I Am Going To Apologize Now, But……

So we are in the middle of our  H.S. season like most teams in our area and being the typical coach, I see plenty that I want to address within our team and with individual players. That is fairly common for all coaches, I think. Most of my training session are in direct relationship to what I observe from our games and from prior sessions, after all, it is a cycle, right? right?

Last night  after I get home from my session with my side, I receive not one, but two phone calls from players that have been on my club team and are now on different H.S. teams. Both players were looking for some guidance in areas that their respective High School coaches felt that they were struggling with (and I agree with those coaches’ assessment). We spoke for some time and got into the nuts and bolts of what those players should do in incremental steps to correct some of those issues and I offered to do some 1 on 1 work with each of them.

What got me going and what I need to apologize now for is that both of these H.S. coaches coach club at a different organization than I do and therefore made the blanket statement to each players that their club affiliation was why they, and I quote, “suck” in those specific areas. Without getting into the competition of commerce (yes, club play is a commercial venture, at its very core it is product given for money received) what I do want to address, is the notion that it is the club coach’s responsibility to develop players so that they are “that player” for their high school program.

Let’s look at the facts:

in club play, most teams will conduct 2, maybe 3 training sessions a week, each lasting about 90 min to 2 hrs. Typical club season is 3 month and there will be some where in the neighborhood of 10-18 games. Total time of player/coach interaction would be around 72 hours, +/- a few hours.

in high school soccer, our season is about the same 3 months, plus (in our area) we are given 20 days of open season in the fall and 2 weeks open season in the summer. Typical training will be 5 days a week for 2 hours a day, plus 22 games (including tourneys and jamborees). If we do the math, we end up with somewhere around 120 hours for player/coach interaction.

High School has an advantage of almost 2 to 1 over club play, yet I constantly hear coaches pressuring players over where they choose to play. I firmly agree that if a player wants to improve their game, they must play at the highest level that they can. But we coaches must also understand that these are children with lives outside of their sport of choice. Their sport must continue to fuel the passion that brought them to it in the first place, if not, we have a player that is no longer committed.

Of course weather needs to factor into the equation but everything else being equal, why would any coach lay fault or responsibility for a player’s  composition on another entity? IF you as a coach, are not happy with how a player is developing or progressing, FIX IT. Your players are your responsibility, if there is an area a player is struggling with, quit whining and put the work in to help YOUR player develop.

High School Soccer and Club Soccer serve two very different, and distinctive roles. Coaches that do not or cannot separate the two need to look in the mirror and ask themselves why they are doing what they do in the first place. My role is to help players become the player that they want to be, at whatever level they feel they are capable of playing. I don’t care if it at club in Classic or Challenge or Premier, or being a supporting player for their high school team or that standout with all of the press. My duty is to help these athletes set goals for themselves and then to set about the process goals of reaching those bigger goals.

Ok, rant over, see, I told you I needed to apologize before I began…

till I see you on the pitch

j

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Is Change Precepitated by Internal or External Influences

Last night was our 1st H.S. season match. Our bus was over 40 min late and the ride was a bit over 1 hr, both of which had direct effects on our state of mind and bodies. Given that we had to get off the bus and basically take the field, I was not expecting too much out of our players. They were all eager, and excited to finally be playing and put a lot of heart into the game. Unfortunately, we were outmatched and it showed in the outcome where we tilted 0-2.

The game was a great picture for our players and was one where we had some pretty definite moments to use in explaining some of the play we need to address. As players were coming and going from the field, most were asking what they needed to work on and how could they prevent it from happening again. It was nice to see that level of investment from our players and that type of committment is what our team needs right now.

Last night marked a slow but defined shift in our team’s mindset and the change was for the better. We were communicating so much more as a team and supporting each other in our play. I have been waiting on this to happen and it is so nice we came out to our 1st game as individuals but left it as a team.

So, is change brought about by outside influences or events or is it something that one decides to tackle due to internal processes? I don’t think it fits into one category or the other, as in most things, it is a complex, ever-moving transformation that really does not have a singular point where it began. For me, change is a constant, ever-present part of my life and I hope it remains a close companion. I would have never had some of my experiences if I had not welcomed change at those times in my life.

One of the changes I have made this season is that while I still speak to the team as a whole about certain aspects of the game, I have decided to sit and speak with each player as an individual after our games and ask them how they feel about their performance, what would they like to see change, how did they see their role in the team growing, ect. On the bus ride home last night, I had my 1st opportunity to try this approach and it was a moment that will stay with me for a very long time.

As I finished speaking with the players individually, I moved back up to the front of the bus where I typically sit. After a couple of minutes, one of the players asked me to come back and sit with them to talk about the game. As we spoke, the entire team was gathered round and it was one of the most dynamic, positive discussions I have ever had anywhere. As I watched these children speak with such passion about what they hope to be able to do this season and what they felt they could do to help each other, I was reminded of why I coach. The hopes, and dreams of each of them was so raw and present at that moment, it was hard not to feel connected to each other.

So every now and then I get the thought that maybe this is the year I retire from the bench. It has been a long and very wonderful journey full of ups and downs, frustrations and joy but through it all, the one constant in a life full of change, has been the players. They each come into the sport with their own expectations, their own needs and ideas of what it is going to be like playing our beautiful game. I hope each goes away with some new-found discovery of themself and that what they could not do yesterday, in fact, did not define what they do today. That nothing worth having should ever come easy and that each of them are worth the investment that they are making in themselves. Last night reminded me of why I am here and that just maybe, there is one more season left in me.

till I see you on the pitch

j

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“Ain’t Got Time For That”

Pretty much sums up the past 2 months. High School season is in full swing now and everyone has been working to get their respective programs in shape. A few seasons ago, we identified some areas we needed to address in our program so that we could in a very methodical manner, grow our program. One of those was to get into the middle schools that feed our high school and have better interaction with those students that might have an interest in our girls soccer program.  Well, try outs came and we were overwhelmed with the turn out. We had 48 girls come out to our JV try-outs this season, 25 of them were 7th graders (and 1st time soccer hopefuls).

I guess sometimes you need to be careful of what you wish for! Now we were faced with a bit of a crossroads; we certainly could’ve taken the better players and given us a good chance of success this season, but at the expense of those younger players who put their anxiety in check and came out for the 1st time. What message would we be sending back to the other middle schoolers? What would our identity be if we went down that road? In the end, we decided to go with 2 squads, one is being developed and prepped for V level play sooner than the other squad.

Working with 2 sides with very different levels of play has its own challenges and creates its own difficulties from time to time. Assuring that the training is relevant to the level of play, making sure that we are tracking each player’s progress and keeping every one connected daily are just a few. Game days are another; whichever side is left at home to train with assistants needs to feel that they are just as important as the side the coach is traveling with. Then there is the communication aspect with over 40 people to keep updated, sometimes email just does not make it in time, but who has time to make 40 phone calls to update?

The season moves so fast, we have two weeks to prep before we are playing and with so many new players to the sport, things like the concepts of play, movement on and off of the ball, and nuances of play must take a backseat almost to just how to move the ball or receiving the ball. We have found that when we are doing our planning sessions, it is easier to set weekly objectives and work back from there. We have been able to move players around within the drills to create level playing fields to help assure forward progress for the players.

Spring is always a busy time and spring means high school soccer. For most players that means 6 years at the most to be involved playing in front of their friends, showing their parents what they have learned, and making a connection with their team mates that they will remember for life. 6 years “ain’t got time for that” ? Somehow I always make time for that, it is just a blink of the eye and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

till I see you on the pitch

j

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Growth of the Sport Here in America

I just finished reading one of the blogs that I follow and the author was addressing the growth of the sport and the fan base. In his article, he was speaking of the importance of spectators to the future of our sport. He was so on point with everything he wrote about but there is another component that I felt he did not address. In my comments to him I spoke of the ceiling our sport has with the fan base and felt that it existed due in part to a lack of education about the game and the inconsistency the game has here in the United States.

As examples of the inconsistencies, I referenced a recent match the older team played against a very solid opponent. As expected, it was a very physical encounter between two sides wishing to win. In the match, there were 3 distinct moments where there was disruptive contact, one in a play against our keeper where she gained the ball and the attacking player ran into her and ended up on the ground, another where our striker was inside the 6 and was fouled from behind in the play, and in the middle field during a 50/50 ball a player ran into our center midfielder as she was taking a ball in volley. Only 1 of these plays resulted in a kick awarded and that was the play inside the box and we were awarded a kick from the mark. the other two were incidental play and no infraction was called.  The point of setting up these events is that the coach for the other side (who also coaches a college side) saw all 3 plays differently than the center ref, sideline refs or myself and was very vocal in his dissent.

So, if in the above example, we have 3 distinct views of events from people who work within the construct of the game, how do we expect the average fan to comprehend and process the nuances of the game? How do we provide a basic understanding that allows those that we rely upon to support and fund our sport in such a manner that it will bring them to the pitch to watch regardless of their personal investment, i.e., their own child? If we truly want to have our sport elevated to the same prominence as other stake holder sports, we must make the game accessible to all, not just those with an insider’s view of the game.

I feel that we have allowed too much inconsistency in what the game is and how we expect it to be played. On my younger side, we struggled last year not because of our talent or our game IQ but simply because we could not move past the moments in play where “she touched me”! We spent a huge amount of time complaining about being pushed, or held or checked instead of just accepting that soccer is a contact sport. You could hear parents on the sidelines talking about how a player was pushing or touching, instead of them admiring how two young athletes were in the middle of contesting a ball, or trying to gain advantage of play. I could not help but feel that if we all came to the game with a more uniform understanding of the game, we all could enjoy it much more. Of course, that being said, I am not a stakeholder in the game beyond coaching, I do not have my child out there being pushed and shoved around anymore.

I have often joked around saying that one of these days, I was going to publish a pamphlet titled ” An Outsider’s Guide to the Beautiful Game-How to Watch Soccer and Not Be Bored to Tears” but so far it has not happened. One of the biggest hurdles to getting such a project off the ground is that no one person has all the answers, if you asked a dozen different people what they just saw  on the pitch, you would get at least as many different versions. Everyone brings their own vision and experiences to a match.

Each person watching a match will see the moment that they feel is when things happen ,do we all see when the build up began, or did we see the slight faint to make the opponent bite in that play, or how about the direct attack that seems to just dissolve only to strike as events appear to go soft? Every move and play in a game has its own story, it is how we as individuals interpret those events that provides us with the experiences we take away. The game is ever-changing, we must be willing to grow with it.

till I see you on the pitch

j

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Making A Difference or Just Marking Time?

One of the weekly blogs I follow is centered around the theme of Making a Difference in the lives of the athletes we work with. The writer has been a great source of perspective for me as I continue my journey with our future leaders. All coaches face similar sets of obstacles in their day-to-day work with athletes but working with those that are still in the process of discovering themselves brings its own unique set of challenges.

The young athlete does not have the singular luxury of focusing on just being the best they can possibly be in their sport of choice. The demands on their time and attention is so diverse, it is amazing that they get anything done at all. However, time management is one area that I feel athletes excel in as they find balance between school, social and home life.  We as coaches must keep in mind all of these demands that are being placed upon our players while still helping them find focus and committment to their sport. The drive and passion that brought these players to us in the first place must be nurtured and honed such that players want to test themselves in competition. We must prepare them to face the challenges not only on the field of play, but also those internal struggles that every competitive athlete faces.

For those that have followed my rambling this season know, I have been working with a group that I felt have the capability to play at a very high level, yet, we never seem to quite reach our potential. We possess a high degree of personal skills, are very tactically aware and bring a strong field presence to our games.  But still we let those games that should have been ours, slip away uncontested.For most of this season, we have failed to play to our full potential and you could see the frustration in the player’s faces after games. As a coach, I know that it is my responsibility to help guide our team and find our focus in play so, I knew we needed to do something.

We sat down as a team last week and just put it all out on the table. I told them that from day one, I was very excited about this team, about how I felt that we held all of the pieces to have a very successful season and could do quite well, if we wanted to. I also let them know that my biggest fear heading into the season was that we would lose focus on what our objectives were and become a social club (which I told them, I felt we had become). Players spoke about what they wanted for the remainder of the season and the consensus was that we wanted to play the best soccer we could in whatever remained of the season.

Going into this meeting, I had drawn up a contract for the players to pledge themselves to the team for the remainder of the season. I asked those that were committed to playing at their best to sign it in front of their teammates as a sign of their committment to the team and to each other. Every player present, jumped to their feet to sign the contract. As we broke up, I asked them if our deeds would mirror our words or were we just going through the motions? Our next game would be the test for us.

Our next game was against the top team in our division, a team that had only allowed 4 goals all season and had only lost 1 game due to injuries and low numbers. To say that I was concerned going in would have been a huge understatement, but, I have always had a solid belief in these girls and felt that if we would just show up and play as a team, we could at least be in the game.

As we walked across the field, I was getting texts letting me know that our keeper was running late. Great, our back up keeper happens to also be our anchor on our back line. Another starting defender let me know she could not be there due to a hamstring injury while one of our forwards was at the wrong field in another town 3 hrs away. Great way to begin our last game of the season!

The officials held the game up till the last possible moment before blowing the whistle for kick off. The next 90 minutes of soccer will forever be imprinted in my mind and heart. I was treated to some very exceptional soccer and I was able to finally see the team on the pitch that I have seen in my mind all season. The girls put everything that they had into playing as a team with one goal in mind- win this game. I honestly can say, I have never been more proud of any group of players than I am of this team. Deeds and not words when it mattered.

Oh, the final? We won 6-1.

till I see you on the pitch

j

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One Season Winds Down as Another Gets Started

Both the u15s and the u17s have their final season games this coming weekend, both are away games. As I think back on the past season, both teams have had the usual struggles that are part of group working together for a common goal. Both teams have been a source of frustration, of motivation for me as coach, of sadness and of great joy. Each player has come to the team with their own idea of why they are playing, of what they wish to accomplish and how they want to go about it. The balancing act that all coaches have to maintain is how to keep all of the differing ideas moving forward as a common objective.

The u17s will finish their season about mid pack in a smaller division. It has been a great group of kids to be around, but we have struggled to find our purpose in play and desire to compete. We say that we want to win games and want to improve so that we can reach those goals but, we just have not been able to find our focus and determination to go out and work together to reach our stated goals. For us, it is a social event to be enjoyed and the outcome is not critical to our self-image. As folks say, it is what it is.

I guess that I am saddened greatly by this group in  that they held so much potential in their combined play. We have struggled to play as a team all season but instead chose to play as 11 individuals most of the time and our singular efforts are such that we have come out on top more often than not. It has been so frustrating to try to get unity within the team and a sense of E’sprit de Corp while still keeping players engaged in their own game. We see the players and the talent that each possess and are so hopeful of finding our way over the hurdles that we create for our selves only to fail to find common ground when it is needed in the games. I am not sure there was any forward movement this season for us as a whole and possibly not even for individuals. When I think of what was within the grasp of these players and that we failed to live up to our potential, I am so disappointed and sad for them.

The u15s have been the workhorses this season. Each and every time out on the training field or the games, they have brought a can do attitude and a willingness to get in and work. We have worked hard to be a team and support one another in our games. Early on, we were able to make some team goals and determine how we wanted the team to play, then we set about doing all the small things that helped us grow and mature into a solid side.  We have clawed our way up the standings ladder this season in a division where most of the teams are fairly competitive. It has been a very enjoyable time watching these players take what they work on in training onto the pitch and sort themselves out. They are right there with the top 4 teams and at this point, I wouldn’t lay odds on who will come out as State Champs. should prove to be an interesting tournament.

Desire: if I had to sum up the past season, this is the word that I feel exemplifies what that experience has been.  Players need to define for themselves what their desire is- is it to be a better player each time they come out, is it to play as competitively as they can or is it to have an enjoyable time with a new group of friends and play a little bit of football? I think for each player, it is a combination of all of these things, the trick is matching up everyone’s desires such that there is a common objective moving forward. I tell players that there are two type of people who play the game of soccer: there are soccer players and there are people who play soccer. If you have to ask what the difference is, you are not one but the other.

Our high school season is getting under way now and once again, it is a chance to see player’s faces convey all the emotions and feelings displayed as they put themselves to the task. Once more all of the unknowns are in play and we begin the cycle again. As I stand before the mirror again, I once again start with all of the questions, all of the doubts, and  all of the convictions that bring me back to the pitch season in and season out.

till I see you on the pitch

j

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Against The Wall

Both the u15s and the u17s took to the pitch this weekend. The 15s went for their 5 W and the 17s split with 1 W and 1 L. We got to see good things and not so good things in all the matches but that is soccer on any given day. At best, you hope that teams take lessons from training and from games forward to improve the quality of their games.

The 15s match was against a weaker side so we took an opportunity for players to get a taste of each others roles on the pitch. By putting them in new positions of play, they had the opportunity to see how those roles are connected to their usual roles and how important it is to know just what is needed from each position in the game. All the players said that it helped them understand the how’s and the why’s of those roles and positions. It made the game have much more relevance to our development.

The 17s first game was against the top team in our division and, honestly, we were the better side in all ways but 1- committment to the game itself. We just did not play to our potential nor did we seem to want to put the effort into working together for the common good of the team. Our lack of drive cost us in the end and we were on the wrong side of a 2-1 game.

The last game for the 17s was against a struggling side that showed a good deal of heart and purpose in play. The other side played with a tremendous amount of heart and purpose but we kept them off our side of the pitch to shut them out 5-0. Our 1st half was just enough to stay ahead but we really lacked focus or purpose and as we told them at halftime, the way we were playing would allow the other team enough hope that they could come back and possibly push ahead. The things that needed to be addressed during our half time was our lack of committment to the games and always allowing the other team to step to the ball first. Unfortunately, what did finally get through to the players was the threat of having to run during training this week, that seemed to get their attention and motivated them to return to the pitch for the 2nd half with some sort of purpose.

All teams seem to hit a wall at the midway point of a season but how they go forward is often the difference between having a successful season and one that is best forgotten. Finding that purpose in play and remembering just why we are playing in the first place is one of the hardest things for teams that are struggling to do. For teams that are doing well, it becomes a huge wall to get over as they often feel that they are doing well, isn’t that good enough? How do we motivate those players that are ok with just “good enough”? Do we drive them when they are not willing to self analyze? Or do we allow them to play to their own expectations?

So how does one go about setting those expectations in a manner that is consistant for all the members of a team? Everybody wants to win but do we all realize that winning is not just a measure of that days performance. Do we realize that winning is the measure of the work we do, the time we are willing to commit to being better in our chosen path. We give good lip service to the buzz words but at the end of the match, can we truly say that we have done everything we possibly could have done to be at our best? Getting players to buy into the idea that the game is a chance to test themselves and their team and to see if, or how much we have improved since the last chance we had to take our measure.

The “wall” comes at different times and at different degrees for teams. Of course, as a coach, I would much rather we just avoid it but the fact remains, that sooner or later, we all hit that wall and we can either climb it or remain firmly rooted in front of it, the choice is ours. The challenge for me as a coach is to help my team not only conquer the wall but to knock it down so that we won’t have to face it again. Just as players struggle with differing aspects of their game, I face challenges everyday to help these players find the relevance and drive in their game. I feel it is my duty to help them discover the joy of meeting a challenge head on and coming out successful on the other side of whatever that challenge was. Games are just one of the ways we can measure that challenge.

My hope is that we blast the wall to pieces this coming week!

till I see you on the pitch, find your passion, live your dream!

j

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