Archive for July, 2011

The following article was published in our local newspaper (Soccer Won’t Catch on in US) , and I have to be proud that this was even a point of interest in a paper for a small town like ours.  Mitchell, SD has traditionally been a very “Big Three” sports town (basketball, football, and baseball) and I’m excited that soccer is even drawing the eye of the paper.  However I think there are a few facts that the editor is missing out on.  Below is my response to the editorial (we’ll see if it get’s printed in the paper, but here it is anyways).

To the Editor,

First off I have to say how much I’ve appreciated the Daily Republic’s coverage of the 2011 Women’s World Cup, and I hope soccer will continue to get attention like this in our sports section.  I just wanted to make a few points about the editorial written on July 21, 2011 concerning the “myth” that soccer is not a growing sport in the USA market.

Sports Media Watch reported that the ratings for the 2011 Women’s World Cup final game (7.4 U.S. rating and 13.458 million viewers ) between the USA and Japan put it as the “fourth-most viewed non-NFL program in ESPN history, behind the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, the 2011 Rose Bowl , and the 2011 Sugar Bowl.”  The game was also the second-most viewed daytime program on cable television behind the aforementioned 2011 Rose Bowl.

In comparison the 2010 Men’s World Cup final drew 24 million viewers across two networks; ABC (15.905M) and Univision (8.821M).  The 2010 World Cup saw a 68% increase in viewers here in the USA compared to the 2006 World Cup held in Germany (which means games were at an easier time for a US audience to watch live than the 2010 World Cup in South Africa) for the first three US Men’s games.

Probably the best indicator of the sport’s growing popularity is shown through our own domestic league, the MLS.  Average attendance at games has increased gradually over the leagues 16 year existence.  In 2000, the league’s fifth season, the average attendance over 192 MLS matches was 13,756 compared to this season currently averaging 17,410 fans.  This could break the record for the highest average in league history with more than an additional 60 league games.  According to Fox News the MLS could overtake the NBA and the NHL as the third most attended sport in the US by the end of the season if these numbers continue to hold.

The MLS All-Star game was the second most attended all-star event in the US compared to the other professional leagues.  In 2010 the MLS All-Star game had a total attendance of 70,728 fans, more than the NFL’s 70,697 or the MLB’s 45,408.

The other factor to look at is stadium capacity for domestic games.  MLS teams are filling their stadiums more now than they have ever before (due in large part to higher attendance in soccer specific stadiums) at a rate of 73% compared to the leagues opening season in 1996 when most teams averaged around 30% capacity.

And finally TV ratings for domestic league games are way up this year compared to last year as well.  The 2011 First Kick (opening day) games showed an increase of 112% in viewers for the opening round compared to 2010.

Two comments about the rise in popularity of this sport in the US; First, the sport is becoming more accessible at the high school and collegiate levels, which translates into more dedicated fans as they grow older and can invest financially in their love of the game.  And second, the demographics of the US are changing.  The most supported team in the USA is the Mexican National team.  In June at the Gold Cup final 94,000 people showed up to watch the US Men’s National Team compete against the Mexican National Team.  The demographics of the US citizen and resident are changing, and this directly impacts the popularity of soccer as well in our country.

I believe soccer is on its way up in the USA.  It’s a slower process than soccer fans would like it to be, but I really believe that soccer is going to become a major part of our sport culture.  We’ve only had our professional league in place for 16 years to date, so there is still a lot of catching up to do, but we can wait for the most popular sport in the world to grow here in the USA.

I had the opportunity to sit in on the Chicago Fire’s training session on July 19th as they prepare to take on Manchester United this July 23rd.  First, just need to say thanks to Frank Klopas and Brendan Hannan for letting me join the Fire, what a friendly and accommodating organization.

9:45 am – Assistant Coaches have the field set up already and players start arriving and playing small games.

10:00 am – Physio Coach takes the player for a ladder warm-up with several dynamics intermixed followed by static stretching and water.  Goal keepers warm-up separately with the keeper coach.

10:15 am – Four corner passing.  Four cones set up a grid approximately 20x20yds, and a coaching stick is set up one yard inside of each cone.  Field players divide up evenly at each cone with a two balls starting in corners diagonal from each other.  The team trainer puts the guys through a series of passing drills and combinations.  The coaching sticks are defenders and the players are asked to go game speed in beating the “opponent.”  They start with just an outside of the foot touch, wall pass, drop pass, and over laps.  Keepers are still working on footwork and positioning with multiple shots from different positions.

10:40 am – Players moved to a grid 30×40 with a half way line down the middle and are divided into two even teams of eight players.  Greens are on one side of the half and blues on the other.  The objective is to connect five passes to score a point, the other team is allowed to send four defenders into the other side of the grid to break it up.  After they score a point they have to find the coach.  Play was very tight and quality first touch and passing is demanded of the players to be successful.

Game changed a little with having to connect a pass into the other half after five passes on their side to score a point.  And then moved on to include a drop pass to score the point.

11:00 am – Team moves to a grid with two full sized goals set up around two penalty areas.  A line extends at the half to the full width of the field.  Players are divided into two teams of eight with two players left wide in the channels for each team, four defenders, and two attackers in the attacking half.  Ball must be played wide by the defenders and then that wide player looks to combine with the two attackers and join them. Goalkeepers joined the session at this point as well.

Game changed to where both wide players can join the attack when the ball is played wide by the defenders.

11:20 am – Team moved to a 9v9 match with standard match rules.  Field was 50×60 yds.

11:50 am – Closing comments by Coach Klopas, and then they were given a few minutes to stretch on their own.

Primary coaching points by the staff related to possession in small spaces to develop the attack.  Could they find a way to advance the ball with small space and lots of pressure.

Personal Notes: The elements were fighting against the players, it was extremely humid and hot and did not create a very conducive training environment.  The players were given several water breaks, but I thought it was interesting that they didn’t leave them any subs during the session.  Every player was asked to train the entire session and to go hard without substitutions.

I thought for the most part that the training session was successful, and the activities brought out the topic fairly well.

Always a positive when you can learn from coaches who have been around the game longer and at a higher level.  The love of learning is the first step to excellence, the second is application.  Really enjoyed the experience, and even had a chance to talk to Frank Klopas a little after the session.

There’s never enough time in the week during a college season.  We start the season around the second week of August, cram 18 games and 2 scrimmages in before November, and then we might go for an extra two or three weeks into play-offs, and then it’s done and we have nine months to think about what we could have done better.

What this means is we have to find time for technical training, conditioning and weights, tactical training, recovery, film, team meetings, and two games a week!  The players are over loaded with soccer, and yet we never feel like there’s enough time to get everything in.  We analyze the games and come up with what we need to work on for the three actual training sessions we get per week, and half the time we can’t get all of that in.

So where do we put Mental Skills training into all of this?  In my Psychological Dynamics of Sport classes we always quote famous coaches who say their sport is “90% mental, and 10% physical.”  Great!  But if that’s true why doesn’t our training schedule reflect the percentages?

There is no way to quantify the actual percentage of success in athletics based on physical and mental skills, but I think most coaches agree that the mental side of sports is a major factor towards achieving goals.  So why don’t coaches commit the time in training needed for players to be mentally prepared for competition?

My personal belief is that mental toughness and sport-specific intelligence makes up 40% of the game, mastery of physical skills specific to the sport makes up 30%, and athleticism makes up the final 30% for college soccer.  Do my training methods during a season reflect this? Not at all!

We spend 45 minutes three days a week conditioning/ lifting, 90 minutes three times a week training technical and tactical elements of the game, 60 minutes a week on recovery, approximately 45 minutes a week watching film, and maybe 30 minutes a week working on mental skills.  The only reasoning I can come up with for this major flaw in my training methods is simply this; I must believe deep down that I can impact the outcomes of our games more with modifying tactics and skill technique rather than improving mental skills.  What else can it be?

So what led to this presupposition?  My personal belief is we are simply creatures of habit.  We replicate what we’ve seen for so long in our playing careers, and what we see other coaches around us doing.

I personally believe that sport psychology and mental skills are the last variable for teams to get an edge on their opponents in soccer.  We’ve mastered physical training (there are always improvements and research going on, but fitness training and conditioning are common place in soccer now).  Tactics are always a changing thing, but the improvements we’ve made in technology with computers, film, and match analysis are better than they’ve ever been.  Sports medicine is taken very serious now with soccer teams at the collegiate level.  With advancements in research and rehabilitation methods injury prevention and recovery are better than they’ve ever been.  Nutrition has also been an area that has seen so much improvement in the last couple of decades.  Timing, science of macronutrients, and education have made a big impact on athlete performance.  And then there are the improvements in equipment and training tools.  Uniforms, training gear, cleats, and training equipment have all made massive improvements that have made a difference in the performance of soccer players in the modern game.

All these variables have impacted the game of soccer, and have given teams an edge on their opponents at one point or another.  But now the playing field is very similar for teams in most of these areas, and the one last area for teams to invest in for an edge is the mental skills of athletes.  The longer I’ve been around the game as a coach the more and more I’ve seen college athletic departments contracting the services of sport psychologist.  Professional and international teams have slowly been adding sport psychologist to the payroll over the last decade because they’ve seen the value of intentionally developing these skills in the players.

All we can do is continue educating ourselves, and making mental skills a priority with our own teams so it starts to become part of the habits they experience and take with them into their coaching careers.

Mental skills target things like relaxation, energization, stress management, motivation, and attention.  How can we work these elements into the training sessions that are already in place for our teams?  First coaches need to educate themselves on the elements that will help their specific teams and the unique challenges they face.  We need to prioritize the elements that we are going to train with our teams.  Once we’ve established the top three or four elements that we are going to develop then we need to  determine how to incorporate mental skills training into our current practice schedule.

For example, teaching our players relaxation methods should be included with recovery sessions.  Que words, muscle control, breathing, and mental awareness can all be incorporated with a recovery training session, and should.  We can teach players to visualize success as they are waiting for their group to jump into a finishing activity.  Mental rehearsal before actual performance can be very beneficial, and why not practice visualization while they are waiting to join in?

I think its going to be a continual process of finding things that work and what needs to be changed, but as a coach I have to make a commitment to implementing mental skills more and more every year.  If mental skills are really a priority in my coaching philosophy, than it needs to be reflected in my training philosophy as well.