Monday, January 13, 2020

Technical Skill Development is the Easy Part

     My son started playing when he was three and back then he showed potential to have what I know now is the most valuable combination of attributes for a player.  He had natural athleticism, he loved playing with the ball at his feet and he always seemed to know where he was on the field.  So, fundamental physical ability combined with a genuine interest in technique combined with that most elusive of skills, Field Awareness.
     After his first season of playing H.S. Freshman ball he has taken a few seasons off from playing.    His decision left me sad but I understood it.  He's a player who likes to play lightly and with finesse, up on his toes all the time, dancing with the ball and threading clever passes and then when defending he plays more like a pick-pocket than an NFL linebacker.  So for him the Thunderdome quality of the High School game really took the joy out of it.
     Happily, we did get him back on the field to play in the Fusion Adult Futsal league this past fall and in that setting he found his old soccer self and seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly.  And I loved getting to play alongside him.   It was fun seeing him take on and win 1v1s against older players but what I really loved was seeing him show that field awareness again, those times when he'd come out of a 1v1 and immediately deliver a pass to the feet of a teammate on the opposite side of the field or into their path as they made a sudden run to goal.
     As much as I love great technical skills, deceptive tricks and subtle ball control, the aspect of play that I honestly enjoy the most these days is that elusive field awareness.  Given how little of that talent I've been able to develop myself, when I see it on display at a high level I feel like I'm watching a kind of magic or Jedi-mind-trick.  In fact I have a player on one of my teams whose skill for picking out an unlikely pass is so constant we've nicknamed her The Jedi.  She can receive the ball, look up to check the field, take on the 1v1 in front of her and then, as she's emerging from the pressure, she somehow manages to put the pass where her teammate is now, several seconds after she last looked for her.  Think of pro players like Kevin De Bruyne of Man City or Tobin Heath on the USWNT who look sometimes as though in addition to their eyes they are also scanning the field with some sort of sonar.
     Of course the supreme skill that players like those have is the foundation of their game.  But even as I harp on my players about the need to work diligently on their technical skills (and I do the same in every conversation I have with fellow Coaches and parents of players) I have been thinking a lot lately about how to teach that other aspect of the game.  How do you teach players to be better at understanding the space they are in when they are on the pitch in the middle of a game?  To simplify that by narrowing that field awareness to just one direction, how do you teach them to be aware of what's behind them.   I feel like since I began coaching I've come up with a few clever ways of teaching particular technical skills and of course I've learned a few such methods from other coaches.  But when I ask myself that question above...how do you teach that?...I usually end up staring blankly at my session planning notebook.
     If you look on YouTube for ideas on teaching spatial awareness you'll see some interesting session exercises, many of them a little complex to run and typically focused on one player at a time...so not efficient for large group sessions.  Here's an example:  "Joner" Awareness Drill.  I spent some time at Griffin recently with a small group of players running some of these exercises and I'd say that with a group of players where you can have one coach for every 4 players you can actually get a lot of reps in and the players seem to respond quickly.
     You will also see a lot of suggestions to play rondos.  Here is a great blog post by Todd Beane of the TOVO Institute, Barcelona about the value of rondo training:  Rondos are the Tip of the Iceberg  Beane writes "I need a Rondo as it is one of the best ways to bring forth my players capacity to be players of great cognition, competence and character".  It's a game your players will like that puts a high premium on technical execution and it is a setting that allows you to move around the rondo coaching players directly about technique and awareness.  But I have one caveat, especially for coaches working with players ten years and under.  There is a fair amount of scientific evidence that the natural variation we see among kids in their ability to understand the space around them might be largely due to aspects of the physical development of the brain.  In other words, the kids who seem really precocious in their ability to know what's behind them all the time may simply have a physical/developmental advantage.  And the kids who lack that sort of awareness aren't necessarily lazy or unfocused or inattentive...they may just be developing at a different pace.  This doesn't mean that as a coach you don't start working on field awareness early.  Of course you do.  Everything is incremental anyway so teach your U8s rondo and start getting those players some reps as soon as possible...but be patient.
   
     As I mentioned above, my son seems to have rediscovered a little of his love of the game.  A couple of his friends urged him to play the winter indoor session with them and he agreed without hesitation.  Yesterday I watched him play his first game.  I also got to see some players I coached when they were younger and seeing them now and where their development has taken them was fascinating.  One player in particular, one who I think I started coaching when he was ten, had made so much progress I had to talk with him after the game and compliment him on it.  When I first met this kid he stood out in two ways: he was desperate to play and just loved the game...and he was as awkward, uncoordinated and two-left-footed as any kid I'd seen.  I mean hopeless.  And he wanted to be a GKeeper so I'm looking at him  thinking, no way this kid ever develops a good stroke on the ball since he can't seem to use anything but his toe and he falls down every time he takes a swing.   But he worked at it.  I admit that the last time I saw him I wasn't sure he was making much progress but he was trying and I'm confident I was at least showing him the direction he needed to go.  Now five years later I see him on the indoor field and he's playing keeper.  Three times in the first half he gets called for a three lines violation on his goal kicks which he's hitting at least 45 yards each time.  He worked at it and worked at it and here he was now, a competent player with the basic skills.
     The point of the story is that while teaching field awareness can confront a coach as something of a mystery, teaching technical skills, even to kids who may seem too clumsy at first, is mostly a matter of patience and repetition.  So if you have players who don't seem to have good field awareness yet you can at least be sure to stay focused with them on the part of their game they can develop if you'll help them so that when they finally start to be aware of what's behind them (usually open space) they'll already know how to manage the ball.

   
   
   
     
   

Friday, June 8, 2018

For my new players...a few notes on my approach to teaching the game.

Way back, fourteen years ago now, when I first started coaching one of my kids in recreational league soccer it occurred to me that for some of the kids on the team the first step was not learning some basic soccer skill but rather just learning how to run or how to maintain their balance. This was U6 soccer so for some of them it was even questionable as to whether they understood the fundamental concept of "a game"  Based on these observations the guiding principle for all the coaching work I've done since has been “nothing is obvious”.  I try to pay close attention to every player during practices and games to assess where they each as individuals need help.  With some players I might be working on helping them to add a new deceptive move or sharpen their shooting skill.  But with some players it might be that we need to actually work on their posture or their running stride, something so basic that you might take it for granted. Some players might have some basic athletic ability but need lots of help learning how to actually understand the flow of a game.  With each basic skill that I try to teach, including the mental skills, I consider it important that I be able to break that skill down into smaller parts so that when necessary I can teach it gradually and in a way that will reach every player, not just the more advanced players.
    When I begin working with new players I need the player and the parent to buy in to what I’m doing.  What I need the players to get is that I’m going to be encouraging them to try new things, to struggle with new skills and to put those skills into play in games.  My attitude is always going to be “let’s play to win by just playing.”  In that way I want to foster an atmosphere of casualness about the game so that the kids feel free to try their skills without fear that I’ll be upset if we don’t win.  Then I have to sell the parents on this idea too since for most of them it will be hard if they see their kid’s team getting clobbered.   They’ll be yelling for me to keep them in position.   They’ll be yelling for the kids to “kick the ball” when that’s not what we really want.  We can set the kids up to play “effectively” as a team now so that they might get some wins but what happens when they reach the next age level or next competitive level and only a few kids on the team actually have real ball skills?
     As coaches and parents we do want them to compete and to love to do so but they need to know that the competition is its own reward regardless of outcome.  Some parents may hear this and think that I’m trying to teach their kids a wishy-washy “winning isn’t everything” point of view.  That’s not the case.  You compete to win.  But if you do not love the competition for itself you are not likely to stick with it when you aren’t earning victories.  I’ve heard many athletes, most notably Michael Jordan, say that if you are afraid to fail you’ll never win because the path to victory at the highest level leads through many small failures.  For players on Fusion teams those “small” failures begin in training settings where we challenge them to master difficult ball control skills, skills that they may not think are obviously valuable for game situations.  Then we’ll push our players to try to execute those same skills in actual game situations where they will most certainly fail many times.  Yet that is how they’ll learn to use those skills and how to win with them.   A critical factor though is that players trust their coaches and their parents to be proud of them for playing fearlessly and creatively, for struggling to put those difficult skills to use.  Players have to know that that’s what you’re looking for and that you really do think winning is secondary.   But again, not because winning isn’t important but rather because competing is more important.  I want them all to be unrepentant soccer field rats who’d take a pick-up game in a pouring rain if it was their only chance to play.

   With all of this in mind I have a few simple principles that guide my coaching approach:

1) Be Patient.   Obviously I try to be patient myself as a coach but I’m also trying to instill that willingness to be patient in the players and in their parents.  Learning a new skill can take time and many repetitions and a lot of failures.  It can be a struggle.  I try to show my players and their parents through my words, my attitude and my body language that I am patient and will work with them for as long as it takes.  I try to impress upon them that struggle is just part of the work and they shouldn’t waste time with any unrealistic expectations as to how fast they can master something or make any unfounded assumptions about what their “natural abilities” might be just because it’s taking a little while to learn a new skill.   Stay focused and be patient with yourself and remember why you’re working on developing new skills...so you can take them with you into the game.  

2) Nothing is obvious.  Take as much time as necessary to teach a skill and don’t hesitate to break it down into its smaller parts.  Don’t assume one way of demonstrating a skill will work with every player.  Observe the players closely and coach to their individual strengths while trying to expand their abilities. From the players' perspective this means never be afraid to raise your hand and ask for another demonstration or a clearer explanation.

3) Stick to Fundamentals.  The primary focus has always got to be on skill development and so even when we're doing some tactical exercise at training I want it to be one that demands ball skill competence from every player.   With the younger age groups, U6 through U8, I generally avoid any sorts of passing drills or any other tactical drills and always favor practice work that gives the players lots of repeated touches on the ball. I've continued to maintain a focus on technical ball skill work with my teams even as the players mature and reach a point where they can grow very rapidly in their understanding of the game, their field awareness and their ability to anticipate each other's movements. My experience has been that players who have real technical competence with the ball will get the most out of any sorts of tactical drills we might run at training so developing technical competence is always where we start.

4) Teach them to be unafraid of situational failures.  If we spend time in practice learning a new deceptive move I want them to feel free to try it in the very next game without worrying about when is the right time to use it or when it will work.  Only game experience can teach them how to use their skills effectively so I encourage them to just go into the competition committed to trying to use those new skills.  Let's say we work in training one week on doing a step-over combination. I could use a skill like that as a player in a game situation to actually win a 1v1 or maybe just to get a defender to hesitate for a moment, just long enough for one of my teammates to get open for a pass. Either way though, if I don't actually try to use that skill I'll never get a feel for when or how to use it effectively, and no doubt, the first time (and a lot of times after that) that I use that skill I'll use it ineffectively or just mess up technically. As a player I've got to feel that getting to the point where I can reliably use a skill under pressure is worth all the times I have to struggle just to get it right and for that I need to know that my Coach and my family have my back in the whole process.
As a parent you've got to really be prepared for what this means. What if your kid or one of their teammates decides the right time to try out their new skill is just as they are dribbling through our own penalty area...and they mess up and lose the ball...and the other team scores. Will your emotional response be "Oh no! Don't do that!" or will it be "I saw what you were doing! Try it again! Take it to 'em!"?

5) Keep the focus on playing.  A lot of what they need to learn as players they must learn through game experience so I try to keep a balance in my practices between focused technical work and teaching through playing games.   We spend half the practice working on a skill then the second half playing 1v1, 3v3, etc. or even a full scrimmage, situations in which we can put that new skill into action right away.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Girl Power. First Win!

     There was a moment in the Girl Power match versus British Elite where that team's lead player, a real quality player with an angelic face and a merciless strike, shouted to her teammates to "just let them do their tricks with the ball, just stay in front of them."  I've heard that sort of thing before in rec league games but was a bit surprised to hear it in a competitive match.  And I have to admit that hearing that sentiment, that my player's skills are just tricks, always makes me a bit salty.  Yes, by all means let us hold the ball...we'll be needing it to score and you can't score without it.
     Of course the Girl Power players reacted to that call to "let them do their tricks" as well and if anything they redoubled their efforts to embarrass their opponents in those 1v1 situations.  They notice that sort of frustration coming from opposing players and their parents and it just fires them up to go harder.  Eileen was positively giggling as she took two players 1v1 even as the British Elite field general was admonishing her troops.  I'm sure Sophia was similarly tickled as she executed her "step-over-pull-back-push" flawlessly over and over again even as a dad on the other side could be heard yelling "WATCH FOR THE PULL-BACK!"  And Izzy's brilliant goal to grab the win came after she'd beat two defenders using her favorite pull-back-play-behind trick.  It could only have been better if she'd celebrated the goal by shouting "AND THAT IS WHAT TRICKS WILL GET YOU!"  Izzy's pretty reserved though and she'd never do that.
     The performance of the entire team was brilliant and it was a really fun match.  The fact that they were playing a team that would not play kick-ball but was rather trying to move the ball thoughtfully with skill gave Girl Power the opportunity to really explore their own ability to work together.  What I saw was the beginnings of a more cooperative effort where players were maintaining possession of the ball using their skills while still looking up to find opportunities to move the ball quickly into space with a pass.  Obviously for that to work we needed to see our players off the ball moving more fluidly into open space and supporting the player on the ball by being available.  We did see more of that and I heard plenty of communication as well.
     So compared to their first match this was a much more dynamic performance and I hope it has sort of opened the horizon up for them.  My sense is that as a group they are beginning to sense their potential.  At training this Thursday night they were fiercely competitive in their small sided game and that is something we really need in order to improve.  In training situations I need them to play each other hard, to defend hard and to drive hard for their shots.   I'm generally even okay if in these training competitions they get a bit chippy with each other and there are some fouls, even hard ones.  In the end even that sort of thing can draw them together more tightly as a team.  I've seen players who didn't get along particularly well suddenly ally themselves in game situations when they realize that their competitiveness with each other in training is a bond they share.  It's as though in the midst of a game they suddenly think "Hey! it's okay for me to foul her in training but it's definitely not okay for you to foul her so back off."
     This is a group of real players and athletes and I look forward to every match.

Girl Power. Learning How to Play Together.

     I only had two coaching points to make with the team prior to the first match of the season, the one at McClure against the Lakota team.  My first was to point out the field conditions.  Wet, long grass does not make for ideal conditions if your goal as a team is to possess the ball by dribbling and passing.  I warned the team to expect their opponent to try to play long balls over the top often.   Then I suggested that despite all of my coaching to the contrary maybe we should do the same.    I was happy to see that for the most part they insisted on dribbling anyway, insanely (or bravely) continuing to try to work the ball up field through 1v1s.
     My second point was to ask them to be patient with each other.  The players on this team generally get along with each other just fine at training and in games.  But they aren't what I'd describe as "tight" just yet.  There are moments when you can see that they frustrate each other and there are shifting alliances among them.  That's to be expected and we will work through it.  With that in mind I asked them all to be aware of just how few games this current group has played.  Be patient, even generous, I asked them.  Trust each other because you're all working toward the same goal and over time as you get more playing experience you'll get a feel for how to work together.
     For some time my approach to coaching the game has been to focus mostly on developing fundamental skill competence in my players and then let them discover cooperative play on their own during scrimmages and games.  We talk a lot about field positions and our tactical shape on the field, about what responsibilities the various positions entail, but my assumption is that players will largely learn those tactical aspects of the game by exploring them for themselves during play.   My reasoning in taking this approach has always been that players have to be motivated to improve in any aspect of the game by their own joy in the game, they have to want to be better because they love how it feels to play well.  So, the first step in that process is the joy they all feel in putting the ball in the net.  This drives them to want the ball in games and to want to attack.  Then comes the joy they feel winning individual 1v1s either attacking or defending and this drives them to work on their dribbling technique and their touch on the ball.  The final big step is learning the joy of playing as a group, or better, as a pack.  For me personally as a player, as good as it feels to school an opponent in a 1v1, maybe even nutmeg them, the greatest joy in the game is in creating a goal with your teammates in an effort that feels both spontaneous and coordinated.  It's that feeling of imposing yourself on your opponent together like a pack of wolves driving their prey with every member of the group bringing their individual skills to bear in a coordinated way.  It's thrilling and I think that when players catch that feeling it can change their attitude toward and understanding of the game.
      So for the players on Girl Power who've been around the longest, they've known that feeling.  They've played games where they dominated the ball and their opponents with a gracefully knit combination of skill and cooperation.  And now they're starting over again with the addition of some wonderful new teammates.  That's why my advice to the team is to be patient, even generous with each other.  Give yourselves time to get to know each other and when it starts to happen for you the progress will be rapid.
     That first game showed that they can achieve a team unity.  There was lots of insane individual dribbling into pressure situations where a bit of cooperative play might have been wiser.  But throughout the game they were regularly chattering on the bench about "that big girl" on the other team and by the end of the match they'd dubbed her "Gigantor".  That was a great sign for me as it shows them recognizing some aspect of the game as a challenge they can face together.  Even if their overall performance was a bit flat it seemed to me that they still came away from the game feeling positive, even excited about how they'd played.  That's where it starts, with them knowing that they can endure a loss together.
     The team's shared effort to stand up to Gigantor was a sign of progress and that would become apparent in their very next match.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Girl Power Now

     When I write one of these posts I like to have my general observations of my team's play and development organized around some narrower observation, some small detail of a game or a training session that, I think, in turn will bring the overall picture of where the team is now into sharper focus. I'm not having much success though in finding such a theme for Girl Power right now.  The obvious observation is that not only is this a new season for Girl Power but this is in fact a new team, a team yet to develop a consistent style of play or character.  Among the players who left our roster last season there were a couple who really dominated our play, who set the tone for us as a high-energy attacking side.  As we saw in Saturday's game returning players like Jolie, and Zoe are happy to dash boldly into the space left open by those departures as are our new players like Sophia. But right now there's a quality of recklessness and exploration to all these efforts.  It will take time for this team to find it's rhythm and style, to get really acquainted with each other so that we can see better anticipation and cooperation.
     The team isn't without some continuity of character though thanks to our returning players.  Eileen, Ava and Peyton all know how to play that strong full-back wing role that I like and so our style of play will still tend towards a fully committed possession-dominant attack.  Natalie's casual confidence in the keeper spot helps us in that regard too as she knows our attack begins wherever we regain possession and that informs her style of play.  With the help of the core group of returning players I have no doubt that this new Girl Power will become a skillful, aggressively attacking side that plays with a real joy and creativity.  In fact we're already seeing that so I'll let that be the loose theme for these early observations: "joy and creativity".

     In no particular order:

>At training last week I worked with the team on a "pull-back-play-behind" move that is basically a combination of a pull-back with an immediate Cruyff turn.  Izzy's efforts at it were nearly flawless from the start so I made a point of telling her that if she could pull that off in game situations she'd be able to get around anyone.  I say that sort of thing to players all the time.  "Oh, you're so good at that...I want to see it in the next game...that's you're move!"  Sometimes they follow through...usually they need more prodding.  But Izzy got to Saturday's game itching to try her move.  She even asked me prior to kick off if it was okay for her to try it.  "What!  Of course it's okay.  I insist!"  Lucky for me I was just yards away from her when she did break that move out and she was nearly successful on that first try.  After the game her attitude was still overwhelmingly positive.  "I almost did it...the ball just got stuck on my heel."  That's the attitude we want to foster, that desire to play fearlessly and creatively, even to show off a bit.

>Jolie is joyfully imposing herself on the game, seemingly filled with energy following her long injury layoff.  For the first 20 minutes of Saturday's game she was everywhere across the attacking half, getting on the ball over and over again.  Watching her play you can clearly see how happy she is to be back on the field.

>Zoe is testing her ball striking.  It's been a long road to get her to the point where her technique is approaching an effective consistency but I think we're almost there and it was wonderful to see her making shot attempts from outside of ten yards Saturday.  I think we had her for three such attempts and while they weren't thunderous strikes they were solidly struck.  She's putting in the work.

>So much good communication going on on the field Saturday.  I love that and I'm really trying to consistently encourage the players to be constantly engaged with each other in the game, to chat, coach, admonish, demand, whatever, just be connected.  With Sophia and Lauren the team has two players who are never shy about communicating with their teammates.  Lauren is good at both letting her teammate with the ball know where she is and at delivering the ball when a teammate calls to her.  And with Sophia I think I have a true field general.  She's constantly offering direction to the team and doing so in the right "coach's" tone of voice.

>Julia, Kennedy and Jayden gives the team a defensive solidity we haven't had before and these are all players, along with Lauren and Sophia, who recognize the opportunities for creating attacking play that can be had when your central defenders can possess the ball rather than booting it.  That being said, I have to admit that Julia's ability to crush a moving ball has certainly saved our bacon a few times!

>Finally, I want to note, if it's not obvious from the parent's side, that the girls are really enjoying playing together.  They are working hard at training and playing hard for each other in games and they all show up just itching to play.  I'm a lucky coach.




Monday, August 14, 2017

The Percolators

     At a Fusion coach's meeting in the spring, right after tryout week, one of the other coaches commented to me that "Girl Power will probably be stronger than ever." I appreciated that but I also knew it probably wouldn't be true, at least not immediately. The players we were able to bring into the club after tryouts are all excellent prospects but soccer is a team sport and a team's quality is never just the sum of all the individual players' skills. A team has to develop a bond and an understanding of how to work in concert and that takes time and a lot of game experience. With that in mind it's obvious that Girl Power will need some time to figure themselves out.
      At that meeting the same coach then asked me about the Ninjas and without hesitation I replied that I thought they would probably come into the fall season as a very strong team. It's a squad filled with athletes and they have developed a wonderfully strong connection with each other. Their first appearances together in the spring season were a bit rough but by the end of the season they were looking like a real team. The individual commitment of players to developing their skills was showing results too and with the benefit of some game experience the Ninjas were starting to show that they could work together effectively. Also, they had become, by the end of the season, a really focused squad in training with a real desire to improve rapidly.
     So I wasn't entirely surprised that the Ninjas looked so strong in their first game. I wasn't even surprised that they were able to outplay Girl Power. What I didn't expect was the ferocity of their attack, the constant pressure they were putting on their opponent and the skill and intelligence with which they created so many scoring chances. The Ninjas were a multi-dimensional barrage of offense! Shots coming from everywhere! Well organized and energetic, their defensive play was outstanding too.
     The two teams had fared very differently against the ISC team we met for those friendly matches. Girl Power lost too but they kept the match much closer throughout and they did manage some goals. What so impressed me from the Ninjas Saturday was that they seemed to have really internalized everything they could learn from that friendly match and took the field against Girl Power and played like a new team. It was like something had suddenly switched on for them. Not only was their attacking play expansive and at a high tempo but their defense was intense, even imperious. They simply would not concede a goal without a fight.
      That is something I've experienced before in coaching, that sudden improvement in a player or team where different things they've been working on suddenly come together, suddenly become who they are. At halftime I told the Ninjas that they seemed to have been "percolating" on their skills over the summer months. Rather than coming back from the summer break needing to knock the rust off they actually seemed stronger than they were at the end of the spring season, like they'd all made some leap forward. I know there was some skills training and endurance work going on during that time for some of the players but the overall improvement in their performance was still amazing. As a coach I accept that a lot of the work I do with players requires me to patiently allow them to slowly build their skills. Progress on the technical side of things is necessarily incremental. But on the tactical side, in the players' ability to work effectively together, there can be sudden change as if many pieces of a puzzle had suddenly fallen together. That's what I felt I was seeing on Saturday from the Ninjas and it was awesome.
     While Charlie and Annabelle were setting the tone early, firing shots in at Beanie, it was Kylee who actually broke through with the first goal of the game.  She received a brilliant crossing pass from Cameron G. that found her practically standing on the penalty spot and from there she easily put it away.  That was followed by a goal for Annabelle and then one for Megan.  Mehrin and Charley combined for the real peach of the game when Mehrin sent a perfect corner kick right onto Charley's feet for an easy re-direction from just a yard or two out.  Erin put in the game capper off a nice pass from Charley.  Those are the scoring highlights but we had excellent play from everyone.  While Ashley, Addison and Ellie didn't get on the score sheet themselves they did amazing work just controlling our possession of the ball throughout the game and helping to create all those chances.  And our newest player, Jade, came up big on defense throughout the game and also was involved in some shooting chances.  Great first game for her.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

For my new players...a few notes on my approach.

Way back, twelve years ago now, when I first started coaching one of my kids in recreational league soccer it occurred to me that for some of the kids on the team the first step was not learning some basic soccer skill but rather just learning how to run or how to maintain their balance. This was U6 soccer so for some of them it was even questionable as to whether they understood the fundamental concept of "a game"  Based on these observations the guiding principle for all the coaching work I've done since has been “nothing is obvious”.  I try to pay close attention to every player during practices and games to assess where they each as individuals need help.  With some players I might be working on helping them to add a new deceptive move or sharpen their shooting skill.  But with some players it might be that we need to actually work on their posture or their running stride, something so basic that you might take it for granted. Some players might have some basic athletic ability but need lots of help learning how to actually understand the flow of a game.  With each basic skill that I try to teach, including the mental skills, I consider it important that I be able to break that skill down into smaller parts so that when necessary I can teach it gradually and in a way that will reach every player, not just the more advanced players.
    When I begin working with new players I need the player and the parent to buy in to what I’m doing.  What I need the players to get is that I’m going to be encouraging them to try new things, to struggle with new skills and to put those skills into play in games.  My attitude is always going to be “let’s play to win by just playing.”  In that way I want to foster an atmosphere of casualness about the game so that the kids feel free to try their skills without fear that I’ll be upset if we don’t win.  Then I have to sell the parents on this idea too since for most of them it will be hard if they see their kid’s team getting clobbered.   They’ll be yelling for me to keep them in position.   They’ll be yelling for the kids to “kick the ball” when that’s not what we really want.  We can set the kids up to play “effectively” as a team now so that they might get some wins but what happens when they reach the next age level or next competitive level and only a few kids on the team actually have real ball skills?
     As coaches and parents we do want them to compete and to love to do so but they need to know that the competition is its own reward regardless of outcome.  Some parents may hear this and think that I’m trying to teach their kids a wishy-washy “winning isn’t everything” point of view.  That’s not the case.  You compete to win.  But if you do not love the competition for itself you are not likely to stick with it when you aren’t earning victories.  I’ve heard many athletes, most notably Michael Jordan, say that if you are afraid to fail you’ll never win because the path to victory at the highest level leads through many small failures.  For players on Fusion teams those “small” failures begin in training settings where we challenge them to master difficult ball control skills, skills that they may not think are obviously valuable for game situations.  Then we’ll push our players to try to execute those same skills in actual game situations where they will most certainly fail many times.  Yet that is how they’ll learn to use those skills and how to win with them.   A critical factor though is that players trust their coaches and their parents to be proud of them for playing fearlessly and creatively, for struggling to put those difficult skills to use.  Players have to know that that’s what you’re looking for and that you really do think winning is secondary.   But again, not because winning isn’t important but rather because competing is more important.  I want them all to be unrepentant soccer field rats who’d take a pick-up game in a pouring rain if it was their only chance to play.

   With all of this in mind I have a few simple principles that guide my coaching approach:

1) Be Patient.   Obviously I try to be patient myself as a coach but I’m also trying to instill that willingness to be patient in the players and in their parents.  Learning a new skill can take time and many repetitions and a lot of failures.  It can be a struggle.  I try to show my players and their parents through my words, my attitude and my body language that I am patient and will work with them for as long as it takes.  I try to impress upon them that struggle is just part of the work and they shouldn’t waste time with any unrealistic expectations as to how fast they can master something or make any unfounded assumptions about what their “natural abilities” might be just because it’s taking a little while to learn a new skill.   Stay focused and be patient with yourself and remember why you’re working on developing new skills...so you can take them with you into the game.  

2) Nothing is obvious.  Take as much time as necessary to teach a skill and don’t hesitate to break it down into its smaller parts.  Don’t assume one way of demonstrating a skill will work with every player.  Observe the players closely and coach to their individual strengths while trying to expand their abilities. From the players' perspective this means never be afraid to raise your hand and ask for another demonstration or a clearer explanation.

3) Stick to Fundamentals.  The primary focus has always got to be on skill development with much less time spent on development of tactical understanding of the game.  Teach the kids how to control the ball first then put them in game situations and with a little guidance they’ll start getting the foundations of tactical understanding on their own.  With the younger age groups, U6 through U8, I generally avoid any sorts of passing drills or any other tactical drills and always favor practice work that gives the players lots of repeated touches on the ball. There is no doubt that at some point players reach a point where they can grow very rapidly in their understanding of the game, their field awareness and their ability to anticipate each other's movements. But if we jump into working in tactical training situations before most of the players have some basic ball competence then those training drills will be a mess and of little long term value.

4) Teach them to be unafraid of situational failures.  If we spend time in practice learning a new deceptive move I want them to feel free to try it in the very next game without worrying about when is the right time to use it or when it will work.  Only game experience can teach them how to use their skills effectively so I encourage them to just go into the competition committed to trying to use those new skills.  Let's say we work in training one week on doing a step-over combination. I could use a skill like that as a player in a game situation to actually win a 1v1 or maybe just to get a defender to hesitate for a moment, just long enough for one of my teammates to get open for a pass. Either way though, if I don't actually try to use that skill I'll never get a feel for when or how to use it effectively, and no doubt, the first time (and a lot of times after that) that I use that skill I'll use it ineffectively or just mess up technically. As a player I've got to feel that getting to the point where I can reliably use a skill under pressure is worth all the times I have to struggle just to get it right and for that I need to know that my Coach and my family have my back in the whole process.
As a parent you've got to really be prepared for what this means. What if your kid or one of their teammates decides the right time to try out their new skill is just as they are dribbling through our own penalty area...and they mess up and lose the ball...and the other team scores. Will your emotional response be "Oh no! Don't do that!" or will it be "I saw what you were doing! Try it again! Take it to 'em!"?

5) Keep the focus on playing.  A lot of what they need to learn as players they must learn through game experience so I try to keep a balance in my practices between focused technical work and teaching through playing games.   We spend half the practice working on a skill then the second half playing 1v1 or other small sided games where we try to put that new skill into action right away.