Talent is not enough.

A dear friend passes recently.  I played left field and he had played left-center field on a men's softball team some years ago. By today's standards we would have been described as a bunch of redneck farmers playing softball. It's true, most of us played in blue jeans and more than a couple played in work boots. Never thought anything of it.  At least not until we entered a tournament and saw other teams in actual uniforms.  Our jersey top?  Purple mesh with gold lettering. Yeah, you could spot us coming from a mile away.

I think people took one look at us and laughed, until the game started.  We might not have looked like much but we were good, real good.  Speed and power on offense, gloves and throwing on defense. We rarely lost and were usually shocked when we did. Our greatest strength was found in our friendships off the field. We all attended the same church and knew each other outside of the game. We knew each others strengths and weaknesses as players and people, but most importantly we understood how working together we could cover for each others weaknesses and accentuate our strengths.

A coaching colleague's team recently lost in a state championship game and he expressed concern about feeling ambivalent about it. He thought maybe he should feel more upset about the loss than he did and was wondering if his passion for the game was perhaps waning. I cannot answer for him but I think perhaps he understood they lost to a better team. His team was comprised of a great group of girls who also happened to be pretty good soccer players. They accomplished all they could, they reached their potential and in doing so could not feel disappointed about falling to a better team. He felt a sense of satisfaction with having come in second and that seemed at odds with his competitive nature.

Recently I fielded a request to be interviewed about my time as head coach of Lima Central Catholic's girls soccer team. This team was a blend of the two described above. Little to no equipment, old uniforms, practice site was a construction landfill, never a winning record in 11 years and little school support. We self-transported or crammed into two school vans for most matches.  The girls seemed to accept such was their lot.  For years they played to expectations which was to underachieve. A small (17) but passionate about soccer group that I saw potential in.

That first season we won more games, scored more goals, allowed fewer goals than any team in school history. The situation immediately changed. The summer before the second season the AD introduced me to the new school president with a statement that I would have the girls soccer team playing in Columbus that fall. He meant the state championship game at Crew Stadium. Somehow we had gone from just experiencing our first ever winning season to expecting to play for the state championship in a matter of about 7 months? 

I had secretly been thinking we could make a serious run at a state title, but had never spoken of this to anyone. The talent was on hand to make such a run, but talent alone is not enough. Team chemistry was the terminology we used back in the day. Today it is often referred to as team bonding. The softball team I played on had it.  My colleague's recent soccer team had it.   The LCC group did not have it and the struggle to establish it would eventually decide how far the team would go.

I had always played second base as a kid. Usually batted second in the lineup.  As an 18 year old playing with men in their 20's and 30's on that softball team I found myself assigned to left field and batting 9th out of 10.  I did not care. I had made the first team, was starting and we were winning. I had the time of my life. My colleague had related similar stories of the girls on his team. Position changes, accepting roles, sacrificing self for team. 

The LCC group never achieved "team" status. Personal agendas took precedent over team goals. Talent carried them far but when adversity struck they did not have each other to rely upon. Trust had never taken root because personal agendas always trumped team mission. Truth be told there were two exceptional leaders at LCC. The problem was there were 3 negative leaders with overpowering personalities.  Parents of the negative leaders exacerbated the situation by insisting their children play a more significant role than they were capable of and holding the school financially hostage in order to get their way.  Finally the administration agreed a certain matter required disciplining specific athletes, but chose to ignore the transgression under threat of financial consequences to the school leading to the end of my time at LCC.

FWIW, I declined the request to be interviewed. I write of my experience at LCC now because I can relate it to my colleagues confusion over how he feels about his recently completed season. I felt a sense of relief in stepping away from LCC.  I will always wonder if they had ever become a team whether we could have won a state title. I believe the necessary talent was on hand, but talent alone is not enough. I walked away knowing I had done everything I could under my control to build a respected program and develop a team atmosphere. Without admistration support, I could not take that paticular group any further. I was, to me, strangely satisfied with what we had accomplished even while feeling we had left so much on the table from a talent perspective.

It's the same type of satisfied feeling I had after each softball season with the St. Matthew Lutheran Church team. The difference being the softball team achieved to its full talent potential because we were a team in every sense of the word. I think this is what my colleague has been feeling as well.  It is also what I am feeling with this spring's club soccer team.  A collection of U15-U17 boys playing U17 soccer.  The results have been good thus far, but the comradery has been exceptional. This is a group with many strong personalities some of which could certainly be negative if they chose to be, but everyone has bought in to the teams goals. Everyone.

These guys are true friends off the pitch as well as good teammates on the pitch. The truth of real friendship is a powerful force.  Call it team chemistry or bonding or whatever else you will. It is that elusive magic some collections of talent never find.  It is this magic that can bring out the best in individual talent as it pursues team objectives. I have been lucky to be a member of teams both as a player and a coach that have had "it".  This may well be why I can look back at a situation like LCC and not have regrets on a personal level.  I understand the decision to be a member of a team is made by each individual. We can work to include everyone but ultimately each member of a group must make their own decision. Sometimes people refuse to sacrifice personal agendas for team objectives and we cannot change their minds, but when it all comes together.... what a wonderous thing!

So far this spring I have been fortunate to be a part of a team loaded with talent and equally loaded with TEAM spirit.  I am thankful to have been so blessed. I know on talent alone these guys have a chance to achieve, but with the trust we have in one another we have a chance to really achieve. It's a great feeling to have. 


Is he coachable?

Invariably when a coach contacts me about a player the question of whether he is coachable arises in one form or another and usually very early in the discussion. Coaches want to know a player's capacity for listening to instruction, constructive criticism and suggestions. Will the player be receptive and will he use these focal points as points of emphasis to improve his game and advance to another level of play?  Is the player willing to learn or is he a know-it-all stuck in his ways?

There are lots of skilled athletes looking to play in college.  One of the determining factors in closing the deal between coach and athlete is the players willingness to learn. Is the athlete willing to accept feedback? Will he recognize the constructive criticism, instruction and suggestions are offered to make him a better player?  Athletes who fail to be receptive to coaching are the ones coaches tend to pass on.

On the club and high school level the same holds true. During tryouts coaches will often give "pointers' to the group and then watch carefully to see which players work to address these suggestions. I do this frequently with teams I coach. If there is a battle for a starting position or role on the team, which athlete do you think is more likely to win out?

How do you take constructive criticism, instruction and suggestions?

Do you react or do you respond?

Reacting typically involves competitive responses.  A coach will offer insight, instruction or suggestions and the athlete will be argumentative or dismissive either in word or deed. There is a disconnect between coach and athlete. Coaches dealing with this type of athlete will often invoke the word "trust" or lack thereof in association with this type of athlete. A lack of "buy in" will be cited. Coaches choose not to waste their time with this type of athlete.

Responding typically involves reflective, open minded thinking on the part of the athlete. There is a willingness to step out of established comfort zones with an acknowledged prospect of broadening their game. There exists an eagerness to learn as opposed to a stubborness to new ideas. Responding often involves question and answer discourse between coach and player that serves to build a relationship whose foundation is trust.  When a coach knows the athlete buys into the program he is more apt to be willing to invest as much time as necessary to help the athlete develop.

Coaches, the good ones anyways, are hyper-sensitive to "coach-ability".  The best coaches are  themselves coachable. These are the men and women that are students of the game. They are always in search of more knowledge.... and by extension they expect the athletes they coach to be receptive and eager learners as well. Technical and tactical knowledge are musts but the ability to build reltionships that foster receptiveness to learning from constructive criticism, instruction and suggestions is also a focal point of a coaches continuing education.  In the end though a coach wants to see the same level of committment to the relationship from the player as he himself puts into the relationship. If a player is not receptive and responsive, coaches typical dismisss them and find others who are. It comes down to decision-making on the athletes part. It's an athlete's choice to be coachable.


There is no secret about successful teams:
They understand the importance of role acceptance;
They play hard;
They play for each other.


The Process Continues

After a couple of snow storms the team was finally able to take to the pitch for our first league match. I have to admit that this match held a certain amount of trepidation for me. I was not sure what to expect from our team let alone the opponents. The grass hasn't really begun to turn green yet and lawnmowers are still in storage here in Ohio. I wasn't even entirely sure the field would be lined when we arrived. Sometimes you just have to have faith and trust eveything will come together.

When, after an hour drive, we arrived at the pitch it was lined and the goals had nets! The pitch itself was far from ideal. Clumps of crabgrass had sprung up but the good grass was still dormant resulting in a very clumpy surface - a goal keepers nightmare for sure. Tempertures were in the low 40's with a brisk 15+ mph blowing out of the west. The field ran west to east.

As I mentioned in a previous writing, after the college showcase event I re-evaluated team formation and system of play. It was apparent I was asking too much of some players. My fault, not theirs. I assumed a certain level of soccer IQ or game intelligence was present as these kids have been playing for 10-12 years.  Believe it or not, some have specialized in a single position for the vast majority of their playing time and therefore lack a rounded or overall knowledge of the game. Even in regards to "their position" there is only a rudimentary understanding of the nunances of the poition they play.  Again, this is not the players fault, but more an indictment of the youth / development system they have come through.

The changes we made were to move to a 4-4-2 zonal system.  Many people feel the 4-3-3 is the easiest formation to learn the game in, but I disagree.  The 4-4-2 played with a flat back and flat midfield is the easiest formation / system to teach as there exists a certain amount of overlap in positional responsibilities.  Four channels of play with a defense based on pressure, cover and balance utilizing the channels for positioning. It is more static than I prefer, but also returns many of the players to a comfort level that will allow for the cross training necessary before we can consider moving back to the 4-3-3 formation.

Training to implement the changes was hampered by the aforementioned snow storms.  We did virtually no pattern play and a minimum of shadow play in the few training sessions leading up to this match. the focus was instead on breaking down old habits and establishing new habits centered on individual and collective patterns of play.  Many of the players receive the ball and then attempt to figure out what to do with it - one decision soccer.  Playing in this manner is terribly slow soccer that self-inflicts pressure.  Our focus has been on knowing the play you will make before your first touch on the ball.  Preparing to play before the ball is received allows for the first touch on the ball to be in the direction of your next play. This speeds up the pace of play.

There is much more to it than just having an advanced vision of the play you will make. For instance, movement without the ball is critical. It is player movement without the ball that predicates the movement. of the ball.  The majority, probably 85 % of our preperation for this match was focused on preparing to play / movements without the ball with the midfield being the focus of attention.  This was done with purposeful intent as midfield play was our weakest link at the showcase event a few weeks back. 

The match went well with our side earning a 6-2 decision. Overall, I feel very comfortable with our starters. Attacking play through the midfield showed dramatic improvement. I could see multiple decision soccer and forethought of play taking place to a far greater degree. The backs and midfielders linked well together. The forwards were still one dimensional and our focus in training will shift to their play this week.  Defensively the starting midfielders played very well individually, as a unit and in linking with the backs.  Our substitutes played well in attack, but allowed the opponents too many counter attack opportunities. We really lost control of the midfield when the starters were out. This will have to remain a focus of our training going forward.

The important thing to remember is to treat the season's journey as a process. We started down a path in Februrary. March saw us decide to alter our course. April has shown positive intitial results but there is a long ways to go yet. We cannot become bored with the details of the process. It is the small details that ultimately determine the success of our journey.