What does it take to bring parents, players, and coaches together around the concept of Team? We start every season as individuals, and we hopefully walk off the field at the end of every season as something more. This is a question that parents and coaches wrestle with in every state in this great country. It’s a question that we’re going to explore in this post - and at the end, I’ll give you two of my favorite game-day tactics for bringing a collection of individuals together around a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Focusing on Team Development
This past week, in response to episode #57 where I talked about the development tables for youth soccer, I received an email from, Manny, a coach in Southern New Jersey:
Manny wrote: “Hi David, My name is Manny. I coach a U10 travel club in south Jersey, I am fairly new to coaching soccer. While I did train my own son I do not know what to do with the team, individually they are all fairly good players, I do need help knowing the development table to see what I need to work on with the team. Would really appreciate your help.
We played in the first flight in our league last season but did not win a game. They all want to play and give it their all, but I feel like I’m letting them down. I will be dropping them in flight come fall season. At this point I don't think it's a chemistry thing.”
I’ve exchanged a few emails with Manny since he reached out and I sent him some resources, but I think there is something in our discussion for you too. Manny is working on this problem as a coach, but he’s not alone. He’s also got 14 families in the mix who can be great resources! Plus, he had the wisdom and humility to reach out to me and I’m sure this coach is a connector who does his best to reach out to other resources as well.
The challenge Manny is struggling to overcome is not uncommon. I don’t know a coach who has not struggled with bringing individual players together to play as a team. We know that players who play WITH one another are exponentially stronger than players who play NEXT to one another. The question is as Manny fundamentally asks: what can I do to help our players come together as a Team?
There is No Magic Recipe
Right out of the gate, I think it's important for you to know up front that I don't believe there is a magic formula that fits all players or teams. Every individual player brings their own set of complex challenges to the game. Every combination of individuals adds complexity to the mix. One of the jobs for the coaching staff - maybe the most important job after ensuring safety - is to get to know his or her players and discover the optimal set of conditions for getting the highest and best use from players combined talents, experiences, and shortfalls.
What I'm suggesting is a process - not a final destination. It frankly never stops. Even if a coach discovers that magic formula and the team experiences a magic moment where everything just seems to come together and the team rocks the universe, it will change.
Kids are evolving every day. What was important to them one day may not be tomorrow. What they could handle one day may overwhelm them the next. And vice versa.
Coaches are evolving every day. As I continue my own education journey, I continue to have “ah ha” moments. How did I not see that? I ask myself. That makes sense now, I hear in my head. I’ve seen this before, or oh boy… this one is new…
My main point is this: guessing what works best for a particular team is kinda like guessing how much a bag of groceries weighs. The answer depends on what's in the bag.
Figuring out what's in the bag it an iterative process. We start from the top and unpack one item at a time. Let's look at each item. Let's call the first items I am pulling out “external factors.
Of course, external factors is plural, so I'm suggesting that there is more than one, but grant me some slack. I'm trying to tell a story here.
One external factor is the Level of Competition. The level of competition that our players are operating in makes a difference. If the level is too high or too low, players can get frustrated or bored. There is a sweet spot.
Whatever environment your coach chooses (or has to work with) will not be perfect for all players on a team. The best level is the one that works for the majority of the players. Not too competitive and not too easy… The Goldilocks environment pushes players to perform at their best. It challenges them, and gives them some hope that they can achieve some victories when they make things work.
That said, competition levels can also be used as a tool to help develop players. Coaches can make a good argument to place a team in a higher or lower competitive bracket in order to illicit a better development response. Sometimes, playing a team up is the right thing to do if a coach sees (or believes) that players can rise to the occasion. Sometimes, playing a team in a less competitive environment is the right thing to if a coach sees (or believes) that players need space to build some confidence in order to get back on track. Coaches will be careful when making adjustments to avoid a competition level so high that it crushes team morale or so low that it lets players slip into lethargy. Choosing competition levels can be a delicate balancing act - and once a choice is locked in, it typically lasts from 8-10 weeks, so coaches spend some time thinking about this.
The competitive environment can be affected by age. Playing a team up, for example, is a deliberate choice sometimes, but it also occurs naturally every time a team “ages up” to a new stage. When a team moves from 7v7 to 9v9 (usually at 11 or 12 yrs old) or from 9v9 to 11v11 (usually at 13 or 14 years old), the “graduating” team will usually find itself to be the youngest team in the next older age bracket. This should be commons sense, right? They’re the newcomers. This is particularly significant when teams graduate into a 14 and above bracket - where they may suddenly find themselves playing other high school teams with seniors in the lineup.
There are other factors that affect the competitive environment and I don’t want to try to exhaust them here, but before we leave the topic of competitive environment as an external factor, I want to point out that other soccer players and teams are not the only source of competitive influence. The club mission and the parents on the sidelines contribute in powerful ways to the level of competition a player feels on the pitch.
Some clubs are all about the win. Their cultures are built around it. Players can earn prestige among their peers in such environments for their prowess on the field. In some environments, it's not how hard a player works or how much courage or team spirit they can bring, but how often they contribute to a scoreboard win that gets celebrated. This is, in my opinion, counter productive to a development centered environment - which is one reason you hear me talking about this subject so much.
Even if matched perfectly with an opposing team, and even if the club culture and mission are aligned perfectly with development, parents going nuts on the sidelines with a focus on scoring at all costs can add tremendous competitive pressure to a young player’s game.
This can be frustrating to development minded coaches who are focused on providing the best development environment only to see their player’s heads scrambled on game day by overzealous parents screaming for more points on the scoreboard. This sideline factor not only confuses players with the conflict it presents between what coach is asking for and mom and dad are looking for, but it sucks fun from the game as a result. Enough said on that for now.
Players are going be present in varying states of mind on the pitch. Home and school life play a role.
Some players don’t play on Sunday's for religious reasons. Some can't find rides. Some get the ride, but left the car in a foul mood and carry that mood onto the pitch with them.
Getting to know our players on a personal level gives us the ability to spot changes in mood or demeanor. It informs our communication strategy and plans going forward. For example:
Last season, one of my players walked out on the field for practice and I could tell something was bothering him. He wasn't aggressive or uncooperative, but his heart - the heart I had come to know as strong, positive, and competitive - wasn't there. He was soft. He was walking instead of hustling. He seemed distracted.
“Hey, George, (his name isn't George) you okay today? Something’s got your attention.”
My player trusted me enough to confide that his mother - many thousands of miles away - was having a hard time with his absence. This clearly weighed on him. As a coach, I needed to recognize this and give him the head space he needed to practice and play at his best.
Instead of prodding or yelling at him to get his head in the game, a quiet sideline chat pointing out that these next two hours are a temporary break from any worries he has outside the field did the trick. He needed to know that problems (and their solutions) are always going to be there for him after practice or the game is done, but right now, we play and we play hard! We’ll feel better and make better decisions afterwards.
For this player and for me as his coach, that practice had an added layer of complexity. He was learning how to allow himself to let go of his problems for a little while and focus on the task at hand. Whether he focused perfectly on that practice or not - at that point - was less important to me than the fact that I could see him trying - and making progress. He was in a safe environment and the definition of development that day changed from learning his position on the field to learning how to manage his life.
Progress over perfection in this case, again. And how I communicated with him and the decisions I made about how I structured that practice session were affected by a mother in distress a few thousand miles away.
That said, this player played a key role in some pattern work we were doing that day, so for the good of the team and for his own good, I stood him down a few times during that session. I allowed him space to clear his head, reset, and start over - AND I gave another player a chance to grow into that position - in this case the #10.
Getting to know my players, recognizing the external factor affecting practice, making decisions about the communication strategy I would use, and crafting a win win for the team - giving another player an opportunity to develop his understanding of the #10 position AND giving the rest of the team a chance to see how this new player executes that position, turned that session into a positive development experience for everybody.
The player struggling also got some valuable practice in dealing with life.
I hope at this point that you’re seeing why helping Manny is more complex that simply giving him practice sessions or specific advice about what to say or do with his team. We’re not dealing with a cookie cutter solution. Bringing a team together is a process, and it’s not something that happens overnight.
But we’re not done yet. There’s more than just External Factors in our grocery bag.
If you’re still with me, let’s talk about a couple of internal factors.
Internal Factors - The Mental Game
Soccer is very much a mental game. Numerous studies show that mental fatigue slows the whole team down. If something is going on inside a player’s head, it will show. Disconnects from team mates, poor decision making, getting beat by sharper players.. We can’t afford to overlook the mental health of our players.
If our players are carrying baggage in the form of lack of confidence, fear, anger, or malice, it affects their ability to play together. Bad relationships between players can cause rifts on the field. A player who has had a bad day may not be in the game. Worse still, they may drag other players out of the game with them.
If confidence is low, players will hesitate or overthink things. Lack of confidence adds friction to performance, clouds judgment, and slows everything down.
It’s important that players are getting enough sleep at night, that they have effective ways to relieve stress, and that they understand the soccer field as a protected place. They must know how to leave baggage off the field and bring a healthy, open, and active mindset to the game.
Physical and Emotional Games
The same is true about emotional and physical baggage. Players can’t click with one another if they’re upset or worried about not surviving a beep test.
Enough said… coaches and parents can add a lot to the team dynamic by making sure players are physically fit, mentally awake, and emotionally strong when they hit the field.
Players are only part of the puzzle. Coaches who are not educated in the art of coaching, who possess poor communication skills, lack confidence, or try to do too much, will affect a team’s ability to come together just as much as any other factor affecting the team.
Coaches who refuse to evolve will get stuck while their players run by them. Kids grow up fast! Every season - heck, sometimes every week - kids show up as evolved people. Coaches need to evolve along with them. They need to know what comes next in the development cycle - and next after that, so they can steer the activities and adjust the development to keep pace with the team - no matter how fast or slow players mature.
Another note about the coaching staff: if coaches/ co-coaches are not on the same page, it will cause the team to be disjointed. When I was an assistant coach, the head coach and I had very different approaches to the game.
I felt I had no idea what I was doing so I took courses, got licensed, and adopted a development mindset. He did not. His approach was more autocratic and based on his experience as a player. He liked to joystick during games and he didn’t evolve his style. For years, he used many of the same lines, drills, and lectures he found effective when he was coaching U8 players.
I followed his lead the entire time I coached under him - not wanting to rock the boat. When I tried to share some of the coaching lessons I was learning, he wasn’t interested. He opted to split practices where I lead one night and he lead the other. I came to his practices and helped out. He did not come to mine.
My coaching philosophy was different and my practice sessions were different too. He did all the on-field communication at games while I managed the bench.
The result? Our team lost Every. Single. Game.
The first season he stepped down and I stepped up as head coach, our team started a three season winning streak. We went undefeated.
Looking back, I know it wasn’t entirely my coaching that did the trick. I think consistency helped a lot. Having one approach, and actual plan for the season and for each session, and a team that was willing and eager to do well all made a difference. We dialed in our training to the age appropriate charts. I made sure I never used a virtual joystick to try to move players around the field during games, and I emphasized above all else, that the team was its own strength. When we find each other, communicate well, and rely on each other on the field, we will do well, I said over and over again - and we did.
If you’re coaching, make a commitment to improving your knowledge of the game and of coaching with at least one course between every season. If you're part of a coaching team, consider taking two courses (one each) and sharing what you learn. We never stop learning as coaches, and with the abundance of content available online, there is no good excuse for not finding something to add to your toolbox.
Getting Parents Onboard
I believe that the key to getting parents on board requires a three pronged approach: manage expectations, communicate well, and educate as you go. Every parent wants their kid to succeed. When they understand that their kid’s success is tied to the success of the team, they will talk about that more at home. “Johnny should have passed you the ball.” Morphs into “How can you support your team mates?” or “You guys were talking well out there today.”
Parents can be great assets that can really help establish healthy dialog around the team and the game at home. If they know what the coach is looking for, they can help steer observations in the direction they should be going. Parents are not, and should never be, relegated to the role of taxi-cab driver and wallet. To do this is a big mistake and a lost opportunity.
Managing expectations sometimes means redefining what success looks like. I talked last week about a coach I had lunch with who wrote development goals like “pass into space 5 times,” “make 5 saves,” or “pass back to the goalie” on index cards, had players draw a card and walk it over to their parents. Their parents would then keep an eye out for the goal, write on the card when goals were achieved (or not), and share the results with players at the end of games. What a great way to communicate expectations to parents! What a great way to take eyes off the score board and put them squarely on the things we’re actually working on in youth sports!
Communicating effectively requires some preparation ahead of time. Unless you’ve been coaching for many years and can do the parent communication thing in your sleep, then be careful to
- Communicate! It’s hard to over communicate with a parent about their child. I’m not saying we can’t go overboard, but parents are generally interested in their own kids. If they’re not, well then, you’ve got a different challenge.
- Be consistent. Your coaching philosophy should be known by every parent on your team. After a while, parents will come to know what your reaction will be to most situations if you’re consistent over time. This helps a lot when you’ve got parents in your corner when your player is feeling down or particularly sore after a practice. If a parents is not in your corner or does not buy into your coaching philosophy, it’s equally good that they move on to another team.
- Be proactive. If you’re doing your job, getting educated, and evolving as you should be, then you’ll likely have thought about what’s coming up in a year or two. Are you going to move up in numbers from 7v7 to 9v9? Do you need to start recruiting now? Do you have parents who are ticked off because their 10 year old isn’t allowed to do headers? Send out a newsletter that explains the rationale behind letting players craniums get little stronger before banging them with a #4 soccer ball.
My point is - try to anticipate and get in front of your team. You will win friends in your parents and you’ll extend the dialog you’re trying to have with kids on the field into their living rooms at home.
Keep it Simple and Flex
There are too many options to work on out there to count. The development tables I mentioned last week are full of items. If a team tries to do them all in one season, it’ll be too much.
Better to choose a few items that you think you want to work on before the season starts, than to try to choose all of them.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Be flexible. Your team will not follow your plan exactly. You may start down a path you think you should be on - only to find that your team isn’t ready to go where you are trying to lead them. If the team you have is not ready for your plan, adjust your plan and meet them where they are. Take the long view of development. Maybe they need more confidence on the ball before they attempt that overlapping run attack through the seam, cross, crash, shoot and rebound move you’ve rehearsed in your head all summer. Back it up.
Or maybe you’re lucky enough to go the other way. Maybe the overlapping, attack, super star thingy was easy for them and they want more. My point is, be flexible. Our job is to bring out the best in the players we’ve got.
Simple Tactics for Instant Success
Before I leave you searching for that How do I leave a 5-star Review for this Show button, I’d like to leave you with a quick tip or two that you can use on the soccer field during a game to bring a team that’s playing next to one another a little closer. The key is: you want players finding one another, passing to one another, making movements into space, making movements to draw the other team open, or concentrating your team together around a tight defense. This kind of group movement is better, by far, than watching 14 - 22 players all play serial rounds of 1v1.
Tactic #1: The five point pass. This is my favorite. I tried this for the first time when I was up against our opponent and wanted to slow my team down a little. I found it works equally well when we’re up one the scoreboard as when we’re down on the scoreboard. It actually resulted in better play all around. The more I thought about, the more I liked it. The more I used it and the more I saw the effects, the more highly I can recommend it to you.
The five point pass starts off pretty simply. Ask you players to pass the ball five times to one another before they go to goal. Think about this. To pass the ball five times, they need to lift their head. They need to find someone to pass to. They need to keep track of how many passes they made - which usually means someone is counting off while others listen. They also focus on making their passes count vs just trying to go to goal.
As a possession team, this tactic was gold. My players know when I hold up five fingers, that they need to switch to the five point pass. Five passes, by the way, is also the average number of passes it takes to pull apart a good defense.
Feel free to add to the five point pass. I put things out there like: see if you can make five passes in the green zone before going to goal. Can you make five passes in the red zone, five in the yellow, and five in the green without the other team getting a foot on the ball? Be careful in the red zone, obviously.
Can you make a five point pass shaped like a star? There are all kinds of permutations of the five point pass tactic that I love for game day. This is an attacking tactic, and it has the overall effect - almost every time, of bringing a field full of players who were playing next to one another to playing WITH one another.
Tactic #2: A defensive tactic I used with younger players - around U10 or U11 is what I called “Rally to the King!” The King is our goalkeeper. The 18 is our castle.
When I came up with this, we were about to play against a team that in the last game of the season against a team that had beaten every other team in the age bracket by 9 points. Before the game, I laid this gem on them and reset expectations. If we could hold this team to five goals, we win. We talked briefly about the game of chess, the need to protect our king, the knights, the bishops, and rooks. And we empowered them to make the call “Rally to the King!” or “Protect the Castle!” At which point, every player would pile into the 18 and cause chaos for the attacking team. If we won the ball, we booted it to other end of the field - or as far as we could, and we sent them running. Knights could pursue or run the ball down field, but only if they could get back in time to protect the king in the next attack.
Our team defended really well. We held them to less than five points, and even though the scoreboard said we lost that game, every player and every parent of every player went home feeling like a champion. We vanquished a superior foe, and we were victorious. Not to mention we fared better than any other team that season against this team.
In case you didn’t catch it the first time through, I did several things with Protect the Castle.
- I redefined success.
- We made it fun - regardless of the scoreboard.
- We threw a tactic at an opponent that they were clearly not expecting and had no answer for.
- We ended that season on a high note.
I shared these stories with you to really dig into what it means to take a development approach to the game of soccer vs a win-at-all-cost on the scoreboard or in the standings approach. I balanced physical, mental, and emotional development in a way that better equips players to not only manage the game of soccer, but the game of life.
We talked about a few ways in which we can transform a field full of players into a team that finds one another and plays with one another instead of next to one another in games. And we tied parents, players, and coaches together around the stuff that really matters.
- Davies, Jed, et al. “Unpacking Awareness and Decision Making in the Professional and Youth Game.” These Football Times, 18 Sept. 2017, thesefootballtimes.co/2017/08/07/unpacking-awareness-and-decision-making-in-the-professional-and-youth-game/.
- “Mental Fatigue Impairs Soccer-Specific Decision-Making Skill.” Taylor and Francis Online, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02640414.2016.1156241.