Week 18 of Indoor Training: Goal Setting

I’ve had the opportunity to go through the goal setting process once already.  The younger of the two high performance girls soccer teams I’m coaching was able to start their program eight weeks earlier.  Each of those players already has individual goals they are working towards.  You can read about my initial goal setting efforts here.

Now I get to go through the process again.  This time with the older team.  The team that has already completed a full year in this new high performance development program.  Because they’re a year older and a year more experienced, I’m going to put a bit more onus on each of them – more than I’ve done with the younger group.  I believe I can afford to release more responsibility to them in the development of their individual performance plan (IPP).  Besides, I shiver when I think about trying to keep track of 37 individual plans.

Eek!  But it has to be done.  I my goal is to develop each and every individual within the teams.

With the younger group, I met with each player and her parents, discussed where they and I thought there were gaps (using a four-corner approach to identifying those gaps).  Then I took that away and created for each of those seventeen players an IPP.  I reviewed that IPP with each player and her parents and for the last ten weeks those players have been trying to accomplish the goals listed therein.

With the older group I’ll still meet with each player and her parents.  I’ll still discuss gaps (using a four-corner approach) that they and I feel need to be addressed.  However, I’ll let them work on creating their own goals instead of doing it for them.  What I realized with the younger group was even after going through the process to the detail that I did, players still struggled to get started with their plans.  I think it is because they’ve really never been asked to do anything like this before.  They needed more guidance and examples of what they were supposed to be doing and how they were supposed to be doing it in order to get themselves on the way to accomplishing their goals.

So for the older group, I’m going to provide them with some scaffolding – content that taking into account their level of cognitive maturity, should bridge their understanding about goal setting from where it is now to where I need it to be to have them hit the ground running on their plans.  During my meeting with each player I will start by reviewing with them the four steps that we’re using in creating their IPP.  That looks like this:

Reflective Practice of Goal Setting

Once we’ve agreed on three to five gaps that need to be addressed, I will share with them the process for how to go about setting a good goal.  Making a goal is easy,  setting a goal is hard (just think New Year’s resolutions).  We can all talk about what we’d like to improve.  That’s the easy part.  The hard part is trying to bring tangibility to our goal.  Things that we can see.  Things that allow anyone who sees to know whether or not we are getting closer to accomplishing our goals.

Typically, goal setting gets taught using the acronym SMART which stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.  This really is the key to setting tangible goals.  Again though talking about SMART goals is much easier to do than actually setting SMART goals.  I’ll share with each of the older players a goal setting tip sheet that will help them turn each of their implicit wishes into something explicitly concrete and (hopefully) achievable.  That tip sheet looks like this:

Goal Setting Tips

From that point on, it will be a matter of working with each player to check what they’ve come up with, make some suggestions and provide support along the way as they try to achieve the goals that they’ve set for themselves (and all by themselves).  Scary.  Scary but still exciting!

Next post Saturday, March 28th.

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Smart People Don’t Know how to Learn

Last Saturday, I spoke about how honest a coach should be with players and their parents regarding performance and progress.  I wanted to tie that in to this week’s blog – a vociferous rant about failure and learning and how smart people (read educated people) don’t know how to fail and therefore really don’t know how to learn.

As a side bar, and to connect even more last week’s blog to this week’s, I’ve got a quick personal story to share.  The other day my wife came home with our almost 3-year-old son from his day care.  She placed a Post-It note in front of me that was from his teacher.  Basically it said that our son hadn’t had a very good day of listening and made his teacher’s day more challenging.  While I wasn’t overly enthused in reading that, I was certainly intrigued by what my wife said next.  Apparently the teachers do not give notes like that to very many of the parents any more.  It’s not that they don’t want to give notes – there’s plenty of things to tell parents about their kids after six to eight hours away from mommy and daddy.  No, the problem is parents have complained to the supervisor when notes, such as the one we received, were presented to them.  According to our son’s teacher, most parents don’t want to hear about how their child is being anything less than perfect.

Astonishing.  And very scary for what it entails for the future of those kids (and for all of us for that matter).

For today’s blog, I’ve referenced an absolute gem of an article.  It’s a classic – 1991 – but it just floors me to see the content.  I’m always amazed by reading something that is so pertinent for right now but when what I’m reading was written at the time MC Hammer was telling us you can’t touch this, I find it even more amazing.  Here’s the article by Chris Argyris.  Please read it!  If you do, then you really don’t need to read my ramblings.

Teaching Smart People How to Learn

Okay, I really shouldn’t be lumping anyone into this blog other than me because really I don’t have the proof to show that smart people don’t know how to learn, I’m just quoting what a Harvard Business School professor has said.  Really, I have only my experience and so I’ll stick to that.

I’m pretty well educated.  Three university degrees, a bunch of professional coaching certifications and a day to day pre-occupation with reading as much as I can about what’s new and interesting in the world of organized youth sport.

According to Argyris, I’m the type of “smart” person he’s talking about.

It’s not just the papers I have hanging on my wall that provide a confirmation of my smartness, it’s how I think.  I grew up with what I’d have to say was a fixed mindset – you’re either smart or you’re not and there’s nothing you can do about it if you’re not.  So as far as I was concerned, I was fortunate enough to be one of the lucky ones who ended up being smart.  Granted, I was also highly motivated to become educated.  I had a plan and I followed it.  I took two years to do a master’s degree when most people around me were averaging at least three.  I had ambition but, as Argyris notes, learning is not just how motivated you are but also how you think.

Over the years, the problems I’ve experienced have come from when I struggled or failed and how I had to try and fit that into my thinking about me being smart.  After all I’m smart, I’m not supposed to fail.  If I ever encountered something that challenged my smartness, I got defensive – felt threatened – and found ways to deflect, deny or even ignore those challenges.   And so that has been the first realization about me: I’ve never really learned how to fail and to use its positives (yes positives) to help make me a stronger professional.  As a middle-aged adult, I’ve had to teach myself a growth mindset and habitualize myself to truly believe that failing is okay.  I can honestly say, I’m not there yet either.  Every day I struggle with reverting back to a fixed mindset.  Old habits are very hard to break.

The other key point from Argyris’ article concerns what I’m trying to do here and now.  That is reflect on who I was and understand how it has impacted who I am today.  Learning, Argryis says, is more than problem solving.  If that’s all it was then as a smart person, I’d  be much farther ahead than I am.  My definition of learning has been too narrow.  When I fail and feel vulnerable, the automatic response may be defensive and to first look outward and point the finger at everyone else.  Point in case, I’ve been criticized before for my people skills.  In my own defense, my answer to these individuals (usually the ones I’ve gone head to head with over some organized youth sport topic) is that my people skills are fine, it’s my dealing with asshole skills that needs work.

Okay, as a smart person showing that I’m capable of learning the first thing I should do in that situation is to  look inward and figure out how I’m contributing (maybe even inadvertently) to the problem and then change how I act.  As Argyris says, it may be the very way that I’m going about defining and solving problems that is the source of the problems I’m then facing in those confrontations.

Argryis uses the terms single and double loop learning.  Single loop learning is a thermostat.  Whenever the temperature in your home drops below a certain threshold the thermostat automatically turns on the heat.  Single loop learning is what a traditionally smart person like me has been conditioned to be good at.  After all, I spent 20 years straight acquiring one academic credential after the other, mastering the discipline of coaching kids and applying that knowledge to solve in-the-trenches problems that I faced every day as a technical director of a soccer club.  This, however, is why I’m also so bad at double loop learning.

Double loop learning is that very same thermostat with the ability to ask itself the question, “Why is this my set point?”  and then explore whether or not some other temperature might be more economical in achieving the goal of heating the room.  So as a double loop learner, I need to be more reflective and engage in more productive reasoning than the negative stuff that I’ve become accustomed to doing.

My defensive reasoning has served a logical but destructive purpose.  While I’ve used it to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent it puts me in a closed loop – a Doom Loop as Argyris calls it.  I’ve made myself impervious to conflicting points of view.  I’m right…you’re wrong is the mindset.

I say that I’m committed to continuous learning.  I ask the coaches and the players that I’ve trained to buy into the same philosophy of never stop learning.  Yet as a smart person I’ve said one thing and then gone and done another.  I’ve frozen in their tracks genuine chances to learn in order to protect my ego.

I still feel that I’m not the only person that’s suffering from this condition out there.  I think about the kids I currently coach and how much they can struggle with failure and criticism designed to help them get better (which takes me back to the how honest should you be post from last week).  But most of all, I worry about  my son and his peers – kids that will be raised to be “smart” just like their parents.

Next post Sunday, March 22nd.

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Week 17 of Indoor Training: Parents and their Kids

At the end of each training week, I send out a week-in-review note via email to all the parents of the two teams of high performance girls’ soccer players that I currently coach.  Two Sunday’s ago, I sent them a couple of articles as food for thought. One of them, 6 Reasons Parents Should Not Watch Practice, has managed to linger in my thoughts.  This is the article here, with all its comments in tow (the comments from parents are the best part):

6 Reasons Parents Should Not Watch Practice

As one of the commenters says, articles like this one are meant to stimulate discussion – which was exactly why I’d sent it to the parents (with the disclaimer that they may not agree with what was said).  I find a few of the comments posted by readers at the end of the article interesting.

“Some of us are actually sane and supportive,” says one reader.  Okay, sure but is that your opinion of yourself or what your child has said about you?

“I would love to see more advice about what expectations and pressure looks like (and feel like to kids) and what encouragement and genuine interest looks like (and feels like to kids). This would be considerably more helpful,” says another reader.  You don’t need an article to tell you the answer to those.  You need look no further than your child’s own opinion for what that looks and feels like for him/her.

A few comments mention how as children themselves readers wished their parents had been more involved in their sporting endeavours.  But none of them allude to whether they actually asked their parents to come watch and their parents said no or they just never asked and hoped their parents would just show up.

A few days after after I’d sent that article out to the parents, I was having a discussion before the start of a training session with the younger of the two teams when one of the players mentioned THAT article that I’d emailed to the parents.  She brought it up because she wanted to tell me and the rest of the players that she didn’t like the fact that she had a parent(s) at her sessions.  A few others sort of mumbled what sounded like their support while one other said she liked having her parents there.

Is this so simple that I’m missing something?

  1. Kids, tell your parents what you want from them for support – parents respect their request
  2. Parents, if the kids don’t tell you what they want then ask them what they want for support – respect their request

Let me ask you something.  If you were meeting a colleague for a drink after work, would you bring your child along in order to spend more time with her/him and allow her/him to see how your life is going outside the house?  Or would you go alone because that’s your time?

Okay, a side bar to close this post out.

The other night while training the older girls’ team, something interesting happened.  Part way through one of the training exercises, one of the players directed an exasperated, “I’m not allowed to go in there” towards the heavens.  It wasn’t directed at any god per se but to her father who, along with many of the other parents, were standing on the balcony above the field looking down on our session.

I hadn’t heard what he’d said but based on her response to him, he must have been  questioning her decision making in that exercise.  I believe he wanted her to do something she and he didn’t realize that the conditions of the exercise meant that she couldn’t do what he wanted her to do.  She wasn’t performing poorly (not at all), she was simply performing within the confines of the rules of that exercise as I’d set it up.

It was a moment that reinforced to me that observing training from the sidelines is not necessarily enough to understand all the intricacies that happen within a session.  She was frustrated, there’s no doubt about it.  Maybe he’d made other comments to her over the course of the session that I hadn’t heard either?

It makes me wonder.  What’s the long-term implications of that sort of relationship?  Are there more discussions on the car ride home?  Tips on the way to the field?  If dad and/or mom is always there, is there ever any break?

Next post Saturday, March 21st.

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How Much Honesty is too Much Honesty?

When I speak let me think first…

…Is it true?

…Is it kind?

…Is it necessary?

If not, let it be left unsaid.

I don’t know where this came from.  I have it down in a notebook of mine but with no associated reference.  I thought of it as I thought about the topic for today’s blog.  I’ve been wondering about candour in coaching lately.  How honest should you be with a player you coach and his/her parent(s).  If a player isn’t performing well or has weaknesses that are getting in the way, shouldn’t we always point that out as soon as possible?  While my instinct says yes a coach should be forthright, my rationale self has seen enough real life encounters to at least leave me questioning that approach.

It’s probably best to establish right off the bat that over the years I have been accused of being too honest in dealing with players and their parents.  That’s what made me think of the quote.  So, do you only tell a player the truth if it’s kind?  What if it’s necessary to their development?  Maybe it’s been a poor choice of words on my part in relaying the truth and that is what has been taken as unkind?  Maybe you just don’t say it if it’s going to make the player and his/her parents feel bad?

However, I’ve found that in sharing the truth the simplest explanation is often the best one.  That gets you branded as blunt and cold though.  So then you try and wordsmith your way through softening up the truth and all you do is confuse the person you’re talking to with too many words.

A player I worked with (both directly as a coach and indirectly as a technical director) not so long ago serves as a good example.  He was a long-time player and did all the camps and clinics that his association put on.  So by the age of 12 he was very skilful.  On the flip side, he often lost focus and concentration and his small size more times than not saw him get pushed off the ball.  So while he had the ability to play in the top tier of his age group, he often found himself in the next tier down.

He asked me a number of times why he did not get placed in the highest performing group of his peers for training and games.  I always responded using the kindest truth I could muster but it never seemed enough.  What I said didn’t click for him and because the light bulb didn’t go on, his concentration and focus never did improve.  He continued to be a kid who could not find his way to harnessing his potential relative to the efforts of his peers to do the same (or I could not find the way to help him turn the corner…however you want to put it).

As well, I spoke to both his father and mother but it was probably his mother that I spoke to more times about the situation.  “Keep pushing,” I said, “He’s not quite there yet but he’s close.  He can do this.”

So on one final occasion where he was not selected to be part of a high performance training program, he and his parents met with me to get the truth once more.  I say one final occasion because his non-selection seemed to be the final straw in the previous two years worth of ups and downs (but what to him and his parents seemed mostly like downs).  At that meeting it was revealed that he was probably going to take some time off of soccer.  He was going to pursue another sport for a while.  A sport that had always taken a back seat to soccer.

Now, upon hearing that statement a whole bunch of guilt washed over me.  Whether it was just a matter of fact statement or an intended attempt to make me feel bad, it was hard not to have some thoughts that I was the reason he was leaving soccer.  And so through the guilt, I endeavoured to once more tell his whole family the truth.  I couldn’t, however, go back to the kind truth.  They even told me at this final meeting that I had been telling them the same things for the last two years and nothing had changed for him yet.  When, if he kept pushing, was he going to finally make it.

And so this time around I told them what I felt was the necessary truth - the truth I should have just simply told them from the beginning.

He wasn’t improving in his concentration and focus consistently.  While there would be moments where you could see him really trying, when the going got tough, he often got frustrated and gave up trying.  I told them that I felt he had to see his talent as a result of hard work and effort.  I referenced the fact that he’d been in soccer since he was 3 or 4 and did every skills camp out there over the years.  That was the reason he became the player with the potential that he had.  It was not because he had some God-given talent.  The age group he was in was extremely competitive and while some players chose to see hard work as their vehicle to success, he opted to let that train leave the station and wait for the natural talent express instead (which, of course, never came in the same way it did when he was younger and could easily dribble around all the other players on his house league team).  Now though, he’d hit a ceiling and other players – players that years before weren’t as good as him – were now by-passing him.  If things were going to change for him, he was going to need to invest in a growth mindset and a lot of hard work.

While the meeting itself was amiable, the interactions I had with his mother after that night were brief and detached.  She was leaving no room for mis-reading her feeling towards me.  That was three years ago now.  Not too long ago, my wife had a quick conversation over social media with this boy’s mother.  She confessed to my wife that at the time of that meeting, what I had told them was heard for her to hear.  She couldn’t accept it and felt that I was being unfair to her son.  Maybe time doesn’t heal all wounds but enough time had passed that she felt she could chat to my wife about it to let her know that she had now realized I was just trying to help him out.  “It’s just hard to see him struggle,” she told my wife.

Next Saturday, why we have a hard time handling the necessary truth.

Next post Sunday, March 15th.

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Week 16 of Indoor Training: A New Week of Training Themes

Wow!  Where is the time going.  Here we are in March and the 2001 and 2002 girls high performance soccer teams I’m coaching have finished their first development theme of the 2015 season.  This past week we introduced them to three new themes that, in the grand scheme of things, all tie together to hopefully create players who love to attack and player entertaining to watch soccer.

I know girls want to share the ball and work as a team and I’m pretty sure they’re cognizant of the fact that goals come from attacking.  However, to say that they would naturally 1) love to attack and 2) want to to play entertaining soccer may be a bit of a stretch for most of them.  It’s not their default setting but I’m trying to switch it to that.

Right now everything we do in training is designed to influence and impact their commitment to and confidence towards playing positive and exciting soccer.  It all started with vision/awareness and dribbling/running with the ball.  Now we move to receiving/ turning and principles of play.  Also stuck in there is when to pass and when to dribble.

First session of the week is receiving and turning.  Receiving – working on first touch.  After all, your first touch sets up your second touch.  If (like me) your second touch is typically a tackle or a header than your first touch needs work.  That’s all good and well but turning.  Turning.  Holy smokes!  The ability to move the ball forward when a defender is on your back tight is a difficult skill to teach girls.

You can see that they’ve been conditioned to play the ball back at almost all occasions.  There was a time a few years ago when they did try to turn.  But they didn’t know what they were doing and so they ran smack into the pressuring player.  Coaches, seeing that, told them to simply play the way they face and so now I’ve got three dozen girls who play too conservatively because they don’t know how to turn while under pressure.

Our motto continues to be: Play the way you face BUT try to face forward.

Again, I find the first step isn’t as much about the development of their technique or their skill.  Instead it’s about their comfort level.  Their mindset.  I spend a lot of time massaging their confidence and building them up to take risks like turning when under pressure (things that when you coach boys you often just take for granted because the confidence – or arrogance – is already there).

Speaking of confidence, our mid-week theme is when to pass and when to dribble.  I know that after seven weeks of working on the concepts of dribbling and running with the ball that they do have the basics to do it.  I know if you ask them when to run the ball, when to dribble the ball and when to pass the ball they’ll get it right pretty much every time.  But they still won’t choose to dribble or run with the ball in a game.  Passing is still their first choice even when passing is not the best solution to the problem.

Final theme of the training week now is the principles of play.  We started with dispersal – spreading out side to side and end to end when attacking.  Again, if you gave them a written test on the topic, they’d probably score more than 90% but put into action on the field and they don’t make the transfer from theory to practice.  Their notion of spreading out is what I call a large (or even an extra large) use of the field.  But I want them to super size the field.

If you’re going to play attacking soccer you need the ball.  It’s much easier to control the ball when you also control the field.  Just making the field large or extra large helps the opponent to control you and win the ball.  By using less of the available space inside the boundaries of a soccer field you help to make the opponent’s job easier.

On another interesting note, we’re using small-sided games of 4- and 7-a-side to teach them about the principles of play.  Unlike larger number games where it seems easier to find unmarked help, small-sided games quickly turn into 1v1 match-ups all over the field.  There is less space and less time.  Therefore, players quickly perceive that there is less help available to them.   So now they stop passing because all their teammates appear to be “marked” and you NEVER pass a ball to a marked player, right?  You must pass to a player who is “open.”  The other coaches and I are now working to change the players’ perceptions of what marked and open means (i.e., turning and receiving – playing to the receiver’s unmarked side of her body, teaching the receiving player how to secure and protect the ball when under pressure).  With that said, could the need to know when to dribble or how to turn when you are under pressure be any more important to the development of these girls right now?

Next post Saturday, March 14th.

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Developing Players Who can Think Critically

I hate it!

I cannot think critically.

I try.

I know what the parts and steps of critical thinking are.  I should know what they are, I train the players I coach in those parts and steps every week.  But I cannot do it myself.  I hear someone ask a question about an argument or belief and I end up saying to myself, “Wow!  What a great question.  How’d they come up with that?  That never even crossed my mind.”

To say that I am bitter at the people who were responsible for my education over the years would be a modest understatement.  It wouldn’t be surprising either then to hear I have my questions about public school education.  What it purports to do and what it actually does can be as far apart as the earth and the moon.  And yet we still bank our children’s futures on it.  It was good enough for us so it must be good enough for our kids, right?  But don’t get met started on that, let’s just stick to thinking critically as it relates to players and athletes in sport and stay away from public education(probably safer that way).

Growing up, I believe critical thinking was property of those kids who were lucky enough to have parents who knew how to develop that crucial trait.  Whether or not they knew they were doing that is another matter. While it was written into the school curriculum as an important outcome of my education maybe I just was too stupid to recognize the times where I was being edu-ma-cated to think critically.  Maybe I just was sick or day dreaming on the days we were taught how to think critically.

In my own defense I have to say that it’s hard to learn to think critically when you have an educator (teacher or coach) telling you all the time exactly what to do and when to do it.  There’s really not much need for your own thinking when the adult leader simply wants you to think and do as he or she does.

You’d have to question their true desire to have us become critical thinkers.  After all, those of us who raised questions at times we weren’t supposed to or about topics we weren’t supposed to got branded as trouble makers.  In other words, we were encouraged to be critical thinkers as long as what we thought about was copacetic with what our teachers and coaches thought.

While I’m not a great critical thinker myself I can recognize it in other people.  And I can say, with little fanfare, that I’m a better critical thinker than a 12- or 13-year-old girl.  I’m sure you’re impressed.  The challenge now becomes helping the kids I coach to become better at it over the next few years than I was at the same age.

So step one in developing critical thinking skills in my work with the young players I coach is dropping my own ego and realizing that I have my own philosophy but that that is nothing more than my own philosophy.  I must tell my players that when I say “this is the right way to do it” it simply means that it is what I think is the right way to do it.  Yet in that situation (the same as it was for me growing up) what the players hear is the absolute – you always do it that way, you never do it another way – and they’ve been raised to obey adult authority, not question it.  It can seem a conflicting role to be both a follower and a questioner.

That reminds me.  I must remember when I ask players questions to not stop when I’ve heard only the answer that I was thinking of.  Otherwise, they’ll continue to be conditioned to believe that there is one “right” answer to every problem and they’ll learn to poo-poo any other solutions to a problem that sound the slight bit imperceivable.  Even though we know that brainstorming is a good thing to do we don’t do it.  Instead we seem for more driven my defeatism in our dealings with people who have creative alternatives to problems (i.e., no, THAT will NEVER work).

The second step is in taking the approach that whatever doesn’t kill these kids only makes them stronger.  I’ll give them the chance to try, fail and to learn from that.  That in and of itself isn’t a whole lot different than what I went through growing up.  We were on our own in many ways.  However, there’s no guarantee that they’ll learn from their errors without some guidance.

That becomes step three.  A dialogue with each player or the team about the dilemmas and conundrums and problems that they face every session and how to assess each in an objective and thorough manner.  It means that when I say to them what’s YOUR opinion I really want to hear their opinions and not what they think I want to hear.

Critical thinking is decision making.  Critical thinking is being able to see multiple sides to an issue.  Doesn’t it seem to you like every day life outside your house seems to get more and more complex?  The kind of world where critical thinking becomes vital to personal and humanitarian success?  If it is genuinely desired for kids to develop these abilities then they must be taken seriously and given real opportunities to solve real problems.

Next post Sunday, March 8th.

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Week 15 of Indoor Training: Time to Coach Some New Themes

Another week of training has come and gone.  January and February have come and gone too.  Hard to believe really but that means it’s time for a change in training themes.  The two girls’ teams I’ve been coaching have been working hard the last two months towards their pursuit of one day becoming elite level players.

During January and February we worked on dribbling/running with the ball, vision and awareness and their overall competitiveness.  For March and April we are going to be working on turning and receiving, when to pass and when to dribble and principles of play.

A key task for me now is to make sure that the Jan-Feb themes continue on along side the Mar-Apr themes.  It would be a shame to have put seven weeks into their development and then have them tail off only to be replaced by the next set of themes.  Sort of defeats the purpose if every time you work on something it gets forgotten or doesn’t get used enough to make the change in behaviour permanent.

Finding ways to work on vision and awareness is easy enough.  Turning and receiving can be a part of vision and awareness so really we’ve been working on the two all along.  When to pass and when to dribble is the decision making attempt to continue to reinforce the actions of  dribbling/running with the ball that we’ve already done.  This also ties nicely into both turning and receiving and vision and awareness as the question to answer is: can I move the ball forward?  If the answer is yes then the next question is do I move the ball forward with a pass, a dribble or a run?

The principles of play is going to be an interesting one.  It really is an area of great weakness amongst Canadian soccer players in general (at least what I’ve seen in my travels).  Most coaching I’ve witnessed focuses on teaching players positions within systems.  In other words, very specific ways of going about learning and performing.  Principles, on the other hand, allow the player to have an overarching understanding of how the game of soccer works in both attack and defence.  Positions may change, formations come and go but principles always remain the same.

What will make the teaching of the principles even more interesting is that we will be using small-sided games since we’re still indoors for the next two months.  By the time May arrives my hope is to help transfer their understanding of principles from experiencing it with 4 or 5 other girls (indoor) to experiencing it with 10 other girls (full field).

In order to do that, I believe my best option is to help these players take ownership over their learning.  To simply fill them up with the knowledge of principles of play like filling a pail with water will only give the false impression that progress is being made.  The test (when they play a full field game) will then show that there was little transfer.  There will be little transfer because giving a person knowledge doesn’t teach them to think critically about that knowledge.  A player in that situation doesn’t seem to realize that the principles of play that they learned playing in 5-a-side games still apply when they play 11-a-side.

Instead, I am going to try to challenge both their convergent and divergent thinking abilities.  Instead of providing them with answers, I can use questions.  These questions can guide them step by step towards a single answer to a problem (convergent thinking).  The other choice I have is to use questions to come up with multiple solutions to the problem(divergent thinking).

I don’t actually have to ask the questions either.  I can let the games, and the conditions/rules associated with the games, pose the problem for the players to solve.  Only when I see that they’re struggling to recognize those problems will I jump in with some questions to try and push their thinking along.

In the end, owning the learning will make it more meaningful to the players and make it stick longer with them.  Getting them to think critically about the content will also help them be more flexible in their application of the principles, which will hopefully serve them well when the move from the small confines of indoor games to the open expanses of full field games happens.  Or at least that’s the theory.  We’ll see how it transpires in practice.

Next post Saturday, March 7th.

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Does Gender Make a Difference?

Are you a coach?  If so, have you only ever coached one gender or have you had the opportunity to coach both?  If you have had the fortune to coach both boys and girls, do you find that one is more suited than the other for playing the game of soccer?  And I don’t mean which gender would you prefer to coach.  I mean do you think the characteristics of one specific gender are more suited for a soccer player?

If you are anything like me then you have probably come to the conclusion that when it comes to soccer, each gender brings strengths and weaknesses.  Here’s some of my thoughts over the years regarding my experiences coaching both genders.

As a coach I wish that…

boys dribbled less and girls dribbled more.

girls were more driven to compete and boys were less driven to focus on the outcome at the expense of the process.

boys were less judgmental of my technical mistake in a demo and girls were more willing to question some of my decisions.

So there have been days in my coaching where it’s been easy to see that boys sometimes dribble just for the sake of dribbling.  They’ll dribble, beat a player and their ego will make the decision to do it again.  They may get a second beat which typically means their swollen heads now require a third beat (usually the guy they beat the first time).  Girls, on the other hand, I find will pass the ball even when they are not under pressure and all their teammates are marked.

Dribbling is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  You dribble in order to do something else – usually shoot or pass.  For that reason I wish girls had more confidence or desire to hold onto the ball and I wish that boys had more humility and sense of group.

I cannot get over how little competing can mean to female players.  Equally staggering is how stuck on results and winning boys can be.  Try to teach a group of young male players to pass the ball back in order to better keep possession and you’ll get resistance.  They’ll resist because they recognize the danger if a mistake is made.  If they mess up, they could give up a goal.  When I have told boys in that situation that that is okay, again I meet skepticism.  It takes a lot of work to convince them that their development and learning is more important than whether they win or lose.

On the other hand, I currently coach a group of girls who are developing high performance players.  One of the routines we go through weekly right now is something called the competitive cauldron (modelled after Anson Dorrance’s original design at the University of North Carolina).  We do this because the girls need to raise their intensity and their fight.  So the cauldron requires them to compete against their teammates in contests in order to see who can collect the most points and make it to the top of the ladder.  As such, the other coaches and I have to record scores (we need to know who wins and loses).  We’ve been doing this seven weeks now – every Saturday – and I still get times where I ask a competing pair of players what the score was in their contest and neither of them knows.  That would never happen with a  male player at any age.

Girls are so much more forgiving than boys.  It must be the difference in capacity for nurturing.  For boys it’s all about ability.  If you’re good, they’ll like you.  I’ve often heard it said that both girls and boys when asked to join a new soccer team will both ask the same question: who’s on it?  However, the reason for asking that question differs.  Girls ask that question because they want to see if there is anyone they know or like on the team.  Boys ask that question because they want to know if the players are any good.  As a coach, I cannot begin to count all the times where I was weighed and measured by male players that I’ve coached.  You want to make it about collaboration and delegation which you can do with girls.  With boys, unfortunately, sometimes it comes down to sheer displays of authority in order to get their obedience (which is a shame).

So my conclusion is simple.  I don’t want boys or girls.  I don’t want ladies or gentlemen.  I want soccer players.  In fact, whether I’m coaching males or females I will refer to them as players.  Not guys.  Not gals.  Players.  It’s my way of reminding myself (and them) that a soccer player has a balance of qualities present in both genders.

Mind you, these are just the mad ramblings of one heretic coach.  You may have a much different opinion.  If so, I’d love to hear it.

Next post Sunday, March 1st.

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Week 14 of Indoor Training: Inclusion is not just for House League

Practice the way you want to play.  This was the very first thing I got the 2001 and 2002 girls high performance soccer players that I coach to write down in their journals on the first day of 2015 training.  It was followed by:

When you work, work and when you rest, rest (in other words, make sure people can tell by your actions when you are working and when you are resting).

Speed kills (most actions in sport are solved decisively when they are done with more speed or more power).

Kill each other on the field, friends off the field (an adaptation of a quote from a professional women’s soccer player talking about how she and her teammates prepare during national team training camps).

So beyond trying to teach these girls to become better soccer players, it is probably clear to see that I would also like to create leaner, meaner and more competitive players as well.    Trying to get them to increase their intensity and work ethic is easy enough if you’re talking a single session here or there.  Trying to get them to do that consistently session after session is much harder.

Brick Walls

I believe there are a lot of barriers in their way.  Some are logical (i.e., they’re just 13- and 14-years-old), some are real (i.e., it’s hard to be at your best at 7:30 am in the morning when there’s scientific evidence out there to show teenage brains don’t work optimally until later in the morning) and some are perceived (i.e., talent is something you’re born with).

As their head coach, my job is to make them aware of what they can control (and change it) and what they can’t control (and accept that).  So last weekend, after a less than optimal session by both groups, I gave them the following quote:

What’s in the way is the way.

I let that percolate for a few days and then hit them mid-week with what is probably the most important piece of information I will pass along to them in this program.  It came in the form of this quote from the famous Carnegie Mellon Last Lecture by Professor Randy Pausch:


My goal was to show how these two quotes tied together to .  Take, for example, that many of the girls are not at their best when we have our weekly 7:30 am training session.  The fact is, we can’t change that right now.  It is what it is.  For many of them who look like they literally jumped out of bed and walked onto the field, t is a brick wall.  So what do you do?  You find a way over it, under it, around it, through it.

What’s in the way is the way.

Normal people get to a brick wall and they stop.  They think that that’s it.  That’s as far as they can go and they acquiesce.  People who want to go on to be great at something don’t let brick walls stop them.  That’s why they’re successful.  Then again, that’s also why there are so few truly great, amazing, excellent people in the world.  If there weren’t any brick walls then we’d all be astoundingly successful and life would take on a far different feel than it currently does.

What’s in the way is the way.

The Slanty Line

In yesterday’s blog, I lamented about the fact that team sport coaches (I didn’t just want to take all the blame myself so I lumped others in there with me) coach to the middle.  The only commonalities that the players I coach truly share are the following:

  1. They’re all girls
  2. They’re all (well, mostly) born in the same year
  3. They’ve all been selected to partake in this high performance soccer development program

Beyond that, they’re very different.  A scan through the faces, hair styles and body shapes confirms just that.  So, if on the surface they look different, than it only goes to stand that they’re also very different on the inside as well.  Each has different strengths and weaknesses.  Each has different beliefs about learning and talent.

Again, my job is to help them learn what they can control and to do something about it – hence the brick wall quote.  I can’t have them believing some of their perceptions (at least the one I think are wrong and can be changed).  If I do then we’ll never have teams that truly practices the way they want to play.  And I’ll be responsible for not giving these girls a chance to advance to the next higher level.

Enter the skipping ropes.  Yes, skipping ropes.  Parents of these players must have wondered what in heaven’s name we were doing at training a few nights ago when I placed skipping ropes in the following way on the ground and had players jump over them.

Slanted Line

Every player, regardless of jumping ability, was able to find a place where they could be challenged.  That meant a spot where, if they applied themselves to their maximum, they could make it across.  Which is the way it should be.  Every player deserves a chance to experience development at the edge of what is their personal capability.Parallel lines

Then I put the skipping ropes parallel.  The distance between them was at almost the maximum width of the slanted ropes.  So that meant that only some players were capable of making the jump successfully.  Some couldn’t make it at all and some found it as easy in one as they did the other.  The parallel line approach is what training is like in soccer (and what I imagine is most team sport) – one size fits all.

The Message

My job is to develop every single one of the 35 players in the two teams that I am currently responsible for.  I can’t do that by treating all the players the same and giving them all the exact same training.  Every player in this program has weaknesses.  Sometimes I’ll group these weaker players together.  It won’t take long for those players to realize they’re in the weaker group.  And then it will take even less time for them to start questioning their ability and feeling like failures.

They now have a brick wall to deal with.

So I explained to the players that this approach to training is like the slanty line jump.  This approach is giving them the best opportunity to experience individualized development.  It may not feel good in the beginning (it wouldn’t feel so bad if kids in general were put in these situations earlier and more often in their lives) but once they get past the initial social image and get down to work on fixing their weaknesses it doesn’t seem quite so bad.

Getting these kids to embrace their weaknesses instead of mask them within the strengths of their teammates is challenging.  But once they realize that these brick walls are what’s in the way, they are more wiling to look these boogeymen in the eye and stare them down.

Survival of the fittest.  We seem to believe that competitive youth players should be exposed to exclusion.  The strongest move on and the weakest disappear back down to the lower leagues.  But high performance youth players deserve an inclusive environment as much as a house league players.  How are they ever supposed to realize their full potential if they’re not made to come face to face with their weaknesses?

Next post Saturday, February 28th.

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Why do we Coach to the Middle?

As a coach, the fairest thing I can do is to treat each of my players differently.  But how does that work when you coach a team sport?  My job is to help each individual player improve and get closer to realizing his/her potential and yet some of the main training methods I use involve groups of players working together and against each other.  How does that equate to individual development?

It doesn’t.  Yet I’m certain that, like myself, team sport coaches have for years went about suggesting our philosophy is to develop each and every player on our team, then go about doing that by treating every player in the exact same in training.

We use a single, standard design for each task we want players to learn.  Sure, we might have progressions in our exercises but we shouldn’t let those fool us into a false sense of security.  Just like the main exercise, the progressions are done based on a composite.  That composite is our subjective opinion about improvement.  We base that opinion of improvement on an assessment of the entire group.  When we feel that the group has improved enough we either progress the exercise or we move on to the next.

Here’s the problem.  We’re coaching to the middle.

Sure, a good portion of our team seems to be better at the exercise (that’s why we’re moving on).  There’s two problems though with progressing based on coaching to the middle.  One problem is that a small percentage was already capable before you even started the exercise.  That advanced group could have started with the progression as their “easy” option.  They get lumped in with the average because they can already do the exercise.  However, they’ve not been challenged to reach a higher level.

Mediocrity has reached up and pulled them back down.

And then there’s a second disadvantaged group who lives in the tail on the opposite side of the bell curve to the advanced and the average.   This small percentage is as uncomfortable with the exercise at the end as they were at the start.  We’re moving on and yet there are still some kids struggling.  Forget about them catching the advanced players right now, how do we just get them caught up to the average?

But we don’t get them caught up.  We move on because the majority get it.

Those struggling players simply need to do more work on their own at home, right?  Isn’t that like telling someone that is bad at math that he/she just needs to do more math problems at home?  Maybe what that person really needs is individualized instruction – a tutor.  So in the same vein, maybe those struggling players need more of your attention in a one-on-one manner (or at least in a smaller group).  Not every problem can be solved by telling players they need to practice more on their own at home.

Personalizing the instructional experience to the needs of each individual player is the only way to ensure that you have the strongest team possible.  Anything else is simply trying to sweep the weak links under the rug by not giving them as much playing time or hiding them within the team in less important positions surrounded by stronger players who can carry them along.

Dr. Ben Bloom realized this team sport instructional dilemma over thirty years ago but in the field of education.  Teaching a class of students is, of course, similar to coaching a group of players within a team so there are similarities here for comparison.  His research showed that there is no substitute for one-to-one instruction designed to help an individual learner master the topic.  Standard group instruction methods, many of which have been transferred from the classroom to the coaching of team sports, pale in comparison.  The challenge was then, and still is today, how do we as coaches (and teachers) find methods of group instruction as effective as tutoring.

I don’t think there is an easy answer.  Ideally, a team should have a coaching staff (plural).  Each coach on staff helps to lower the player to coach ratio.  It doesn’t make it one-to-one but it is a start.  The rest is in the commitment and principles of the head coach.

As a team sport head coach myself, I felt it was time to put my money where my mouth was.  So I’m putting in the work to try and personalize the learning environment for the players I coach.  And it is a great big load of work.  For that reason alone the majority of coaches probably don’t attempt anything like it.  My motives for doing so were two-fold.  First, I wanted to provide added value to a program that already comes with high expectations and do something that I am certain is not being done in any of the competing programs.  Second, compelled by Bloom’s research, I was curious.  I had to answer the question: Can I do this?

Can I?  We’ll see.  The jury’s out and probably will be for a while yet.

Next post Sunday, February 22nd.

If you liked this post you may also enjoy reading:

The Fairness of Inequity

Getting Personal with Player Learning

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