Great things have never come from comfort zones

I have a vision of "total football" that includes complete interchangeability amongst the 10 field players on the pitch while they are supported by a sweeper/keeper. I have yet to coach a team who has achieved this.  Followers of this blog will appreciate I am a bit like a 4 year old whose favorite question is, "why?"

This spring I am coaching as talented a group of individuals as I have ever assembled.  By and large they are physically gifted soccer players with solid skill sets and above average game intelligence. I was sure this was the spring I would see a team I coach achieve total football.  It has not come to fruition as of yet.


Comfort zones.

I think it is a bit like having a well trained pet.  They know the established boundaries of where they are allowed to roam. The existence of an "invisible fence" prevents them from straying.  Giving that animal its freedom back is no small thing.  So it is with soccer players.

As I watch this group of young men play I have noticed two very important things; they have well established comfort zones from having played a single position for years and when they reach the end of their comfort zone they lack the courage and imagination to break through in order to explore the game to its fullest. In short, they are predictable or robotic players reluctant to step away from what they have always done.

I touched on the idea that individual players, when stressed, will revert back to a previous comfort zone in another recent article. That's what I see time and again with this group. When I was coaching the Lima Central Catholic girls team the biggest obstacle to overcome was what I termed a fear of success.  Those girls had never experienced a winning season and as strange as it may sound, they were comfortable with losing. I fell back to my old mantra for building a successful program:

First learn to give intelligent effort
Next learn to compete
Then learn to win.

Those girls liked the idea of intelligent effort for they almost immediately recognized the rewards for the effort they gave increased. They were absolutely thrilled with "moral victories" where they lost a match 1-2 instead of being pummeled 0-5.  Learning to win was a real struggle for them simply because it took them completely out of their comfort zone. Even in our second year in that program when success on the pitch came to be expected, they knew not how to handle success.  They suddenly knew it all, wanted to abandon what was working well in order to incorporate elements of their past comfort zones into the success they had begun to enjoy.  Such is the pull of past comfort zones... even when said comfort zone is littered with bad habits that had previously hindered the pursuit of success.

I had pictured a young colt who found the gate to the pasture open. The colt would race out of the gate and frolic in its new found freedom. Running here and there to explore the world outside his previous restrictions.  Instead what I got was more a picture of the grounds of an asylum whose security doors had been left open while the outer gates remained secured.  Patients wandering about aimlessly enjoying their freedom while not actually being free at all. So, maybe freedom is a relative thing?

In an attempt to artificially break down the barriers that are established comfort zones I have moved players around on the pitch. That is, I have changed the positions I have asked them to play. This is something I had hoped they would explore on their own in embracing the total football concept but it has not happened with any noticeable consistency.

Our outside backs have taken advantage of their freedom by moving aggressively into the attack notching assists, goals and generally creating problems opponents have been unprepared to solve.  There is a recognition their positional responsibilities must be fulfilled should their aggressive play not result in a goal - a midfielder usually drops back in to "cover" the backs position.  That's fine... except when I see the back running back to his position in the midst of an opponents counter to exchange positions with the mid who has been filling in for him.  What I want to see is the midfielder to become the back and the back who has advanced assume whatever unmanned position is closest to him - be that a midfielders role or a forwards role.  Sort out "their" positions at the next dead ball or as the run of play allows.

In a recent match our left back made a run forward. He first looked for our wing to play him behind a defender via an overlap.  His teammate chose to switch fields through the holding mid.  The outside back did not simply break off his run and return to "his" position. No, he bent his run towards the middle of the field and as the ball was played out to the opposite flank made a diagonal run to towards the flag.  Great play!  He had just went from left outside back, to wing midfielder, to forward on the opposite flank in a span of a few seconds.  The opponents, who were man marking, had no answer. Perfect!

At least until we lost possession and had to regain our defensive shape.

There was the left back making the long diagonal run across the pitch to reassume "his" position.

This is not total football. I would have greatly preferred to see the left back assume the responsibilities of the forward position.  This might have entailed a midfielder becoming the left back and a forward becoming a midfielder and that would have been perfectly okay by me. That would have been closer to my vision for total football.

I watched my son's high school team this past fall (2013) with a general restlessness.  A coaching mantra for their wings was to have their "heels to the touch line".  Wing forwards were chastised, benched and lost their positions if they dared to read the game on their own and make an inside run.  It was unfathomable to me that a coaching staff would seek to reduce or limit players effectiveness by making them predictable. In turn, the teams attack was ponderously slow and predictable. 

This spring as I coach some of those same players I am frustrated that when given their freedom to explore the entirety of the game these players tend to stand and watch.  They are slow in recognizing and making runs. They are slow to recover and help on defense. They are so disengaged from the concept of total football they remind me of those asylum patients referred to earlier - wandering around the pitch with no real purpose other than enjoying not having to have their "heels to the touch line."

With freedom comes great responsibility.

With this springs players I should perhaps amend that famous quote of Eleanor Roosevelt to "With freedom comes greater responsibility."  This springs players seem to have the idea total football means freedom from responsibility. This is especially true of players new to our team, but even some of those who have been with us for 3+ years still struggle some in this regard.

I do not think there is anything strange or unique to what we are experiencing. Just take a look at our American culture and society - we want our freedoms, but are wandering aimlessly about even as they are being taken away from us.  A recent study showed over 51% of the people in the United States receive "government" money.  That means 49% of the people - and it is actually a lot less when we factor in those among the 49% who are children and do not work - provide for the majority of people in this country.  Benjamin Franklin warned, "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic."  This warning has been turned around and become the current strength of the Democrat party in the United States. It is a recipe for disaster.

Put that into the context of a soccer team; five players doing the work for and supporting the other six players.  Those other six players contribute only when it is convenient for them to do so. The "team" might have some success when placed in certain situations but will never achieve to its fullest potential. 

The great teams have unity and operate with one heartbeat in pursuit of a common goal.

I'm still searching for players willing to embrace the freedoms and responsibilities of total football.  I recognize the need to refine my coaching / teaching approaches and techniques in order to achieve the vision I have.  In some ways this spring season has been among the most disappointing I have ever had, but that is only because this is the closest I have been to achieving my vision.

This is where perseverance comes in.

There are only two rules for perseverance. 

1) Always take one more step. 

2) When you don't think you can take one more step, refer to rule #1.

And so my pursuit of a team realizing it's full potential through the concept of total football will continue.  I have a deeper appreciation for the role freedom and responsibility must play in this process. My next challenge is to communicate this to the players.

Epilogue:  We made it!   This spring team became a truly dynamic force in the attack while remaining a virtual wall on defense. Versatile players capable of momentarily playing any field position  Total soccer!  Or at least as close as I have ever helped guide a team to it.  We were close at times with the LCC girls squad, but never achieved it the degree this group of young men did towards the end of their season. Opponents were left confused, dazed and dumbfounded. Those who tried to man mark us were left with no recognizable team shape worth mentioning. 

This fall (2014) I again watched my son's high school team struggle.  The new coach switched to our spring team's formation, a 4-2-3-1 and gave the players freedom ... or did not clearly define roles for them... I'm not entirely sure which?  Whatever the system of play was intended to be, it looked nothing like what I have described my team striving for here.  The high school team looked much like the patients of the asylum referenced above.  Lots of pseudo freedom but little thoughtful purpose behind what they were doing. No one, including the coaching staff accepted the responsibility that comes with full freedom.  The result was a complete disaster of a season. They never did get it figured out.  I'm not sure I have ever seen a team so completely underachieve as this high school team did.  So this becomes a cautionary tale - if players are going to abuse their freedom, the coach must rigidly define roles and demand players keep their "heels to the touch line" so to speak.  The new coach did this albeit very late in the season and the team began to play better, but it was far too late to salvage what should have been a 10+ win season.

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