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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next post Saturday February 7th.

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To Develop Motivation Manipulate the Climate, not the Athletes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next post Sunday, February 1st.

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Week 10 of Indoor Training

The Psychology of Female Players

Currently, the 2001 and 2002 female soccer players I’m working with are concentrating on the development of a few themes.  One of those themes is dribbling and running with the ball.

There’s no doubt that males and females are extremely different in many ways – including the way they approach the game of soccer.  Just take dribbling and running with the ball for example.  Male soccer players, I find, generally dribble to the point where you have to remind them to stop dribbling so much.  Female soccer players, on the other hand, pass so much you have to remind them to dribble otherwise they’ll pass even when passing is the worst option possible.

My best guess at why the difference exists?  I think girls feel they have to share the ball.  That’s what they’re hardwired and socialized to do.  Females are just better at inclusion than are males.  So after two weeks of training where our first session of the week has focused on dribbling and running with the ball, I find myself encouraging the girls not to do away with passing but to make room for an equally strong urge to dribble.  The rest then becomes their ability to know when to follow the urge to pass and when to follow the urge to dribble.  A player that can only pass is far more predictable than a player that can mix it up and both dribble and pass.

Competing is Okay

Another component of the male vs female differences category is in attitude towards competition.  Again, I find males don’t seem to mind ranking each others and therefore excluding each other as a result of that ranking.  We are more than willing to kick the crap out of each other and compete to see who’s best.  Females, on the other hand, seem to struggle with this notion.  It seems its an either-or situation for them.  You either are enemies and you compete against each other or you are friends and you cooperate.  Friends don’t compete against each other.

Our final session of the week right now focuses on enhancing the girls’ desire to compete.  At the end of this week’s cycle, I couldn’t help but note the staggering difference towards competition the girls have when compared to boys.  For this final session of the week, we set up a series of challenges where the players have to compete one-on-one against each other.  They get points based on how many competitions they win.  In other words, they have to take on teammates and beat them.

And how did they go about keeping track of their scores?  Well, they remembered their own scores but had know idea of their opponent’s.  Crazy!  So my statement to them at the end of the session was if you played a game in season and I asked you the score it would be silly to think that you’d say, “Well, I know we’ve got two goals but I’m not sure how many our opponents have.”  And yet that’s exactly what happened multiple times during this final session of our training week.

I’d ask the girls to tell me who won the game in the various one-on-one competitions and what I’d get back would be, “Well, I know I had three.”  I’d say, “Okay, that’s great but who won?”  I suppose this isn’t too bad compared to the other ploy I often got when I asked them the score – they’d look at their opponent, shrug their shoulders and tell me they didn’t know.  That’s something that guys would never, ever let happen.  Guys would know the score before they knew all the rules and strategies to help them affect the score in their favour!

So my final message to the girls at the end of this week’s cycle of training was to remind them that the very first thing they were told at the very first training session of 2015 was to practice the way they play.  While part of that means giving 100% of themselves every session, more importantly, it means pushing their teammates to give 100%.  Otherwise, how can you say you’re practising the way you play if you don’t go all out in practice against your teammates?

I don’t want them to stop passing in order to dribble more.  I want them to make dribbling as strong a habit as is their choice for passing.  Similarly, I don’t want them to stop cooperating and showing prosocial behaviour, I just want them to also learn to have equally strong feelings for competition.  If that means in learning to be more competitive against teammates, we end up with a little anti-social behaviour in the process, so be it.  Sometimes to find the middle, you first have to explore each end of the spectrum.


It’s a balancing act developing players using a four-corner philosophy.  Right now many of these girls I’m coaching are unbalanced in a number of their habits.  They are strongly rooted at one end of the spectrum and are sometimes not even aware from their position that there is another end to that habit’s spectrum.  There’s lots of work to be done but it’s a great group and I’m sure progress will be made.  Stay tuned!

Next post Saturday, January 31st.

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Casting Motivation in a very Different Light

Motivation produces outcomes.  Those outcomes include things like thoughts, feelings and actions.  If you want to understand why someone behaves a certain way then figure out what motivates them.  The flip side to that is if you want to get from those individuals certain behaviours (or avoid certain behaviours), understand what motivates the people in question to act, feel and think in the way that you would like.

If you’ve not yet seen Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on motivation, then take twenty minutes to do so.  It will be well worth it for the change in thinking that it will most definitely provoke.

To summarize what you’ll see, rewards or incentives work for tasks that are simple, step-like and production-like in nature.  When a task gets more complicated, like a team sport for example, which requires both conceptual and creative thinking, rewards fail badly.  They fail, according to the research Pink quotes, because they hinder, not help, the creative and conceptual process needed to find a solution to the problem.

We’ve been told and therefore come to believe that the best way to motivate people is to focus on the positive (i.e., provide reward) instead of the negative (i.e., institute punishment).  However, stripped down to their skivvies, both positive and negative forms of motivation are no different than each other.  They’re both forms of manipulation.  Even if you provide a reward that is positive, you are still manipulating that person’s behaviour to do something that they may not have otherwise done.

I think motivation is summed up in the last few words of the previous sentence.  That is, getting people to do something they otherwise would not have done of their own accord.  That takes me back to the very first thing I’ve said in today’s blog.  If you want to motivate people, then understand their behaviour.  Obviously there are reasons why we all do certain things and why we don’t do others.

Understanding these why’s, and therefore maximizing the opportunity to effect motivation, ties into a social-cognitive theory of motivation known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT).  It has great value in understanding how to truly harness motivation and help kids (and ourselves too) realize full potential.  However, that I’ll talk more about in next Saturday’s blog.  I’ve kept this one short so that you can go watch Dan Pink’s TED Talk.  Alrighty then, get going!

Next post Sunday, January 25th.

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Week 9 of Indoor Training: The Official Start of Training

Here we go!

After what felt like a very long (and yet sometimes very short) three week break, the 02 and 01 girls that I’ll be coaching in 2015 officially kicked off their training program in preparation for the coming high performance league season.  They started their four sessions per week which they’ll now do for the next ten months.  In total, these players will train around 160 times this year.

For the 01’s, this is old news.  They were here this time last year getting to do this as rookies.  Now, it’s the 02’s that are the rookies.  I’ll be relying on the 01’s to act as training advocates for the 02’s.  In a few months time I’m certain some of the 02’s will be struggling with the training load, just as I’m sure there were 01’s that did last year.  The 01’s that are currently in the program obviously found a way to survive – even thrive – in that new environment.  Therefore, the 02’s can ask the 01’s how they did it when times got tough for them.  The 01’s can provide tips and tricks and just overall general support to the 02’s when they start feeling the potential burden of training and playing soccer to a level they’ve never experienced before.

Making the Implicit, Explicit

I tried to set the tone for training right from the start.  At training session #1, the girls were asked to grab their journals prior to the start and right the following statement down:

Practice the way you want to play

This session in the cycle for the next two months will focus on attacking.  In particular it will focus on dribbling and running with the ball.  These are skills that I wish that female soccer players in general naturally did more of.  But it isn’t as natural as it is for boys.  For girls, it’s more natural to share the ball and so female players tend to pass even when dribbling would be the better option.  Therefore, it will also focus on developing the confidence to take players on.

Session #2 each week is our fitness session.  We have fitness testing coming up this week to collect some baseline numbers and then we will start a soccer-specific program provided to us by a fitness specialist.  So my message for our first fitness testing session this past week for them to take home was:

Speed kills

Powerful and quick actions make the difference between winning and losing.  Players who perform those more powerful and quicker actions are the difference makers.  This theme tied naturally into the first session’s practice the way you play theme.  Between the first two sessions the message was clear: When you work, WORK.  When you rest, REST.  Otherwise, you’re not doing what you must in order to play your best.

Session #3 each week is a chance to focus more on decision making.  For the next couple of months, the theme is vision and awareness.  In order to make a decision, you need some choices to decide over.  In order to have some choices you have to look around and perceive what’s happening in your environment.  Getting the players to look up is one thing.  Getting them to actually make sense of what they see, when it can often look like a blur, is another far bigger problem we will try to solve.

At the end of that third session, players were given some homework.  They were asked to find the following video on Youtube.  It is from 2007 and the US Women’s National Team’s preparations for the World Cup that year.  While watching the whole thing, they were to pay close attention to what Hope Solo, the American goalkeeper, said.  They were to come to the fourth training session with a quote from Hope Solo.  This quote, I told them, would represent the theme of our final session of the week for the next two months.

So at that final training session of the first week, the 02’s got together and the 01’s got together and came up with their quote.  Both groups basically got it.  The quote from Hope Solo I was looking for that set the theme for the last session of each week was:

“Every day we go out there and we’re killing each other on the field and then you walk off the field and you’re best friends.”

I mean, there it is.  Coming out of the mouth of a professional and World Cup winning soccer player.  There’s what aspiring female soccer players have to do if they want to continue up the ladder of elite performance.  And this, I feel, is a concept that female players struggle with in general.  You can go hard against an opponent because she’s on the other team and not necessarily your friend but going hard against a teammate and a friend just feels wrong.  Well, these girls have to learn to conquer that dissonance.  First step in practicing the way you play is to go hard yourself.  The second step to that is that you must go hard against your teammates in training.

I want these girls to learn to compete more and to be more intense in their play.  I picked this theme because of its importance.  Both the 02’s and 01’s are nice groups of girls.  Too nice in fact.  You see that when they play.  I’m not looking to create two team’s worth of mean and nasty thugs, I just want them to learn to be assertive.  An assertive player for me is one who can take her lumps from an aggressive player and also dish it back when necessary (within the rules of course).  However, unlike the aggressive player, I don’t want the girls to go around trying to simply physically intimidate their opponents.  If their opponents try to physically intimidate them I don’t want them to capitulate or retaliate, just compensate.

To me, that means dialing up their toughness thermostat when necessary.  More importantly, it means dialing up their desire-metres.  They should want to win every tackle, every header, every foot race, every shoulder to shoulder battle against their opponent.  And if that opponent just happens to be their best friend, so be it.  Yes girls, you can be competitive and still have friends too. It’s all in the mindset.

Competitive Cauldron

So this is the theme of the final session of each week.  It’s stolen from Anson Dorrance, coach of the highly successful University of North Carolina women’s team.  He has used a series of challenges in training to get his players competing more and wanting it more.  He turns those challenges into a points system and then displays the rankings of players in the locker room for all to see.  He says that those players who are truly competitive and want to be the best will find a way to get to the top of the table.  Those who don’t care about competition won’t mind being at the bottom of the table.  It’s probably worth stating that those latter players also become the ones who drift into the ‘B’ team or out of the program altogether at UNC.

Four our competitive cauldron, I created six stations focusing primarily on technical soccer skills.  They include passing, receiving, heading, volleying, defending one-on-one , attacking one-on-one and finishing.  The goalkeepers obviously get to track points based on their shot stopping and I’m currently working with the goalkeeper coaches in the program to create a few more skills on which the keepers can compete against each other.

The players will go through these stations each week for the next two months and will try to collect as many points as they can.  I will not publicly display the standings with names but I will give players the opportunity to see where they rank relative to the rest of the group.  No names will be used in the ranking.  I will just point to a position on the table and say, “There, that’s you.”  Even if I don’t use names on the ranking, they’ll still find out where each other is if they want to.  That’s a given and there’s not a whole lot that can be done.

And there you have it.  Now, let’s see where the next two months takes us.

Next post Saturday, January 24th.

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For a Coach, there’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Note: Today’s blog is a little longer read than normal but it comes straight from the heart.

At the age of 23, and after already having coached for six years, I left home to pursue better coaching opportunities.  Opportunities that my hometown I knew just could not provide.  Those first couple of summers away from home were extremely hard.   I was trying to make a mark in a new coaching community while also trying to make enough money to live for the summer and at the same time also to help pay for university.

Like most university students, meagre was probably a good word to describe what life was like for me at the time.  In particular as it related to coaching, I had no car and relied on assistant coaches/parents to help get me too and from practices and games and tournaments.  One parent I remember offered plenty of help during one of those summers away from home.  Of particular interest was an out of town tournament that he offered to drive me to.  When he picked me up, he’d bought me chips, pop and candy for the trip.  As a treat for me at that time was typically Hamburger Helper on a Saturday night, I graciously accepted the junk food.  It felt nice to have someone else looking after you and looking out for you.

Later that season, his twin daughters who were on the team weren’t playing as much as he’d expected.  We just happened to be at another out of town tournament when he confronted me about that topic.  It was clear that he had had enough with me and was going to let me know that which he did in front of the rest of the parents and players.  I still remember his words to this day:

“How can you do this after all I’ve done for you?”

It was on that day that I learned the hard way that in coaching, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Over the years, as both a team coach and a club technical director, I’ve been very cautious of my relationship with parents.  I definitely keep my distance.  The offers from parents have always been present.  Would you like a coffee?  A drive? If you ever need a babysitter for your son, we’d be happy to help.  Here, let me pick up your lunch bill for you.

A few years back, I can remember working as club technical director with this one particular player.  I’ll call her Ally.  The first time I saw her was at some free goalkeeper training I was putting on for the club’s younger players.  She was 10.  She was a bit chubby – call it baby fat – and not very athletic.  She and her best friend at the time (let’s call her Carla) would come every Saturday morning for this free training.  They enjoyed themselves but honestly were not very good, even though they were part of the club’s competitive program for their age group.

The next spring Ally and Carla both tried out for their age groups competitive teams.  There were three levels of teams because there were so many players and these two particular girls had both been together on the middle or ‘B’ team the summer before when I’d first met them.  After the selection process, they had both only managed to get picked for the ‘C’ team.

The response from Carla’s family was to move their daughter out of our club to another club.  The response of Ally and her family was to stay put and accept the offer that was presented to them.  As it turns out, a player that had been offered a spot on the ‘B’ team that season turned it down.  According to the tryout scores, Ally was the next in line to be offered a spot.  She and her family accepted.

As it happened, I ended up taking over the head coaching duties of that team – a team that I would then continue to coach for the next three years (even though I was the club’s technical director).  This player worked hard and so did her family.  They helped with the management of the team.  They took the nets to every home game and both put them up and took them down.  They had two other younger children as well who were also in soccer so needless to say they spent their summers at the field with their kids.

The next spring, Ally tried again for the ‘A’ team and did not make it.  While others complained and griped about the tryout process, or the selection of players, Ally and her family continued to honour the same mindset – keep your head down and work hard.  It was refreshing to me.  This family was restoring my faith and trust that I had lost over a decade earlier at that tournament.

Another spring came and again Ally tried for the ‘A’ team.  This time, after four consecutive years of trying and failing, she made it.   Even though I continued to coach the ‘B’ team at that age level, Ally and her family stayed in close contact with that team as well as continued to staunchly support all my decisions and technical directions for the club as a whole. It was great.  I remember thinking to myself that this was the one family who through good times and bad I was able to trust as seeing that the game itself was bigger than their daughter and while unpopular decisions were sometimes made, hard work and focus would bring about positive results.

I had finally learned to let down my guard once more.

The next spring, my final year at that club, Ally did not make the ‘A’ team.  There was a new coach in place and this individual had rationale for not selecting her and justification for selecting another instead.  It would be fair to say that Ally didn’t have the best set of tryouts and this coach was coming to the club from outside so didn’t know any of the players.  It was not a good situation.

As the TD, I met with each of the head coaches during their final player selections and acted as devil’s advocate to make sure that each of their last few selections – the ones where the most controversy always lay – were well thought out.  I did my very best to argue for Ally’s inclusion on the ‘A’ team but the coach wouldn’t have it.  Short of over stepping my boundaries as TD and overturning his decision, there was nothing more I could do.

The news did not go over well with Ally and her family.  Both the mother and the father talked to me at length on the phone and in emails about it.  They met with me face to face along with Ally.  I did my best to explain the situation.  They were angry and would not have any of it.  I’d failed them and let them down.  With that, the relationship ended.  Ally went to another club and the family pulled their two younger daughters from the club as well.  This also happened to be my final year at the club.  At my send-off celebration later that year, many of the players and their parents who’d I’worked with in Ally’s age group over the years were there.  Ally and her parents were not.

Again, I was reminded that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in coaching.  That experience ended up being far harder to live through then the first over a decade earlier.  It sent me back to absolute reset where once more I did not know what to think or who to trust.

There is, you may be happy to know, a lighter chapter to add in order to finish this story off.  Almost three years ago I got married and became a dad.  I went back to visit that club where I had worked for a number of years in order to celebrate my marriage and the birth of my son.  Many coaches, players and parents came including Ally and her mother.  This was a approximately two years after they had decided to walk away.  They seemed genuinely happy for me.  It was as if the last two years had ceased to exist.  Things almost felt normal.  I say almost because I was still confused about what to make of it all.

Well wishers at the celebration were encouraged to fill out a card to add to a memory box that my wife and I had to mark the experience.  While changing a few of the details to protect those involved in this story, I’d like to share with you what Ally wrote:

Dear Joel,

Come back!  It’s not the same without you!  You were the best coach I had.  you taught me so much and one of those things was to never give up.  I remember when we dyed your hair pink after won a game in that league cup competition!  Or when we won that tournament in Sommerville and you had faith in us the entire time (although we played a level up!).  You always motivated me and made me love the game more than I already did!  I wanted to thank you for always being there for me and always having faith in me.  I hope one day I can play on the Canadian Women’s National team.  I still remember when you gave us a speech about making it to the top and how you brought in a national team player to talk to us.  I still have that book of quotes you gave us once at our pre-season meeting and I’ve hung them on my wall as words of inspiration.  I’m so happy for you.


To be a great coach you have to trust.  You have to open yourself up in ways that most normal adults would never choose to do.  You have to bravely accept the consequences of that culpability which can, in my experiences, often means getting let down or hurt in some way.  And then, if that wasn’t enough, you need to pick yourself up and provide the exact same level of care and duty  all over again.  I can do that but it’s the stage between getting hurt and picking yourself up again that’s always taken it’s toll on me physically, mentally and emotionally.

I don’t know how much faith I can or should put in the melodramatic comments of a 16-year-old-girl.  It is nice, however, to think that out of what seemed like a disaster at the time came some hope.  A restoration of faith for me I suppose.  Now, I only wish that those past multiple instances of hope echoed louder in my head than the few but unforgettable instances of disaster.

Next post Sunday, January 18th.

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Teaching Kids to Persevere in Youth Sport and in Life

Over the holiday break, I gave the group of 2002 soccer players that I’m coaching (and their parents) a learning project.  It was on the topic of growth versus fixed mindsets.  That is an concept that features prominently under the cognitive corner of the four-corner model of development that I follow as a coach of youth sport participants.

I cannot begin to express just how much finding out about a growth mindset has changed my life around for the better.  Don’t get me wrong.  In many ways it’s much harder than it used to be before I realized my talents and abilities are not fixed at a certain level but there’s a real satisfaction now in that discomfort.  I’m learning to get comfortable being uncomfortable – something I tell the players I coach they need to do if they want to excel.

So knowing that this was an extremely important element that I wanted to make sure the players and their parents were introduced to before the season, I set the families up with this little learning project.  It consisted of two videos that I put together from some Youtube clips on the subject and a series of reflective questions for the players to help stimulate some deep thought on the topic.

All the families completed the project.  Parents that I talked to said it was just as valuable for them as it was for their kids.  The questions were challenging to answer but everyone got through them.

I then held a classroom session with the players to tie up all the loose ends.  I wanted to do what I could to take all this nice theory and make sure that the players could see how it could apply to their soccer as well as their everyday lives.  Throughout the trials and the November-December training cycle, I referred to many ideas and concepts that tied into mindsets.  The player meeting was a chance to say, “Remember when I talked about X…do you see now how that ties in to what we’re talking about here tonight?”

Coming out of the learning project and into the classroom session, I’d hoped that the message they had to that point was that hard work and effort, not just supposed God-given natural talent, are responsible for success and achievement.  Therefore, any of us can become a lot better at anything than I we currently are.  The message I wanted to get across at the player meeting is that hard work is, well, HARD!

I think it’s fair to say that the media glamorizes a great deal about the worlds of athletics and entertainment.  The superstars in those industries that we see leave us with the feeling that there’s no way mere mortals like us could ever be them.  Or, just the opposite, we see their success and assume that in our own lives if we’re on a bit of a success streak ourselves, we’ll turn out just like them.

What we never see, is the years of toil and slogging that most of those individuals did in order to get where they are.  We only see where they are now, not where they came from and how hard they had to work to get there.  That’s why in the player meeting I wanted to make sure that while we talked about many of the questions that were part of their holiday learning assignment, I also wanted to give them an honest picture of hard work and effort.

So at the player meeting, we watched some more videos like this one:

And this one:

And this one too:

We talked about mindsets, and neuroplasticity and deep/deliberate practice, and failure, and effort, and hard work.  And at the end of it all, I tried to sum it up in one word.


I told them that I was looking for (and looking to develop) players with grit.  I told them that gritty people are people who can stick it out.  People who can last through to the finish and rise to the top.

We finished the player meeting by looking at our team’s standards/expectations document.  I asked them if they could see any examples of grit in the statements that made up that document.  One by one, the girls said what they thought represented grit.  At the end, practically every statement on the document had been connected to grit.  It was obvious to see that our standards/expectations are driven by the desire to develop grittiness.

Now the goal will be to live this grit every session in the hopes that it will become habitual and drive as many of these girls as possible to great heights in their soccer and in their personal lives.

These players are so lucky to know about grit and mindsets.  I feel lucky too.  The only thing I’m disappointed with is that I wish I’d known about these things thirty years ago.  Well, better late than never I guess.

Next post Saturday, January 17th.

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Art May Imitate Life but it also Imitates Youth Soccer

Attractive, attacking football.  I hear this statement made often now in reference to certain professional soccer teams.  Not too long ago it was used as a descriptor for to two teams who both play in that way.  The colour commentator’s conclusion being that we were probably in for an excellent game.  And he was right.  It was an excellent game filled with attractive, attacking football.

Besides being a heretic, I’m also an idealist.  I really don’t know or understand (or care to understand for that matter) the meaning of the word pragmatism.  As a soccer coach, I believe the game should be played with flare and skill.  I’d much rather coach a team to play beautifully and lose than have a team that wins but plays like blind, club-footed donkeys.

I’m ashamed to have to admit the following and so I’ll try and make a clarification (read excuse) first.  Maybe it’s the constant hum of the crowd noise with that strategically placed commentary of a few words every so often, I don’t know, but there are soccer games that I’ve watched that have put me to sleep.  I say the white noise that is the crowd singing and chanting but in all likelihood, it’s the quality of the soccer (or lack there of) being played that puts me to sleep.

And if you do any reading of internet news articles, than sooner or later you’ve run into a story about our shrinking creative abilities and the inability of the current education system to support and develop that most vital capacity.  And yet teaching your players to play with flare is all about teaching them to be creative.  Schools haven’t found the solution yet to the creativity conundrum.  Maybe attack-oriented youth sports is a solution?

A while back I watched an interesting little video titled What is Art for?

Immediately, it got me thinking about my belief using the four-corner model of development that we should be, under the technical-tactical corner, developing players as entertainers.  The video makes the point that most people have no idea what to do or how to react to art.  The creators go on to argue five points of how art can serve us.  Those points applied to this blog post now become the five things that show why we should be developing youth players to play attractive and attacking soccer.

1. Beautiful soccer keeps us hopeful

If you follow the game of soccer (and even if you don’t) you’d be hard pressed not to know about FC Barcelona.  Their accomplishments as a professional football club in the period 2008-2012 has no doubt gone down in history.  They are the 21st century’s current epitome of playing the beautiful game beautifully.  Another example would be the Dutch in 1974.  They played in the World Cup that year and it was probably the last time since FC Barcelona that anyone talked about the flare, imagination and uniqueness of a team’s play in a similar way.  We tend to continuously talk about things that give us hope.

It’s a mean and nasty world out there folks and all you need to do is listen to the news for 30 seconds to get yourself right nicely depressed.  Well, for the parents, and the officials and the opponents and anyone else who happens to be walking by the field when your team plays beautifully will be given hope.  Seeing a youth soccer team play with skill is the fizz that you can then bottle and enjoy later when you need a little fizz in your life.

2. Beautiful soccer gone wrong reminds us that pain is universal

I’ve been in my fair share of games where the wonderful soccer that the team I was coaching played went largely unrewarded on the score sheet.  I remember one particular player crying at the end of a championship tournament final loss to a team that played like rampaging bulls in soccer shorts.  As we lined up to shake hands she exclaimed that it was no fair that we had lost the final to THIS team.

And to me, her teammates, her parents and anyone else watching that saw her crying and understood her despair, it was confirmation that we all feel pain.  More importantly, it was validation to anyone watching that it is perfectly okay to share that emotion publicly.  As a team, we had achieved a level of play not often seen by kids that age and yet we still did not win the game.  A small tragedy?  Probably not but at the time is sure feels like it so why not acknowledge the pain and emotion within?  We’re made to feel sometimes as if we always have to “put on a good face”, smile and tell others just how happy we are.  Pain is something you keep to yourself.  Seeing a soccer team who played so endearingly lose out to lady luck keeps us humbly connected to the human condition.

3. Beautiful soccer balances us

If you’ve been to enough youth soccer games, you know that things can get a little out of hand on the sidelines.  We’re not just competitive, many out there are maladaptive in their competition.  Just take a drive down the highway and you’ll see plenty of maladaptive competition on the go.  And as the name suggests maladaptive is not healthy.  It’s not balanced.

When parents in particular get to witness a soccer team honouring the game, respecting officials and opponents and playing with skill, heart and joy, it’s hard not to recognize how wonderful it is to see those things in action.  It’s a reminder that that is truly what organized youth sport should be all about.  It pulls us back to a more neutral position from the all too common yelling and screaming and gives us the perspective that we need to recognize that these are just kids playing a game (and they’re capable of playing it quite well when we get off their backs).

4. Beautiful soccer helps us to appreciate what’s most important in kids’ sport

Winning.  Again, you can’t go too long without hearing it mentioned in the media.  No wonder both the kids that play and their parents that support them regularly become misguided in what organized youth sport is really about. Teach kids that life is dog-eat-dog and the sooner you learn to knock the other guy/gal down, the sooner you’ll be on your way to enjoying all the fruits of capitalism.  Like the media. kids playing inspiring soccer reminds us of what’s also important and is of value in our lives.  It returns winning to it’s rightful place and shows us what’s truly worth appreciating.

5. Beautiful soccer is propaganda for change in organized youth sport

Youth soccer, and I’d generalize to say youth sport, needs a serious makeover.  We need propaganda to lead that makeover and motivate people to join in.  Everything that has been mentioned in the last four points provides the propaganda necessary to launch that change.

The power of seeing kids play soccer beautifully becomes, as the video states, “A constant source of support and encouragement for our better selves.”  Our ideals.  Hey…a guy can dream, can’t he?  And by the way, for those of you who aren’t soccer historians, the Dutch never won that World Cup in 1974.  The West Germans did, beating the Dutch in the final.  However, people have always talked and continue to talk about the Dutch of ’74, not the Germans.

Next post Sunday, January 11th.

Did you find these ramblings interesting?  Than you might also like to read about youth sport coaches as artists in this blog post from March 2014.

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Week 8 of Indoor Training: The End of the Nov-Dec Cycle

This was the last week of training before the holidays for the 2002s.  As such, we kept the sessions light.  The most notable talking point would probably have to be the completion of each player’s individual performance plan.

Four weeks ago I started one-on-one interviews with each player and her parents.  Prior to that, I’d had each player and her parents complete a survey.  All of that was designed to get to know as much about each of the girls as I possibly could.  The one-on-one meetings with each family gave me a chance to follow up on the surveys, ask questions and hear from each player what things she wanted to work at improving.

At my request, they all picked things for themselves from the four-corner model of development.  So their goals included technical-tactical items, physical items, cognitive items and social-emotional items.  There was everything from becoming a better dribbler, to getting more flexible to grasping complicated drills faster to being more empathetic towards teammates.

My job at that point was to take each player’s wish list and turn it into actionable items.  And it was as challenging and as hard and as difficult as I thought it was going to be!  You ask someone what goals they want to achieve and it’s so easy to just say something in the affirmative and it sounds so plausible.  For example, I want to read more.  I want to lose weight.  I want to become a better dribbler.

The problem is that none of those goals are specific or measurable or time bound.  And because of that, who knows if they’re attainable or even relevant for the people that have decided to pursue them.  So for each of the fifteen players that are currently in this high performance soccer development program that I am leading, I tried to take those sorts of vague but still credible sounding statements and turn them into tangible and trackable targets (alliteration not intended).

Here’s what the template looks like that I used to make each player’s IPP.  Just click on the words IPP Template in order to open a PDF.

IPP Template

Currently, I’m just in the process of reviewing with each family their daughter’s IPP to make sure that everything on there makes sense and to ensure we’re all on the same page.  Until each player starts the individual pursuit of her goals, I won’t know for certain how well I did at hitting the mark with the IPPs.  Again, I cannot stress enough how complex a process it was just to get to this point.

I also gave the parents a general review document on goal setting with a few key messages about the point and purpose of this whole adventure.  I wanted them to understand the goal setting process as a continuous activity – identify a gap, make an action plan, collect data and work diligently to improve then start at the beginning again with another gap.  I also wanted them to understand I’d made above about taking abstract wishes and dreams and turning them into the concrete and the believable.  Finally, I wanted to get them thinking about rewards.  I want them celebrating every goal their daughters’  achieve.  So parents and daughter should have a reward figured out in advance for each goal so that when that goal is accomplished, the player does celebrate the accomplishment (before putting another new goal in its place).  Here’s the document I sent them to cover those things.

Goal Setting Review for Parents

I hope that the plans I’ve created are not too far out in left field.  I suppose even if they are, that’s okay.  It just means having open and continuous discussions with each player and her parents to ensure that the IPP is tweaked to make success a challenge but still attainable.

Again, so easy to say but so hard to do.  I could see how if you got really good at doing this sort of thing people would probably pay you a ton of money for your expertise.  It truly is a unique skill.

With the holiday season here, I’m going to take a couple weeks away from writing.  Happy holidays and a happy New Year to you.

Next post Saturday, January 10th.

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Juggling the Four Corners of Development

unnamedA few years back I had a coaching colleague send me this image.  He said, the guy in the picture represented him as a coach.  The three pins represented one each of development, winning and fun.  The spring loaded platform represented the parents (the paying customers).  It was certainly a good analogy and one, I think, that still holds very true for any of us that are coaching kids.

Here’s the thing…

If you added in one more juggling pin to that picture then you could also extend the analogy to a coach’s ability to juggle the four corners of development.  With each of the four pins representing a corner of development (technical-tactical, physical, cognitive and social-emotional) and the spring-loaded platform representing not only parents but the organization’s expectations of the coach.  Coaching kids to help them develop holistically is a true balancing AND juggling act.  And maybe the guy should also be wearing a blindfold!

Here’s a personal two part example of the challenge of implementing a four-corner development approach from my own coaching experiences.

Part One

I’ve talked regularly here about the group of 2002 girls that I am coaching.  I haven’t mentioned the 2001 girls that I will be coaching much but I can do so here as part of my two-part example.  I’ve had a limited amount of time with this group as they were still in season with their current coach up to the end of November.  What I did try to do when I worked with them the few times that I did was to give them a glimpse of the four-corner approach focusing specifically on the cognitive corner and becoming 21st century learners.

I felt getting the kids to recognize the importance of taking an active role in their learning is the most important thing that I could do to try and make a good and lasting first impression.  I tried a few different activities to allow the 2001s to experience more control over and therefore a more active role in their learning.  In speaking with one of the parents who decided in the end to move from the team to explore other opportunities at the end of the season, there was a definite concern that I wouldn’t be able to deliver such an ambitious plan.

He’s certainly right about that.  I still have to try though.

This parent also made reference to one of my sessions where the players didn’t touch a ball for the first 20 minutes (or apparently this is what he heard as he was not actually there).  I clarified with him the date of the session that he was referencing.  At the beginning of that particular session, I’d divided the group into three teams of about six players each.  I then reviewed with them 1) the purpose of a warm-up and 2) what a good warm-up entails.  They were then instructed that they would have five minutes with their group to design their own 15 minute warm-up.  At the end of the five minute period, each group would simultaneously run their created warm-up while the coaches would judge which one they thought was best.  At the end of this warm-up challenge (which I stole from former national youth soccer team coach Ian Bridge) we reviewed with the groups the things that we thought each did well and what we thought was missing and then awarded a winner.

Yes, it is true that during that time two of the three groups started their warm-ups doing generic movement and dynamic exercises without a ball.  But for 20 minutes?  Absolutely not.  I suppose when you consider the five minutes that they spent discussing their warm-ups along with the first five minutes where two of the three groups didn’t use a ball then maybe it felt like 20 minutes to those who were observing but didn’t know what was going on.  You have to chuckle at how the truth can get stretched.

The small-sided games we played that night also involved the three groups that we had created playing against each other and having to make decisions about numbers and combinations of players that would play in each game.  They made those decisions, not the coaches.  And as they made decisions and saw what the end result was of their choices once they played, they had further opportunities to make more changes.  It was just a small way for me to try and give them some ownership.  Apparently, the parent I mentioned above, asked his daughter about how this particular session went.  Her reply, according to him: “It was weird, he made us do our own warm-up.”

Part Two

When I was getting ready to join the organization that I am currently coaching for, I did make certain that I alerted them to the fact – both in the form of documents and multiple times verbally – that the coaching I do will be “different” than the norm.  The response to me was that different was fine as long as it meant “better” or “improved” on what had already been done.  However, it shouldn’t be different just for the sake of being different.

Don’t be different just to be different?  Hmmm…

That’s exactly why I’m doing what I do!  I’m doing what I do because the way we have been doing it for practically three decades now isn’t working.  It’s not producing better soccer players.  It’s not creating participants that stay involved in soccer longer.  And it’s not creating any better individuals who become autonomous and contributing members of society.  I do what I do because that’s the whole point of being a heretic coach.

Eventually though I hope that everyone else will jump on board and do something similar.  At that point I won’t need to be a heretic coach any longer.  That would be nice although I’m sure there will always be a tree that needs to be shaken or an ointment that needs a fly  in it in order to positively benefit the development of kids.

Next post Sunday, December 21st.

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