Archive for March, 2011

Setting the Standard

Posted: March 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

When I was a college athlete I always marveled at how my coaches could preach physical fitness or moral character and be so flawed themselves.  So how am I doing as a role model for my athletes?  What is the standard that I’m setting for my players?  What is my responsibility as an example to the youth that look up to me?

When I first started coaching I jumped in and played with the team as an assistant coach and went on runs with the girls.  Our head coach used me to set the pace for the players to reach their goals on fitness runs each year while the other assistant coach followed behind the pack in a truck.  I was also the moral compass of the team and tried to live my life in a way I’d want the girls to live it.  My first year as a head men’s coach I ran with the guys, and set the pace for the minimum time that was required to pass and tried to push the stragglers. 

But I must admit, as I’ve grown older, and hopefully wiser, my self-discipline has admittedly slipped a little.  My physical prowess has slipped some, and I wonder sometimes what kind of role model am I for my players?  As far as being a moral compass for my team, I hope now more than ever I am a living example of character and integrity, but doesn’t this encompass my fitness?

Where do we draw the line of being a role model for our players?  I still play in the 2nd division of our local adult league, and work out a couple times each week.  However, I know I can’t keep up with the players any more on their runs, and jumping in and playing with them is becoming more and more of a rare occurence.  And yet my demands on the players has not let up any as I’ve aged.

So what about my coaches in college?  One of my coaches was extremely over weight and was always trying a different diet, but he was probably one of the most demanding coaches I ever had in regards to our fitness levels.  My other coach in college was actually found guilty for stealing and fired from his coaching position.  And this is not a rare occurence, coaches all over the country, and the world, live by a standard that they would not tolerate with their players.

Another example, at a university I worked at we had a serious problem with coaches chewing tobacco on campus.  The athletic director was constantly bringing it up in athletic department meetings that we were violating league and campus rules to be a substance free campus.  But these same coaches would not stand for one of their players violating one of their team rules.  Why is this?

Why have my standards of physical fitness softened for myself, but not my players?  And is this right?  I truly believe that we are supposed to be the standard that our players see lived out in real life, both morally, physically, and spiritually.  But we’re not 20-year-old athletes in our prime, and we are responsible adults that should be allowed to make our own choices about what we do in our free time, right?

I think it comes down to our view of what our role is as a coach.  Are we a leader for these players that look up to us, or are we only a teacher of a game and the techniques it takes to be successful?

In a society that lacks personal responsibility we could be the only example of a person who holds the line for themselves in their own lives.  We have a real opportunity to show our players what it’s like to be a man who holds the line for the team and for ourselves.  I think this is one of the most valuable gifts that we can give our youth, and it’s a tough gift to give.  But anything that is worth giving someone should be a sacrifice, shouldn’t it? 

So what conclusions have I arrived at after nine years of coaching?  In regards to my fitness level I want my players to see that I care about my body and what I put into it.  I want them to see that I love to still play the game and find a way to stay involved, and I will workout enough times per week to stay at a healthy weight for my activity level.  I think this is fair, and I think the students understand why I am not at the level of a college soccer player anymore.  And when it comes to the moral standards in my life I think this is the most important factor that seperates the good coaches from the great coaches.  It’s worth a few sacrifices in my life if the guys can learn to live disciplined lives themselves when they leave my program.  To me it’s worth it.  They deserve to see me at my best, and I owe it to them to be a man who cares enough about them and their development to make a few sacrifices in my life so they can see that.

Today I read about Bruce Pearl’s firing at Tennessee because of recruiting violations and lying to the NCAA.

This might be a little of a soap box for me, and maybe not everyone will agree with me, but the NCAA has created an environment that promotes coaches misconduct rather than rewarding it.

I’ve coached both in the NCAA and the NAIA, and I understand whole heartedly the complaints against the NAIA that other coaches have.  I was there, and I realize that the rules in the NAIA lend themselves to the image that we have as the “pirate league” when it comes to recruiting.  But at the same time, in my humble opinion, the NCAA in essence PAYS coaches to push the limits of the rules and not get caught.

In January I read an article about the bonuses the American football coaches received for playing in BCS bowl games, amazing!  $750,000 for just playing in a BCS bowl game built into the contract.  Coaches being paid $5 million to teach a game at an educational institution (and I do realize that some athletic programs are self-sufficient and take no money from students tuition or fees) doesn’t make any sense to me, except for the fact that this same educational institution is paid millions of dollars by the NCAA to participate in their tournaments, bowl games, and TV feeds.

If the NCAA really wanted to crack down on the recruiting violations and cheating then they could easily create an environment that supports academics as the priority over athletics.  But they won’t because they loose too much money if they do.

Bruce Pearl still received a $900,000+ severance package, for cheating.  Does this make any sense to anyone else?  Coaching in the NAIA might be looked down upon by some people, but I’m pretty sure if I was doing some of the things these NCAA D1 coaches are doing I’d be fired on the spot with zero severance pay. 

Again, my soap box.  I just feel like the NCAA D1 power house schools have put a black mark on college sports.  And it’s not a recent thing, it’s been going on for decades.

How important is technical training in relation to tactical?  A lot is going to depend on the age of the players you are working with, so I’d like to focus on the competitive U18 and older players.

I was at a residential coaching course a few years ago and one of our instructors stated if he was coaching college men he would focus all his trainings around technical skills.  I had a hard time digesting what he said, and I have a lot of respect for this instructor and thought I learned a lot of great stuff from him.  So this topic has been something that I’ve tossed back and forth with other coaches at the college and competitive levels. 

Technical training has always been a major foundation of my coaching philosophy; how can we play the game effectively without a solid technical base?  At the college level however, how much can we influence the technical ability of players who are 18-21 years old?  Shouldn’t we be working with players who already have a strong technical base and put those abilities into a tactical system that plays to their strengths?

The instructor I mentioned above sat down with me and we discussed this philosophy of his a little more in depth.  It was all built around the belief that players in the USA (he was originally from England) don’t have the technical fundamentals to effectively implement a tactical system.  He believed that most players in the United States shouldn’t focus on the tactical elements of the game until they can pass a ball with extreme precision, and control the ball on a dime.

I understand where he’s coming from.  A tactical system really serves no purpose for players who don’t have a handle on the fundamentals.  There is a lot of truth to this concept, the technical ability of players in the US is not the best. Soccer is such an elitest sport in our country that it hinders the development of the game compared to our counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic or in South America.  However, is our technical development so poor that we can’t implement a system of play? 

At my level of college soccer I feel tactics play a big role in the success of a program.  Players need to know their roles in a system and what the objectives are on the attack and defensively.  My other contention is the simple fact that I’m not sure we can change the technical ability of our players at this age during a 3 month competitive season.  So I feel my time is better spent teaching a system that the players can implement with thier skill set and have some success doing it.  The off-season is the time that I feel we should spend developing our technical side of the game.

So where does this leave us with U16-U18 players?  I feel it’s our responsibility as club coaches to start teaching team tactics from U14 and up so they can be a more complete player.  Thoughts?

One of the greatest coaches of all time, John Wooden, passed away this past year and it was great to see the number of people who came forward to honor him.  The impact this man had on the lives of players, coaches, and the public was very evident in the numerous memorials they played in the days following his passing.

The first year I started coaching I was introduced to John Wooden by a mentor of mine.  Since that first book I read I’ve fallen in love with the philosophy and wisdom that he shared with us.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have the opportunity to sit down with a legendary coach like John Wooden and pick his brain, and this is the value of reading.  We get to know the inner thoughts and mentality of great men and women throughout history.

The nuggets of wisdom found in this book are incredible, and timeless.  Even though Coach Wooden was a basketball coach there is so much that we can take away from him and apply to our profession.  This book was such an easy read too.  It’s set up with several short chapters covering the entire life lessons that he collected along the way.  It can be used as a resource or an opportunity to get to know the inner workings of a great leader.  It would take too much time for me to cover all of the great things in this book, but I definitely thought it would be worth while to mentione some key things that I’ve lived to adapt to my own life.

Probably best known for his Pyramid of Success John Wooden’s whole concept was built on preparation.  When asked what he missed most about coaching it was never the 10 NCAA National Championships, or the 88 consecutive wins, but Coach Wooden was regularly quoted saying he missed the practices and the players.  The preparation, the journey, is what he missed most, not the outcome of that preparation.  If his team did their best to prepare for the opponent that week they were focusing on the factors that they could control.  No one can control outside factors like the other team, officials, or the environment at the arena.  His teams put their energy focusing on the parts of the game they could control; their preparation, attention to detail, and their intensity.

This is a philosophy I’ve tried to teach my teams and instill into them.  Players who have confidence in their preparation play the game with less stress and enjoy the competition.  A great principle to take away from this great coach.

I encourage everyone to read this book, it’s a great resource for any coach, or person who wants to succeed at life.  Would love to hear things you’ve applied in your coaching philosophy that you’ve learned from John Wooden.

Gearing up for spring practices I’ve started laying out my objectives for the spring and looking at how I want our training sessions to go.  I thought it’d be good to review the cycle of coaching and what goes into each piece.

The basic cycle of coaching as outlined by the US Soccer Federation is simply to perform (play the game), evaluate the game, train, and then peform again.  It’s a recognizable cycle, but I thought it’d be good to break it down and look at it closer.

1. Perform: Playing the Game

My first two years as a head coach I planned out the entire first month of my training sessions, and it was no surprise that after our first scrimmages most of my plan went out the window.  How do we know what to fix until we’ve played the game?  Sometimes I forget that the objective is the game.  Players want to play; it’s fun and it’s the primary focus for them.  Sometimes I get too caught up in the training and the development when the primary focus of everything I do is to help them play the game better and enjoy it more.  So this should be where the cycle begins; simply playing.

2. Evaluate: Analyize the Game

This one concept has been a very important one for me to learn.  When I was a young coach I spent the game pacing back and forth on the side line trying to control the events of the match.  As I studied the Dutch system and style of coaching I learned that the most important thing a coach can do on the side line during a match is to take notes and analyze the teams.  There are three phases of the game to focus on…

  • When we are in possession of the ball.  How do we take care of the ball and what do we do with it?  How is our technique taking care of the ball?  How well do we move around the ball to make it easier to maintain possession?  Is the possession purposeful, are we creating opportunities to go forward and put pressure on their goal?  A lot of the objectives you want to analyze are going to be determined by the style of play you are trying to implement.  Are you a counter attacking team?  Than the times you are in possession of the ball you will try and find your target players as quickly as possible to create imbalances in the back line of the opponent.  If you’re a build up team that likes to attack from the wings than you are trying to pull the opponent into the middle of the field before exposing them outside with a penetrating pass or dribble.
  • When we are not in possession of the ball.  What is your team shape when you’re not in possession?  How well are you taking away the passing lanes?  What kind of pressure are you putting on the ball based on the field position of the ball?  What kind of cover and balance are you providing off the ball?  How connected is your team as a defensive unit?  Again, a lot of the objectives you analyze will be based on the style of defending you employ.
  • Transitions of play.  The two main transitions are from having to possession to not having possession, and from not having possession to having possession.  In my mind the difference between a competitive team and a good team is how well they do in this phase of the game.  If teams transition well as a unit it can be a major competitive edge on the opposition.  How quickly and effectively does your team transition?  Look at things like compactness and movement away from the ball.  What does the player on the ball doing?  What are the players closest to the ball doing?  What are the players furthest from the ball doing?

Another method of evaluating that I use with my club team is player post game analysis.  I have a form that I ask the players on my club team to fill out and turn in after tournaments or league games that help them analyze the game from their perspective.  Our college players are asked to evaluate every other game during the first half of the season.  What are they seeing in relation to these three phases of the game?  They have a valuable perspective as well, and maybe there is something they are seeing or feeling that we can’t from the bench.

3. Train: Develop a Strategy to Improve

After the match I usually watch game film and look at the notes I took during the game to verify what I was seeing.  I try to prioritize the elements I saw during the game that I feel are most important to our next match and opponent.  Then I’ll sit down and try to plan out the next few sessions we have leading up to our next game.  I’ll write out the objectives for each session and then I’ll work on developing my progression for each training session.  I try to involve my assistant coaches as much as possible during this process to get their input and their perspective.

During training we share with the players what we want to accomplish in practice that day so they can be mindful of it as well.  Then they’re able to give feedback on whether or not they are picking up the points we want to ge across.

4. Perform: Playing the Game

And we come back around in the cycle and get back to the main objective, playing the game.  One of the first things I’ll look for at the beginning of this game is how has our training impacted the play this?  Did we improve?  If we did, than the process worked.  If we didn’t than maybe something needs to be tweaked in the process, probably in the training phase.  This is the motivation of our profession; what impact am I having on the development of my players?

I found that when I take the time to use this cycle and stay on top of training sessions I have more impact on my players.  There is structure and purpose to the season and to training for the players.  And they start to see improvement and better performance in the matches, which equates to more fun and enjoyment playing the game.