Straight From the SourceWhat a short conversation with a young player can teach us about coaching
by Ken Sweda | Thursday, October 18, 2012
I’ve spent much of my time so far with Soccer Newsday trying to promote better ways of thinking about youth soccer coaching and training, and to get North American coaches to adopt better ways of teaching the game along the lines of what the most successful nations do.
Why is this subject and all its particulars so important?
Well, for starters, the US Soccer Men’s National Team finds itself in a holding pattern as it fights to barely move on to the next round of World Cup qualifying. It is clear the level of talent and understanding of the game in this country leaves a lot to be desired, and coach Jurgen Klinsmann appears to have ditched his optimism for resignation.
The US historically has not played a system as much by intent as by default. Real Madrid plays a counterattack style, not so the US. And notwithstanding, Klinsmann’s best intentions to create a real style, we have struggled severely to execute it. His goal, for us to play a “possession” system that could conceivably, and at long last, put continued pressure on teams, even in our own (increasingly difficult) region, is on the brink of failure and appears to have been packed away in the kit room for the foreseeable future.
And under all of this sits the absolute dearth of “special” players that further hampers us from ever putting teams in a panic.
On the women’s side, while the US has won many world tournaments over the years, the women’s team has always done so in a very straightforward manner, against wholly unsophisticated opponents – much like a premier club team might do against a parent-coached rec team.
I would even argue that we created more special and aware players in the era of Mia Hamm, and that since then, we have become more tactically simple.
As other countries took to the women’s game, and focused on technical and tactical training, we relied increasingly on the physical training advantages that our sports infrastructure provides, to the subjugation of skill and awareness. Indeed, the biggest gains in quality of play and results around the world have come not in the US, but in countries like Japan (WC 2011 winners) and France (recent U-17 WC winners.) These two nations in particular, along with Germany, show us where the game is going on the women’s side, and why the US is no longer the assumed favorite.
Our U-20 women's side recently won its age group’s WC and did so in relatively promising fashion, so it’s clear some of the worldwide trends – ball mastery, awareness, ownership by the players – are starting to take root here as well. The promotion of those elements, and the suggestion that coaches need to do a much better job of first valuing, and then teaching, them, has been my primary focus.
But on some level, even that conversation leaves out a major component – the WHY of it all. Of course to continue to succeed against these countries, we will need to step up our game in those areas, so that is a partial answer to the “Why” question.
But there’s a bigger answer to the “Why” to be addressed and it is this: We should value and coach these things from the earliest ages because the kids want it, and need it. And they deserve it.
How do I know this? For starters, because kids developed in other countries learn to love the game more than kids here, and they live and play it for a lifetime, and at a higher level. Their love and understanding shows in their play, and they don’t quit at 13 because they aren’t fulfilled like so many young players in this region do.
I also know this from reading up on the subject. Books by Horst Wein and Daniel Coyle tell us that the engaged child, a child that is “reaching” for success but allowed to make mistakes, is at the root of a successful player and, more importantly, person.
Now, I realize you can read all the coaching and child psychology books you want, but nothing beats having a conversation with the very people we want to make this experience better for—the young players themselves.
What do they want? What do they value?
I decided to ask my 8-year-old daughter. My questions, and her answers, are below.
Why did you first start playing soccer?
Because my sister said it was a lot of fun, and it sounded like fun to me too.
What are some things you like most about soccer?
You get to have a lot of fun, there are cool games in practice like offense vs. defense, you get exercise, there are cool moves to learn and do, teammates are there to help you, and, in our games if you do well, you can win our mascot Flash the Monkey for the week.
Is there anything you don’t like?
I kind of don’t like when other players are super-aggressive and can knock you down. Other than that, I don’t really not like anything else about it.
Do you enjoy practice more, or games? Or are they the same?
I like practices and games about the same. Because they’re both fun and if you learn new stuff in practice you can do it in the games, and the exercise is about the same in both.
Are you upset when you lose a game?
Not really, because there’s always more games and we can always try again next time. And you know that you tried your best.
Are there things you can learn from a game that you have lost?
If you weren’t as aggressive as you needed to be, you can try harder next time, and if you didn’t do as many moves you can do more next time also.
What makes you happiest when you are playing soccer?
That there are teammates around me. And that there are coaches around too. When you do moves on a bunch of people and beat all of them, and then shoot and score.
Do you hear parents yelling during games? What do they say? What do you think of that?
Sometimes I hear them yell “shoot,” or “be more aggressive,” “fight for the ball,” “go upfield.” I think they’re usually right, and that I should do that, maybe because the coaches told them to yell that stuff.
Do you think soccer helps you in your life? How?
Yes, because you get smarter from it. You can make friends if you don’t have a lot.
If you didn’t have soccer, or if you couldn’t play anymore, what would you think about that? What would you do about it?
I would feel pretty sad because I’ve been doing it for a pretty long time and I would want to do it more. I would probably beg to you to keep playing. I would say, ‘please can I keep playing because I really want to.’ I would miss my teammates, practices and games, and the coaches.
Do you like to watch soccer on TV?
Yes, because it can help you learn to do stuff in games. It’s fun to watch what they’re doing and all the cool stuff they do.
If you wanted to tell parents on the sideline one thing, what would it be?
If I didn’t do the thing they were asking for and they were right, I’ll do it the next game.
What should a kid work on first when they join a team?
Maybe dribbling because if you ever want to play in a game you would probably want to know how to dribble the right way so you don’t lose the ball.
What do you like most about your coaches? Is there anything you don’t like?
I like most that they’re nice and funny and helpful. There isn’t really anything I don’t like about them.
A quick chat, yes, but some fairly telling answers, most of which I expected, but some of which I did not. Here are a few key points I’d like to emphasize:
First, notice that games were not anymore important to my daughter than practice. This is key: As coaches perhaps we need to de-emphasize the absolute importance of the weekend game and treat it as more of a “reward” for the hard work, not as a do-or-die measure of success. Moreover, we need to make practices more fun and stimulating, thereby raising their value relative to games. (Note: We strive to do both with our team.)
Similarly, the value of winning a game, or the “psychological damage” of losing one, isn’t dramatic, and certainly nowhere near what the parents might think. De-emphasize the result, and place more value on the particular game’s value to the process.
Second, it was quite interesting that my daughter valued what parents said/yelled on the sideline. Whether this information agrees with or contradicts what the player has learned in practice, the authority of those making the comments does carry weight (as evidenced by my daughter’s reply) and affects the player’s decisions and performance, and not necessarily always in a good way not matter how well-meaning.
This is yet one more reason for parents to refrain from anything but general, positive comments. The children need to learn the game during practice, and execute it themselves during the game. (And yes, I suffer from this malady myself as a parent to my older player, so I get it).
Third, there is the idea of ownership. Learning to do “moves” and “make plays” individually, and enjoying when teammates do them as well, is extremely important and gives players a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the cause.
Fourth and last, the total of a child’s experience in the game includes so many things other than the execution of “soccer things,” like the community spirit of being on a team, the relationships with coaches, the value of participation in a fulfilling experience and what it does for a young person’s growth.
All of these things must be considered by the coach. A common theme in many of the responses is “fun.” This cannot be overstated as a motivator, but more fundamentally as something kids enjoy and deserve to have as part of the process.
When we finally begin to focus on the process, and the wonderful young people for which we undertake that process, they will develop a richer understanding, appreciation and execution of the game. The results, both on the scoresheet and outside of it, will follow.