Friday, September 21, 2007

Balancing Development and Creativity

Dear Bob,

Soccer Dad over at On the Pitch has an interesting post about player development.

One of his points is this:

If proper development means less structure in practice to allow for creativity at the expense of a few wins, I think many would be cool with that. But they have to be convinced that there is ‘a better way’ and shown why and how.

In my opinion, less structure is not the entire answer, just as too much structure is not the entire problem. Soccer Dad is posting about the balance between individual skill development and nurturing creativity in young players. He begins by talking about how we strive to create players that can pass well so we can create teams that can pass well.

There are two separate issues here, so first is a little history. Thirty or so years ago, the U.S. coaching community was greatly influenced by the Dutch, as was most of the world. The Dutch, led by Rinus Michels, promoted small-sided games as a means of training youth players. Four-v-four was main component. We adopted that into our coaching education. But being a naive soccer country, we saw four-v-four as a shape to play out of, not a teaching environment. We started teaching two-touch play. Everything was two-touch. It's pretty obvious that you can't dribble much with two-touch restrictions, but it wasn't obvious to us at that point. Our national team was lucky to be able to play two-touch soccer, let alone our kids.

As a soccer country, we have always been influenced by the Europeans, not the South Americans or the Central Americans, because, frankly, our immigration heritage has seen Europeans emerge into leadership roles much faster than any other ethnic group. The European model is structure, organization and team. South or Central Americans lean more on flair, creativity and individualism. But both have heavy emphasis on skill development.

So, that left us with a bunch of two-touch players who had never been allowed to be creative.

Now back to the idea of what coaches allow in training. If we allow and encourage players to make creative mistakes, we promote creativity. If we put players in an environment where they can be creative, they will become more creative. But we can't just throw them out there and let them play. They need to proper technique first, obviously.

And we can't allow improper technique, even in their free play. Receiving the ball with their shin guards or with their knee is not creative, waiting for the ball to arrive before playing it, is not something we can allow, nor is reaching across your body to receive a ball with your dominate foot. The worst is lazy technique -- a half-hearted effort at an important skill.

Less structure, more freedom is an easy way to look at it. But it is kind of like talk radio -- Conservatives good, Liberals bad. There's more to it, and that is what I love about soccer -- there is always more to it.

I think the ideal training environment is when a coach can organize free play -- combine the European structure and the South American freedom. We have to create a situation where players learn the proper technique then have the freedom to learn by themselves how to best utilize that technique.

A different -- and a little more high-faluting -- way to look at it is how a national team coach once explained it to me. "Players have to have technical solutions for tactical problems." That makes sense. We have to have the skill to get out of sticky tactical situations -- whether it's in front of our own goal, in midfield, or in front of the opponent's goal. And we have to be able to do it under pressure. I think it all begins with what we allow.

Oh, and by the way, we should never allow a kid to be called a "ball hog" unless it is said in praise. Ball hogs just haven't learned their options yet. So if you have one on your team, you are a lucky coach. I'll write about ball hogs soon.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gotta Have Heart

Dear Aly,

Had a game with my U13 last Saturday. Played like crap for the final 50 minutes. First 20 were pretty good, though.

We played a very good team and lost 4-0. We gave them two goals -- one own goal and then handed their player the ball 10 yards out. One of their girls swerved a corner kick into the far, upper corner. So we were down 3-0 and had made just one mistake. Then we gave up. Never challenged for a ball, didn't look like we wanted the ball. Sloppy passes, no movement, etc., etc.

So it gave me a chance to talk about heart, effort, courage and standards. And let's face it, those are concepts that U13s don't usually think about. First, I told them that playing pretty possession soccer is great, but that alone is not going to win you any games. Heart wins games, effort wins games and personal courage is a by-product of heart and effort. Then we talked about standards and how that performace was well below the standard they have set for themselves and what I expect.

Fortunately, we had another game the next day. I was able to expand on Saturday's talk. Next, I told them that I was going to pick the starting lineup from the warmup. If they were not working hard and showing me effort and heart, they would not be starting. Okay, I came up with that on the spot and had determined the starting lineup on the way to the game in the car. But it worked.

I am a firm believer that your warmup sets the tone for the game. In a warmup you are preparing for the game. I will sometimes pull them in during the warmup and explain that to them and then say, "Right now, you are preparing to lose."

Anyway, we went after it hard in warmup. I pulled them together and said, "This is outstanding. It is exactly what I was talking about."

During the game, at least four of my players played better than they ever had for me. Everyone worked extremely hard, played their nice possession game but played it with some bite. And we won, which was a nice reward for them.

I am now able to talk about maintaining high standards, the value of heart and effort, and how we need to bring that to training every day. The girls now have some success to draw on when they think about those concepts.

And we are working on the fine line between the fury needed to win the ball and the composure to do something smart with it after you win it. And after three games, that's a nice place to be.

When I think of more, I'll write.
You Know Who