Sunday

Attacking Runs





While I am not yet sure if I will be back to coach Fairlawn next season, I have nevertheless begun planning and preparing as if I will be.  A major focus of this effort will be teaching the game, as it always is. My self-evaluation of this past season tells me I assumed there existed a certain level of understanding the game that was not necessarily actually in evidence. My mistake and all I could do in-season was to say "Next Play!" and adjust on the fly. Going into next season I have a better understanding of where we are and the approach we need to take to achieve better results across the board. Teaching the game will be a primary focus and our starting point will be a bit more elementary than I have become accustomed to these past few years. What follows is an attempt to break things down to as simple a form as possible as it concerns what we will call attacking runs. There's no attempt to reinvent the wheel here. The goal is to make it all as understandable as possible.

Attacking Runs

I began this adventure by trying to paint a basic picture of the tempo involved in making attacking runs.  More appropriately, the change of pace necessary to make an attacking run effective.

Slow pace - increasing to a moderate pace before  - exploding to full pace.

A significant portion of our conditioning leading into next season will focus on training these accelerations through the paces described here. Making them distinctive in order to make them as effective as possible.

Next I set about defining specific types of runs. Again, the idea is not to reinvent the wheel. We only seek to draw a clear picture in the minds of our athletes to better their understanding. We will also use these specific types of runs in our conditioning and training of changing paces through them.

It is probably best to begin with planting the idea that any run has an ending.  A run therefore is essentially a path to a target. That target could be the ball or space or perhaps even an opponent.  Beyond those basics a run might be to the ball or onto a passed ball. Or, a run might be into open space for the purpose of receiving a ball or drawing opponents away from other space. A run also might be at or across the face of an opponent to draw that opponents attention and create opportunity for a teammate. I'm going to work on my presentation of these ideas in hopes of clarifying the idea of making runs for teammates as a primary consideration. A majority of runs made are for others. Selflessness in making runs. You get the idea and I hope our players will as well.

As far as defining runs I think it best to begin simple and that would be with a straight run.  Of course, this isn't quite as simple as it would seem.

Straight Line 1 - this run is made in a single channel straight down the pitch.  A vertical run. This can be used to push opposing defenders back. In channel soccer a straight pass is often attempted to a straight run and these can be devastatingly effective. However, I have always thought in the youth game and most high school soccer a diagonal pass onto a straight run is easiest to execute.

Straight Line 2 - This run is often referred to as being a square run.  It is made horizontally across channels. In my mind this is the least effect run in youth or high school soccer unless it is being executed with intent to move defenders / open space or is made as part of a combination run which we will get to below.

Diagonal - this run is made vertically and diagonally across channels.  It might be a run towards a touch line or a run towards a corner.  In this case, a straight in-channel pass is usually easiest to execute. However, a diagonal pass that crosses channels to a diagonal run can be very effective, only a bit harder to execute for a majority of high school players, imo.

Combination Run 1 - If a player begins a square run and then breaks it off into a diagonal straight run he is both changing channel and crossing lines with his run giving opposing defenders at least two different spatial problems to deal with.  The change of direction is accompanied by change of pace.  And when this type of run is made by cutting across the face of a defender it can force a defender to also make a decision of whether to concentrate on the ball or the runner.  This type of run is commonly referred to as bent or bending run.

Combination Run 2 - The companion run to the one described directly above is to make a vertical straight run and bend it off into a diagonal run, a square run or a curl into a target. Again, the effectiveness of such runs are found in combining change of direction with change of pace and forcing the defender into making choices  between watching the ball and watching players making the runs.

Combination Run 3- this is a more advanced concept that I am hopeful we can get to and implement next season. This involves 2 players combining runs. The first opening space for the second to play in. We'll see. And I will write more on these ideas at a later time.

We have not addressed "V" cuts or checking away to check to. Only briefly have we touched on runs to support a teammate.  And in describing vertical or penetrating runs we have only alluded to whether to play the ball and runner through the same hole or different holes in the defense. These are all different types of runs made with a specific purpose behind them.  Let's take a quick look at some other runs with specific intent to place the runs described above in context.

An unbalancing run is typically made away from the ball across the face of defenders and to their blind side.  A clearing run is made to open space for a teammate. An overlapping run comes from behind a teammate in possession of the ball in order to receive a forward pass from that teammate. A withdrawing run - is made by a player moving laterally into a heels to touch positioning in an outside channel.  And if we have an unbalancing run we must also have a balancing run which is movement to a position on the pitch behind the ball. This can be made to provide the teammate with the ball relief from pressure via a drop pass or if executed off-the-ball can be made to position a player to act as a pivot in changing the ball from one side of the pitch to the other - changing channels.

Okay, so this remains a work in progress and I have time to get it right. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments sections below and as always, Thanks for reading the CBA Blog!

Tuesday

Spatial Awareness

High school soccer presents a vast array of problem solving opportunities for coaches.  In the best of programs there will exist multiple teams on a developmental scale - Varsity, JV A, JV B, Freshman and Middle School teams.  I've been there.  At the other end of the spectrum are high school teams with varsity only.  Sometimes these varsity only teams are even co-ed.  I've been there too.

As a new parent-coach back in the mid 1990's I inquired of the local high school coach what he believed most freshmen were lacking when they came out for the high school teams. His reply was"the ability to execute a push pass". As this man would become a mentor to me, I took him at his word. The youth players I worked with could all successfully execute the push pass when they entered 9th grade. When my son was being recruited to play in college I often asked coaches what they believed was the biggest weakness in most recruits games.  The answer was a near unanimous - "spatial awareness". If you have ever worked with a team of wide ranging abilities, you will surely appreciate this response.

My most recent club team and most recent high school team both suffered from a lack of cohesive and uniform understanding of spatial awareness. It's often said a team is only as strong as its weakest player on the field. There is a measure of truth to this especially as it concerns spatial awareness.

I often inform my teams the game is a living breathing thing and they must work on developing a relationship with it through listening and observing how it changes in response to ball and player movement. The boundaries and various lines affect this as well as the distances required on restarts.  Even the referee crew impacts responses to spatial awareness. So too do the technical ability, tactical understanding and physical ability of individual players.

In essence, spatial awareness is about the relationship between Space and Pace. In this context spatial awareness becomes about learning to manipulate the game to your and your teams benefit.  Using spatial awareness in conjunction with the principles of play is what formations and tactics are all about.  When a player is able to consciously recognize how to create space for a teammate and use space created for himself by a teammate, intentionally manipulating the game becomes a real possibility.  

These relationships are simple and yet very complex all at once.  Bringing someone new to the game up to speed with a player who has several years experience can be a daunting task. The difference in understanding of spatial awareness between a seasoned player of club soccer and a recreational player can also be significant. When players of widely varying abilities are all on a single team it can prove difficult to find common ground. This where ideas about a team only being as strong as its weakest player take root.

This is the problem I am seeking to solve going forward. Spatial awareness in soccer is something that begins developing at the youngest of ages.  Simple ideas like boundaries and which half of the field is to be defended and which half has the goal to be scored in are spatial awareness.  When a player comes to the game later in their youth the theory of these simply spatial awareness concepts might be known yet the practicality of them never experienced.  Extend that train of thought to the differences in understanding of spatial awareness between a recreational player and a club player or even an entry level club player and an elite level club player. This s a recipe for frustration all around for both players and coaches alike.

In past seasons I have relied on older more experienced players to mentor younger or inexperienced players in practical settings. I've come to question this approach as results have been found to be wanting.  I have also used a classroom and written homework approach using soccer journals.  The two approaches in combination have been effective.  The issue has been in players being steadfast in their commitment to recording what they are learning in their journals.  I must assume responsibility for this as in the interest of players being able to write down their thoughts honestly about any and all things soccer I have deemed a measure of privacy to be important to the process. I am being forced to make daily writing assignments mandatory and checked by the coaches.

I am also going to include more handouts and more opportunities for visual learning experiences. This will include instructional videos and analysis of videos of practice and games.  A multi pronged approach to the situation.  This is not an ideal scenario, of course. It is however a necessary one.  I would rather spend time on the field than in the classroom but must also face the reality of the situation and adapt what I do accordingly to be as effective as possible in coaching my teams.  

Sunday

Writing and Reading - the beat goes on.

By my standards ... we had a bad season. And just like after a poor performance in a game, I am champing at the bit to get right back out there to put things right. The self-evaluation is on-going and will be until I can get back to working with this team.  Hungry? I'm starving! And surviving on leftovers right now.  Leftovers in terms of reading through notes on past seasons.  I write and read and re-read constantly.  Reading and writing are two of my favorite pastimes.  They have proven to be both cathartic and educational throughout my life. This is certainly the case this off-season.

What I am discovering ... or remembering ... is I have been here before. It has been awhile, fore sure, but nonetheless I have traveled this path before.  There is some solace in this. There is some frustration in this.  Two main themes have emerged (as they always do).  First is to focus on what I could and can control. Secondly, ask and answer the question "why?".  

Did I do a good job with what I could control? For the most part, I believe I did. Yes, that response indicates there was room for improvement in some areas. For me recognition and flexibility are key words in this process. I took some things for granted and therefore was slow to respond. I am coming to believe I was also too ridged in my consideration of the best formation and systems of play for this team.  In fact, where I once believed I was on the cutting edge in terms of formation and systems of play in local high school soccer I now realize this is no longer true. I allowed myself to become comfortable in success.

The past couple of seasons I have not been pleased with the defense played by my teams. Where my teams were once feared because of our vaunted defense we were now average at best.  I approached this from a fundamentals standpoint - we went back to basics and drilled the basics.  Some improvements were made but it seemed like opponents capitalized on every single mistake we made. Something was amiss and I was blind to what it was.

My teams have played with 4 in the back since the late 1990's.  It worked because of the prevalence of 3 forward systems. In today's high school game the preponderance of systems we face have 2 forwards and occasionally only one forward.  Four in the back is unnecessary. In fact, I am coming to the realization 4 in the back has contributed to our defensive woes these last couple of seasons.  If a defender has no one to pressure he is in a supporting role. Four in the back saw a redundancy in supporting roles and a decrease in concentration levels in those filling non-direct support. In a sense we were lulled to sleep by a false sense of security.  it turns out this impacted our effectiveness on both defense and offense.

So it is that in addition to reviewing and analyzing my own teams' performance I have gone back to analyzing the high school game in general.  Next years team will play a different formation and adjusted systems of play. I'm already moving into design mode on this.  No, I am not going to share the changes I am contemplating and instituting for I know some rival coaches read this blog.  Our readers will need to wait until fall of 2018 to fully appreciate what is coming. Suffice it to say, we are going back to forcing opponents to adapt to what we do.  The problems we are going to present opponents next year are going to be very different from those we have presented them these past couple of seasons.  



My first love was basketball.

Doing some cleaning and organizing this morning I came across a document from my youth basketball days written by Coach Matthews (?) circa 1970. I've always remembered this when playing and coaching basketball. It is pure. It is simple. It is the truth.

Defending in Basketball

Take away the paint.

Take away the opponents strength.

Get a hand on the ball.

Talk.

Don't foul.

Box out and board.


It applies in soccer as well. And I have always maintained that soccer is basketball on grass.  So much of what I learned as a basketball player and coach applies directly to soccer. Yeah, there are differences - soccer players play predominately with their feet while basketball is played with the hands is the most obvious - but the games are strikingly similar in many ways.

So, lets take a look at this from a soccer perspective. I'm going to take some liberty and rearrange the order a bit more to my current liking.

Defending in Soccer

Effectively communicate with teammates

Take away the face of the goal

Take away the opponents strength

Get a foot to the ball

Do not foul in your defending third

Finish with regained possession



Thursday

Work. Harder or Smarter?

I have often said it is difficult to find fault with the quantity of effort a player gives. On any given day, players tend to give you the best effort they have that day.  The quality of that effort can be another matter.  As a coach, one of my primary responsibilities is to teach athletes how to give smarter or more efficient effort.

Work smarter not harder.

You will get out of something what you put into it.  Too many people equate this to quantity of work and believe the problem can be resolved by "doubling down" and working harder.  The truth of the matter might well be they need to work smarter.

"I love your effort!"

"What do you have to show for it?"

This is an exchange I will sometimes use to get a player to think about the quality of the effort they are giving.  We have all seen players who pursue the ball relentlessly. I have overheard coaches implore players to "be first to the ball!".  The objective is to beat opposing players to the ball.

The objective should be to win possession of the ball.

There is a difference between being first to the ball and winning (possession) of the ball.  This is where working smarter becomes more important than working harder. We do not want to lessen the effort given.  We want to improve the quality of the work being performed.

Think of it in terms of using a system of pull-ups and or levers to move a heavy object.  The work amount of work to be done doesn't change, but we can make the work being done easier or be more efficient in performing the work.

Matthew was a player who gave tremendous effort on the pitch. No one would dispute that, absolutely no one. One type play epitomized Matthew's style of play.  A ball rolling towards the touch line with Matthew and an opponent in hot pursuit.  Mathew arrived first to the ball!  His first touch played the ball out of bounds.  "Great effort, Matthew!  What do you have to show for it?"

I reviewed such plays with Matthew. We watched them on tape.  It took a few tries before Matthew began to understand that he had far too little to show for the amount of energy he was expending. Yes, he was first to the ball but his efforts resulted in the opposing team gaining possession of the
ball. Essentially a lot of effort given towards a lost cause.  Prompting Matthew towards a better, more efficient use of his effort / energy proved an exercise in patience as well. Eventually Matthew caught on to the idea that allowing the opposing player to "win" the ball if the likely result was the opponent was going to lose the ball out of bounds. This was a very foreign concept to a 17 year old who had been praised for many years for simply being first to the ball.  Once the objective changed to gaining possession of the ball Matthew became an even more productive player.

Monday

Bullying in sports

Bullying in sports happens.

Hazing is likely one of the first things that comes to mind when the topic bullying in sports is introduced. Despite laws being passed, hazing still occurs, but it is not the only form of bullying that occurs in sports. Far from it. I do not possess the expertise to delve clinically into why bullying in sports happens. That said, I will offer my thoughts on this based on personal experience and observations as I provide examples of bullying in sports. And this might come as a surprise but I will also raise the proposition that bullying in the context of sports might have or might of had a beneficial purpose.  So, let's get started.

For our purposes we will define bullying in sports as the physical or verbal abuse, intimidation, humiliation or threats practiced by individuals or groups in order to exert some amount of influence and power over others. These actions can be acute and overt therefore appearing extreme in nature or can be covert taking place subtly and over a longer period of time.

Hazing has taken on an evil connotation in recent years, but can actually be a productive means of acclimating new team members into the culture of a program.  Forcing the rookies to pick up equipment, get water for the team and carry the seniors bags or sing a song in front of the team are all rather benign and harmless ways of initiating players into the team setting. It's bullying because these are tasks the newbies probably do not want to do, but are forced to do because of their status on the team.  Placing icy hot in someone's underwear, taping someone naked to a goal post or the introduction of alcohol to the proceedings are also examples of hazing and the reason we now have laws against it.

So,  I believe bullying in team sports can be classified into two general categories; acclimating individuals socially into the program or intimidatingly establishing a pecking order on the "team". In today's politically correct society any form of bullying is likely to be frowned upon. I'm not here to debate you on that matter.  Rather I would like to explore the effect bullying can have on your program, the team and individual players.

I once coached in a program considered to be among the best in the region. The teams that program produced won a lot year in and year out. It produced all-state players and many went on to play in college. Then the program began to slide and fell on some hard times. Why?  Bullying.

I will point out one case that demonstrates the point.  "Travis" was not a great physical athlete but he was a very smart one. As captain of the JV team he was a tireless work and often pushed his teammates further physically than they thought they could go in training. Travis demanded nothing of his teammates that he himself did not give.  Travis gave a lot though.  He was one of the up and coming stars of a very strong JV team. Travis was called up to varsity late in the season and played in the teams tournament run to a District championship.

The bullying had begun while he led the JV team. A parent of another player felt Travis blocked or threatened her son's advancement to the varsity. Mary rode Travis unmercifully from the stands. Derogatory and offensive comments directed toward Travis that were in extremely poor taste and abusive.  The head coach of the program at the time chose to ignore this behavior. In doing so, he condoned it. And people noticed.

Throughout the next off season, Patrick and a group of friends harassed and bullied Travis to the point that Travis decided it wasn't worth it. The head coach and JV coach met with Travis to convince him he was a valued member of the team and would play a strong role on the field. Their words were not supported by their (in)actions however and the bullies won. They opened a spot on the roster and a role on the team for a friend. This was the beginning of the end. Everything did not come crashing down right away. Rather it was a slow slide into mediocrity.

This is a more common occurrence than the casual observer might be aware.  Bullying often comes with an agenda. A senior player who feels his role on the team is not secure might choose to bully whomever he views as a threat to what he feels entitled to.  The prospect of being relegated to the bench or being cut from the team based on merit is unconscionable to them so a campaign is waged against the perceived threat.  The often underclassman object of the bullying decides not to play or play poorly enough during tryouts to be relegated to the JV team.

Of course, what we are describing is very selfish behavior by bullies. Isn't this often the case, though? Bullies as described above are not team oriented. No, they are "me" oriented.

As mentioned earlier, bullying is not always so dramatic. Freshmen having to pick up equipment, wash pinnies, carry a senior's bags - each of these examples could be considered bullying. And it is fact that being forced to perform has caused people to quit a team.  There is also a servant attitude that can be developed through the performance of such tasks. A player can be humbled and taught to appreciate doing for others. Coaches often preach to the players the need for them to play for one another. There is also an element of earning your way through performing "menial" tasks. And it would be remiss not to mention the mental toughness that can be developed through bullying of this type.  As coaches we must be vigilant that the performance of tasks like preparing water coolers for and getting them to practice does not escalate into something worse.

It's important to remember the transformation Adam Sandler's character undergoes in the movie Water Boy. Bobby Boucher went from a bullied water boy to the star of the team.  Paying one's dues is okay as long as in the balance is the maturation of the player into a competent contributor, starter and even a star for the team. Bullying that makes life so miserable for a player that it brings physical, mental or emotional harm to the athlete and forces him from the team and or sport cannot be allowed nor tolerated.



Saturday

Factions: The Founding Fathers were extraordinary coaches.

In Federalist Paper 10 Madison addresses the existence and inherent dangers of factions. What does this have to do with the world's beautiful game?

Everything. 

Madison warned of the dangers of factions and proclaimed there were limited ways of dealing with them.  We could deny factions the liberty they need to exist or force everyone to believe the same way or manage the effects factions have on the whole. Madison argued in Federalist Paper 10 that the only viable solution was to manage the impact factions have on the whole and that the proposed constitution offered the best form of government to do so. Basically, factions exist so deal with them and limit their disruptiveness.

In soccer terms, a program must have a strong constitution or culture to deal with the factions that form within the group we refer to as a "team".  Two of the most talented teams I have ever been associated with underachieved because of factions. Those two teams constantly fought among themselves.  Conversely, two the best teams I have ever been associated with overachieved due to their ability to place the pursuit of a common goal above any factions that existed.

This is where the old "I don't care if you like one another, but we must respect one another" speeches coaches sometimes feel compelled to deliver originate from.

Dealing with factions. This was a primary concern of those who gathered in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. What was right and proper for the good of all the people was the over-riding concern. This led to the amazing order of checks and balances we operate and live under to this day. We coaches strive to establish similar order in our programs for the good of all involved.  How we deal with factions is as important as the X's and O's we employ. Maybe more so.

Program
Team
Individual Player

This forms the template for the process of my decision making as a coach.  The good of the program, the whole, takes first priority.  Next, what is good for the team is considered.  The individual player is third on the priority list of considerations. The individual as a player is third priority. The individual as a human being would, of course, take a higher priority. It is important to remember the context in which we are dealing with an individual.



Friday

Blame Game vs Claim Game


From Jeff Janssen



Still learning after all these years.

I have a stated goal to learn something new every day.  In pursuit of this I often try to look at things from different perspectives. That's never been more true than this off-season.  Immediately after the conclusion of the season I wrote a self-evaluation / status of the program review.  I have often debated if taking on this endeavor so close to the conclusion of the season is wise or whether waiting on the passage of time to reflect more objectively might be a better course of action. Of course, I wind up doing both.

I firmly believe in preparation being the key to succeeding on and off the pitch. I spent from November 2016 through early June 2017 preparing for the Lima Senior soccer season. Due to real world job considerations I ended up changing coaching jobs and found myself being introduced as Fairlawn's new soccer coach in mid June 2017. I balanced my need to work with my desire to coach. In retrospect, I am unsure how wise a decision this was.

We laid a great foundation for a successful 2017 season at Lima Senior,  I followed the Spartans from afar this fall and was surprised they struggled.  And at Fairlawn our struggles were just as mighty.  Both programs struggled with having adequate time under new direction to prepare for their respective 2017 seasons. 

I suffered an on-the-job knee injury in May of 2017 that greatly limited my mobility throughout the summer. I bring this to light because it impacted my ability to properly prepare for the season. Hindsight tells me I should not have coached this fall. I just wasn't physically prepared to do so. 

There were an inordinate amount of obstacles to overcome in pursuit of a successful soccer season.  

The knee injury suffered in May.
Being hired in mid-June.
The person I contracted with for summer camps backing out at the last minute.
The person the previous coach had contracted with for summer camp backing out.
Low attendance at the summer activities we held.
My wife's hospitalization which drew my attention and energies away from soccer.

It was a recipe for the disaster the 2017 Fairlawn soccer season came to be.  My self-confidence convinced me I could overcome these obstacles. I was wrong.  I was wrong in part because many of these obstacles were beyond my control. 

Even as I have reviewed the recently concluded season I have begun preparations for the 2018 soccer season. Very much on my mind have been distinguishing between the things I can and cannot control.  The most concerning to me has been attendance at necessary off-season workouts, weight training, conditioning and small group work. And attendance during the 10 days of contact I will have with the team during June and July of 2018. Player attendance at these activities is in the purview of the players. I can exert some modicum of outside influence on their decision making process, but ultimately it is their decision whether to attend, to prepare, or not. 

This is where my personal decision making process is as it concerns returning to Fairlawn as head soccer coach.  Player attendance. Player willingness to prepare for the 2018 season.  Their decisions on attendance will directly impact my decision on coaching.

To be perfectly honest, we got out of the 2017 season exactly what we put into it. Due to time constraints and my knee injury I was able to put into the 2017 off-season but a small portion of the time and energy I typically devote to preparing for an up-coming season.  A majority of players put in less effort and time than I was able to. We got what we earned.  Meritocracy in action. 

I am determined to prepare for the 2018 season with the best effort I have. I am already champing at the bit to get started. I have an unquenchable thirst to be better at what I do. I need to be better for the players who will be the 2018 soccer team at Fairlawn. I must be better before I can expect them to become better. This is what motivates me. Drives me. I am determined to build a proper foundation through preparation and execution of the season-long plan I am working on. 

The perspective of time, both backwards and forwards in contemplation, has sharpened my focus. I have used reflection of the past to glean useful insight to the present and future. I will control those things I can in preparation for the 2018 season. I will exert what influence I can over the players to prolifically prepare for their 2018 season. A meritocracy simple means we will get out of the 2018 season exactly what we are willing to invest into the 2018 season. I am hopeful our investment will be significant.