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!"?