Athletes Thinking Too Much, Thinking Too Little

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

Interesting.

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

What can I say.  I like to think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time to think very little is during the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see how it goes.

Next post Sunday, July 5th.

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Week 32: Separation?

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

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

Ouch…

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

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

Oh, so very conflicted.

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

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

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

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

Next post Saturday, July 4th.

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Great Players Must be Great People Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next post, Sunday June 28th.

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Week 31: A Glimmer of Hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next post June 27th.

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The High Price of Teaching Obedience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next post Sunday, June 21st.

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Week 30: Playing with all Emotion and No Control

We can beat this team.

A player who says this has confidence.  There’s a problem with this sort of thinking though.  There’s a naivety in it.  A false confidence.  It’s as if just thinking that you’re going to win is enough to make you win.  It’s like  people have forgotten that there are so many things that you can’t control that can effect the outcome – weather, officials, your opponent’s play or just plain randomness/bad luck.

So what happens when that game that you’re suppose to win isn’t going as planned?  Or worse, what happens when you’re playing an opponent who you don’t believe you can beat?  What do you do then?

In some ways the latter is a much easier place to be.  Knowing you’re up against it tough doesn’t make you quit, instead it makes you focus less on the score/outcome and focus more on performing well.  You give up the notion of victory without giving up the effort.  Now you’re mind is clear to focus on playing your best and is not clouded by the thoughts of will we or won’t we win.

And that’s the key I think.

Focusing solely on the belief that you can win a game, that on paper you are better than your opponent, is empty calories.  It’s a sugar rush.  And a sugar rush is great as long as your on that high (you’re winning).  Therefore, not being able to beat an opponent you said you could beat is like the crash after the sugar high.

The two high performance girls’ soccer teams that I’m currently coaching suffered from that very thing in their games this week.  They were inebriated by the belief alone that they could beat their opponent and that impaired their performances significantly.

It was all emotion and no control.  Not a good place to be for an athlete looking to perform her best.  And, unfortunately, it came back to bite us in the butt for both teams.

We’d trained pretty well this past week leading up to the game.  It was our fifth league game of the season so the players are definitely getting comfortable and familiar with the pre-game routine in place to help them build their belief and confidence in self and their understanding with teammates.  There was no real good reason why both teams should not have gone out and dominated their opponent  on the day.

Except one thing got in the way.  I believe both teams got carried away with thinking about the fact that they could win and not doing enough thinking about the things that actually make a win happen.

In other words, the game plan.  They weren’t focused squarely on the game plan.

The younger group had the slowest start they’ve had since probably the first game of the season.  We try to make a point of going out and dominating from the get go.  To shock and awe our opponent if we can.  We put a lot of effort into trying to make sure that the players are properly mentally warmed up and ready for a fast start.  Unfortunately, we got shocked and awed ourselves.  Our opponent scored two goals and we spent the rest of the game digging ourselves out of the hole that we’d gotten ourselves into.

With the older group I had to burst their sugar bubble.  They were so giddy and excited about the game.  I feel bad about it but then watching the way they played through the first third of the game confirmed to me that that excitedness was built only on thinking about winning and not thinking about the things that they needed to do to win.  As the game wore on that burst bubble began to fill again with a more robust form of belief and confidence.  The kind that comes from focusing on the game plan and controlling the things that are within your control.  The end result for the older group?  A tie game.  We probably should have had two or three goals before they scored theirs (with 30 seconds left in the game) to make it 1-1.

As a coach, I want to win.  Badly!  But if I don’t take that burning desire and turn it into actions then it won’t matter how passionate I am on the day.  If I don’t focus on my job description and take control of the things that I can while forgetting about the things that I can’t control (like the score) it doesn’t matter how much I say that we’re going to win this game today.

Growing up I had lots of coaches delivering win one for the gipper speeches – all emotion and no control – which were designed to get us fired up.  They often worked but then the fire never lasted because it was not built on anything substantial.  Empty calories.  A sugar rush.  I’m trying my best to provide these players with a different approach.  Right now we’re struggling to link control to emotion.  We have control without emotion or we have emotion without control.  Emotions are important in sport but they need to be harnessed.  They need to be controlled.  We’re still seeking the balance.

As painful for everyone as this week’s games were, I think they were extremely vital learning opportunities.  The kind that etch themselves almost permanently in your consciousness.  The kind that truly spur you into action.  We’ve made lots of different mistakes in these first five games but I really believe that these most recent ones have the potential to change our collective performances for the better.

It’s the kind of agonizingly raw learning that just doesn’t happen when you’re the team on the winning side of the score line.

Next post Saturday, June 20th.

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The Fickle Nature of Coaching

You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.  Being a coach is a no-win situation – especially at the professional and international level.  A mentor of mine, who got fired as coach of a professional soccer team after only a few months, commented to the media on the day of his sacking that there are only two kinds of coaches; those that have been fired and those that will be fired.

That about sums it up.

At Spanish professional soccer club FC Barcelona, they’ve gone through three managers in three years.  Not completely uncommon in that world.  The latest manager, hired at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Luis Enrique was a former player with the club back in the 90’s when they were considered once before a “super team.”  He was supposed to be the next closest thing to Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola, the coach who’d brought so much fortune and fame to the club between 2008 and 2012.

Needless to say, the first few months didn’t go very well (despite losing only three games out of the first 26 played).  A 1-0 loss to Real Sociedad on January 4th seemed to spell doom.  His methods were being criticized and worse his best player (the best player in the world) didn’t seem to want to even acknowledge his existence.  Not surprisingly, these sorts of headlines appeared.

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If you squint you’ll see the date there is January 6th, 2015.  So Coach Enrique made some adjustments.  The biggest one being that he stopped rotating players and found a line-up that became his consistent line-up of players.  The team then went on to win the Spanish league title, the Spanish Cup and the Champion’s League.  In other words, what gets referred to as the treble in European soccer.  FC Barcelona are the only team to do this now twice.

Naturally then, headlines like this have just emerged.

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And again, if you squint you’ll see the date is June 9th, 2015.  Five months.  That doesn’t seem like a very long time (I’m sure it was for Enrique) to go from goat to hero.  What I like about the story is that Enrique obviously analyzed critically the situation and himself.  He changed somethings but stayed true to others.  He didn’t let the pressure of the situation as it was in January make him do stupid things (or freeze up and do nothing).

What I don’t like about the story is that it, this mentality taken towards professional coaches, trickles down to coaching at the youth sport level as well.  If you’re winning, everyone is happy with you.  If you’re losing, things can get pretty ugly.  It doesn’t necessarily even matter if the way you’re winning isn’t sustainable or best for the long-term development of the players you’re coaching.

Quite simply, it’s a black and white scenario.  Winning means things are going well, losing means things are going poorly.  While the goal of coaching professional or international sport may be to win, the objective for youth sport is for coaches to develop players enough that they’ll be able to win consistently when they get to the professional or international level.  In other words, give them the tools now to become great performers today so that they can become great winners tomorrow.

Winning now, today, is nice but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that that team or the players that make up that team will continue to do so week after week.  Year after year.  I like to win.  I definitely enjoy winning more than losing.  I’d rather win than lose if I could choose it like I choose my breakfast cereal at the grocery store.  But I am comfortable losing.  Well, most of the time.

What I am uncomfortable with is the pressure that gets put on coaches, like me, to win.  Over the years I’ve come to realize that if I don’t win, I know full well that some parents will take their kids and put them on a team where they believe they will win.  It doesn’t matter how much I sell the program and the long-term development that is occurring.  Those particular parents can’t see it, don’t see it or just won’t see it.  Fortunately, there are always parents that do get it.  It’s just hard to get the ones that don’t out of your head.

Over the years, I’ve learned to get comfortable with this type of discomfort.  I still can’t imagine the immense pressure that a pro coach like Luis Enrique faced in January 2015 and how he must of felt.  I know how the pressure at the youth level where I coach makes me feel (there’s a few sleepless nights involved let me tell you that).

Fortunately, I don’t lose quite as much sleep as I used to now that I’ve learned to get more comfortable being uncomfortable.  I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be but I’m improving.  I try to maintain clarity under pressure because 1) I know the immense amount of work that I put into the program is unparalleled – I leave no stone left unturned – and 2) I self-analyze all the time.  I don’t simply allow the fact that I’ve been coaching for over 25 years serve as a reason to believe that everything I do is perfection in action.  You can be experienced but not necessarily any more wise than when you started.  Wisdom comes from years of doing a thing AND from regularly reflecting critically on that thing that you’ve been doing for so many years.

Learning is never ending.  Learning is life long.  Remember the milk commercial from a few years back?  Their slogan: Always grow.  Grow all ways.  Love it!

Unfortunately, many of us allow our ego to sell us a good story the longer we’ve been at something.  We let our pride convince us we’re good at it.  We must be!  After all we’ve been doing it for so long, how could we not?  Once we’re out of school and established in our careers, we stop analyzing ourselves and any time that we do get called out, because we’ve stopped analyzing long ago, we get defensive as constructive as the criticism we’ve been given might be.

From what I’ve seen and read, I have a lot of respect for an individual like Luis Enrique.  He has reminded me of the importance of staying true to your convictions while always having the humility to examine those convictions in action to ensure that they are serving the players you coach to the fullest.  The convictions won’t change but the way that they’re delivered can.  Be wary of the person or group that says, “This is the way it’s always been done.”

Next post Sunday, June 14th.

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Week 29: The Post Game Debrief

Another week of training has come and gone for the two girls’ high performance soccer teams I coach.  It was a decent week.  Effort decent.  Focus decent.  Coming into yesterday’s games the younger team was suffering significantly from injuries and overall aches and pains.  Four sessions a week (plus a game) every week during your 12th to 13th year takes some adjusting.  Knee pains seem to be the biggest issue with that group.

The games themselves were okay.  The older group lost by a large number but really shouldn’t have.  They were often the cause of their own demise.  The younger group managed to keep their score line closer (still losing though) but it could have been a far larger number than it was if not for some good goalkeeping and some bad finishing.

So another week of losses.  Another week of erratic individual performances.  The search for consistency continues.

Like the current performances, there is something else that is consistent in its appearance within the operation presently of these two teams. That element is the thread that, with time, I hope will knit the sporadic nature of our present performances together into something ardent, polished and repeatable.  That golden thread is the debrief.  The discussions we have about how we performed in a game or in training.

Like us, some of the teams (but not all) we compete against do a post game cool-down.  After that is done, and when most teams have packed up and left, we are engaged in our post game debrief.  There are some teams that do recap the events of the day, however, unlike any other team our post game discussions are primarily player-driven and coach facilitated.  We, the coaches, don’t stand there telling them what they’ve done well and not done well.  We the coaches ask questions, challenge the players to reflect on their own and their team’s performance and then debate in a critical manner our strengths and weaknesses.

I say critical manner meaning that the players recognize that there are always at least two sides to every story, every reason, every belief that one person can put forward.  The end result of the debrief is to learn what things we’ll keep doing in the following week and what things we’d like to try and modify or remove altogether.  It’s tough though.  Kids come in thinking they’re smart because they get good grades in school.  Good grief!  Book knowledge and street smarts are two very different things.  I’m more interested in street smarts because I need players that can solve problems on the field on their own and, secondly, I know that living in the 21st century is requiring people to become more skilled at solving problems on their own and not just follow directions/instructions.

Quite honestly I point my finger directly at the education system for teaching kids that there is “one right answer” to most problems.  Those “right answers” come from some sort of “expert” and once you “know” all those “right answers” then you too are an “expert” and have therefore “learned” all there is to “know.”  Learning then becomes misrepresented as something that has a start and a finish instead of being embraced as a vital lifelong concept.  Those systems are too focused on teaching kids what to think and not focused enough on teaching them how to think, how to solve genuine real-life problems under the use of their own brain power.  But then again what should I expect when we’re using the same system to teach kids and organize their education as we did 200 years ago when formal education began to take off.

I can’t say enough about the benefits of reflection and self-analysis.  I believe that learning – any learning – is self-driven.  Someone can teach you but in the end you still need to take an active role to turn that content into knowledge.  You need to own it.  Which means that you can also direct it (teach yourself).  Both reflection and self-analysis are self-teaching methods.  Therefore, you can be (you are!) your own greatest teacher if you are willing to take the time to self-assess in a critical manner.

Some may say that the moments after the game are not the appropriate time to do this sort of analysis.  I think addressing it will its fresh is best.  We often do a small debrief after games, send the players away to do some more thinking and then continue the debrief at our first training session back.  Yesterday, both teams had long post game reflections.  We try not to do that too often, as parents are sacrificing a great deal of their day as it is to get their child to the field early for the pre-game.

Yesterday it seemed necessary given the performances.  The reasoning: we prepared better during the week and player for player we are better than what we showed in both games.  That resulting dissonance requires reflection and it’s that reflection that I believe will lead eventually to clarity and consistently masterful performances.

The older group we actually gave the choice about engaging in a debrief.  They were offered the chance simply to cool-down and go home or cool-down then debrief and go home.  We gave them a few seconds to discuss among themselves and from that they chose to stay for a debrief.

In a way, this blog is currently serving as one of my own means of self-analysis and reflection.  The difference being is that I’m publicly sharing my thoughts, some of which are very personal, with you.  The hope for me is that by reading these blogs, these journal-like entries, you gain some piece of benefit to drive improvement in your own coaching.  Or, if you’re not a coach, that you gain a greater appreciation for the challenges of developing youth soccer players over the long-term through the eyes of one particular (and probably peculiar!) coach.

Next post Saturday, June 13th.

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Mental Training Skills Tips Video

A few weeks ago in this post, I’d talked about mental skills through the use of pre- in- and post-game routines.  I’d mentioned in that post that I was trying to put together a tutorial video to help the players that I’m coaching (and their parents) better understand those routines and their connection to the practice of mental skills.

Well a lot of weeks later, I’ve managed to put that video together.

The point of starting all of this – the program itself, the tutorial video – was to help the players learn to control the manufacture of belief and confidence within themselves and understanding (i.e., trust and harmony) between teammates.

It’s difficult to think that any of us could perform at the boundaries of our potential if we don’t believe in what we’re doing or have confidence in our ability to do it.

I wonder just how many clubs that are part of this high performance development program I coach in are actually committing any amount of time towards the development of mental skills training with their players?  While I’d like to think it’s lots, I fear that it’s probably few.  Each club that is part of this high performance development program must provide a strength and conditioning coach as well as medical support for the players but there was never any real mention of the need for a sport psychologist.

I remember from my university days having Dr. Peter Jensen, sport psychologist, come to speak to my class about the importance of training the mind at the elite level of sport.  He said that the thing that separates the successful high performance athletes from the almost successful was not technical ability or tactical understanding or even overall athleticism and physical fitness.  The almost successfuls had all of those things just like the successfuls.  But what the successfuls had that the almosts didn’t was the ability to handle the pressures of the highest levels of their sport and perform at or near their maximum consistently.

This ability to be “comfortable being uncomfortable” came from their exceptional mental toughness as a result of strong mental skills preparation.  Working on this stuff with youth soccer players is hard.  They’ve never done it before.  Some, because of the way they’ve been raised, are already on their way to becoming mentally tough.  Others need lots of help with that.  Teaching players to be technically competent, tactically flexible and physically fit is arduous and time consuming.  Teaching players to be mentally tough is no different.

Computers get slow and ponderous when they’ve run out of memory to deal with all the processes they have to go through.  I find when you add mental skills training into a youth soccer player’s training regime, like that computer, they begin to play more slowly.  They’ve got too much to think about.  Unfortunately, the answer isn’t the addition of more RAM (at least at this point!).  The answer is practice and time.

Eventually, with patience and determination, methodical becomes mastery.

Next post Sunday, June 7th.

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Week 28: The Vortex of Winning

Well, a much better set of games to end off this week than last with the two high performance soccer teams I’m coaching.  Our effort in training sessions throughout the week made a difference.  Both teams worked harder and were more focused than the week before.  We also were able to address in training one of the major defensive issues that plagued both teams last weekend.  Not perfectly but a big improvement in that area over seven days.

Our opponent today was, um, how should I put this?  Dangerous.  I don’t mean dangerous in their playing ability, although there were times they certain showed potential, I mean dangerous in their physical play.  The younger of the two teams was absolutely pummelled today.  Poor things.  At the end of that game we had players leaving with a twisted knee a potential concussion and a broken bone in the foot.

Certainly officiating has a part to play in those situations, however, it is the coaching of our opponents that I’m particularly curious about.  I don’t think it possible for 12-year-old Canadian girls to naturally be that vicious.  At some point it has to have been taught to them.

Then, of course, on the other end of that cruel physical play were the overly innocent players I coach.  These are girls that have been asked to buy into the philosophy that first and foremost they must be the more sporting team.  They’ve been asked to be assertive in their play without being aggressive.

They’re out there minding their own business, playing along when WHAMMY, they get wiped out in a challenge by one of those fiends.  Injuries happen more often, I think, when a player isn’t aware of what could happen to her.  She’s less prepared for it and so the physical contact is more likely to bring about an injury to her.

Retribution?

I don’t believe you have to have the philosophy of an eye for an eye but you still need to be prepared for what some opponents will do.  Sometimes you can’t really prepare for it until you’ve experienced that particular kind of cold-blooded play personally.  It doesn’t change my mind though – matching fire with fire.  I don’t believe that you have to treat your opponent as an evil force that must be overcome (before it overcomes you).  We can be better human beings than that.

In the last two weekends of competition, I’ve witnessed two clubs completely consumed with results and a whatever it takes attitude to get those results.  As I said in yesterday’s post, it probably has something to do with why they tend to attract some of the better talent from around the area to their clubs though.  It’s a shame really.

I must admit today I felt sucked into that vortex that is winning.  In trying to help the teams I coach avoid game scores like last weekend, I did feel myself thinking about getting on that results merry-go-round.  It was very tough.  I want the girls to honour our philosophy but I don’t want them to be completely shocked by what other players are willing to do to win, or worse, get badly injured because of their own youthful naivety and lack of experience.

So for now, I’m trying to hold the course – we will be the more sporting team – while also trying to mentally and physically prepare the players to deal with whatever comes their way.   As I said earlier, I want them to learn to be assertive (soak up mentally and physically without recourse whatever the opponent throws at them) not be aggressive (give them back what they gave us…and then some more when the referee is not looking).

Developing high performance youth soccer players is a challenging enough job without the hurdles of heartless clubs hell bent on success and officials, that like the players I coach, don’t seem aware of what can actually go on on a soccer field.

Next post Saturday, June 6th.

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