Archive for February, 2011

Right now I’m sitting in a hotel and my youth team is getting ready to play in a futsal tournament.  In our part of the country these futsal tournaments are very popular, due in large part to the weather (it’s currently -10 outside and about 4 inches of snow has fallen in the last 24 hours).

I recently had a conversation with another youth coach that had a very strong opinion about the limited relation that small sided futsal games had to the full sided game.  He was quite serious and felt the futsal games had little game application for his players, and did not provide them enough “game experience” problem solving tactical situations.

I’m not one to debate with people particularly, but I thought this coach’s opinion was pretty narrow and misinformed about small sided games.

In my opinion there is no better teacher of the game for young and inexperienced kids than a small sided 4v4 of futsal game.  The dynamics of the big game are all there; depth, width, and penetration are all present.  The decisions are similar, maybe a little less complicated and simplified, but still the same.  But the most important benefit to a small sided game is the quantity of touches and opportunities for decision making players get.  In a game where the ball is only shared with nine other players compared to 21 other players the chances of touching the ball and making decisions related to the game are much better.

How do we develop youth players, give them situations in a game to touch a ball and make game like decisions.  The more opportunities they have to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes will make them a better player.  So what is the downside of a small sided game for a youth player?  I use small sided games all the time with my college players.  The ability of our coaching staff to catch our players making good decisions and to correct their poor decisions is much easier on us if there are fewer players to be following than in a full scrimmage.

Maybe it’s the country I grew up in.  We weren’t a world power in soccer by any stretch of the imagination, but one thing we were decent at was futsal.  We regularly have professional clubs qualifying for the UEFA Futsal finals.  It’s a passion of ours and we thrive in it, and we turn out some very good players through futsal.  We’re just too small of a country and too disorganized to be a power in UEFA in the next 50 years.

 But look at a country like Brazil.  When I had the fortune of traveling to Fortileza we were playing futsal and beach soccer every night at the local parks.  Kids from 10 years old through old men were playing together on the same courts in mixed teams of 5v5.  You’re telling me that this doesn’t have an impact on the development of a nation in the world’s greatest sport?

Kids need to play the game, absolutely, and we want them to play the game.  However, I think it is invaluable to our players development to be playing futsal, or small sided pick, or anything that will simulate game tactics while increasing touches at the same time.

An information packed day with some great ideas for us to take back to our own teams.  Topics covered were high pressure defending, speed of play, finishing, and possession with a purpose.

Some key things that I took from the clinic had more to do with the demeanor of the clinicians than specific activities they ran.  For instance, one of the clinicians was an NCAA DI coach at a successful school here in the midwest, and his demeanor with the ’98 ODP team was great!  He was very down to earth and kept the players engaged in the session.  To put it in the most simple terms he was a great teacher.

Got me to start thinking about what does it mean to be a great teacher?  The first thing I took from him was he knew the audience.  Night and day from the Dutch coach the day before, who was handed a group of kids that he’d never seen before and spoke a different language, and were not at the level he was expecting.  This college coach came in early, learned the boys’ names, and walked through the session with them before they went in front of hundreds of coaches.  As he progressed through the session he would talk to the boys by name and knew what space to use and what they would understand because he took some time to get to know where they were at on a developmental level.

The second thing I noticed was he didn’t take himself too seriously.  I’m sure it’s different when he’s working with his college team fighting for a conference title at times, but this coach took himself so lightly and accomplished the task at hand by keeping the boys engaged.  If they didn’t get it he threw his hands up and said, “we’ll go back a couple steps, not to worry.” 

Finally he made sure that the players understood the objectives and the correct way to do things before he moved on.  The Dutch clinician started an activity and would get frustrated if the players didn’t do it right away.  So he’d go back and demonstrate it.  By the end of the clinic he was demonstrating everything before hand.  But the college coach walked the players through it, pulled specific kids to the side if they still weren’t getting the hang of it, and was very patient with them beccause he knew some of the information was new for them.

Great stuff!  Like I said, there was a lot of great “soccer-specific” stuff that was covered, and I’ll post some of it in the weeks to come, but the dynamics of the coaches really caught my attention.  Very smart men, but what does it matter if the players aren’t learning from that knoweldge and applying it to the game?

I am a huge fan of the Dutch system of development and training for youth soccer.  The Total Football of the 70’s and 80’s is something I’ve always aspired to as a coach and a player. 

So when I found out that an assistant coach from the Ajax system was coming to my area for a clinic I was on board right away.  So I thought I would blog about the clinic and some of the key points I’m picking up from the weekend.

Day 1

– Three sessions today covering transition play and the Dutch system of training related to passing.

The primary thing I took away from the first two sessions conducted by the Ajax coach was how far behind we are as a nation and how simple the Dutch have made the development of soccer.  It was so unfortunate that the club teams chosen to help out the clinician by demonstrating his training session could not catch on or perform to his standard.  He really struggled with them because their skill level was so poor.  These players looked like U16’s, and they were wearing USYSA Region 2 patches on their jerseys!  But the simple principles of maintaining possession in a 4v4 game was astounding.  They did not understand the concepts of playing  a diamond at all, and he was repeating himself several times.

When he started his session on technical passing the small things that U12 teams in Holland could do were lacking in our American players.  Simple things like having your feet ready to receive the ball, preparing the hips to receive a pass in a specific direction.  Playing mandatory two-touch, movement off the ball, and understanding patterns went right over their heads.  It was a just such a major visualization of where we are lacking as a country.

The thing that “rocked” my line of thinking so hard was the simplicity and redundant nature of the sessions he was talking about.  The players in the Ajax system will work on these passing drills two or three times a week.  There’s nothing too them, just focusing on passing with the left or right foot, preparing the body for the ball, etc. 

I want to start doing something more basic with my players until we are passing the ball the way we should be.

Day 2 tomorrow!

Am I a bad leader?  Or a leader at all for that matter?  How do I answer these questions and grow as a person?  Are people born with it, or can we develop ourselves into leaders? 

Ultimately my personal philosophy in coaching is that the world will rise and fall on leadership, and my team will rise and fall on MY leadership.  I thought coaching was a teaching profession, but as I’ve grown and learned from experience the more and more I believe that coaching (and teaching for that matter) is a leadership profession. 

It seems that there are those who do, and those who don’t.  Those who don’t say that leadership seems to be something people are born with and it’s just not in them to be a great leader of people.  Than there are those who do and they will tell anyone that leadership is something that is developed through hard work and lots of dedication and growth.

What is leadership? According to John Maxwell “…leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”  I like this definition because it’s very frank and to the point.  Leadership, good or bad, is simply influencing people in a certain direction.  Hopefully I’m on a path of positive leadership development, but ultimately we want to influence people to move in a specific direction.  If leadership is influence than it seems like there must be a certain skill set that I can develop to become better influencers of people.

It all starts with vision.  Hyrum Smith once said that “Leaders conduct planned conflict against the status quo.”  Leaders have a deep desire to see something change!  I want my soccer players to grow as young men and be better people and athletes when they graduate from our program.  I’m not satisfied with where we are in our present state; as a soccer team and as a community.

But it can’t just be about having a vision.  It starts with a desire to see a dream become reality, but then we have to have the character, relationships, and work ethic to make it happen.  According to Woodward and Brady these are the three areas that we have to continually be evaluating ourselves to monitor personal growth.  Am I a person of character, integrity courage, and consistency that warrants the trust of people to follow me?  Do I have the relational skills to encourage, instruct, and teach others?  Will I have the work ethic, perseverance, and autonomy to get things done and create results?

We need to be constantly evaluating ourselves and establishing a plan of action to grow ourselves as leaders.  If I’m deficient in one of these areas I need to focus on developing in that are so my scope of influence grows.

This is an area that I feel is hugely underrated by coaches.  We all call ourselves leaders, and we all recognize that there is a larger and larger need for true leadership, but none of us see ourselves as the problem.  A study was conducted by George Barna that surveyed managers and executives in the USA.  Two thirds stated that there was a management crisis in our country.  Later in the same survey the participants were asked if they were part of the crisis as a defective leader, and a majority of the respondents said “no,” they were not part of the problem. 

Stephen Covey states that teams will only go as far as the abilities, character, and drive of the leader.  He refers to this as the “ceiling principle.”  If we want our players to be better people of integrity and character in showing up for practice and how they treat officials and one another maybe we need to look at where we’ve set the ceiling as coaches?  I’m always on my athletes to take the initiative and responsibility to workout during the summer to prepare for the season.  How much time do we take as coaches to “workout” and develop our leadership skill set and prepare ourselves to be better coaches and influencers?  The challenge is to take this to heart and put the time in to be a better coach for our players and our clubs.

I love to read, and I recently finished “The Man Watching” by Tim Crothers, a biography of Anson Dorrance (head women’s coach at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
I’d heard a lot about this book, and I know it’s not a new release, but I really enjoyed reading this book about one of the greatest soccer coaches in the USA. There are obviously amazing things about this man’s life, but I wanted to focus on some of the coaching themes I gleened from this book.
One of the main things I enjoyed about the story of Anson’s life was his consistency in holding players at UNC to a higher standard, and never letting them settle for second best. The competitive cauldron that he sets up in training, and the constant encouragement to be better shows the passion of this man.
And maybe that’s what it comes down to, passion. Here is a guy who has coached at the same school for 32 years, and he still has the passion of a first year coach. He is motivated to give a hundred percent, and to hold his players to that standard day in and day out, year after year. Of any coach he could say he’s achieved what he set out to achieve and can take it easy now, but he pushes and pushes until his players hate his guts. And the result is a soccer team with a tradition unlike any other in the history of college sports.
Another thing I found so interesting about this man was how unique his leadership style was. Here is a guy that has everything planned out in his practices, constantly grading and scoring his players through training sessions, and they can’t hardly show up for a game on time. Gives me hope that there are coaches out there who have amazing results, but still might not be “perfect” in the eyes of the world. But it works for him. Another sign of his great leadership is the humility to surround himself with people who are strong in the areas of his weaknesses. He knows he’s not the most organized man in the world, and he has an administrative assistant that keeps him on schedule as much as possible. He has a statstician who handles the numbers and grading that creates the competitive cauldron. An assistant coach that is very relational with the team and will sit and listen to them and lend a shoulder to cry on after the head coach reminds her of the standard they failed to maintain. Anson knows his weaknesses and his strengths and found the people to help fill those gaps.
Great book! If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. Something for everyone in this book about leadership, overcoming adversity, and building a tradition of excellence and success.
What do you think of Anson Dorrance? Have you heard him speak or read any of his books?

On the eve of the 2011 season a lot of my players have been giving me a hard time. I love the MLS! I think it’s a huge privilege to have a professional soccer league in my country. My players on the other hand think we need to be supporters of European clubs to be real fans of this beautiful game.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching European soccer. I’ve been watching EPL, La Liga, and Serie A matches since I was a little kid. I spent part of my childhood growing up in Europe and Asia, and soccer was much more available on public TV than it was here in the USA. The quality of soccer in these traditional regions is undeniable (along with Latin and South America). But one thing I learned hard and fast growing up as an expatriot was a deep passion to see my country develop and succeed. Any international competition was a matter of pride. As a US citizen I had to rely on the summer Olympics, baseball and basketball to really come through for me. But something happend in 1994 that shaped my love for the US-MNT forever; we didn’t fair too badly! In fact, we out right belonged at the World Cup! I was able to hold my head up high around the neighborhood and not be ashamed of how my country men faired in the greatest competition of the world.

When I moved back to the USA I started supporting the MLS right away. Here was our chance to make an impression and develop the internationals that would challenge for World Cup glory. Sure it wasn’t as sharp and beautiful to watch as some of the soccer I saw growing up, but it’s OURS!

I still love to watch international clubs. Watching Barcelona dominate every match with beautiful team play and amazing ability is something you can’t take your eyes away from. And yet there is something about sitting in the stands of a professional soccer match here in my home country supporting a sport I love, and want to see grow from where it is right now.

We’re starting to make our mark on the world. The 2002 WC was another very exciting time for us, and whether you thought 2010 was a success or a disappointment the fact of the matter is we have higher expectations of our MNT than we did in 1994. We expect to make it out of qualifying as one of the top two teams in CONCACAF. We expect to come away with points out of our group at the WC, and we even expected our team to win the group and press on in the finals of the WC. This shift in our presuppositions has a big part to do with the development of our domestic league.

So what is our obligation to our home league? Do we owe it to the MLS to pick a team and sit through the season pretending to be a fan? WHY NOT? These boys are playing the best soccer our country has to offer (and I’m not one of them even if though I tried my hand at it). I’m coaching young, aspiring athletes and my dream is to see them play at our collegiate or professional ranks. What am I communicating to them if I don’t even watch it?

Why not be a fan of MLS? Doesn’t mean we can’t have our favorite teams in La Liga or EPL! But if we were real fans of the game wouldn’t we want the best in our nation to be better? And how can our league grow and expand if the soccer faithful here don’t even support it?

I really didn’t have a club in the MLS because I grew up moving around so much as a kid. California, Colorado, Georgia, etc. So when I finally landed in Dallas, TX I adopted FC Dallas because it was the first city I had the privilege of living in that had an MLS franchise. I attended as many games as I could, took my players to local SMU and FC Dallas games, and became a fan. Even though I don’t live there anymore I’m committed, and I make that known to my players. I still support PSV and Everton, but I make sure people know my first love is the MLS and our MNT. We need to start developing a national pride and support for our home teams. We need to be passionate when we talk about the USA WNT dominating international competitions. We should be sitting around TV’s on game nights supporting our MLS clubs like the American football and baseball fanatics.

The soccer culture in the USA needs to make this transition to become a real sport culture in our society. If we don’t have national pride and support for our own soccer, we’ll never develop the growth or the players to compete. And I believe it’s happening. Some of the clubs in the USA are really showing how local support is growing (FC Dallas struggles a bit though). Let’s keep it going! If you’re a citizen of the USA and haven’t found an MLS club to support I challenge you to adopt a team that puts even a small fire in you.

Coaching is a tireless job.  Preparations seem to never stop for the upcoming seasons.  At the collegiate level we are constantly recruiting and preparing for future seasons that we might not even have completed schedules for.

But on a more practical level “preseason” begins with my post season player meetings.  I actually just got done with my last player meeting today, and it’s an evolving process for me.

How do you evaluate the effectiveness of a season?  How are players appropriately debriefed?  How do you set to the tone for the new and upcoming season?

Here is the evolution I’ve personally taken with player evaluations…

2002- As an assistant coach I sat in on some of the post-season player evaluations we did.  Mostly the head coach pointed out to the players what he saw from them and opened it up for the players to vent about their season.

2005- My first year as a head coach, I debriefed my players and asked them to set three goals for themselves related to soccer for the upcoming competitive season.

2006- I started using a form I stole from a fellow coach (with permission).  The players had to take the form home and have it filled out when they returned for their post-season meeting.  The form covered several areas for short term (in college August of the upcoming year), midrange goals (approx. 3 years), and long term goals (6-10 years).  The goals were supposed to be wholistic, not just related to soccer.   The players are asked to set goals academically, athletically, and basic goals they want to see achieved in their lives.

Present Day- I still use an updated version of this form.  I’ve found that it does a great job of tackling several things.

  • Goals need to have a time limitation!  What’s the point of having a goal without having a deadline?  So we’ve established that short term goals are set to be achieved by the beginning of the upcoming season (approx. mid-August).  Midrange goals I’ve established as the time table they have until they graduate with their bachelors’ degrees (I think it’s important for college students to think about that last year and what they want to achieve by the end of the collegiate career).  And long term we’ve left as 6-10 years down the road.
  • Goals need to be wholistic.  I like that our players set goals for academics and life.  Some players set GPA goals, deciding majors, spiritual goals, and relationship goals.  This shows our players that we care more about them as a whole person rather than just an athlete.  And, it helps the athletes prioritize soccer in the big picture of their lives.
  • Identify obstacles to achieving success!  At the beginning of each season we try to help our athletes identify what the other teams are going to do to stop our attacks, or to break down our defensive shape, and why not in goal setting.  The biggest challenge I’ve noticed in goal setting for soccer players is they meet a challenge and don’t know how to overcome it so they give up.  Identifying that we will have obstacles to success and establishing a game plan to overcome is a great psychological victory!
  • Goals need to be written and shared!  It’s too easy to give up on our goals when we don’t put them down on paper and share them with our teammates.  There’s no accountability if they’re in our head.  Each of my players turns a goal setting form into me, and I photocopy it and give them a copy to leave in their lockers.  For our individual meetings in August I pull these sheets back out and confront the players with them.

These are just a couple things I have learned about goal setting with our players.  After we have individual meetings with the team we sit down as a community and set goals for the upcoming season as a unit nine months in advance.

This is important to put all of our off-season work into perspective.

How about you?  What do you do for goal setting with your team?  I’d also be very interested to hear from club coaches on how you tackle this with your teams.  I coach a club team in the off-season and I find it very challenging to establish goals.