Who is the driving force behind playing?

I want to preface this by stating I am a member of several coaching lists or email groups through which information is exchanged, opinions shared and the like. The member coaches are quote literally from all over the globe and include professional coaches from well known clubs down through the ranks to high school coaches toiling away in small towns across America. I state this so it is understood the people and situations I am about to discuss are not necessarily known personally to me and in this manner their identities are protected.

Situation #1 -  At tryouts it was determined a player should be relegated to the clubs second team. The player had participated with the same club for several years and always on the first team.  The coaching staff felt as though he had plateaued and not progressed as a player over the course of the last couple of seasons. The player's mother was quite irate and even hostile about her son being relegated to the second team. It was explained to both player and parent there would be ample opportunities to guest play for the first team through the club pass system.  It was presented as a best of both worlds situation where the player would actually get to play in more games than had he remained with the first team.  Mother was still not happy.  The player seemed rather nonchalant about it all.   Time and again throughout the season the player was asked to guest play with the first team and more often than not the player refused the invitation.  The mother was apparently unaware of the player declining these opportunities

Situation #2 - This actually is two separate but similar situations. In each case a father made the decision to move his son to another club.  The only problem was, the son did not want to change clubs.  Apparently the fathers had greater visions of grandeur for their sons while the sons were content playing soccer with their friends.  In one case the player remained where he had been and in the other case the father forced the son to try out for an academy program, and in so doing lost his spot with the club team he had been with for years. The academy experience did not turn out as expected ... or perhaps as hoped... but probably as could have been anticipated if viewed through unbiased vision.

As I read the exchanges about these players and their parents I could not help but wonder about the parents motivation in each situation.  It seems to me the child's wishes were being largely ignored as the parent chased a dream.   In situation #1 the player turned down invitations extended to guest play with the first team unbeknown to his mother. All the while the mother was sure her son was being disrespected.  It turns out being on a successful soccer team was something mom was far more proud of than the son was. Not only was pride a factor, but identity and self worth were artificially inflated by being associated with "A" team. 

Allow that to sink in for a moment.

In the second situation, it was fathers pushing their sons to perceived greater heights than the sons had set their eyes on. The fathers pursued prestige and "better" opportunities for their sons without consulting with their sons as to what the sons wanted.  The driving force was seemingly a perception the child was being held back by local circumstances and they needed to move the player to entirely different states to find the right opportunity for their son to excel in.

Allow that to also to sink in for a moment.

There is a third situation that will serve to bring the others into clearer focus.  Here we have a sweat drenched individual that spends every possible moment on the pitch with a ball at his feet. He truly loves the game. His passion for soccer runs deeper than anyone elses described here.  How do I know this? Because this player has been forbidden to play soccer by his father.  This player has to sneak out to the fields and does so with full appreciation that if caught the consequences will be severe.  I do know the people under discussion here. The son has another year until he goes out on his own and will be able to play the game whenever he wants. And play he will.

In the first two situations we find parents living through their sons. It is actually the passion of the parents that burns stronger, or at least far differently, than that of their sons. In the third situation it is the child's passion that burns so brightly the parent cannot extinguish it.

Why do the kids play?

With me it was baseball.  Evidently my father was a pretty good baseball player. An older brother was spoken of glowingly as a shortstop and pitcher.  Me?  I never did like baseball, but dad signed me up to play each season. Baseball became a lightning rod in a rather contentious relationship between father and son.  Baseball was my father's passion, not mine.  I was evidently fairly good at baseball. The middle school and high school coaches tried each spring to convince me to play.  I actually made the college team although I declined to play.  Trying out for it was more my way of establishing if I was as good as my father thought I was ... or could be. Turning down the opportunity was my way of thumbing my nose at my father even though he had since passed away. I played basketball.

So it is in reading of the situations described above that I wonder what the players are actually thinking. What are their desires, their dreams?  Why do they play soccer?  And most importantly, have their parents ever discussed this with them?


Learning to Win

Many people would rather be certain they're miserable,

than risk being happy.

This is what I mean when writing about learning to win and how some seem more comfortable existing in an established comfort zone than breaking out to explore the entirety of the game... or life. I am reminded of Patrick Swazye's line from the movie Road House, "it's amazing what you can get used to, huh?"


When you truly believe in what you are doing,
it shows.
Winners are those who are excited about playing.
It is seen in the urgency of their play.
It is on display in their passion for the game.
There is an understanding
that any game might be their
final time on the pitch
and there is a dedication and determination
to make the last and lasting memory
a GREAT one.


Every kid around the world who plays soccer
wants to be Pele.
I have a great responsibility to show them
not just how to be like a soccer player,
but how to be like a man.



Ask for help.

One thing I have learned from coaching is the necessity and benefit of asking for help. The more perspectives on a matter, the better in many cases.  I value assistants who will speak up and offer input even when... perhaps especially when... their opinion differs from my own. That has never been more true than this spring.

In coaching two teams I am sometimes spread pretty thin. Admittedly this accentuates the tunnel vision I am prone to during a season anyway.  In recent matches I asked assistants to manage the game for me, give the half time talk and generally assume the responsibilities of a head coach in the game.  I learned a lot through how they interpreted the games they managed.  Their substitution rotations and patterns differed from my own.  The positions they played some in differed as well. Not only did I take notice of all this, but I embraced some of the things the assistants did and incorporated them into my own management of games.

Another thing I do is to seek input from players on a wide range of matters. I will ask players to suggest starting line ups.  I seek their input on positions.  I encourage their input during matches, at half time and in post game evaluations. I have found a players perspective can be among the most enlightening.

I will also ask coaching peers for their input. Sometimes I ask someone to come observe a match. Other times I will send video of a game to colleagues and ask for their impressions.  I did this very thing recently as I struggled to find the 11 best to start games and the substitution rotations that would keep us well balanced throughout the game. I went so far to seek input on who the 10 best field players were on the team and how they might fit into a lineup.

One observation from a group of colleagues was that opponents seemed to pick on our left back position.  I knew this was happening, but assumed it was because most teams are right foot dominant.  My peers thought that was not necessarily the case and suggested I move the left back(s) to the right back spot to see what happened. It did not take long to discover teams were "picking on" players more so than the left back position.  One player really struggles with first touch and opponents seem to sense they can pressure him into mistakes.  The other was very offensive minded and slight of build. Opponents seem to think they can out-muscle him and take advantage of his aggressiveness in attack.

An associated observation was that we were wasting the talent of the player manning the right back position. It was suggested he needs to get a lot more touches on the ball.  That was one I had wrestled with quite a bit as it was my son manning the right back position.  We were told he is the best right back in the state by ODP coaches. So, right back seemed to make sense, but it appears it really doesn't in this case.  We were probably wasting his talent at right back when he could use it as a center mid.

Fitting a formation to the talent on hand can also be a difficult.  In terms of center midfielders the talent we have suggests playing 3 of them.  We tried this early in the season and it was a disaster. I perhaps abandoned the 4-5-1 formation to quickly, but the team settled in pretty well in a 4-4-2 before opponents began exploiting our aggressive attacking mentalities at the position by counter attacking directly down the middle of the pitch.

To say the team was underachieving and that my inability to uncover the 11 who would play best together was a root cause would be a significant understatement.  So, as I have already stated, I asked for help.  I spoke with coaching colleagues and peers. I shared match video with them. I spoke with players. I asked referees I know and who had officiated our matches for their input.

Position and personnel changes have followed.  We now play a 4-1-4-1 having inserted my son in as the one holding midfielder. We had one very accomplished forward and playing him as a lone forwarded opened space for him to play in.  We have strengthened the back line and improved the defensive presence in the midfield. And tonight the final piece may have fallen in place for us - thanks to input from an assistant coach we found a second player more than capable of playing the target forward position.  The team is beginning to play closer to their potential. Possession and ball movement has improved. Varied attacks and multiple goal scorers are becoming the norm.

Some feathers have been ruffled. With every decision there are consequences and as I alluded to earlier some players have lost starting positions leading to dissatisfaction with my decision-making. I have had to speak with some individuals about accepting new roles for the good of the team. Some embrace this idea while others are more selfish in pouting about the change in their role perceiving it as a demotion or a reduction of their importance to the team which isn't the case at all. It's nothing other than a change - no more and no less.

However, there have been rewards as well.  The former left back who struggled with first touch has had much better touch as a midfielder and forward.  I am not yet quite sure how to interpret this.  He had several "whiffs' in the games before the position switch and not a one since?  He has played as defender for a couple of seasons and I wonder if he became bored with the position or perhaps merely wanted to play a different position? It might be that I rarely substitute backs and he has been fresher physically and mentally in playing fewer minutes thereby reducing mistakes caused by fatigue.  He is now playing in 12-15 min shifts with short breaks between them and making far fewer mistakes. 

The new right back has a tremendous leg he is using to switch fields and explosive speed he is using in combination play with midfielders to get himself into the attack.  The new left back has given us a physical presence, improved and increased distributions in starting the attack.  Our new holding mid is protecting the center backs, providing the pivot in transition, switching play and distributing the ball extremely well. A former forward is being allowed to play to his strengths as a midfield wing.

Overall the team is beginning to click. I take the blame for it taking this long, but also accept the credit in the sense that I am the one who ultimately makes the decision. However the real credit goes to Steve, Marc, Phil, Bruce, Randy, Keith, Mac, Billy, Kyle, Dave, Greg, et al. and our players who have provided input and insight. Without contributions from our coaches, colleagues, peers, players and officials I fear my tunnel vision would still be inhibiting the teams ability to play closer to their potential.  So it is, that on behalf of our team, I thank each and every one of you who have shared thoughts and suggestions with me to date. Please, please, please keep up the good work!

MAP for Success

My eldest son taught me an invaluable lesson some years ago.  While in middle school Grant carried some "baby fat" as many boys do before the fully hit puberty.  I believe it was during his 8th grade year that he began to grow tall.  That summer Grant had to have a tonsillectomy.  Definitely not the way to spend ones summer when you are 14 years of age, but there was a side benefit - Grant shed all his baby fat and with the help of Tim & Tina Lones at F.A.S.T the transformation of his body in a few short months was astonishing.

Grant was blessed with average physical abilities. Not exceptional fast or quick his best attributes are strength and intelligence. That combination provided him with great endurance while on the pitch and provided me with the invaluable lesson I spoke of before.

You see, once in shape, Grant never stopped moving on the pitch. His movement was not that frenzied all out activity we sometimes see in players. No, Grant was simply in constant motion while on the pitch. Walking, jogging, loping, sprinting, backpedalling, shuffling... just constant movement.  Maybe most importantly, his eyes and mind were in constant motion as well which made Grant an intelligent player and directly impacted the quality of his physical movement on the pitch.

The lesson?

MAP for Success.




Grant was a game watcher at an age when most of his peers were still ball watchers.  He had a coach at the U13 age level who made an indelible impression on him.  That coach underestimated Grant.  All he saw was a big kid who couldn't run well.  Then, in a game where Grant had been inserted as a left back, Grant made a run from his own half to the back post to an attempted shot off a cross.  The midfielders and forwards were nowhere to be found, but there was Grant at the back post.  That coach chastised the rest of the team scolding them that if Grant could get to that ball, then the mids and forwards should have been there too.  It was an overt reference to Grant's physical conditioning at the time.   I had watched the described action unfold and knew that Grant had not outran anyone to the back post. He had not been a blur of physical speed on the pitch, but his eyes and mind had allowed him to anticipate the play while his steady pace put him in position to make a play.

Grant's junior varsity teammates hated him.  Well, not really, but they did not like the "warm-up" runs Grant would lead them on as a Captain.  Several players and parents commenting on these runs stated something to the effect "Grant can run forever" and there was more than one suggestion that he should perhaps consider cross country as his sport of choice.

Grant made up for average physical quickness and speed with endurance.  Constant motion won out over short bursts time and time again and more so as the game progressed. Imagine if you will, a wing or a center mid never being substituted for in high school soccer.  That was Grant.

Grant knew at what pace he needed to move and when he needed to be somewhere on the pitch. He used his eyes and his mind in conjunction with his feet and lungs to rarely be out of position. It gave him a distinctive edge over those who simply saw the ball and moved accordingly.  Watch a youth... or even a high school soccer match... and take note of the players who are giving huge physical effort.  Note that when away from the ball they typically stand and watch.  When the ball comes near, when they believe they may have a chance to touch it, only then do they become active often times exerting tremendous physical energy. Then ask yourself, what if they had been in motion before that opportunity for a touch had begun to materialize? 

I like to frame that question in this manner;  What if that player were a game watcher instead of a ball watcher?

So it becomes a matter of timing the motion in pursuit of success.  Motion, or effort, alone are not enough to bring you consistent success.  One must participate fully in order to accentuate and take full advantage of ones movement. How one does so determines the consistency and measure of one's success... on the pitch and in life.

Some players are ball watchers and as such only fully participate in the game when the ball is near them.  They are content to watch their teammates and opponents play the game when the ball is away from them.  They enjoy success sometimes - they make a good defensive stop or score a goal but don't do so as often as their "talent" suggests they should.  We hear those players, their parents and casual bystanders make comments like, "when given a chance that kid is really good".  

Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in awhile.

When not taking advantage of the full measure of one's resources scoring a goal or making a great defensive play is a lot like that blind squirrel finding a nut. All the physical gifts in the world sans intelligent effort will bring nothing more than inconsistent and limited success. Whereas intelligent usage of all available resources will lead to sustained excellence and reward... in soccer and in life.

The question becomes, do you wish to participate only when you personally have something to gain or will you participate in the full measure of the game?  Do you wish for a partial experience or will you immerse yourself in the entirety of the experience.  Do you want full reward or are you seeking only the limelight?

Motion - constant and consistent.  Predicated on what the eyes see and the mind interprets.


Participation - motion gets you to what you see. The more you see, the more you get to.  The more you get to, the more opportunities for success you will find for yourself and create for others.

Success - is found in direct proportion to the intelligent effort you give. One must constantly maximize all of one's resources to their fullest measure as consistently as they can.  This is the difference between spectating (ball watching) and participating (game watching and analyzing play).

For you kids out there today... imagine playing a video game with a broken button on your controller or being able to view only half the screen.  You may have some success, even spectacular success, but in a limited fashion.  Only by employing all your resources - a fully functioning controller and being able to see the complete picture can you maximize your success, right?


Only as high as I reach can I grow,
only as far as I seek can I go,
only as deep as I look can I see,
only as much as I dream can I be.

Extraneous Intrusions

Extraneous:  introduced or coming from without; not belonging or proper to a thing; external; foreign.

As a coach of soccer teams I cherish and treasure those seasons when extraneous intrusions are limited or even absent, rare though those might be.  This season, dealing with two U19 Men's teams I anticipated and expected there would be some extraneous intrusions to deal with.  In truth, we have had few distractions but of those we have had a couple were far more serious than I imagined.

What I expected was some who would be dissatisfied being placed on what they perceived to be the "B" team. That has happened in a three instances.  In one case, I discussed the situation with player and parent before a final determination was made. Everyone was in agreement, the fees were paid, uniforms ordered and then the player never showed to a single practice or game. In another instance a player was coming off injury and unsure if he would be able to play. Deadlines for registration forced our hand. In a third case the player and his parent greatly overestimated his talent relative to others trying out for the team.  These last two instances are typical in the sense we as coaches deal with them on a routine basis.

We have had two players run foul of their parents resulting in their being pulled from the team. I am not a big proponent of this type of punishment for a player in a team sport. Yes, taking away something the individual loves to do is an attention getter, but in a team setting it impacts the entire team and that is not fair to those left to carry on.

Then we had an issue of racism rearing its ugly head.  I was not a first hand witness to what was said and allowed our teams leadership committee to deal with in under my guidance and watchful eye.  I had no illusion of a miraculous transformation in attitude taking place, but had believed such behavior could be curtailed for the course of the season.  Today, the question was raised of a recurrence.  So, I am again investigating what might have occurred as once again I am not a direct witness to what has been alleged.

There is also the curious circumstance of a clique of players who believe themselves to be something they are not and who want to all be on the field together.  Last fall, this was an underachieving group on their high school field of play, imo.  They didn't win games they should have and even when they did win it was sometimes a struggle.  Team chemistry can sometimes be an issue.  Coaching can sometimes be an issue. I thought spring would be different for them.  Interestingly enough the second chance provided to them has largely been ignored. They are a separate entity within the team who seem to believe the team is subservient to them.

All of the instances described above concern outside influences impacting the quality of the soccer performance. These are things that have direct impact on the ever elusive team chemistry that is prized and the great teams are recognized for having.  With as much lip service that is given to the subject one would think its importance would be understood by all players.  Still, we find some who see the team revolving around themselves as opposed to being an entity that they are privileged to be a small yet significant part of.

I am reminded of Coach Boone from Remember the Titans walking out onto the lighted stadium field and proclaiming; "Hmm... This is my sanctuary right here.  All this hatred and turmoil swirling around us, but this... this is always right."   And this is what sport always was for me.  It's what I think it should be for players and coaches alike.  Not an escape from the world, but a sanctuary from the extraneous intrusions that mar the world.  At it's best, sport provides a glimpse of a better world... at least when done right.


Fighting Yourself.

Anyone that sticks with the game of soccer throughout their youth and as they enter adulthood certainly has a passion for the game. As coaches, especially those working with the young, we are charged with helping to develop a love for the game. Love for the game can often be sparked by success. Therefore how we achieve and handle success becomes very important.

I am currently coaching a couple of young men whose early success was apparently defined by an ability to score goals.  The ability to score goals is a very fine thing, indeed!  While it is certainly true that Defense wins Championships it is also true that a team must score to win games. The means to the end is what concerns me with these two players and is what today's writing is about.

I do not find it a coincidence that both players are sometimes referred to by teammates as "the great black hole". This goes directly to the fact neither is very keen on passing.  Once they obtain possession of the ball their first thought is to shoot and if not in range they will attempt to take on all comers to advance the ball into shooting range. Passing the ball is a secondary thought even if by doing so their ultimate goal of scoring a goal might be made easier. In essence, they have become their own worst enemy in pursuit of what they desire.

The one gentleman plays on the wing and at some point early in his career must have enjoyed success (scored a goal or two) by making an inside run from the weak side.  This undoubtedly occurred at an age when crosses from teammates were not strong enough to carry to the back post. There is evidently an indelible memory of making inside runs to goal scoring opportunities in his mind.

Now as a young adult he continues to make inside runs from the weak side flank without consideration that his teammates have little difficulty in driving the ball to and beyond the back post area.  We have instructed and reiterated ad nauseam the approach for a wing on the weak side should be from the corner of the 18 through the corner of the 6 to the back post.  This approach allows the wing to adjust their path to the crossed ball whereas a path inside these parameters all but eliminates an ability to do so.  The inside run is so ingrained, the bad habit so firmly established, this player seems unable to stop himself from making it.  He is addicted to the inside run because at one point in his early development it was successful for him.  There is no cognizant recognition that since the game has changed as he has grown older that his recipe for success (scoring goals) needed to change as well.

The second player is of a similar single mindedness.  He plays forward and regardless of field position or situation his first instinct with the ball is to take on any and all defenders while attempting to get to goal.  He is quite obviously a product of kick and run youth soccer that featured "big, strong and fast" as the primary tactical considerations. The only problem is at this point in his life he is undersized and below average in speed although physical strength does remain. His role in youth leagues was to stand with the opposing backs waiting to be fed the ball by teammates and then take the ball to goal. He really struggles with any deviation from this pattern.

With both players their primary focus remains on scoring the ball. With both players they have become their own worst enemy in pursuit of their scoring goals. Both players are stubbornly insistent on sticking with what once worked well for them while missing the fact the game is passing, or even has passed them, by. They stubbornly refuse help from coaches and teammates alike in pursuit of scoring goals.  They become frustrated because the help offered deviates from what has previously been successful for them.  In short, both of these athletes seem to have fallen in love with soccer at a young age based on an ability to score goals, but have failed to nurture and develop that love since then.

This may well be the fault of their youth coaches who might have viewed these young men as budding stars.  The coaching attitude may have been, "why fix what isn't broken" as they watched these individuals and probably by extension their teams have success. In actuality we as coaches must fix what isn't broken as a proactive or even preventative maintenance program.  We need to help flame the spark of passion in players by expanding their game beyond initial success. As coaches we need to continually ask players to move from their comfort zones and expand their games.  It is obvious that these two players have been in an arrested state of development for some time before they came to us.

Our mission with them has been to break down the established and ingrained habits allowed to take hold when they were young youth players and provide them with the means to branch out of their comfort zones, to explore and expand their games in order to become unpredictable and more dangerous in pursuit of scoring goals. 

It's tough love at this point.

The first player refuses to stay wide and make his weak side run corner, corner, post run. Last night his stubbornness cost him 3 splendid opportunities to score goals. Instead of learning, he offers excuses.  The second player refuses to utilize drop passes when playing as a target with defenders draped all over him. He continues attempting to turn and take on defenders in these situations with the result being lost possession and growing reluctance on the part of his teammates to feed him the ball. He blames his teammates for not passing to him or providing him opportunities.

In both cases, it is the player himself who must recognize that what they have always done no longer works. They must seek, ask for and willingly accept help to expand their game that their strengths might be accentuated instead of being minimized as is the current trend. In short, it is their decision to make.  The quality of their soccer will be directly impacted by the quality of their decision making. 

My fear is the frustration both are displaying will continue to grow instead of their passion being nurtured.  They will never again be goal scoring machines on the scale they were in youth leagues, but they both have the potential to be solid goal scorers at their present level of play provided they recognize the need to expand, to nurture and grow, their individual games within the game itself.  The game at their age is about freedom of play and both seem ready to embrace this yet remain reluctant to accept the responsibility that comes with freedom. I'm not sure we will ever get to that point with either of these young men. It certainly has been a struggle to date.  I do know this, it is their decision to make. They hold the key to success in the palm of their own hand. Whether they decide to keep the door locked or open it to new possibilities is entirely up to them. It is a battle they fight with themselves.