is prosecution by federal law – probably even the potential of jail.  You have to pay the outstanding balance now.  Right now!  Drop what you’re doing, get in your car and go pay it.  If you choose not to obey, you will be seen as non-compliant and therefore can expect the police at your door sooner than later.  Once you’ve paid a meeting will be set up where the tax man and a tax lawyer will sit down with you and show you where in your tax returns they found the errors.  But for now, you are in violation of a few sections of federal law as they pertain to tax collection.  The person on the phone lets you know specifically the sections that you are in violation of but doesn’t provide anything more specific on the actual errors that occurred in your returns.

Still sounds a bit plausible, right?  After all, you owe them money and you’ve not responded to their notices. It doesn’t matter that you can’t remember the notices.  It’s their word against yours and they probably have the documentation to show they did send.  They’re giving you this final chance before they press charges and they want to watch you like a hawk now to make sure that you actually make the payment.  After all, they’ve probably had to deal with some pretty dodgy people who’ve done some pretty dodgy things.  You’ve apparently been a bad boy/girl and authority figures will be coming to visit you whether or not you pay the outstanding amount.

The person on the phone is losing patience with you.  They have other tax payers that are calling in that need assistance too.  Will you or won’t you comply?  What if that person on the other end of the phone, tells you the money you owe needs to be wire transferred?  And what if instead of making it out to the tax agency itself, it’s to be sent to an individual?

When did your alarm bells go off?  Right from the beginning?  From the last paragraph?  Not at all?

This happened to me a couple of weeks ago and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I was at the store with wire transfer paper work in hand when the fact that I was to send this money to an individual and not an agency made me stop and ask more questions.

I was being scammed for about $1300.  He had me on my cell phone, told me I could not hang up or put him on mute otherwise both those actions would be seen as non-compliant behaviours and charges would be pressed.  I’d asked the guy questions all along and I must admit his answers, while reasonable enough in my mind made my gut feel less than convinced.  Fortunately there was a long line-up at the store so while I was waiting in line I was able to enter the phone number that he had called me from into an internet search on my phone without him realizing it and found others describing a similar scenario.

When I got to the front of the line I explained to the manager what was going on and she said definitely a scam, hang up.  I decided since this guy had already wasted an hour of  my time, I might as well keep him on the phone as long as I could – use up a good portion of that $1300 that he’d tried to get out of me.  It was while I was walking through the parking lot that he asked me again if I was any closer to having made the payment.  I told him the line was really long, somebody arguing with the clerk and there was only the one person working.  There was a moment of silence and then he said in the most serious of tones, “Sir, I know you’re outside, do you take me for a fool…”

Well, I guess I’m the fool but I was fascinated by my behaviour in this situation.  I told my wife about it when I got home and she had already said something’s wrong here before I got a quarter of the way through the story.  That fascinated me even more.

So I did a bit of reading.  This article says it happened probably because I have low self-esteem.  How about that!  While this one says I’m not necessarily a poor decision maker, just more susceptible to certain types of persuasion – especially the high type of emotional persuasion that is typically used in scams (i.e., you owe money, pay or you can be arrested).

But I do wonder about decision making ability and problem solving ability.  Critical thinking in other words.  Or, as I’ve called it in a previous post, your B.S. Detector.  Critical thinking is one of the skills that I believe we as coaches need to be teaching the players we coach.  I know I don’t feel I was educated to be a critical thinker.  I was taught to be a sheep.  I think it showed in that exchange I described above.  I was almost willing to blindly follow authority because I feel I was raised to respect authority – especially when you’re in trouble.  If it hadn’t been for my work the last few years to learn about and try to teach players to become critical thinkers, I think I would have ended up paying that guy – Ronnie Biggs – the money.

I’m happy I managed to avoid the costly mistake.  I’m happy I just kept asking the guy questions instead of just saying “Okay” and sending the money.  A few years ago I probably just would have acquiesced.  I know that there is a psychology here to the science, and therefore the art, of the scam.  I also know there are plenty of other people who probably did pay the money, or buy the vacation or invest in the company.  And I still believe that the ability to think critically – to see that there are two sides to every story even when that story is highly emotionally charged – is crucial.

As I tell the kids I coach, becoming a critical thinker doesn’t automatically make you a radical or a rebel.  It makes you curious.  It shows you’re listening.  Thinking about what was said.  Investigating it’s tangibility from all sides and angles.  And yet I also know from my own experiences as a student as well as the stories I still hear from today’s students is that the system (specifically the education system) doesn’t seem to have much time for kids who continually ask questions – especially tough questions.  You get branded as outspoken.  Just be a sheep.  Baaaaaa, follow along and do what you’re told.

Well, that almost cost me $1300.  So I’m going to do what I can to continue to help the kids I develop learn to think for themselves – even if it means they question what it is I do.  In fact, I hope they do challenge my decisions (in a respectful way of course).  That would be a sign that they’ve learned to find another side to the story and, more importantly, the confidence to speak up and say it.

Next post Sunday, June 21st.

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