I cannot begin to count the number of pickup games I have played over the years.  Basketball, baseball, soccer, football, kickball, whiffle ball: we learned early to pick sides and play. My wife always marvelled at how I could find a group of complete strangers playing a game at a park and in no time be a part of the action. A quick introduction during a break in the action and when play resumed I had a new set of teammates and more often than not new friends as well.

As I watched my son and his friends participate in the Ohio South ODP College Showcase event this past weekend I was struck by how quickly the players established roles on the field. These were basically pick up games involving 70 of the best 16 year old soccer players in Ohio South. There was potential for a lot of selfish play to present itself, but on my son's "Ireland" team this never became a problem.  From the very beginning the individuals shared the ball with the passing being quite good. It was much the same on the defensive side of the ball as players instinctively worked together.

Yes, there was some individualism that reared its head but the kids took care of that themselves and did so in relatively short order. I have seen this through the years and it never ceases to amaze me.  If you won't pass the ball, soon you will not be passed the ball either.  If you pass the ball and in doing so help your teammates look good, they will generally return the favor or will find themselves being isolated from play.  If you play defense, you immediately earn the respect of your teammates. If you don't defend, your team will work to isolate you so you are not involved in defending.

The boys were allowed to call off the player they wished to substitute for and by the end of the first session it was clear which players were earning the trust of their teammates and which were being subbed off on a regular basis. The best teammates played the vast majority of minutes in these games. Not always the best players although that pecking order was being established as well, but the players that played best with others.

As a coach, I am always conscious during training of the player(s) who constantly breakdown an activity. Who are the players whose decision making is most questionable, who take excessive touches, who are always losing possession of the ball or are the weak link defensively.  Even in training, as the competitive spirit comes forth, these players will be isolated from play. I observed the same thing happening at the ODP event this weekend.

I remind the members of my teams constantly that every time they step onto the field it is a tryout. Not only a tryout in terms of soccer but also in terms of life. You never know who is watching: a college recruiter or a possible future employer, someone you might call upon as a reference, the young lady you might want to date or even marry might be watching you.  First impressions as crucial. This was evident at the ODP event this weekend as well.  If your first touches on the ball involved poor decison-making or selfish play, it set the tone for your weekend. If your first opportunity to defend involved poor or little effort, it set the tone for your weekend.

These were lessons I learned early in life.  Scoring the basketball was always my strength, but sometimes that was not the role I needed to play for my team. In those pickup games of my youth, there were often older established players or perhaps scorers who were better than I or merely more familar to the group I had joined. I filled other roles until I earned the right to score the ball by taking advantage of opportunities through the run of play. Defending and passing the ball are excellent ways to establish trust with new or familar teammates. Making hustle plays endears yourself to teammates - rebound goals as opposed to the primary shot or winning / saving a loose ball to a teammate instead of waiting for someone to do so for you.

I became a very good defender by choice.  In pickup games almost no one wants to defend the other teams best scorer. It involves hard work of both mind and body. I always took the other teams best scorer.  I gained immediate acceptance in any group by doing so. And it led to opportunities to do what I liked to do best - score the ball. That approach helped earn me my first job in corporate accounting for an international retailer before I ever graduated from college.

As I watched the play this weekend one thought was constant in my mind: the kids that were showing well all played with an attitude of "what can I do for my team" while the ones that struggled were seemingly all about "what the team should do for me".  Pickup games are often like that, but so too is life. As a coach I look at a players decision-making abilities as the key consideration in any evaluation of their play.  This lesson was learned from playing (and observing) countless pickup games over the years. The ability to identify players who make good decisions with, AND perhaps especially without, the ball are the ones I want on my team. 

Next time you ask players to choose up sides or are involved in a pickup game yourself take note of when players are taken.  The ability of being a good teammate is highly prized often times even over playing ability. There's are reasons for that.

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