17,641,000 and Counting

We have a long way to go in the United States before we can crow about the level of participation in the sport of soccer. The article on the US Soccer Players web site sounds like good news – and it is mostly – but it’s not good enough.

Basketball can boast of 36,583,000 players in the United States. When you consider that most basketball teams field ten or fewer players and most soccer teams field at least 14 you can see that the number of teams in organized play skews the numbers even more strongly towards basketball. The number of Basketball teams is roughly 36,583,000/10 while the number of soccer teams in the United States is roughly 17,641,000/14.

So kids, your homework assignment is to figure out how much larger basketball is then soccer in the United States. And of course, where am I going with this perverse logic? We need to reduce the number of players on the field (and hence the number of players per team) at the younger age. Make it more interesting for the players by increasing the number of touches. Increase each players influence by putting fewer players on the field.

Delusional?

At some point all of us have to make a decision regarding how we will spend our time. At least at this level everyone is truly created equal – each of us gets the same 24 hours in a day.

Some people have a hard time with this lesson. We fill our time with low value tasks. We squander our time with pointless activities. We indulge ourselves as if that was the point of our existence. Others attempt to solve world hunger and (because it is impossible to do so) become frustrated with the fact that we each only get that 24 hours.

Kids have a different set of challenges. Kids should be allowed to be kids. They should have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Adults who had fun as children are more productive adults. Most children though do not make these decisions for themselves.

The problem is, from day one, we enroll our children in a marathon. They have to succeed at as many things as possible so they can succeed as adults. Success as a child = Success as an adult.

This is a reality for many of us as club soccer coaches. At some point you realize that the once dominant midfielder lacks the drive and energy to succeed in the role you had placed her. You’re watching her play and she simple is not enjoying the moment. It’s work for her – and she’s only 13. It’s one of the saddest things imaginable when you reflect that what was once a joyous activity has now become drudgery.

So how does this happen? It happens for a variety of reasons but in my experience the most prevalent cause is the loss of perspective – a child’s perspective. The simplest question to pose a player in this situation is – why are you playing? But don’t take the easy answer because every player you’re likely to ask this question of has already had the answer conditioned in to them. “I’m here to have fun” expressed with a forced smile.

In our part of the country, there are always at least three sports activities available for kids. It is physically impossible to participate at a competitive level in all three sports. The parent that enrolls a child in three competitive sports in the same season needs to be reported to Children’s Services. At some point the same can be said for the parent that enrolls there child in two competitive sports.

So ask the question but understand that it is only the first question. “Why are you here?” should be followed closely by:

“How many other sports are you currently playing?”

“Describe an average day?”

“How do you feel when you lose? and how long do you feel that way?”

As a club coach you can’t fix the issues held by a family. Parents who overbook their child’s day may not recognize your concerns. Understanding why a player participates without energy is better then simply addressing the symptom. A lack of enthusiasm and energy are only occasionally addressed through discipline.

If a player feels they are not rewarded for a higher level of performance then shame on the coach. Do not tolerate mediocrity – performance should be rewarded.

If a player feels their effort does not matter because as a single player they can not improve the team’s performance then shame on the coach. Do not tolerate cynics. Eleven players who feel they can make a difference create a team that can. A single player who feels they can’t make a difference creates a team that can’t.

If a player shows up exhausted from their other activities, you have one less player. They may not be able to make the decision explicitly but they have made one. The best player, exhausted on the field before the game starts is no better then a cynical player. They have decided they won’t make a difference. Do not allow the behavior. Explain your position to the player and parents and force them to make a decision. The child who shows up to practice exhausted is no different then the child who does not show up. The discipline should be equivalent.

A Virus

I have a good relationship with a local coaching colleague. He and I get together everyone now and then and share stories. I coach for a smaller club and he coaches for a nearby (much) larger club. He lives in a different world then I do.

My club serves the local community – a community based club. He coaches in a club which serves a metropolitan area. He cuts players, lots. He can afford to be picky. He can take hard stands. He shared a story with me the other day and if you’re in a similar position I’d recommend it for you as well.

He heard from an angry parent that he had some other parents on the sideline ‘bitching and moaning’ about the way the team was being run. In his words, “We’ve been in three tournaments, have won two and have only lost two games in that period and they are complaining.”

Now, that’s not my experience. My team does well, but not quite that well. What’s preposterous about it is that despite the team’s success his parents were complaining. We live in a free country. People can say what they want – and will. Understand the consequences though.

My colleague did the right thing. He called a parents meeting the next day and addressed the malcontents directly. In his words,

“If you don’t stop complaining, your child will sit the bench until she quits. I can’t/won’t drop her off the team so this is the only way I have of addressing your behavior. I’m certain you have passed along this advice to your child so I hope you will not be hearing it for the first time from me – If you have nothing nice to say then please say nothing at all”

What he shared with me, and what I believe is absolutely true, is that if you fail to deal with this behavior directly you will get nothing less then more of it. It will grow until you have to deal with it. Parents socialize together and share their opinions. That much is a reality. Putting the behavior in the spotlight defeats the behavior. It thrives in darkness and dies when the other parents recognize it. My first and best advice to club coaches is to address the virus directly. Don’t let the sore fester.

The Grandfather of All Coaching Resources

The Soccer Coach List is the Grandfather of all online coaching resources. It’s really hard to overstate the value this list can add to any coach’s toolbox. The community is extremely large and varied. College coaches, high school coaches, club coaches, everyone it seems plays in this community and I wanted to give the publisher of this venerable resource their due by making my first post referencing a web resource about this treasure.

The only challenge about the web site is that it is a list server. Finding the needle in the haystack can be daunting. The haystack is exceptionally large by the way. If you can find a topic that isn’t covered let me know. I’ll bet you’re wrong.

If Only I Knew Then What I Know Now

We’ve all said it before but on this one occasion I decided to act on the thought.

It was our monthly club meeting and the coaches were gathered to conduct the ugly administrative tasks necessary to operate a youth soccer club. The conversation had turned to how to retain players in the club.

“The grass is always going to be greener somewhere else” one of our more senior coaches commented. “Parents who have aspirations of greatness for their children will always be looking elsewhere. 9 times out of 10 the parent hasn’t accepted the fact that while their child is a decent player, they aren’t going to get a scholarship to a division one college”.

This same coach had a handful of players depart the year before for a larger club farther south. One disgruntled father had withdrawn his daughter from the team and then for (probably) a variety of reasons had lured other players off of the team for greener pastures.

The club’s meetings are much better run then they used to be, but this group doesn’t get together that often and there is something therapeutic about commiserating with your peers. Finally, the same senior coach admitted that

“If he’d only known then what he knows now, that the original disgruntled parent concerns would have been addressed directly and (perhaps) retained as a player parent on the team.”

“What we need is a Coaching for Dummies for incoming coaches” he added. There are many resources available for soccer coaches. Technical training, tactical training, conditioning, even team management are all topics you can find in abundance at the local book store and even on the web. Leading and managing players and parents is the hole. We as club coaches don’t pass along advice on the hardest aspect of coaching in a club environment. Parent and player expectations always need to be managed. The minute you step away from that responsibility you have failed. They will leave you or you will be forced to leave them.

I’m hoping others will join me here and pass along there experiences as a resource to incoming club coaches – a Club Coaching for Dummies.