Yes, a basketball video – because the content is completely in parallel to soccer. Besides, sometimes we have to change our view to improve our vision. Stan VanGundy from the Miami Heat discussed the importance of skill development in our youngest players. No matter the sport, the principle remains the same: at our youth stage, we must focus on player development and fundamental skills. This is the only way to ensure players will be able to compete successfully at the higher levels of the game. Sometimes, hearing the same message from a different voice or another context really brings it home.
Take note of how animated Stan gets at 1:58 of the video. His point is well taken. And think about the takeaway challenge at 2:40.
Volunteer turnover is a problem in almost every youth sports organization. Most youth sports leagues are 501 (c) 3 non- profit organizations and rely heavily on volunteers to handle most mission critical tasks ranging from registration, communication, team building, board members and the list goes on.
At Blue Sombrero, we work with thousands of youth sports organizations across the entire country and we’ve seen so many of these volunteers come and go, most of the time leaving in their wake panic and disarray as their replacement scrambles to make some sense of how to keep things a float.
Over this two part series, we will discuss some tips and easy to implement strategies to help reduce volunteer turnover and to make the transition easier. We will answer the following questions:
How to define your volunteer positions.
How to Recruit.
How to set your club up for success and encourage and reward your volunteers.
What to do when a volunteer leaves.
In this article, we’ll focus on the first two.
Understand the Reality
The reality is that volunteers don’t stay forever. They are under appreciated and over worked. Most can only work nights and weekends. Board members change year to year. Despite all of this, the club (youth sports organization) continues to provide services to its membership.
Define your positions
Create a quality job description for every role at your club. Don’t use buzz words or corporate double talk. Describe in real words what the position is responsible for and list out what the volunteer does on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Explain how many hours they are expected to put in, when and where they have to complete their tasks. This will help not only to clearly define each position but also to recruit new volunteers when the positions become available.
Here’s a snippet from a job posting for Blue Sombrero for a Marketing Manager to give you some ideas on how to write a good, quality job description:
(This is just a Sample Job Description)
Blue Sombrero is a leader in online registration and web design for youth sports. Since its founding in 2002, we have worked hard to create a service that will enable youth sports organizations to focus their attention where it matters most, the kids!
We are a smart, young and motivated group of people that works hard for our customers. We have been at the forefront of our industry, starting with soccer and expanding into all youth sports. We are an extremely fun and creative group that is passionate about soccer and youth sports and the services that we provide. We continue to invest in our product and provide the highest level of customer support in the market. Simply put, we are proud of what we do and we consider our customers our partners.
Here’s who we are looking for:
You are fun, positive and motivated
You are creative, hard-working and willing to take on projects big and small
You are outgoing and sociable
You love soccer and youth sports
If you are a master at corporate double speak and smoke and mirrors, this is not the place for you!
If you were working for us, here are some of the things you would have done in the past few weeks:
Created an email marketing campaign for a new service we just launched
Edited articles for our company blog
Created a new video collage for our Meet the Team section of our website
Organized and executed our annual Admin of the Year contest and awards
Began to organize our 2012 Convention strategy
Managed the importing of contacts into salesforce.com for our sales team
Sent out communication to our customer base for scheduled maintenance and for Tips of the Week.
Coordinated with our PR firm for news releases and other marketing items
Here’s Some Other Things You Might Do:
Check in occasionally with customers to gather feedback
Help CEO with projects (no telling what that could be)
Coordinate lunch and office visit for occasional visitors, board members, etc.
Organize company night out, Braves game, Group Karoake, Sloppy Joe day, Finals of Champion’s League
Play some Fussball (aka Foosball), Nerf basketball free throw competition, Soccer Tennis and nerf “PIG”- we like to have fun and compete!
How to Recruit Volunteers
Communication is important when recruiting for volunteers. Remember that your volunteers are coming from your membership and the more aware they are of all that you do on their behalf then the more open you are to their feedback and the more you recognize and reward your volunteer staff, the easier it will be to recruit new volunteers. Sounds pretty simple, right?
Communication: Create a consistent communication plan to keep your membership informed of what your staff is doing on their behalf. Keep them posted on how often you meet, what you talk about, the decisions that you make, etc. If you tell them, your membership will appreciate all that you do! We recommend email as the best way to keep your membership informed.
Creating a feedback is important: Your membership should feel that they have an outlet for their concerns and that they are being heard. A frustrated membership will provide slim pickings for volunteer recruits.
Recognize & Reward your staff: We recognize our best coaches and our best players frequently, so why don’t we recognize your best staff? Recognizing and rewarding your volunteers publicly will go a long way in instilling a volunteer culture at your club and help make your volunteer positions more desirable.
Armed with a quality job description, quality communication, a feedback loop and an organizational commitment to recognizing and rewarding your staff, your club should have plenty of willing and able of volunteers to pick from.
Next in our two part series we’ll explore some more operational tips and guidelines and what to do when a volunteer leaves.
As coaches, the only way we can develop players from stage to stage is if we can build on what they’ve learned. No matter if it is tactics or technical – we have to be sure before we move on. As we rush to put on our training sessions and move through our ‘session plan’, we have to be sure we’re not moving faster than our players. But, how do you know if they “get it”?
All of us have seen that look before: it’s blank with the head slightly tilted sideways. It’s a key indicator that the player might not “get it.” Or, you see a player perform almost right on the field – but not exactly. Or still, players chatting with one another and asking questions about the explanation, skill or demonstration. These may be a little bit harder to uncover that competence. And, if you see it in one player, there’s probably a good chance that others may need some further clarification.
Here are four simple tips to check in with your players to ensure they “get it” before you move on.
Question: Probably the easiest way to see if they get it. But, also the easiest to fake on a player’s part. This is especially true at formative ages where social acceptance is critical
Listen: How confident is the player in their response? Did you simply catch them not listening and in need of clarification?
Observe: Can they demonstrate the topic and SHOW you they understand?
Write: Coaching whiteboards are excellent opportunities for players & coaches to show understanding. (Hint: It’s very helpful if you don’t have one)
How do you ensure your players “get it” out on the field?
The concept of “Mental Toughness” is a tried and true rallying call for most teams. Every coach wants players who are ‘mentally tough’, but really what does that mean? I had the opportunity to interview Simon Hartley, our resident Soccer Psychology Advisor, about this hot topic. Simon provided his thoughts in an earlier article about “What Does Mental Toughness Look Like?” and in this interview we delve into the next steps of understanding the topic.
Essentially, our conversation broke down into two key elements:
It seems that there are many different ideas as to what mental toughness is. How can we actually see mental toughness in athletes? Is it chest beating and shouting?
What do you see in a mentally tough athlete? How do they give themselves away?
What is a mentally tough player in your mind?
What are some tactics that you use to cultivate an environment that produces mentally tough soccer players?
Mental toughness is a prized “possession” of athletes the world over. Parents talk about it. Coaches demand it. But, how would you know a mentally tough athlete? What traits would they exhibit? What characteristics would you see? How would they behave? What would they say?
What Happens When The Going Get’s Tough?
In my work as a sport psychologist, this is a topic that has always fascinated me. I’ve seen many athletes and teams who have crumbled when they’ve hit tough challenges. I have seen some teams that have imploded at crucial times during a game, or during a season. Some panic if they go behind. They seem to throw their game plan out of the window when they’re questioned. For many years, I defined mental toughness as the ability to stick to the game plan, no matter what. Obviously, I recognise that ‘the game plan’ needs to be flexible and adaptable. However, we should not abandon it completely and start panicking at the first sign of trouble.
I have seen many athletes that seem to shrivel up when they’re exposed to criticism. It is hard for some to take, especially if that criticism is very vocal and comes from 40,000 fans on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, whilst working in a Premiership football club a number of years ago, the coaching staff developed a saying… “when the going gets tough, the tough hide under the treatment table”. We used to see the number of injuries rise (and take longer to heal) when we were struggling and the players were being booed by the fans. The players were actually using the treatment room to escape! Coincidently, our captain (who did the shouting and fist waving) was the most regular visitor to the treatment room if we lost at home.
The Flip Side Of The Coin
Over the years I have also seen many athletes and teams who displayed incredible toughness. Recently, I have also interviewed a range of truly world class people in some very diverse disciplines, so as to understand what differentiates them from their peers. In doing so, I have listened to some incredibly tough individuals, such as mountaineers, polar explorers, adventure racers, extreme athletes and special forces personnel. These people endure some phenomenal challenges, whether it is facing death at the top of an 8,500 meter peak, completing a solo crossing of the Arctic, finishing 66 ultra-marathons in 66 days after being injured on day 2, or running back into battle through a fire-fight to save an injured comrade (and then swimming 2 hours to a rescue boat whilst towing him).
After watching some truly tough people and listening to their stories, I have changed my definition of mental toughness to this…. “the ability to keep going, sticking to the task and not give up, even when every fibre of your being screams at you to stop”.
But not all of us will be at the top of 8,000 meter mountains, or crossing the Arctic Ocean, or running through a gun battle. So how can we see toughness outside of those extreme conditions? Is the tough individual the loudest? Are they the ones who run out of the dressing room screaming? Are they the one who is most physically dominant? Or, are they the ones who will push themselves the hardest? Are they the athletes that are willing to enter their discomfort zone? Are they the people who will venture into the unknown and take on new challenges? Perhaps, the tough athletes are the ones that take complete responsibility for their performance at all times.
Mental Toughness In Action
In 2006, a swimmer (Chris) prepared for the final of a major world event. He’s waiting in the ‘call room’ with the other 7 finalists. One of them, an Australian, comes up to him and rubs his knuckle on Chris’ head. He starts to try to intimidate Chris verbally and physically, he becomes unpleasant in an attempt to undermine Chris’ confidence. Chris sat, looked at him and smiled. He didn’t say a word in response because he didn’t need to. Chris knew that the Australian was in trouble. Why did the Australian feel the need to intimidate Chris? Did he not think he could win the race on his own merit? Did he have to pull Chris back in order to stand a chance of beating him?
Sometimes fear can be dressed up as toughness. Bravado tends to be a façade; ‘fake toughness’. Perhaps it is a sign of weakness rather than strength.
Chris knew that his job was simple. He had to swim 2 lengths of that swimming pool as quickly as he could. He’d worked incredibly hard in training and was as prepared as he could possibly be. He’d overcome considerable adversity to get there, which gave him a deep sense of confidence in his own ability. All he had to do now was to swim 2 lengths of the pool. If he swam quicker than everyone else, he’d win. If someone else swam faster than him, they’d win. If he simply swam as quickly as he could, he’d done his job. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.
If we want to know what toughness looks like, we can learn a lot from this example. The tough athlete is not the one trying to dominate or intimidate his opponent. The tougher of the two is the one who sat calmly, smiled and looked his opponent in the eye. He’s also the one that remained completely focussed on his job, and refused to be distracted from it.
I doubt you’ll be surprised when I tell you that Chris won the Gold Medal that day!
It always cracks me up when I attend recreational youth soccer matches and hear parents yelling to five and six year old kids to “put on their game faces.” Don’t these well-intended parents know that these kids have no idea what a “game face” is on the field?
I came across an excellent article from Mike Jacobs this morning who was sharing his thoughts about soccer toughness. And, he included some toughness attributes from Jay Martin, Ohio Wesleyan coach who was recently named D3 Coach of the Year (Congrats, Jay!)
It made me think about toughness on a soccer field. And, when is it age appropriate to start thinking about toughness and mental toughness with a soccer team. I may throw that question over to Simon Hartley, our resident Soccer Psychology Advisor, for some better clarification.
What do you think? What are attributes of toughness for you as a coach? When is it age appropriate
I had the chance to visit with a high school basketball team yesterday, and in their pre-practice meeting, they were referring to an article that I had also once written about a couple of years back. The article had to do with toughness, which ESPN’s Jay Bilas has a pretty good reference point about.
Bilas has a great reference point when it comes to competing at a high level of sports – he played basketball at Duke University, and after his playing career ended, joined Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching staff; He has parlayed his playing and coaching career into a role as one of ESPN’s top college basketball analysts.
Elements of an article he once wrote on ESPN.com a couple of years ago (http://mdbball.com/Documents/ToughnessbyJayBilas.pdf) still draws references today. I think the reason I still refer to it is that it hit on a topic that every coach stresses with their players – toughness.
I think I was shocked about how many coaches from different sports at all types of levels had read the article, and were able to draw from their own experiences when reading and relating to Bilas’ thoughts.
‘…in almost coordinated fashion, I would watch games and see player upon player thumping his chest after a routine play, angrily taunting an opponent after a blocked shot, getting into a shouting match with an opposing player, or squaring up nose-to-nose as if a fight might ensue. I see players jawing at each other, trying to “intimidate” other players. What a waste of time. That is nothing more than fake toughness, and it has no real value.’
I often wonder: Do people really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize “toughness” in basketball? Or is it just some buzzword that is thrown around haphazardly without clear definition or understanding?’
Bilas referenced that where he came to college thinking that toughness was based on the physical, he realized that it had more to do with the mental. I was always taught that strength could be measured in a weight room, but that toughness was measured by what was inside of you – it wasn’t measured in your ability to kick someone on the other team, but in your ability to get kicked and keep playing; it was not whether you were knocked down, but in your resolve that allowed you to get back up.
Bilas also referenced that he thought toughness was a skill, and as a skill, could be developed and improved. He even created a list of items that he thought were a way that toughness was exhibited in basketball.
Soccer Journal editor Jay Martin had taken the lead from Bilas’ article and created his own list of items that displayed toughness in soccer. I thought it was a great reference point for players to draw from, and had even hung it up in our locker room at the University of Evansville.
Some of the key items were:
Talk on defense: A tough player talks and communicates with teammates while defending, and is so focused on winning that he/she is not only worried about the player that they are guarding, but on helping their teammates as well.
Play so hard, your coach has to take you out: Tough players work so hard that the coach has to take them out to rest. The toughest players don’t pace themselves. The first time I watched the University of North Carolina’s women’s team play, what I was taken back from was that when some of coach Anson Dorrance’s players came off the field, they needed to get oxygen because of how hard they were playing – you could actually see one of the girl’s chests expanding and contracting due to how hard she was breathing when she came off the field. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a player or team play as hard as that team on that day – they are a ‘tough’ team, and it is no coincidence that they compete for a National Championship on an annual basis.
Take responsibility for your teammates: Tough players take responsibility for themselves as well as others. If the bus leaves at 9:00 AM, tough players make sure that they are there on time as well as their teammates, too.
Get out of the comfort zone: A tough player knows that soccer is a game played when tired and sore. When tough players are tired and sore, and feel like they don’t want to run any longer, they run harder.
Take and give criticism the right way: Tough players take criticism without feeling they have to answer back or come up with an excuse. They want to get better. Tough players are not afraid to tell teammates what they need to hear.
Show strength in body language: Tough players project confidence and security with their body language. They don’t hang their heads; they don’t argue with officials.
Look coaches and teammates in the eye: Tough players never drop their heads. They always look their coach in the eye, because if the coach is talking, it is important to them.
Make every game important: Tough players know that every game is important regardless of the opponent. They know if they want to play in a championship game they must play every game like a championship.
Out of any of Jay Bilas’ toughness rules, the one that I thought this high school team (and their coach) truly embodied the most was‘Make getting better every day your goal’– We always try to stress with our players at the University of Evansville that their goal should be to make today better than their play yesterday. Tough players come to work every day to get better, and you could see by this team’s focus and commitment in practice that they bought into that theory.
Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo said that “Players play the game, but tough players win the game.” Look over this list, and gauge whether your team or children are tough – you can encourage toughness, and the best coaches and parents develop those attributes in their players and children.
“Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better.” – Bill Shankly
Formations, part of soccer tactics, are a description of how the players on the pitch are positioned. These formations are altered as and when teams are more defensive or offensive and are used at every level of the game from the greatest leagues in Europe to Kids soccer up and down the country in order to get a sense of organization and structure to a teams play.
Historically, the game of association football ( or soccer as we know it ) was a game that had little or no organization. It was a game in which a pass to a team mate was deemed “not the done thing “ ( who knows what Mr Guardiola would have thought of that? ) and a game that was just basically all out individual attack with little if any regard for defense or team mates.
As the years went by however, the game became more organized and teams began to use more structured measures in order to beat their opponents. Formations were used from the mid 19th century onwards and they were influenced massively by the attacking nature of the game in those days. It was common in those days to see teams set up with seven or eight forward players and with only one true defender.
But, as the game progressed so did formations and the 1920’s saw the first resemblance of formations that we can still see to this very day with Arsenal ( and Herbert Chapman’s ) “ WM “, a formation that consisted of three defenders, two holding midfielders ( as we now call this position ) two advanced central midfielders and three attackers which can be translated to today’s more modern 3-4-3 formation which is used at times by the successful Louis Van Gaal Ajax teams of the 1990’s, previous Barcelona teams and the Napoli team of this year’s Champions League. Other popular formations that be may be familiar with were the 1930’s Metodo formation which won back to back world cups for Italy in 1934 and 1938. This formation can be seen today in a loose translation when we watch Barcelona play, with its 2-3-2-3 set up. You’ll note that formations always start from the defense forward. A 3-4-3 would show three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards.
The 1950’s and 60’s saw even more emphasis on positioning players in what was deemed defensive positions, or areas of the pitch that were not seen to be attacking anyway. The 3-3-4 ( three defenders, three midfielders and four attackers ) used by the double winning Tottenham Hotspur team of 1961 was regularly used throughout Europe, we saw it most recently with the fabulous FC Porto team of 2006 that won the Portuguese Championship under Dutch Coach Co Adriansse. Other systems that were common place during this era was the 4-2-4 formation which was first devised by Hungarian coaches of that era and this system is the roots of the modern day 4-4-2, with its four man defense, two central midfielders with advanced wide players, and two strikers.
We then started to see formations being used that we are more familiar with in today’s game let’s take a look.
The 4-4-2 which became increasingly popular in the 80’s and 90’s in both Italy and England, giving success to various Clubs both domestically and on the European stage. This formation has lots of variations within it including the diamond midfield ( 4-1-2-1-2 ) and the 4-4-1-1 which would see a “ target man “ playing with a support striker playing “ in the hole “ who would be intended to be a more creative player than his strike partner.
The 4-3-3 used by the Argentinian, Italian and Uruguayan national teams of the 1950’s and 60’s that is used today by numerous teams including Chelsea and Real Madrid. Its variations include modifications to 1920’s Arsenal’s WM formation which we touched on earlier and converts one of the midfielders to a defender giving us a more familiar shape that we now see each week in games across the world. Another variation is the 4-3-1-2 which is a more narrow attacking option that focus’s on attacking play through the centre of the opposition, with a front pairing of strikers backed up by a link up man who would play in a possible “ free role “, this formation can also somewhat be interpreted as the 4-4-2 midfield diamond formation in its similarity. We can also look at the 4-3-3 formation in a defensive way by restricting the attacking responsibilities of the wide attacking players, giving us an essentially 4-5-1 formation when not in possession of the ball.
Over the coming weeks we will look into these formation and others in greater depth including matching up one formation against another to find out what strengths we can find by playing one against the other. We’re hopeful that this will help you Guys in finding the best formation for your players bearing in mind that it is the players that you have at your disposal that influences how you play.
We must remember that where soccer is concerned “ the game never stops “ so formations and the style of play we want to play are never an exact science as players are moving into different positions of the field at all times.
Teams will be successful when they correctly apply and execute how the coach wants them to play on the training field and NOT on the day of the game. If your players are not doing what you want them to do where systems and formations are concerned, then maybe you could look into your training sessions and the communication process during them as opposed to singling out specific players for criticism on the day of the game.
From a building perspective, if you don’t understand your player’s capabilities and your players haven’t developed the ball control skills, it would certainly be futile to try to explain formations and lineups to them. This would be like asking a child to write in cursive without first teaching the letters of the alphabet. First things, first.
I just watched my home town team, who I have supported since I was about 8 years old, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They conspired to lose a Cup tie to a team two divisions below them. In the first game, my team were 2-0 up with 10 mins to go. In the words of the commentators, we were “cruising to victory.” All we had to do was play out the last 10 minutes. With about 8 mins to go we conceded a soft goal. A few minutes after that we gave away a penalty, which gave our opponents an equalizer. The game ended 2-2. Okay, that’s frustrating, but at least we have a chance to put it right in the replay. Or do we?
You guessed it, we lost the replay – on home soil! What the heck happened?
The Momentum Shift
I’m sure you’ve seen the momentum shift in games. How is it that one team can go from dominating a game to being on the back foot, within just a couple of minutes? What happens to swing the momentum of a game so drastically? And, what can coaches and players do to control the momentum of the game?
There is a common saying in soccer, “goals change games”. But that principle is not limited to soccer. Cricket matches are often characterised by ‘batting collapses’, where a team will lose 3-4 wickets in quick succession when a partnership is broken. In the NFL turnovers tend to change, not only possession, but the dominance from one team to another. Many people would suggest that the famous come-backs in sport are prime examples of psychological momentum shifting.
For coaches, athletes and applied sport psychologists, there are some obvious questions:
What actually changes when psychological momentum shifts?
How are changes initiated?
What can we do to swing the momentum in our favor?
Let’s look at the first question. What actually changes?
Insight by Working Backwards
I start by working backwards. Obviously the score line changes. That’s the bit we tend to notice most. Unfortunately, changes to the score line are at the result of a series of events. The momentum has normally shifted quite a long way by the time we see the impact on the score board. At that point, we’re a long way down the line and it’s pretty tough to turn around. We need to respond before the score line changes!
As I watch games, I see that there are quite a few stages before we hit those critical moments (i.e. the loss of a goal in soccer or the interception in an NFL game). Normally, there are clues, which warn us that things are changing. If we work backwards, we can see that just before we conceded a goal, we often start to do things differently. Our processes often change. When I watched my home town team, I noticed that when we were defending, the distance between our players and their opposite number increased just slightly. We didn’t close down quite as quickly, we allowed them just a tiny bit more space, we began to defend a touch deeper. To start with, these changes are normally very small. They are often so small they seem invisible. However, these very small changes have a big impact because they compound. By allowing the opposition just a little more time, space and comfort, my team gave them opportunities to make passes they might otherwise have missed, deliver crosses that otherwise might have gone out of play, take up positions were unavailable to them previously. Therefore, those tiny changes lead to bigger changes when the opposition are then awarded a corner kick, or a free kick around the edge of the penalty box. Before we know it, we’ve handed them the momentum and they’ve created some dangerous chances…….and scored.
Changes in the momentum of a game normally result from changes in our processes.
The next question is, how do we control our processes?
Controlling the Process
As a sport psychologist, I know that how we think and how we feel effects how we perform. It impacts on how we make decisions and how we execute skills. From my experience working with athletes and teams, I’ve noticed that loss of psychological momentum coincides with a loss of focus. If our confidence is low, we also start making strange decisions if we feel ‘under pressure’, or if we feel “out of control.” Sometimes we force passes that are not really there. We make mistakes because we “try too hard”. We back off if we have doubts. We miss opportunities because we slow down when we “think too much”. Thinking takes a long time. Often, by the time we’ve thought about it, the moment has passed.
So, how can we influence the shift in psychological momentum? In my experience, understanding how momentum shifts is the first stage. Stage one is to recognise it early! I encourage athletes and coaches to understand when momentum is shifting. It is important for athletes to realise how their focus changes when they start over-thinking and becoming frustrated. It is also important that athletes know what to focus on in order to perform at their best. We need a game plan! I like athletes to know what to do if they sense the momentum is slipping away from them. I believe that they need to have a simple point of focus; a simple, clear task. That way, they can concentrate on delivering it really well.
In many cases, athletes and teams are not aware of how to control the psychological momentum of the contest. Instead, they simply go with the flow. However, with understanding and application, it is possible to stop momentum swinging away and also turn the tide if the momentum is not with you. It all starts when we control how we think and how we feel!
In youth sports, when we think of talent and performance evaluation, we think of the coach’s or trainer’s evaluation of a player. The youth soccer coach is a person who can have a great deal of impact on a young soccer player, either positive or negative, often making important decisions such as how much playing time a child will get, what position they will play, whether or not they will make a team and most importantly, the manner in which the game is taught. The behavior of a coach towards a child can significantly influence that child’s self-esteem; whether that influence is for the positive or negative is going to depend largely on the coach.
As parents, we decide what teams our children will try out for. Soccer clubs ultimately select the coaches for their teams. So in combination, it is the parents and soccer clubs who have the input into who will be coaching the kids. With so much influence placed in the hands of one person, the coach, it would make good sense that parents and clubs put some careful consideration into who these coaches are and the training, messages and philosophy that we are allowing them to expose our children to.
Consider that when we sign our children up for singing, dancing, music, ballet, art or any other type of extra-curricular activity, we put a good deal of thought into who will be teaching them, what their credentials are and whether the instructor appears to be a good fit for our children. With significant time, and sometimes money, being invested in youth soccer, shouldn’t the same scrutiny be afforded to trying to ensure that the soccer experience will be a good one for our kids?
I think it’s high time that the tables are turned. Soccer clubs and parents interested in providing a quality soccer experience to youth players should wisely invest some time and effort in qualifying and evaluating their prospective or current coaches. If a parent or club finds that the quality of a coach does not measure up, then go out and find a replacement coach who can do better. Another option is to educate current, willing coaches so that they are able to provide the same quality. Fully recognized is the fact that the vast majority of our youth soccer coaches are volunteers, and most of them are parents of one of the children on the team. However, just because the coach is a volunteer does not grant license to dole out lousy coaching that will have the net effect of turning kids off soccer, stagnating and sabotaging the development of our kids. On the flip side, just because a soccer coach or trainer is licensed and/or paid for their efforts should not lead to concluding that the coach is able to provide quality.
U.S. Soccer has published their guidelines for coaching youth soccer (free resource):
U.S. Soccer makes some very good suggestions in these documents. But the key points are hidden is the details. The message is there, but the problem is where the rubber meets the road; when you walk the fields and go from practice to practice and game to game, it is apparent that the message is not being effectively delivered to the coaches and trainers. From my point of view, this is not based on a lack of communication by clubs to their coaches, but instead by the coaches’ unwillingness to hear and adopt unfamiliar concepts and their stubborn insistence to hold on to traditional coaching methods that may work well with other American sports, but have no place in the world of soccer.
There is one more thing to note here. Some clubs require either state certification or licensing of their coaches. Make no mistake about this: While coaching licensing and furthering education should be pursued, it does not, in and of itself, produce quality coaches – there are many lower level licensed coaches today who have no business (beneficial to anyone but themselves) “coaching” soccer.
What should parents and soccer clubs look for, and even demand, in youth soccer coaches? As you read on, you’ll find common traits, acceptable behavior, philosophy and coaching approach that should be common to all soccer coaches. If you encounter a coach that does not exhibit these qualities, the suggestion here is to either find another team for the child that has a better coach, find a different coach for the current team or hope for club intervention so that the coach becomes willing and able to evolve to the point of becoming a better coach.
Establishing Guidelines for a Youth Soccer Coach
Below are suggested guidelines to be used by soccer clubs and soccer parents for selecting and evaluating youth soccer coaches. Specifically, we will look at the mindset, demeanor and philosophy of a coach.
Purposefully omitted here are specifics of effective training sessions, such as working on ball skills, dribbling, passing, shooting and even tactics. It is believed that within the framework of these suggested guidelines, each coach has a great deal of latitude and creativity as to what comprises their training sessions, what tactics and formations they employ and what approach they take in communicating with their players. There is an abundance of resources that a coach can find in bookstores, on the web and at www.ussoccer.com that will help in the formulation of training plans. The training exercises that one good coach uses are not necessarily the same as what another successful good coach would select.
Basic Goals of a Good Soccer Coach:
Teach the Game: A good soccer coach shall be able to impart knowledge of the game to players or all ages. This coach shall also be able to teach skills and facilitate the player’s acquisition of skills. The good soccer coach will also help develop the player’s decision making, introducing the right concepts and tactics at age appropriate levels.
Build Esteem: Confidence and esteem go a very long way in the development of a successful soccer player. It is confidence that will enable a child to be successful both on and off the field today and in their future. A good soccer coach will always have this in mind when interacting with players and making decisions regarding players. There is no place for a coach contributing to the diminishment of self-worth of a any age child by giving them significantly less playing time than other players. Likewise, ridicule, berating and other punitive actions should be left out of the coaches “playbook”.
Keep them wanting more: One measure of a good youth soccer coach is one who can find many of his or her former players still playing and enjoying the game, at all levels of play, years after the coach’s last session with that player. The good coach wants the young player to look forward to practice as the best part of the day. This good coach instills a love and interest for the game that inspires the player to seek more soccer play outside of practice, and to seek more play in the years to come. In the world of youth sports coaching, one of the biggest problems – and this goes across all sports – is the child with talent and potential who stops playing the sport because “it’s not fun (anymore)”. Good coaches must consider themselves ambassadors of the game – pied-pipers of soccer – because they understand that it is the love for the game, and the fun of playing it, that keeps players wanting more, and this is instrumental in player development. To those discipline minded coaches … FUN is not a 4 letter words. FUN does not mean lack of order, focus or effort. FUN as defined here is the full immersing into the game and the experience of joy through this active engagement. The best learning in soccer will take place when the child is having fun.
Ajax Football Club’s world famous youth academy (aka De Toekomst — The Future) has produced some of the most talented soccer players ever such as Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp. The academy continues to be among the most prolific in developing top notch talent who become starters on some of the best teams in the best European leagues. According to Jan Olde Riekerink, Ajax’s Head of Youth Development “ … enjoyment must come first. That’s the basis for all our coaching: if they don’t have fun, we don’t do it. We don’t make them run in mud just because it’ll make them stronger.”
PCA (Positive Coaching Alliance), whose mission is to transform the culture of youth sports to give all young athletes opportunity for a positive, character-building experience, has authored a coaching job description, which defines the expectations and traits for coaches that sign up for the program.
How many times have we heard something like this:
My high school coach was such a mean SOB. He was so tough on us with all the yelling and running. We all hated him. He didn’ t put up with any crap or excuses. But you know what, he was a great coach. He really taught us how to be tough and play to win.
Here we have a self-perpetuating model where the kids who become coaches when they grow up act in the only way they have been taught. They adopt qualities of the hard-boiled high-school coach that has been put on a pedestal. So what do we do with these coaches when we have seen countless studies claim and substantiate that children learn more effectively in a positive environment, and that would be one which is free of fear of the yelling, abusive, overly-dominating and intimidating coach ?
I’ll close this topic with an anecdote from a few years ago. I was searching for a professional trainer for a team of 8 year old girls I was coaching, and I was interviewing a highly respected trainer for the spot. When I asked him to walk me through some of the drills he would conduct if he were given the job, I was corrected by the trainer for using the word drills. He thought this was a far too military and strict connotation to associate with soccer training for young girls, and gave me the impression that he really cared about making sure his students had fun while training. I actually didn’t think that one word could really adversely impact 8 year old girls. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the gentleman’s commitment to making soccer fun. He got the job for the fall season.
As it turns out, this guy was a bit of a disciplinarian. There were mixed reviews from the parents. Some thought that the discipline was just what some of the girls needed. After all, they were 8 year olds who, for 10 straight weeks, were going to war for an hour on Sundays. Mostly the feedback we got was that the girls hated the trainer and they were not having fun. The trainer was not invited back for the spring season.
I can only hope that this trainer has softened his approach over the last few years. As for me, I will continue to use the word “drills” (even if they are modified games) mostly because it just rolls of the tongue a little easier for me than exercises.
Qualities of a Good Soccer Coach
Referencing US Soccer’s Best Practices Document, you’ll find the following statements regarding the best qualities for a soccer coach specific to age:
Age 6 and under:
Willingness to see world through a child’s eyes
Understand players’ capabilities and limitations
Ability to demonstrate (or use others to demonstrate)
Appreciate the power of learning by watching
Plays while facilitating practice
Ages 12 – 14:
Possess Soccer Awareness
Appreciation for Creativity and Independent Thinking
Ages 15 +:
It can be inferred from US Soccer’s Best Practices that some of the attributes that are important at a younger age will also carry over to the older ages, at an equal or perhaps diminished level of importance, while others will no longer apply for coaching the older players. The ability to demonstrate and stimulate ideas are qualities that would apply to all levels of coaching, something like seeing the world through a child’s eyes will not really benefit a coach of 16 year olds.
It is important to note that it is not until age 15 that we see mentioned of the word discipline.
Equally important to take note of is the absence of any reference to winning. The good soccer coach will consider winning a by-product of successful coaching. The good coach will recognize that in order to teach the game properly, he will be encouraging specific behavior from his players which may not result in wins in the immediate future.
A Love for the Ball
If we were to speak with any of the world’s greatest soccer players, current or past, they would tell you that they had an absolute love for having the ball at their feet. This is a key element that you will find present in any successful soccer player, and they will spend hours of their time, away from any organized practice, just juggling, dribbling or kicking a ball against a wall.
US Soccer Federation advocates that in order for a child to become a skillful player, they should have 1 million soccer ball touches before they are 16.
We all realize that it is the very rare youth that will become the next Pele, Diego Maradona or Mia Hamm. But if we put any credence into this concept of the more touches the better, then why do we have so many coaches yelling “boot it”, “send it” and “get it out of there”?
Youth coaches should be allowing the player the freedom to discover the best thing to do with the ball with each touch. Sometimes, that best thing may be a one-touch pass, but many times, the player should be allowed to dribble, to create or figure a way out of a tight spot, under pressure.
We want to develop players who want the ball, who embrace the ball when they get it, and to value their opportunities with it.
So we need coaches who recognize this and who do not yell pass, kick or shoot to the player with the ball, as if it is a hot potato, and the game demands you don’t get caught with the ball.
We want coaches who do encourage individuality at the right time, and do not yell or punish the player when they try something creative with the ball that does not work.
We want coaches who foster an environment where the player wants the ball and is eager to do something when he gets it. Contrast this to a coach who instills anxiety in is players, who, in-turn, become less than eager to get the ball for fear that they might do something to make the coach angry.
Coach Guided vs. Coach Directed
Can you recall the images of Pat Reilly or Bobby Knight pacing the basketball court sidelines shouting impassioned instructions to their teams ? Picture Vince Lombardi, with veins popping, yelling at his players while pounding the rolled up play book in his hands. These are great examples of what a soccer coach should not be doing.
Let the Players Play the Game
Some of the most successful and influential professional soccer coaches of the modern era spend the majority of the time during a game sitting, observing and making either mental or written notes. With the exception of an occasional reminder or word of encouragement to a player, these coaches do not instruct their players during the action of a game. They realize the time to coach and instruct is during training sessions.
During games, a good coach will allow his players to play, free of constant instruction. This coach will not tell a player what to do when they have the ball. You will not hear shouts of “shoot”, “pass” or “kick it up field” from these coaches. Instead, they let the player make their own decisions based on how they perceive the game situation. This uninterrupted, undirected play is a critical element in teaching the youth player to think for themselves and learn from trial and error and from their own successes and failures.
You will find a good coach communicating with a player during games at the following times or circumstances:
Away from the ball, after a play, to correct or offer an alternative that might have worked better. There is no time like when a play is fresh in a players mind to give constructive criticism.
Positioning: A good coach may instruct a defender to move up the field to not give the opposition too much space or to link up with his teammates. This is, of course done, away from the play and when the player does not have the ball.
Positive Reinforcement: Delivering praise after a good play.
Encouragement (general or specific) and again, away from the play
At a substitution when some specific critique, advice or encouragement is warranted.
Most time spent in youth soccer training should be dedicated to games or game-like exercises. While there certainly is room for skills training, once a player is shown the proper technique, they can work on these skills individually before or after practice, and be encouraged to incorporate them into the practices, scrimmages and games.
Coaches should develop session plans that revolve around small-sided games to goal, where the soccer principles of attacking and defending are prevalent in the same fluid and continuous manner that exist in a real game. Long stretches of uninterrupted play are key. Aside from water breaks, short “freezing” of play for coaching points are acceptable and advised.
Contrast this to the coach who creates drills with one or two lines, having the team queued up in these lines. In a common two line drill, one player from each line passes the ball to the other as they run down the length of the field, where the activity ends in a shot on goal. Not only is this an unrealistic scenario, as there is no opposition and no pressure, but if you do the math, you have 2 of 16 girls engaged in the exercise while 14 are standing around waiting for their turn. Congratulations coach. Your drill results in 12% productivity for your team; 88% of your team is doing nothing.
The funny thing is, this is probably the same coach who:
a) Makes kids run laps after practice and games to improve their fitness, which they observe is lacking
b) Complains to the parents about the attention span, behavior and focus of some of the players
The good coach realizes that his most effective use of the limited time he has with his team are game-like practices which keep each player engaged and moving. The attention and fitness issues will typically take care of itself.
Coaches should look to avoid the 3 L’s of sports: lines, laps and lectures:
Lines: As mentioned above, they are unrealistic, ineffective and unproductive. They are to be avoided in practice and definitely in pre-game warm-ups, when the goal should be to get the players loose and comfortable with the ball, re-establishing their touch. The last thing you want to see are players standing around waiting their turn before a game when this limited and valuable time can be more effectively spent passing and moving, playing keep-away or Rondo and performing a lot of the movements that will be demanded of the players during the course of the game itself.
This is not to say that there is no place for lines at all. Some exercises do can only be done when moving players from station to station in sequence. The important thing to understand is that when you do use them, keep the lines small and keep the time spent standing in line to a minimum. Not only will you increase time on the ball and game-like situations, but you will also improve on fitness as a direct by-product of keeping the kids moving. At the same time, you’ll reduce the potential for boredom and distraction.
Laps: Avoid this as punishment. Advanced and older soccer players may want to use running as an effective training tool. Let’s not give running a negative connotation in a child’s mind. And let’s try to deliver fitness to the players as part of the practice, as the effective practice has lots and lots of running and movement that will build fitness. The smart coach will conduct training that keeps players active, engaged, interested and running all in the context of soccer-specific drills and games. And they will get more touches on the ball this way, whereas with running, there is none. Running as part of practice: let’s not turn our youngsters off to the joy of the game when there is an obvious and intelligent alternative. At the older ages, as competition increases, running can be introduced, but should never take away from time with the ball and playing the game.
Lectures: Know your audience. A coach may have a lot to say, but the team, depending on their age, may not be capable at understanding it, especially after a long day at school. The younger the players, the shorter and more to the point the message should be.
Unlike most other American sports, soccer is a game of fluid movement which develops based on the situation. In baseball, a pitcher stands on the mound, a catcher behind the plate, an infielder in the infield and so forth. In football, the center snaps the ball, to the quarterback. The running back lines up behind the QB, the nose tackle directly across from the center. In basketball, we expect the tallest player, usually the center to be the closest to the basket, both on offense and defense. Contrast this to soccer, where it is not unusual to find a defender making a long penetrating offensive run, with the ball, or even a prospective run off the ball. Similarly, a forward may find himself in a position to block a shot or intercept a penetrating pass.
A good coach recognizes this and allows all players to gain experience playing all positions, especially at the younger ages, knowing that this will create more well-rounded players.
A good coach does not instruct his defenders to not move beyond the midfield line. Instead, he recognizes that the player should find the game and learn to develop instincts to move himself based on the position and movement of the ball and other players.
The good coach does not speak in absolutes but coaches based on situations. Little Suzie, playing left midfield, would not be told that she should never set foot on the right side of the field. Better advice would be that when her team is advancing the ball on the right side, her target as a left midfielder will be to move into space to the left of the center of the field where she can ask for a ball and be in a good position to attack, shoot or score.
You’ll not hear a good coach say “Never pass the ball to the middle on defense” or “Don’t make back-passes. We are going the other way.” In soccer at its highest levels, passing back to the keeper or to a central defender is a vital element of a team keeping possession, regularly used to relieve pressure on a player when other forward or lateral options are not present. The young player should not be instructed not to pass back, but instead, encouraged to do so at the right time, so as not to lose possession of the ball. Sure, the younger the players are, the more likely that the pass back is errant or the receiving player loses the ball, and this could result in giving up a goal. But the player should be allowed opportunity to make those mistakes, and learn from them. The passes over time will become more accurate, be hit with the right pace and be safely handled by the receiving player. The good coach is not driven by a fear of losing games and fear of conceding goals. This coach will teach the player the right time to make such a back pass, and when they make mistakes, which they will, use it as an opportunity to teach and help the player understand what they can do better the next time that the same or similar situation arises.
And for good measure, the following as taken from US Soccer Best Practices …
…. the team of year olds who hold their positions and maintain a steady group of defenders who rarely, if ever, venture into the attack, looks like a well disciplined and well organized team. However, U.S. Soccer does not recommend this as a proper approach to developing players at this age. It does not develop good soccer players. This approach hinders the player’s ability to experience and enjoy the natural spontaneity of the game. It does not allow the players to have an equal opportunity to go and “find” the game based on what they see from the game, or to handle the ball and develop instincts for the game. These are skills they will need at the older ages and that are often lacking in the older players. This approach, while “successful” in the short term, fails the players in the long run because the environment does not allow the players to develop the tools they will need to be truly “competitive” i.e., prepared to deal with the game , at the older ages.
Soccer is the Game
American soccer youth does not watch enough soccer, either by attending games or on TV. We’ve heard countless stories of successful professional athletes who, as kids, had an idol in their sport that they looked up to, whose mannerisms and style of play they imitated and adopted. Soccer coaches should consider encouragement of watching soccer as a tool in coaching. A good coach will encourage a player to watch soccer at a high level, college or professional, and look for elements of the game that impress them, whether that is special dribbling skills, a fantastic shot or something more subtle like off-ball movement and first touches. The professional game provides an abundance of ideas and examples for the developing soccer player, and encouraging these youths to gain an appreciation for the game can inspire their own creativity and elevate their own aspirations for the game. The 13 year old girl who watches the US Women’s National Soccer team play and is in awe of how Carli Lloyd controlled a difficult pass and then within 2 steps, took a blistering shot, all while running at full speed may starting practicing this and eventually executing it on her own in competition. Do not underestimate how often this does happen for those who do watch the game. This is one of the most powerful and inspiring tools that can be used to aid in the development of youth soccer players.
Because soccer is the game, a good coach will:
Know, and be able to instruct, the proper basic techniques of the game, even if not able to demonstrate.
refrain from making references to other sports as examples of how things should work. I recall a coach of a U9 girls soccer team instructing his girls in a shooting drill to look at the goal when striking the ball (no, not before shooting to pick out the spot to aim for, but actually to look at the net when striking the ball). This may have worked well for him in hockey or basketball, sports with which this coach may have been more familiar. But not soccer.
refrain from promoting off-season involvement in other sports to make them a better soccer player.
To be clear, this is not a statement to say that a child who plays soccer should not play any other sport. On the contrary, if a child excels in and enjoys other sports, then they should not be denied the opportunity to play. Let’s just not fool ourselves into thinking that spending time away from the soccer field on other sports is going to help a player’s soccer game. Nothing will help teach soccer as well as the game of soccer itself.
Getting the Parents On Board
There is little worse than a parent criticizing the play of a child which the coach is advocating. Or the parents applauding the 30 yard aimless kick of a 10 year old player on a team whose coach, during practice, instructs his players to dribble the ball and make an intelligent play when presented with space and time.
The coach should instruct parents that the only words the players should hear from them during the game are words of encouragement. Even praise, at times, needs to be tempered, to try to avoid the situation above, where the less-than-soccer-savvy parent shouts words of praise and applauds, and gives positive reinforcement to behavior that in reality warrants a correction.
Guidelines and expected and acceptable behavior of parents should be established and communicated at the beginning of the season and reinforced throughout.
A Word on Winning
Once a quality coach has established his goals and priorities and communicated them to the team’s parents, the pressure to win should not be allowed to compromise the objective, which is player development. Winning being the objective, unfortunately, is far too prevalent in this country. We are a now society we (Americans), as the adage goes, do not like finishing 2nd. Once winning becomes the focus, the result is a gravitation away from player development, and the future is sacrificed for the present. This can be seen in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, in training, positioning decisions and game-day coaching. So prevalent is the coach who preaches player development, but then makes decisions in practices and on game day that show how the need to win actually wins out over the goal of development.
Do not confuse the pressure to win, as discussed above, with the desire to win that all players should have when they compete. A coach should challenge his players to fight hard to win every ball, to work hard on in training to improve their game, to be first to the ball and to try their best to win their battles and work individually and as part of a team to compete to the best of their ability and try to win each game they take part in. Nurturing and developing this winning mindset is certainly something a coach should focus on.
But this is different than a coach who determines amount of playing time given to players, player positioning and in-game tactics all on maximizing his chances of winning. In this approach, the coach will give some of his less impactful players significantly less playing time, or opt for long-ball (kick and run) style of play, instead of possession, because, for one reason or another, he feels the pressure and need to win.
More benefitting player development is the coach who is willing to sacrifice some short-term winning for the long term, bigger picture of developing the players they currently have over time, and not putting an over-reliance on the physicality, athleticism and intensity, the qualities that many “winning” pre-teen/teen players and teams currently exhibit. But, this would be embracing a philosophy that says that results at the youth levels are not really all that important. It takes a certain mindset and maturity for a coach to get to this point where he will provide equal opportunities to both the smaller, perhaps slower, but more skilled and intelligent player and the taller, stronger, faster player who is more likely to make an impact on the game today, due to his speed, strength and overall athleticism.
Touching on the point of accentuating the physical aspect of soccer ahead of the technical, here is a snippet from a recent Anson Dorrance interview in Soccer America:
SA: Why are the U.S. women’s and girls national teams no longer as dominant?
ANSON DORRANCE: We’re not as slick as we should be. We’re not as technical as we should be. We’ve relied on the classic American mentality and American athleticism because our genetic pool is so large, but we’re just not as polished and not sophisticated enough.
As a result these other countries, who could never get on the field with us, like a Mexico, now actually can steal a game from us. We have to get back to work.
Now, bringing ourselves back to the basic theme of winning, in a recent interview, Xavi Hernandez (current Spain World Cup Champion, Current Barcelona UEFA Champions League champion and someone who was taken into the Barcelona youth academy at age 11), who was was quoted
… “Some youth academies worry about winning, we (La Masia – Barca training academy) worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, ‘Yep, he’ll do.’ Bring him in, coach him. Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruyff; it’s an Ajax model. It’s all about rondos [piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day.”
Games do have winners and losers and players should be guided to accept a loss and learn from it. I am not an advocate of the “we’re all winners here” movement. The real world awaits our kids where coaches cut players, some students will not get into the colleges they apply to and they may not get the job offer they want. We’re not looking to build a shelter from reality for these kids – that could cause more harm than good in the long run. Disappointment happens, for everyone, and successes are sometimes reached by using that disappointment as motivation.
Summing up the desired philosophy on winning that a youth soccer coach should have: Coaches should maintain the premise that winning can be a result of talent, skill, teamwork, dedication and hard work, properly directed passion and sometimes even luck. Practice content and game day decisions should not be made to get the win while sacrificing player development. The good coach will take the approach that the wins will eventually come as a result of the proper training and player development. These wins may not come this weekend or even this season, but the benefits will show, and more of the players in their charge will have brighter soccer futures as a result.
Taking this new coaching approach requires that the coach buys into something that may be completely foreign and uncomfortable to them. It requires:
letting go of previously learned coaching techniques that may work well in other sports
having patience and faith that even though the team may not win today, they will be better players in the long run
having the willingness to accept the counter-intuitive ideology of letting the game be the teacher
Parents and Soccer Clubs: The first step is to understand the difference between good and bad coaching. The 2nd step starts now by looking for quality coaching, and even demanding that our soccer playing kids are exposed to the better soccer training. To this end, U.S. Soccer has put forth the right ideas, but U.S. Soccer, as an organization, are far too centralized and disconnected to the masses of kids, in formative youth stages, playing soccer across the country. They simply do not have the influence they would need to successfully push the right ideas down to the thousands of soccer clubs across the U.S., and then to find a way to track the successful implementation of these ideas across the coaching ranks. This is where you as parents and soccer clubs need to step in and make the difference that will matter in the long run.