Friday

Like beauty, Success is in the eye of the beholder.

I started the off season wondering if we could field a team for this fall season. We had 16 players last fall. Eleven graduated and one changed schools. Four returning players and no feeder system put the 2018 season in doubt. One senior, one junior and two sophomores is what we had to build a foundation on. Yikes!

There was a glimmer of hope when we received two transfers into the school district. Both were athletic young men with some experience playing soccer.  Alas, both decided against playing for their new school.

In an effort to insure I would have a team to coach this fall, I applied for other coaching positions in the area. My Athletic Director had full knowledge of this. In fact, he was very understanding and even supportive of my doing so.  I received two offers to coach elsewhere. In the end I turned both down to stay at Fairlawn and build.

Why?

Good question. The 2017 season was a disaster by my standards. Some members of the senior class drove some younger interested players away to protect their own playing time. I know this because several of those who decided at the last minute not to play told me they didn’t feel welcomed on the team with two of those specifying certain seniors made them feel that way.  In all honesty, this is more common than people may want to believe. The frequency at which this occurs does not justify it happening in any program though. In this case, the legacy of the departed senior class having contributed to the death of a program stood as a real possibility.

When official practice began on August 1st our roster stood at 9 players. The decision was made to cancel all non-league contests reducing our schedule to a mere seven games. The idea was to survive the season and maintain good standing in the league. We only need to field 7 players to play a game. I was not sure the league would agree playing undermanned would keep us in good standing, but honoring our league contracts seemed like the bare minimum we could do.

We played that first game with 10 players. We lost big on the scoreboard.  We won elsewhere. The courage and spirit the student athletes played with was something to behold. By the second game we had grown the roster to 13 players. None of the new players had any soccer experience worth mentioning. They had want-to though! All played their first match on a day when the temperature soared into the 90’s with humidity close behind.  We lost big again. And to be honest,  for awhile we lost some of the fearlessness and spirit we had shown in the first match.  We regained it after a water break we used as a timeout. I had seen enough by games end to believe the start of something good, potentially very good, indeed was upon us.

The day after the second match was a recovery day. We watched a YouTube video titled Watch this every day.  



Afterwards, the players were fired up. Their spirit was again palpable. We have been riding the crest of this new momentum ever since.  Tremendous esprit de corps. Great work ethic. And the want-to?  Oh my!  Needless to day I have really enjoyed coaching these young men and women.  I made a conscious effort to bring and give energy to them, but have found it is they who have brought energy to me as well.

Our season came to an end last night as we lost to the #3 team in the state at their place in the OHSAA tournament. We wet 0-7-0 in the regular season and lost our lone tournament game. Never scored a goal.  On won / lost record alone this was easily my worst season ever as a coach. But I knew what we were up against this season and measured success differently.

A co-ed team playing boys varsity soccer has a built in disadvantage to begin with. We ended up having 14 players at season's end. Three seniors (2 boys and 1 girl)  - one of whom was a legitimate experienced varsity caliber player. The other two are new to high school soccer. One junior (girl) who if she played on a girls team would fair well and never backs down against the boys teams we play. Four sophomores (3 boys and 1 girl).  Two of the boys played extensively as freshmen. The other boy and girl were first time soccer players. That 3rd boy really excelled though by combining tremendous work ethic with becoming a student of the game.  And five freshmen ( 3 boys and 2 girls). Both girls are very good for freshman girls.  Not ready for varsity boys soccer good, but quite good for high school freshman girls. One of the boys is of average ability for a freshman boy - on the smallish side and decent skills. The other two freshman boys were new to soccer.

Our focus was almost exclusively on developing individual skills as practice opened. It had to be. What we did was to quantify and track every skill we could. We also timed and recorded for every conditioning exercise we  did. Setting and breaking personal records was a means to show improvement on both an individual and collective basis.  We did not focus on the scoreboard. Our focus was on setting and meeting in-game goals and the process of improving as measured by PR's.  This allowed us to feel successful and measure improvement throughout the season. We strove to be a better, improved version of ourselves eat the end of every practice and every game.

By not setting unrealistic goals like winning games or even scoring a goal we allowed a spirit to take root, grow and blossom.  It was truly a special sight to behold for this old coach. These young men and women competed with everything they had every game they played. They competed to become better versions of themselves and were wildly successful.

The experienced players were exceptional teammates. It would have been so easy for them not to have played soccer this season or to play hero ball in trying to do more than their fair share, but they did not do these things.  They mentored the new players and helped coach them up. They strove to play the right way. There was so very little negativity ... amazingly so. I am in awe and wonder of this TEAM of young men and women.

Over decades of coaching I have worked with many a team and thousands of individuals. This group is special. I will forever remember fondly these young men and women of Fairlawn Soccer 2018.

For the first time ever, Fairlawn fielded a middle school soccer team. There were approximately 20 student athletes who participated in that program. Eleven of those were 8th graders eligible to play high school soccer next year. If everyone from this years high school team with eligibility remaining returns for next season this would give us 22 players. Plus, there are two others who have expressed interest in playing next year - both with club experience.

Is it possible to double the number of participants despite not winning a game, despite not scoring a single goal?  Apparently so. And that will be the legacy of the 2018 Fairlawn Soccer TEAM.

Sunday

Who was that?

My wife and I were at a pancake breakfast this weekend when one of the volunteers approached us and "How are you Mr. and Mrs. Brown.  We made some small talk before she moved on to another table. I looked at my wife and asked "who was that?" My wife shrugged her shoulders and replied "I don't know." 

My wife was an attorney for many years and now works for The United Way. She did and still does come into contact with a LOT of people and she is generally very good about remembering them. So, we figured it was someone we knew from soccer. Well, I have coached for many a year and conduct summer camps, coaching clinics and been director of coaching and or goalkeeping to boot. I'm not always so good about remembering names of parents. So, we figured it was likely someone we knew from soccer?

We ended up asking one of the volunteers co-workers whom we did know for her name. Turns out she was the mother of two (now) young men who I coached a few years ago. And our eldest son had even dated her daughter once or twice. Oh my!  And to top it all off, the last time I remember "talking: with her was after a high school game about a decade ago.  Well, she was actually yelling at me most of that time.  And that is what really prompted this writing today.

It was the summer before Jordan's senior season of high school soccer. He was in-line to be the goalkeeper and was being looked upon to be a senior leader for what a fairly young team. As I look back now, I realize this is one of the first times I used the word "entitled" in relation to an athlete. Jordan rarely showed for off-season summer activities. When practice officially started he was woefully out of shape.  Yet, he fully expected to be the starting goalkeeper and acted that way. His effort level left something to be desired those first few days of practice.

Meanwhile, there was a sophomore and a freshman also interested in the position.  The sophomore, Alex, was in excellent shape and a natural athlete. He was also our best field player.  Brad, the freshman carried a lot of baby fat but it was eveident once he grew into his body he was going to be a good athlete.

We played both Jordan and Alex in the first couple of scrimmages, but it ws evident to everyone Alex was far and away the best goalkeeping candidate on the team. Eventually the decision was made to start Alex and teh team went on to a very good season. 

Throughout the season both Brad and Jordan worked as goalkeepers. Every team needs a back up goalkeeper, right?  Well, Bad lost quiet a bit of baby fat throughout the season and began to become a chiseled athlete. He was motivated in part by the looming basketball season. At 6'3"ish and now a svelte 210ish pounds Brad was prety imposing for a freshman.  Jordan, to his credit worked hard, list weight and improved his conditioning throughout the season as well. It's just that he was so far behind when practices officially begun that he couldn't catch up to Alex, or even Brad. He was the third string goalkeeper in the coaches eyes.

The confrontation addressed in the beginning of this article occurred late in the season. It was a last gasp attempt by a parent on behalf of her son. It was difficult for her to understand that her son had squandered away his opportunity during the off-season. Like her son, her focus was on the fact that once the season officially began Jordan was in attendance and did everything asked of him. There was little appreciation that was too little too late. He had been outworked during the off-season and began the start of official practices already behind.

Jordan devoted a lot of time to church, work and playing in a newly formed band. There might have been 4H and county fair in there as well. All of these are admirable and worthy endeavors. I find no fault with any of them.  Jordan had choices to make and he did. He prioritized these other activities over soccer and that is also perfectly fine. On the other hand he couldn't find 2 - 4 hours a week to attend open fields. He missed camp time.  All the while Alex and Brad were present at off-season soccer activities and working hard in his absence. They both received opportunities that had Jordan been present they likely would not have received.  Maybe, Jordan thought as a senior he had a big enough lead on the underclassmen that he couldn't or at least wouldn't be caught from behind in the race to be the teams goalkeeper?

The days before and after the confrontation with his mother Jordan was visibly upset. His senior soccer season not at all what he had expected it to be. I remember a having a famous quote running through my mind during that time. I did not share it with Jordan because emotions were too raw. I sincerely hope he learn this through the experience.

If you don't fight for what you want, 

you forfeit your right to cry over what you have lost.

Tough words, those. You, as the reader, may even think they are a bit harsh.  What they are is true.  And sometimes the truth hurts.  We can rarely have everything we want. Choices must be made. And what we ultimately end up with is what we devote our energy towards getting. Quality matters as well. Spread yourself thin and you might get a little of many things but be unsatisfied with the lot of it.. Devote yourself to a select few things and you might just get what you most wanted but miss out on some other things. Either way you will get a quality of experience equitable with the amount of effort put into obtaining it.

For me, I often tell a story about how Alex ascended as a soccer player and a person.  He really blossomed. I saw Brad on a fairly regular basis for a few years and enjoyed a good relationship there. Jordan I have not seen since that soccer season. And obviously his mother had faded from memory as well. I am very grateful our brief meeting this weekend was cordial and even friendly.  It prompted this writing and came at a time when I have been contemplating how to make some of these points to my current team. Thank God. He always seems to deliver moments like these when needed. I am Blessed. Who was that?  I believe it was God speaking through Luann.  Thank you God.


Saturday

What does commitment look like?

What does commitment look like? 

 I've been asking this question of myself quite a bit lately.  Commitment is kind of one of things that you recognize when you see, but to define it is a bit more elusive a proposition. So, of course defining what commitment looks like is what I am about to attempt.

On this fall's team I had two great examples of commitment among the players. As I have thought about these players the last couple of days I was able to come up with some commonalities I believe distinguish them from their teammates in terms of commitment.

1) They were not only present but also punctual.  These two players simply did not miss team activities and both were always on time and usually quite early.  Being present and punctual seem like such simple common sense things to many of us, but we all also recognize being present and or on time is a very real struggle for others.

2) Attentiveness.  We might call this an ability to focus or concentrate.  Attentiveness, to me, is the ability to listen and carry out instructions.  I loathe having to repeat myself seemingly ad naseum to some players and value greatly those players who are attentive and responsive first time.

3) The questions committed players ask tend to be far different from the questions of others. Attentiveness will lead to this.  They seek out nuances in details and ask for clarifications of the process.  Their questions are both about improving themselves and improving their team / teammates.

4) Their effort is never questioned. They are the pacesetters for the team. This is true in terms of work ethic, attitude, spirit and enthusiasm. They bring the best effort they have day in and day out.

5) And I have found their commitment is not contained between the lines of the pitch but permeates everything they do.  Their lifestyle and habits outside the lines mirror what they do inside the lines. School work, nutrition, rest -  the same level of effort they give inside the lines ... it's a product of what they do outside the lines.



People over Players

A coach’s primary function 

should be not to make better players,

 but to make better people. 



– John Wooden

This is one of the quotes I keep close to heart at all times.  As coaches of youth teams we are entrusted with young men and women in their formative years. We are part of the community it takes to raise a child. In 40 years of coaching I believe the majority of time spent with young people has been spent reinforcing solid values set in place in their homes.  I've been blessed in that regard.

There have been times when I have taken a more active role in the development of a young person. This usually, but not always, occurs in cooperation with the young person's parent(s).  Sometimes a child lacks a good home situation. Sometimes they don't even have not even had a home situation. Thankfully those scenarios have been rare but alas, have been occurring with greater frequency in recent years. But for the most part I work as an enforcer for parents seeking help in teaching life lessons to their children.  Sometimes That parent has even been myself.  

For example, the most common thing I have done is have a player report to the game in uniform and then inform he or her they will be watching that days match from the sidelines. The reason? Either poor grades or discipline issues.  It's an attention gitter.  I did this with my own child when he began to think video games and soccer were more important than school and homework.  I believe he was a 5th grader at the time. In that instance I did not tell his teammates why he wasn't playing that day. His teammates kept asking him why he wasn't playing. He eventually had to tell them himself.  Not only did this correct his behavior but it sent a powerful message to his teammates about the prioritizing.

I share that brief story to help illustrate my decision-making philosophy. I prioritize PROGRAM first followed by TEAM second and the INDIVIDUAL third. I have had a parent or two question me about this when I have forced a player to miss games for grade issues. This has usually occurred in the case of a club player and has often not been the parent of the player himself, but a teammates parent. The conversation goes something like this, "How can sitting Jonathon be the best thing for the team? We need Jonathon if we are going to win the game."   My response is invariably that we need Jonathon to win life before we can worry about Jonathon helping us to win a game. We do not want to be a program known for "winning at all costs" especially if that cost is sacrificing what is good for an individual to promote the program.  

"But what about the team?  It's not fair to the other players!"  

EXACTLY!  Why should Jonathon be granted special privileges?  Just because he is a good soccer or basketball player?  Does athletic talent earn him a free pass in other areas of life?  

We know in some cultures athletic talent will gain you a free pass in many areas of life. It's not right, but it happens. All glory is found in the win ... until that player can no longer contribute to winning. Attrition of one kind or another takes place. What then?  That player is discarded in favor of a newer version. IF that former player is lucky and was a truly exceptional athlete (s)he might be remembered 20 years later for accomplishments on the court or field,. But for most, in less than a generations time they are all but forgotten. They become real life Al Bundy's spending their adult life reliving their past glory as a youth athlete.

When a player I work with is being recruited the single most important piece of advice I provide is for them to make a 40-year decision.  As a coach, I do my best to do the same.  It's easy to choose a school based on what you get from the recruiting process and promises of wins.  That is also fools gold. Short term gain. Live in this moment decision making. I counsel to select a school based on what an education from that school can do for you 40 years into the future. 

Deciding to not play a young person in a club or high school game is much the same thing. In the grand scheme of things that game sat out will soon be forgotten by almost everyone involved. With the exception of the individual who had to sit out, hopefully.  When I take this approach I literally pray that sitting out an in-the-moment significant but in the long-term inconsequential youth sporting contest will be a positive life altering event for that individual with a lasting impact of 40+ years. 

My goal as a coach is to help the young people entrusted to me in developing life skills and character that will serve then well for a lifetime.  The techniques, tactics, physical condition of the sport ... all that is a means to an end and that end is not necessarily winning games.  In fact, if truth be known, wins are a by-product of life skills, character and the type of decision making that when present  bring out he best in individuals, teams and life.

Wednesday

Teammates are forever.

in my late teens and early twenties I played on an adult church softball team. It was the best group of guys I have ever been a part of. There were basically 10 of us and our coach. We would occasionally add a player if someone was injured or when we played in tournaments. For the most part it was just us 11 men bonded together by our love for Christ and softball.

We didn’t always get along. There were differences. When we stepped onto the field they were forgotten, at least temporarily. We played as if we shared one heart beat amongst us. We won, a lot. Lots of league and tournament championships. The team disbanded one year without much ado as. Enough core players moved on to other things and those who remained knew the magic would never be recaptured.

Tim Dunifon who played left center field next to my left field died five years ago.  His death hit me particularly hard. Good guy. Good friend. Good teammate.  Tim was the first of our core group to die.  I miss him.

This past Saturday, Candy Stevely passed away. Candy was the wife of Gary Stevely, our right fielder and lead off man.  I took Gary’s spot in left field and there lingered some animosity for a while. Never on the field though. Eventually everything smoothed over.  Candy was our church secretary, organist, sang in various musical groups was a member of the bell choir. In short, Candy was a hub of the church.  I was fortunate enough to work with Candy 3 separate times as a member of our church council. Twice as president of our congregation. She was kind, I mean really kind, truly kind.  Candy was a wonderful ambassador for our church, for Christ himself.

Our softball team was a family affair. While it was 11 men who manned the team our families went everywhere with us. Wives, girlfriends, parents, grandparents, kids. Candy was often there supporting Gary and our team.

As I have mourned Candy’s passing I have been reminded of our softball team. Fond memories. Strong lasting bonds. I am looking forward to seeing many of the guys at Candy’s viewing and funeral. It’s so sad that we gather under these circumstances but also a comfort that our little band of softball players remain a team after all these years.  Rest In Peace Candy.  Peace be with you Gary.

Monday

Everyone wants to win a championship.

It's not the will to win that is important for everyone wants to win. 


It is the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.

To win a championship you must first win the grind.


Win every individual workout.

Win every practice.

Win every training session.

Win the logbook sessions.

Triumph over discomfort.

Find victory in each obstacle and every adversity.

Communicate with winning frankness and honesty.






Win first, then play the game!



Saturday

A different take on warm ups.

This fall finds me once again coaching high school soccer. The team I am working with is young, inexperienced and coed playing against boys teams.  The odds are definitely stacked against us.  I m having a blast!

I have pretty much a blank canvas to work with.

If focused on results, this could definitely be considered a negative. If we take an approach of this being an opportunity, then the challenges we face are a blessing. I choose to see this season as a blessing of amazing proportions.

My assistant and I have no choice but to teach. What we teach is every single aspect of game and team. Why we teach it is not solely based in pursuit of better on-the-field results. No, both what we teach and why we teach are grounded in helping the young men and women we work with to learn the value of confronting adversity, learning from mistakes and working cooperatively together to solve problems encountered in the process of becoming a better team and through the experience, better people.

 A favorite saying of mine is "Failing to prepare properly is preparing to fail."  This quote is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin who was by all accounts a pretty accomplished man. When applying this quote to soccer most will think of practicing well and warming up properly in front of playing a game. This, especially the warming up part, is usually equated to physical preparation.  In practice players perform repetitions of technique and tactics to develop muscle memory that allows them to play instinctively. Warm ups are often about perfection or striving to be as perfect as possible in preparing for the game.  This is where I find fault with standard warm ups that involve stretching followed by performing well rehearsed routines. It reduces warming up to finding a rhythm and getting comfortable before playing the game. The problem here is not in what you do, but is found in what you do not do.

A soccer match is a exercise in problem solving ability - that of individual players and the collective team. If we accept this to be true, then should we not include adversity and problem solving in our preparation to play the game?

A wise old coach once told me he could spot an American soccer player in the first few seconds of watching them step on the field.  American players step on the field and immediately begin whacking the ball at the goal.  Players from other countries step on the pitch and immediately have a ball at their feet working on individual ball handling skills.

I love watching professional athletes warm up, especially the stars.  Invariably they begin small and work their way up to the act required to put points on the scoreboard.  Watch Tom Brady warm up.  He gets his body warmed up and then begins with simple ball handling tasks like taking snaps from his center. He progresses to handing the ball off to running backs and moves on to throwing the football to receivers. Kyrie Irving comes out early and does ball handling exercises These include the now famous two ball drill, dribbling and passing with either hand.  The last thing he does is practice his shooting. He takes care of all the things that will get him to taking a shot before actually working on taking the shot.

I firmly believe failing to warm up properly is one reason the United States has yet to produce a world class striker.  We warm up to get comfortable instead of warming up to problem solve in the game. We need to address our problem solving skills as much or more than establishing our comfort.  Game environments are rarely comfortable so I'm a bit mystified by the emphasis on establishing comfort in our warm ups. We need challenges in warm ups to prepare our problem solving skills.

Light intensity and conserving energy for the actual game is another aspect of traditional warm ups that leave me scratching my head. When one is about to play a contest should one not prepare for the intensity of the contest?  Rest and restoring energy can take place in the moments before kickoff - during the captains meeting, last minute instructions, playing of the national anthem and player introductions.  Pre-creating game-like intensity cannot.  This must be done as a gradual build up from the first step onto the pitch until active warm ups conclude prior to the pre-game festivities outlined above. Ramping up intensity should be a designed component of warm ups.

Warm ups, especially the individual components of warming up should be fraught with challenges. Working on simple ball handling to attempting more complex combinations and moves. Failures in warm ups are okay for the simple reason that failures are part of every game. A critical component of every game is learning from in-game failure and overcoming in-game adversity. Should not  preparing to do this be a part of our warm up?

By now a new vision of warming up should be emerging. At least it should be if I have written well.  Warm ups are an opportunity not just to prepare for playing, but to learn and improve.  It's not just about "perfecting" things worked on in practices leading up to the match. No, warm ups should be a continued exploration of your capability's and evolution of your abilities.







Friday

The 10 Commandments for Attacking Soccer


1) Thou shall not spectate when thou should be playing. It is impossible to support your teammates on attack or when defending if you are watching play instead of adjusting your positioning each and every time the ball moves. A coaching phrase I use to remind players to do this is “When the ball travels, we travel!” It can be called, ‘When the ball travels” by a coach or player and answered “We travel” by the remaining team members

2) Thou shall check to the ball when winning loose balls and receiving passes. Waiting for a ball to come to you is inviting an opponent to win the ball. Perhaps even worse is running away from a ball thinking you are played through and allowing an opponent to step in behind you to win the ball. Inexcusable. We should never lose a possession due to not checking to the ball. Never.

3) Thou shall position yourself so your hips are open to as much of the field as is possible. If your hips are closed to the direction the ball is coming from, your play is predictable. Open hips to as much of the field as possible is a secret to successful possession. In this manner thou shall receive the ball across your body whenever possible. We call this being a back footed player. Receiving in this manner allows the player to stay in compliance with Commandment #3. Failure to comply with this commandment makes you a predictable player and one easily defended and dispossessed of the ball.

4) Thou shall make a safe pass upon winning possession of the ball. It is senseless to win the ball and attempt to advance into pressure. Make a safe pass and allow that receiver to establish the rhythm of the attack.

5) Thou shall not stop the ball between thy feet when receiving it. The path of the ball must be changed away from pressure when receiving it. This forces any defender in pursuit of the ball to change course thus buying the receiver space and time to play the ball. Failure to do so changes the pressure to make the play away from the defender and onto the receiver.

6) Thou shall support your teammates at proper angles. It is extremely difficult to make a straight pass, especially if the teammate is running away. This type of “vertical” support can devastate an attack. It is just as critical not to support the 1st defender in a vertical line as you offer virtually no support in doing so. The rule of thumb is 45 degree angles when defending and 45 degree angles or bigger when on the attack.

7) Thou shall not pass square in your defensive third nor in the middle portion of the field. Square passes are the easiest passes to cleanly intercept and immediately transition to attack on. Square passes tend to happen when there is a lack of diagonal support for the passer.

8) Thou shall play the way you face. This is a rule of thumb so there are exceptions. It holds especially true when you are under pressure. Drop or back passes are okay to relieve that pressure. Maintaining possession is what we want to do.

9) Thou shall not shoot from impossible angles. Intelligent defenses seek to deny shots in general and especially those from in front of the goal. Many defenses seek to limit shots against them to coming from a line that extends from the goal post to the corner of the 6 to the corner of the 18 or wider. Shots from those angles leave the goalkeeper with a greatly reduced goal to defend. You must seek to cross the ball when in this deep or take the ball to and along the end line for a cut back cross. Thou shall go to goal each and every time you get your inside shoulder in front of the opponent defending you. When you are breaking free and have the opportunity to eliminate the closest opponent to you, do so. It is not an option. It is mandatory.

10) Thou shall shoot the ball whenever in position to take a quality shot. When in front of the goal and from 25 yards in there should be no hesitation. No extra touch to set the ball up just right. No extra passes. Just put the ball on net. Toe pokes are fine. Knees are fine. Love headers for goals. Strike at the midpoint or higher on the ball to keep it low. Whatever it takes to get the ball on net. Just do it and do it at the first available moment.

Lessons from Mentors.

I have a stated goal of learning something new each and every day.  My coaching mentors have been great aides in this pursuit.  One lasting lesson that resonates with me is to focus on those things you can control and do not waste time on those things you cannot control. Taking this advice to heart has allowed me to exercise great patience which has been of benefit to me personally and also to the teams I coach.

Properly preparing for whatever task is at had is another lasting. I can recall as a young coach preparing meticulously for practices.  I chose activities carefully and with purpose. Planned specifically. Truth be told, I do this in almost all facets of my life. For example, I rarely have gone into a meeting unprepared. Preparation is the foundation of confidence and in turn confidence is the key to success.

Sometimes learned lessons can seemingly come into conflict with one another. Usually, this eventually proves not to be the case. As a young coach it drove me crazy to diligently prepare for practice including a specific number of players expected to be in attendance only to have players not show up for one reason or another.  All that diligent effort on my part blown all to hell! How dare they just not come to practice?!?

And so I learned the importance of flexibility. My first coaching mentor planned practice sessions with adaptability being a key component. A theme was constant but activities had an element of fluidity to them and could be changed or adapted to fit the number of players available. You see, he could not control whether any given player would attend practice or not.  For some, indeed a vast majority of players, missing a practice was simply not an option.  Attendance was expected. There always seems to be an exception to the rule though.

It took awhile for me to understand this. While my expectation remains every player will attend every practice, if numbers for practice are not what I expected then to be I simply adjust the activities.  Now, experience has made this a much easier task to take on and achieve with acceptable results.

I have wondered on occasion if I knew then what I know now, would I have been so upset as a young coach when players failed to show for practice?  The experience factor plays a large role in this process. I'm not sure I would have had the mental catalog of soccer activities I now possess that allows me to easily adapt on the fly.

Dealing with difference of opinions with referees ...  Yeah, this is an area I am much improved in. In all the thousands of games I have participated in as a player, coach, referee or even as a fan, I can probably count on my fingers the number of times I have witnessed an official change a call. Just something I cannot control so I don't waste time arguing with officials.

Difficult parents?  When a parent believes they are acting in the best interests of their child there is no other opinion that matters. A coach certainly is not going to control a parent. I have had mothers flirt with me in an attempt to gain favor with me for this child. I have had confrontational parents attempt to bully me in order to have their child play a preferred position, start or play more. Helicopter parents who hover over their child in order to protect them from ... well, whatever perceived threat they imagine in the way of their child's athletic success.  In any of these instances and countess more not mentioned here, a coach cannot control the parents. I have learned to not waste my time worrying about parents. I cannot control them so why worry about them?

Another lesson learned is a coach really needs to limit social interaction with parents and families. As a young adult league coach I often found myself coaching friends. Not really a good idea.  It can be done successfully and I was able to navigate those potentially treacherous waters fairly successfully. And as a parent coach I often found myself coaching sons and daughters of our friends and neighbors.  Again, not something I would recommend for inexperienced coaches. Sports have a strange super power that can cause the most sane of individuals to become stark raving mad lunatic parents out of their minds.

I tried to attend team social functions where the player families were present. Disaster. I took my cue from ultra successful coaching mentors who were cordial with parents but never socialized with them. Communications were limited strictly to "business" in the sense of interacting with a single team parent to coordinate travel, pre and post game meals, parents night, senior night and the end of season banquet.  And these communications consisted of the parents doing all the work and informing the coach of need to know details only. I take my cue from Dick Hagen, Bob Seggerson, Larry Lewis and others.

As a parent I was often involved in selecting coaches who we would allow our son's to play for, but beyond that I did not intrude on the coaches space. I didn't always agree with a coaches strategies or tactics. I sometimes questioned starting lineups or distribution of minutes, but only to myself. I supported our sons coaches.  The only time I recall being upset enough to confront a coach was when one played my son almost an entire game after he had two days before been carried off the field with severe cramps. We had gone to an alternative medical specialist to deal with the cramps and she had performed miracles to relieve the cramping.  He could not walk into to the office but two hours later walked out under his own power.  Genesen Acutouch,  Un-freaking-believable!

I continue to learn on a daily basis. Many times lessons learned long ago are revisited.  The world is constantly changing and this affords endless opportunities to continue learning. And even when the status quo seems to remain the same, there still exists opportunities to learn anew.  For example, today I learned about Donatello's David and other art and artists of the quattracento era, Who knew?!?  Right?

Go forth to gain knowledge, control what you can control and don't sweat the rest.

Sunday

It's been awhile since I last posted.

The last year has been a difficult one physically for me.  I was injured on the job and my (now former) employer contested my Workman's Compensation claim delaying treatment of my knee injury several months. Then, in January a simple hang nail on my thumb became infected that resulted in a 6 day hospital stay during which I nearly lost the thumb. It is now September and that healing process continues.  I have new employment and a new coaching gig.  I love my work, but the coaching has been a challenge.  No complaints here, challenges allow for growth and I have continued to learn and relearn each and every day.

One thing I have known for a long time is that each team takes on a personality that reflects
the player who emerges as the dominant personality.  Coaches speak all the time about senior leadership and how critical it is to a successful season.  Yet, it's not always a senior who steps to the fore. This I have learned again. 

Coaching at a small school can be a challenge. Sometimes it quite literally requires an all hands on deck approach just to field a team. With only five returning players from last years squad this is the situation I faced for this season. As late as May it was in serious question as to whether or not we would have enough to field a team this fall. We played our first game with 10 players. That was our entire roster.

Something remarkable has been happening with this team.  They did not complain about only having 10 players for the first game. They went out and played.  They played with courage and a spirit that restored my faith and hope in the process.. We got thumped 0-11 with the opposing coach keeping his stars in the long after the outcome was decided. Even so, it seemed as though we competed better as the game wore on. There was no quit in any of the players despite facing insurmountable odds. They competed to the best of their ability until the final whistle.  They joy of playing was evident in them.

The second game was much like the first. We again lost badly and the opposing coach kept his star players in way past the point when the outcome had been decided. We bent this game. Maybe lost some of our spirit for awhile but rallied in the last 20 minutes to again display courage, enthusiasm, spirit and ... belief.  Belief in one another and what we are setting about to accomplish. Trust.

Did I mention we are a co-ed team playing against boys teams?  Yep, five of our 13 players are girls.  Nine of our 13 are freshmen and sophomores. We have been playing against boys teams loaded with juniors and seniors. And our spirit has been strong. This is the most coach-able group of players I have had in ... a long time .., maybe ever. Certainly since the 2014 club team, but that was under completely different circumstances.

We don't talk about results. Our focus has been on personal records in fitness and skill test in practices. In matches we set goals based on what we have practiced. We are improving in all areas. And because we have taken this approach, the student athletes have a means to measure both their individual and collective improvement.

Throughout this summer and the first part of the season a young lady has stepped to the fore for us. At this point in the season there can be no doubt who the leader of this team is. We reflect her buoyant personality and spirit. I've only ever seen a freshman once before have such an impact on a varsity team. He is a special player, maybe the best I have ever been around, a better leader and even better human being. This year's young lady is right there. We will see how the rest of her high school career turns out but it is off to a most promising start and the bodes well not only for her but the team and program as well.

And we have a 14th player set to join us next week. I don't think he has ever played soccer before, but he sought me out in school last week to express interest in playing. There's something good happening here in the face of adversity. I am dumbfounded that student athletes continue to join our program as we have been trounced in the first two games.  It's the spirit of these young people that is attractive to their peers. It's not exactly been "all hands on deck" but it is becoming enough hands on deck and those who are joining continue to reflect the spirit that defines this team. I'm not sure where this path is leading me, but I do know this simple fact - coaching has not been this fun in a very long time.


Saturday

I paid my dues! I deserve to play!

Whenever our group gathers someone will invariably let go with "I paid my dues!" drawing a round of chuckles from those present.  The members of this group played on the same team years ago. We were a better than average team, but not an exceptional one. As can often be the case, the friendships established through competing together against others has lasted through the years. There are many good memories that bind us together. Great plays, championships won and lost. Fellowship before and after games. "I paid my dues!" is the single memory that most resonates with this group.

The team gathered throughout the preseason to work on technique, tactics, conditioning and developing an identity of who we would collectively be on the field of play.  We struggled through difficult practices, various bumps bruises and injuries, learning to play together against other teams. Well, most of the team did.  There was this one guy who signed up and paid to play, but was largely absent from preseason activities.

On opening night the team was jazzed with nervous energy. We were excited to get the season underway. We were pumped!  Ready to go into athletic battle with our buddies and see how we measured up against another team. I mean OPENING NIGHT, right!?

We came out strong and the game was going our way. Everything was clicking and we went up big early. Comfortably in control at the break our coaches were reminding us to stick with the game plan in the second half. We were to treat the second half as if the score were 0-0. Be disciplined and play as we practiced, as we had prepared to play and as we played in the first half.  That's when Donny stood up and proclaimed "I paid my dues! I deserve to play too!"

Well, Donny was the guy who skipped practices and other team functions. He missed out on so much preparation to play that I didn't even think of him as a teammate. He was more ... well, in the context of the team ... he just was.

As we prepared to play the second half the coach asked Donny to remain behind.  They had a short talk before joining us on the field.  About the only thing I remember is Donny looking very angry as we took the field.  After we won the game and were coming off the field congratulating one another I do not recall if Donny was present or not.  I never saw Donny in the context of the team again. What had been a friendly off-the-field relationship took on a decided chill.

Our coach eventually shared with us what was communicated to Donny at halftime of that first game. The message was an eye opener to me and I think to each of my teammates. After a fast start to the season we had hit a lull. No, not a lull, we were in a prolonged losing streak. This is when Ross, our coach, shared with us the gist of the message he had delivered to Donny.

Donny had paid his money for the right to be a part of our club, our team. This is what Donny meant when he had proclaimed "I paid my dues! I deserve to play!"  Coach Ross had a bit different idea about what it meant to pay one's dues.  He told Donny he would not give him anything that was not earned, including playing time. To give playing time to anyone who had not earned it through properly preparing to play would be lowering the club and team standards. When Donny had begun to explain he had to work, suffered an injury and had had other commitments, Coach Ross shut him down with a simple "No excuses."  Coach went on to point out that even being present at practices was not good enough. There would be no reward for merely participating. Everyone was expected to give a full effort every day.  Healthy and active or injured and inactive physically - it did not matter. You need to be attentive and contribute. There was no room on a successful team for laziness or mediocrity in effort given to the team. He ended by telling Donny that he had been disrespectful to him as the coach, his teammates and perhaps most importantly to the opportunity paying his monetary dues had afforded him.  Furthermore, by disrupting halftime of a team event with such a display of selfishness he had announced how unappreciative and ungrateful he actually was as it concerned representing the club and the team.

So, while the lasting impression we have of Donny is "I paid my dues!"  the lasting lesson Donny contributed to is monetary dues hold little to no value in team sports.  The actual dues that matter most in team situations are being present and contributing positively in whatever manner one can. Those were the expectations for our team. Those were standards we set and upheld.  No excuses. Just give the best, most intelligent, effort to the team each and every day.  Being present is not enough - ask "what can I do for my team" and do it.  Even when injured - conduct stretching, practice the team's communication, do rehab work in an effort to return to play or be a cheerleader offering encouragement to your teammates. Be active in the team process. Never take for granted the opportunity to be a part of the team.  Pay your (non-monetary) dues!

Sunday

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

Just after the first of the year I was hospitalized for an infection in my thumb. My stay lasted a week and involved multiple antibiotics, a lancing and finally an operation to cut the infection out. A month and a half later I am still on antibiotics and still in recovery mode. I have yet to return to work.  I share this with you that you will understand I have had a lot of time on my hands. A fair share of that time has been devoted to evaluating the performance of last fall's high school team. It was my first losing season as a coach in a very long time.

To be fair, I began this evaluation process even as the fall season wound down. I knew the one problem area we never solved was leadership. I was disappointed and frustrated in player leadership almost from the start.

As I considered all that went wrong last fall I found myself narrowing focus to specific individuals whom I had identified as being so toxic that they were preventing their teammates from being successful. Some time ago I had come across the phrase "frustrated genius" to describe such a person. Being a typical coach, I appropriated this phrase for my own use. In short, a frustrated genius is a rogue element who makes excuses, assigns blame and rarely if ever accepts any responsibility for negative results. I had dealt with such before. Sometimes they see the error of their ways and make the 180 degree turn around to become productive members of winning teams and sometimes they must be culled from the herd before success for the team can manifest itself. Last fall neither occurred and there is only one person responsible for that, me.

I am to blame for last falls losing season.  It was a challenging situation but I failed to properly lead. I had become comfortable and complacent as a coach. I had my system that worked well season after season for years. I lost sight of the details of the process. I did not bring the energy to the team that it required.  As a leader goes, I failed miserably.  I let the players down.

It was not until the first scrimmage that I had a full team together. Even then we were missing a player who was on extended summer vacation.  We only had 14 players in the program at that point. I feared not having enough to field a team were I to enforce my usual standard of zero tolerance when  it came to unexcused absences.  This was my first and worst failure of the season.  I set a standard and then by not enforcing the standard lowered said standard to such a degree that we could not be successful.

Captains are a coach's sub-leaders. I placed the onus on the captains to enforce the attendance standard. Two of the players most often absent from training were captains.  I focused early efforts on turning around these frustrated geniuses and eventually just gave up on them.  I failed. I should have removed them as captains upon their first unexcused miss from training.  Because I failed, the team failed. The blame for that is on no one but me.  Period.

There are other sub-leaders on a successful soccer team.  Each line must have one of these.  The GK, must be a sub-leader. The back line, midfield and forwards must all have sub-leaders to help coordinate and execute the game plan.  These leaders did not emerge to anywhere near the extent we needed them to and I am to blame for this. It was a trickle down effect stemming from my failure to hold two captains accountable to the attendance standard.  The chain of command was faulty and this was my fault.

And I can trace each failure within the team back to standards. The source of the team's poor performance was not the standards that were set, but the standards that were accepted. Standards are empty when not enforced. Ours were and I am to blame for that.

A renewed energy is beginning to boil within me.  The program I was put in charge of deserves better than last seasons poor performance. I have set my aim on bringing a winning performance to next falls team.  I'm not necessarily speaking of a winning season, but a winning performance. I need to get this thumb healed up so I can return to work and begin the process that will bring this about.Lots of work to be done and it's time to get started.

Monday

Christmas!

Isaiah 9:6King James Version (KJV)

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Christmas is so much more than just a season. For millions of people people round the globe Christmas is second only to Easter in its importance to the tenets we strive to live our lives by. It is important to keep and nurture Christmas in our hearts every day of our lives that its light will shine through us onto and into others. 
When to much emphasis and focus is placed on Christmas Day or the week leading up to Christmas it  can become a stressful time indeed. People try to be something they are not for most of the year. Everyone is a little nicer, a bit more tolerant and exert extra effort to be nice and get along with family, friend and foe alike.  Invariably, the stress gets to people and tensions can bubble over into open conflict. Thee can exist a feeling of gratefulness that Christmas only comes once a year.

But that's the point I make - Christmas does not come but once a year. Christmas is a state of mind, a way of life. Every day is Christmas day just as every morning is Easter morning.  God is constant and so too should we be constant in our remembrance of His gift of a Son to us. 
Love.
I've considered this long and hard. In fact, it is an on-going process with me. There are people in this world whom I simply do not like. Can I still love them? That is really the challenge God puts to us and the lesson Jesus teaches.
Jesus was born in a manger, a stable.  Why, would the King of Kings be brought into this world in such lowly surroundings?  Why should he not have been born in a palace?  The answer is self-evident when we consider accessibility.  Not everyone would have been permitted access to Jesus had he been born in a palace or perhaps even in his family's house. Would the unclean shepherds been welcomed in a palace?  I think not. But would anyone be turned away from a manger, a stable?
And this is how Jesus lived his life. Lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves and more were all welcomed into Jesus' presence. The Son of God associated with anyone and everyone. All of mankind are welcome in God's presence. All that is asked in return is that you believe in God.
As our family Christmas winds down I am reminded of this. I find my mother-in-law to be one of the most difficult people in my life. My father-in-law a close second for different reasons. I do not like them and I have struggled with this over the years. I believe I would be fine if I never saw or spoke with either of these people ever again. They bring stress to my life. I struggle to be myself around them because of the standards they would hold me to. Yet I see them break their own standards time and again. They are not accepting of difference.  While they hold themselves up to be good Christian people, I find them to be hypocritical in practicing the Word. Yes, I am as judgmental as I accuse them of being.

As much as I struggle to like the in-laws, I find that I do love them. I wish them no ill will. I pray for their wellness and safe being. I would just rather not associate with them due to the stress associated with being in their presence.

Yes, I have work to do with my own relationship with God. It is an on-going process that needs constant attention, nurturing and guidance.

I cherish the blessing the in-laws are in my life. I have and continue to learn so much about God and myself through their presence in my life. It's not always a negative they bring to light that I learn from for these are good people with positives to learn from as well. The dysfunctional nature of our relationship is a sturdy educational platform I am fortunate to have at my disposal. That doesn't mean I wish to perpetuate the nature of our current relationship forever. No, I do harbor hope of a better relationship with my in-laws but am keenly aware I can only control certain aspects.  There must be a willingness from all parties. It is not compromise that would bring us closer together but an understanding of God purposefully manifesting himself differently in each of us. I am not here to conform to their expectations, but to God's expectations for me. I have as much to teach them about God and his Love as they believe they have to teach me.

You see, that's a message of the Savior's birth in the manger we overlook. Our KING was born in a manger. Shepherds and Wise Men both and together came to honor Him. All were and are welcomed in God's presence. No one man or woman better than any other in God's eyes. We are not here to compete for God's favor, but to relish in the pure delight and Peace of God's favor that He has made available to us all.

Have a Merry Christmas each and every day of your life everyone!

Monday

Space in Soccer

One of the aspects about my current position that I am beginning to really enjoy is teaching the game of soccer on a basic level.  When coaching high school I had come to rely on a majority of student athletes being relatively experienced in the game through years of travel and club soccer. Most of my current team's experienced has been in recreational soccer.  I am finding myself explaining and teaching on a simpler level than I am accustomed to doing at the high school level.  And I am really enjoying this as I embrace the process.

Space

One of the most used words in coaching soccer is SPACE.   It is used in a generic sense with a variety of accepted meanings dependent on context. Coaches and players alike are generally able to identify which definition to apply based on the situation being discussed. Of course, when the concept of space is first being introduced players are taught to "spread out" in order to find open space.  Spacing becomes important and how to utilize spacing becomes a focus of basic tactics. As our tactical understanding evolves we teach how to consciously create and deny space.  Throughout this process our use of the word space morphs.  This is what I want to focus on today.

Space is such a generally accepted and overused term that many soccer glossary's donot even list the word among its contents. There either exists an assumption everyone knows what space is or no one knows how to properly define what space is.

For me, it seems reasonable to look at space from an individual perspective.  Personal space might be considered as that which the body or its parts can reach without moving from its starting position. In my estimation that is a very narrow definition of personal space.  I prefer to elaborate upon it just a bit.  How much space does a player require to effectively maneuver in and play the ball? The answer to this question more realistically defines personal space for soccer players, in my opinion.

To descriptively define this space I think of it in terms of an individual's technical and tactical radius. This is a term that is, I believe, being adapted by US soccer.  Of course, each individual will have an unique technical tactical radius.  The more technically proficient and physically balanced a player is, the less space he will require to play confidently on the ball.  A colleague refers to this as spatial management which is great nonmenclature to be sure although it would probably not resonate with youth players all that well. At the heart of this matter is two relationships every high school player should have an understanding of 1) space and time  and 2) space and pace. In other words, a players awareness of space in relation to technical ability and tactical decision making.

What of other kinds of space?

Open space is easily recognizable. Neither players nor the ball are in open space. Ideally, from an attacking perspective, the ball carrier and a teammate will recognize open space with the ball carrier playing the ball into it and a teammate meeting the ball in the available space.

This leads us to idea that space, like the game itself, can be a living breathing entity that is constantly being created, destroyed and morphed to one teams advantage or the other.  When a player makes a purposeful run to open space for a teammate, the space created is live.

When an area of the field is congested or clutter we think of that space as being dead. Think bumble bee ball in you little play or some styles of channel play that see an overload of players in a single channel.  We could also visualize a pressing defense that seeks to get as many people around the ball and into passing lanes. All these are examples of what I refer to as dormant space. The space is not
dead, but is of little use at the moment.  Yet, it can and will be reawakenedthrough ball movement / player movement and game situations.

In other places on this blog we have written about negative space.  This is the space behind the backs and in front of the goalkeeper.  Attackers love to preserve this space until they can take advantage of it at pace.  Defenders seek to deny negative space to attackers by constricting it in relation to the threat level opponents present.

The overriding theme in this article is recognition that space is alive. Within the boundaries of the pitch space expands and contracts around the ball and players. Spatial awareness aids in the efficiency of ball and player movements with timing being a critical element. These things must be taught and developed in order to play at the highest possible level.