Coaching is one of the most difficult things I do.

Aside from the effort I put into my relationship with my wife and parenting our children, coaching is probably the most difficult thing I do.  Coaching involves the teaching of fundamentals and tactics, sportsmanship, life lessons, and so much more. The bottom line with coaching is relationships though.

This spring my challenge has doubled as I have 36 players on two different teams. I was speaking with a coaching colleague recently who also is coaching two teams and about the same number of players.  His philosophy seemed to be "focus on winning games" because with that many players it is too difficult to spend enough quality time with them all.  I disagree, at least in part.

It is true, that 36 players is a lot to work with during a soccer season.  It is also true that it is important to build a relationship with each one of them.  It takes a lot of work so the key is to work smarter rather than harder for there is indeed limited time.  Working smarter is also necessary in maintaining relationships that have been established. 

I am not sure why, but I continue to be amazed when God stands my well laid plans on their ear.  That God's will prevails is a lesson I have learned repeatedly.  Even so, I do plan meticulously for each season, each team and each player. There is a certain amount of anticipation involved in the planning for both season and individual players.  Just as I implore players to expand their play from "one-decision" soccer to "multi-decision" soccer I must do this in my coaching.  In the context of coach / player relationships this involves putting the TEAM first while also being ever mindful of the individual players that comprise a team.

In spring club soccer there are usually limited disciplinary actions required. I am very flexible about players who must miss for a school sport or school activity. The same holds true for players who miss due to work.  Church and family always come before soccer. The point being absence is not usually an issue. It was in one instance this spring when a player elected to referee a match a couple of fields over while his teammates played a match at the same time.  In this instance I turned to the team leadership to resolve the issue and they did so in an amazingly mature and fair fashion.

Rather, in spring club soccer the bigger issues can be of players buying into a teams philosophy and system of play.  Sometimes a lack of time to devote to the team can be an issue in this area. Other times it can be a lack of humbleness in a player that detracts from team play.  Being humble does not entail thinking less of yourself so much as it entails thinking less about yourself and more about your team. I suppose President Kennedy would have put it, "Ask not what your team can do for you, but what you can do for your team".

At a recent match involving our "A" team I made both a formational change and personnel changes to address on-going concerns in our play.  In short, we were lacking consistent back to goal target play, were clogging the face of the goal in out attacking third and were poor in our transition from attacking to defending especially in the center midfield.  So, we switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-4-1.  The initial results were mixed. The general comments were largely supportive of the formational change.  As might be expected, other areas of concern arose. Somewhat unexpectedly was the fact some of the areas of concern were still personnel based as could be witnessed on the first goal we allowed.  In general, the first half of play was different than what we had been experiencing although I would not say it was fundamentally better overall.

I pondered what to address as half time approached.  There was just so many things to select from I was feeling overwhelmed in identifying 2 or 3 to really bring focus on.  We were down 0 - 1 to a weaker team.  The mistakes made on the goal the opponents scored encapsulated the way the entire half had been played by our team.  I preach "attention to the details of the process" as a king consideration to success in sports and in life. This was severely lacking in our play on the field by a majority of the team.  Missed assignments. Mental errors. Selfish play.  One-decision soccer.  Multiple touches on the ball when 1 or 2 would have sufficed. Self-inflicted pressure. Basically we were still underachieving and this was largely due to individuals self-inflicting pressure on themselves and by extension the team at large.

To be honest, what I witnessed was an accumulation of factors that had been building over the course of the season. This team has 16 players capable of starting. It is an area all-star team. There are many players who were captains of their high school team, the go-to guy on their high school team, all-league, all-district and all-state players.  The key to the season would hinge on their willingness to sacrifice for each other.  From a team perspective we had been failing miserably in this regard.

Too many individuals playing for themselves is a recipe for disaster on any team. The truth of the matter is, one player playing for himself on a team is too many.  We have had several this spring.  So while we have won some games we have also lost some that we should not have.  In those tight games when we needed to rely on one another, we had individuals playing outside their roles and generally trying to do too much on their own.  We were unable to trust one another because we had yet to sacrifice and embrace one another.

As a coach there is an acknowledgement that sometimes team chemistry just isn't what it should be and however unfortunate this might be there is precious little a coach can do about it.  Team chemistry is largely outside the realm of control of the coach.  Yes, team bonding can be worked on and enhanced, but the responsibility rests largely with the individual players buying into the teams philosophy and system of play.  There are seasons when team chemistry never establishes itself to a satisfactory level. Those seasons tend to long, very long, for everyone involved and are blemished with underachieving play and results. As half time approached during this recent game I felt we were on the precipice of that type of season.

The challenge then was to uncover enough players willing to play for one another.  A couple of weeks ago there was a parent who complained I didn't have the best 11 players on the pitch.  I would largely agree with that statement.  Reality tells us it is not about having the best 11 players on the pitch at the same time but having the 11 who play best together on the pitch at the same time.  This is the approach I took for the second half of this recent match.

I selected a starting 11 whom I believed would play for one another.  Even more than that, I felt the starting unit I put on the pitch would not want to let one another down. I attempted to select 11 who would raise each others level of play and by doing so would raise the teams level of play. 

We went "ironman" which is tantamount to the U.S. military's "broken arrow" call sign in terms of my coaching philosophy.  I would not specifically call for substitutions. That responsibility would remain in the provenance of the individuals who started the second half. If they wished a break, they would ask out. I would name a substitute to replace them. When rested and ready to return to action the starter would sub himself back into the game for the player who had replaced him.  In the world of free / unlimited substitution soccer this is a drastic, even extreme measure.

I struggled with which eleven to name. Two players in particular were worthy of consideration for the 11 who would start the second half, but were ultimately left off that unit primarily as a function of positions played. The risk involved in this strategy was immense and dependent almost entirely on those 11 who would be taking the field. In them, I put my trust as a coach.

Would these 11 individuals come together to play as a team? 

Just as importantly, would be how these 11 individuals would respond to the responsibility of calling for their own substitutions. That is, which of the 11 would trust a teammate to play in their stead.

The results were a bit mixed. We scored in the first few minutes of the second half to even the score at 1- 1 only to allow a second goal against due to poor decision making. Down 1-2 the next few minutes were dicey until we evened the score on a PK. From that point forward we began playing as I had envisioned we would when this team was assembled. On the other hand, to say there had been limited substitutions would be an understatement. This is something that will bear very close scrutiny going forward.

There was one bench player in particular who I felt was slighted in the amount of playing time he received in the second half.  The question I have been pondering is why of the five players he could have subbed for positionally only one elected to take a break and that for 5 minutes.  Is there a trust issue with his teammates in regards to his play?  Is he not viewed as a team player?

None of the bench players played extensively in the second half. Two did come off the bench to score goals for us in limited action which is good. To illustrate where we are I will share a comment made about the proper perspective of scoring goals;  "Scoring goals will be used to justify why they should be on the field while the reasons they aren't in the game are completely ignored."  An extremely interesting observation and telling commentary from a teammate.  It tells me we have a ways to go yet in this process of buying in.

So, a formational change and personnel change failed to initially stimulate play to the degree hoped for. It took an extreme change in game management to generate positive on-field results.  Now the question becomes the response of those players who were left on the bench for the majority of the second half. Will they began to take ownership of why they sat or will they blame the coach or their teammates? 

For me to think we have everything solved or worked out would be foolish. This team and this season could still go down the tubes in a hurry.  Just under four weeks to go in the season and I am left to wonder if they will go painfully slow or exquisitely fast?

As the season hangs in the balance it is ultimately the relationships that will determine which way it falls.  Discovering who is willing to put forth the effort to build relationships between players and between coaches and players will be key.  It is sometimes said a team is only as strong as its weakest player. In this case, the teams strength will be measured by the quality of relationships. Are we willing to work, to put intelligent effort into establishing better relations?  Are we willing to sacrifice the Me for the We?

Regarding line up changes

Over the years when I have made personnel changes to line ups invariably players who are displaced want to know what they have done wrong. Many times changes are driven by faulty decision making. What players fail to realize is the decision making being questioned is that of the coach as much or even more so than that of the player.

As I contemplate line up changes for our Grand Lake United BPL team today I can most definitely say they are coming about because I, as their coach, have failed to get it right.  I thought my decision making process was sound, but this past Friday's match proved otherwise.  Strange thing is, we won the match against a rival club on their home pitch.  I should be happy, right?

We won the match in spite of ourselves.  Some individuals really struggled to conform with our system of play in their decision making. Collectively we struggled to find a proper rhythm because we were not on the same page in our decision making.  It would be easy to single out certain players as the root cause of our problems. It would also be foolish to do so.

Consider for a moment that it is the coach's responsibility to place players in positions and situations in which they have a reasonable expectation for success.  This is true with individual players, in combining players in units and in the collective 11 man side. 

I put considerable time into deciding line ups. I attempt to find the proper position for individual players and the right combination of players and skills.  Sometimes what looks good on paper just doesn't work well on the pitch. Then another round of decisions must take place. Is patience required? Does a player or combination of players simply need more time to sort things out?  Was it simply good intentions gone awry?  Is there a better position for an individual player or a better combination of players?

These are questions I have been pondering.  I have asked a handful of people for input and others have offered unsolicited input. I have concluded the quality of my decision making left something to be desired.  Now I need to put it right.  Direct and honest communication with the players involved will be vital.  Some will be happy with the changes. Others will not and perhaps even become angry. My hope is all involved will embrace the changes in recognition they are being made for the good of the collective. For the good of the TEAM. 


Experience has taught me the importance of having "Buy in" in your program
Head Coach, Assistant Coaches, Players, Parents, Administrators
Success requires everyone to buy into The Process.
When commitment and dedication to one another are present
The Process will take care of the outcome.


Grand Lake U19 season begins.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, last season's success has generated a lot of interest in our team, our program.  For the first time ever, we will field two teams in the U19 age group.  I have refrained from labeling the teams "A" and "B" although it is obvious one team is more talented than the other. I want very much to foster a sense of community within our club and especially amongst our two U19 teams.  So far, so good with one small hiccup that I believe has been put to rest.

The BPL Grand Lake United team began play by participating in the Ohio Galaxies College Showcase.  Our first match was the second time we were outside all winter. We played against a team who had already played in a couple of tournaments.  The results were predictable. We struggled and looked completely out of sync if not out of place on the pitch with them.  It just was not a good start.

In the second match we regrouped and played much better overall.  We still took the loss, but we competed well.  Had we been able to finish on a respectable amount of our chances the result might have been different.  In the end, we came away with something to build on. A foundation for success was laid, if you will.

The third match we won against a team that had defeated our previous two opponents.  Yes, we made significant improvements throughout the course of the weekend.  We played better in every aspect of the game and for the first time played as a team.  Not a perfect game by any means but another step forward.

The following weekend we played our first league game.  New league. New opponents. A fair amount of trepidation.  From the opening whistle we played well. The run of play was fairly equal in the first half although I did believe we were the better team overall.  The second half proved me right as we finally found the ability to finish some chances.  The resulting victory put us on a early season mini - win streak and evened the season record at 2-2-0.

Next up was the Early Bird Classic and frankly, I wasn't sure what we had gotten ourselves in for.  Our scheduled opponents were from Wisconsin , West Virginia and Ohio.  A couple of these squads had very impressive resumes.   When we took the field Saturday morning it was immediately obvious we were up against a very fine team.  Big, strong, athletic and highly skilled.  They took it to us early on and went up 0 - 1 on a laser strike from 40 yards out.  The ball never got more than 5 feet off the ground and found back netting on the left side of our goalkeeper.  A tremendous shot by a high school aged player.

That goal allowed actually seemed to settle us down and as we approached the 5 minutes remaining mark I hoped to get out of the half being down just one.  No more had that thought entered my mind then the same opponent struck again... and again from nearly 40 yards out. Again another laser shot that never got above head high. This time to the right of our goalkeeper and into the back netting.  Unbelievable.  I was speechless.  One such shot might have been luck. He proved the first shot by duplicating it with a second. I honestly thought the rout might be on.

Thankfully our players had different ideas. With less than a minute remaining in the half and going into the face of a 20 mph wind with falling rain / sleet we got on the board on a superbly executed bangoo goal from our forwards.  That goal put us back into the match and gave us momentum going into half time.

We enjoyed the better run of play in the second half although we did have to weather a couple of  serious sustained attacks from our opponents.  We got the equalizer about 12 minutes in and this seemed to grow our confidence and shake that of the opponents.  I am sure the deteriorating weather conditions played a factor as well. We scored the winning goal with 8 minutes to go, survived one more serious challenge from the opponents then closed out the game in their end of the pitch.

The end result will show a win for us. We certainly showed further improvement.  I seek not to diminish our accomplishment but given that match was our opponents first of the spring and their first time outside all spring, well... I wouldn't want to face that team in a month's time. They are going to be an elite sideThis was a signature win for our team.

Unfortunately the remainder of the tournament was cancelled a couple hours after we completed our match. I would have greatly enjoyed playing again to see if we could continue our steady improvement or if we might have suffered a let down after a big win.

This week the Grand Lake United Wolves begin league play on Thursday. We scrimmaged our U17 team last night. Like the BPL team, this team struggled early on but made steady progress throughout the scrimmage.  The two U19 teams will scrimmage each other this evening for about 40 minutes and that will provide a stiffer challenge and a better indication of where the Wolves stand. The BPL team returns to action with a league game on Friday night.

Good luck to both teams and our program as a whole!