Soccer Team and Players – The 12th Player

If I told you that a 13U or older soccer team has more than 11 players on the field during a game, you might question my knowledge of the game. You might think I'm trying to be clever by telling you that unless a referee issued a red card, there are always 22 players on the field for 11-a-side soccer. But I'm not. I value you too much to dedicate a whole show to a play on words. 

As a coach, I see 12 players every time we take the field for a match. I see the 11 individual players who are each named on my starting lineup, but I also see the collection of players that take the field on a given day. If you're careful about watching the game, you'll see like I do that the collection of individual players - even when they're exactly the same people in the same positions on the same pitch - have a different personality at Every. Single. Game. 

In this episode, I zoom out a little with the hope of showing you what I refer to as the 12th player. The strength of the 12th player, the team as it plays and moves together, regularly makes the difference between winning or losing. Helping individual players understand their role in contributing to this 12th player's strength and personality not only helps to win games, but it transforms individuals into real team players.
Let's talk about the Team.

Soccer Team and Players

You see differences in the team every time you watch a game. You might say "The team looked strong today," or "The team fell apart in the second half." You're referring to the Team overall when you say something like this, and you might back up your comment with examples from individual player's performance after the game. But I believe that you and I don't spend enough time talking or thinking about the Team as an entity or "12th player" that needs to be coached. How about from this point on - at least in this episode we refer to the collection of individual players as the "12th player?" I'm referring to the "12th player" instead of "The Team" for a reason. 
I'm hoping you understand why I'm doing this in the next few minutes. 

As a coach of a High School aged team, I think about the 12th player every time I make a starting lineup. Of course, I consider the strengths, weaknesses, and temperaments of each individual player when I put the lineup together, but I'm also thinking about how the team is going to show if I put players in lineup A or lineup B. I may know that my Right Back and Center Right back have personal issues off the pitch. I know my center holding midfielder finds space well, but that a pass up the right side is probably going to result in a cross and a pass to the left is probably going to result in a turnover 3/4 up the field. If I switch my left and right center midfielders, I'm probably going to see a pass up the left channel or a turnover 3/4 up the midfield on the right side.

Aside from the physical characteristics of Player 12, I also tune in to emotional factors. This isn't as reliant on physical positioning - though some players can be more or less excited about playing a particular position - and therefore can be affected emotionally by where I place them in the lineup. But I look for who provides emotional and moral support, and I pay attention to when morale is in trouble and the dominoes start to fall- who starts the chain. Who can interrupt the chain? Who do players pay attention to for leadership or emotional cues?

Conducting a soccer match can be like trying to conduct an orchestra. If you see me talking to a particular player on the bench before sending them back into the game, that discussion may have had nothing to do tactical soccer strategy. I may be trying to jumpstart player #12 by dropping a bit of inspiring information on one of my players who I know has the ability to rally the rest of the team. I may be interrupting a player's negative self-talk because I know that once that player gets into his own head, he starts to stand around - which in turn cripples Player #12's left flank - which in turn overloads Player #12's right flank and shuts down the game.

When individual players are working in a way that complements one another, Player #12 is powerful. When players become a collection of individuals all playing next to one another, then holes open up in the field, tempers get short, emotional energy drains like water from a leaky bucket, and the team gets crushed. Player #12 has left the pitch. 

The Power of The 12th Player

If soccer were the game of chess, then The 12th Player would be the queen. It is potentially the most powerful player on the entire pitch. 

More than 2,000 years ago, Sun Tsu, a Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher, wrote a book titled The Art of War. This is a book I've read dozens of times over the years - as have millions of military and business strategists for centuries. In one chapter, Sun Tzu describes a military conflict where his army was vastly outnumbered. I don't remember exactly how many times, but let's say 4:1 for the sake of my point. The enemy was marching towards a river. The river stood between Sun Tzu and the opposing army. That river meant certain death for anyone who entered it. A bridge connected the two sides. Sun Tzu marched his army across the bridge and promptly had the bridge behind him destroyed. His army was stranded and hopelessly outnumbered. He gathered them together and explained that the only way they were getting home was through the opposing army. A river of death at their back and nowhere to go, his army fought with a passion that ended up defeating the enemy and winning the day. Against overwhelming odds, Sun Tzu knew that his best chance of defeating the enemy was to find a way to make his army fight with the heart of a lion. 

Hopelessly outnumbered, low on ammo, and out of options, Sun Tzu's army knew they needed one another. They needed every single arrow to find its mark. They needed every man to live and perform or they themselves would need to kill 8 or 12 enemy instead of 4.
The opposing army had options. They had safety behind them - a place to run. Many of them did. When they confronted the unified and desperately energized army of Sun Tsu, they broke. They scattered as individuals into the landscape and Sun Tzu's army emerged as victorious. 

We're not facing death in a youth soccer match, and I'm not suggesting that we need our soccer team and players to feel desperate and out of options when they play soccer. I am suggesting that when they learn to need and rely on one another on the pitch - when they are unified in purpose and strategy, and when they feel a burning desire to contribute to the team instead of put on individual shows - that they will evoke the power of the 12th player. When they play with the heart of a lion together, pick one another up when they stumble, and feel the synergy that humans have when they selflessly work together - they can show on the pitch with a force that crushes technically superior players. After the game, people on both sides will walk away wondering what the heck just happened. Except maybe the coach. If it was my team, I know exactly what happened. I read Sun Tsu and I've fielded some unbelievably powerful teams in the business world. My corporate competitors have accused my teams of 10 or 12 of doing the work of 100 people. I was once threatened with an Anti-deficiency Act violation because people in high places through that one of my teams had spent more than the one million dollar threshold in developing new capabilities. We had, in fact, spent $100 thousand that had the impact of more than $1 million of traditional programming. 

Sending Off The 12th Player

One of the most common threats to the soccer team and players is parent coaching from the sidelines. Given all you know about the power of the 12th player, imagine with me for a moment a soccer dad yelling at his son from the sidelines to do something other than what the coach had asked him to do. The coach may be looking to use a player's speed to distract the opposing team's defenders and open up space on the left so a ball can be played from the right - taking advantage of a left-footed player the coach knows is reliably in striking distance of the goal. Dad is yelling at his son to get the ball and shoot - an action that would dismantle the game strategy, make a player appear selfish to his teammates and weaken the 12th Player's resolve. 

Yesterday, I had one dad telling his son that he needs to play striker and put the ball in the net. I had him playing left winger in a modified 4:3:3 formation that didn't even feature a striker. We were playing numbers down in a strong wind against a numerically and physically larger team. They had won every game in the season and had exactly one goal scored against them. Seven of my players - many of them key to our overall team strategy - were out of town or injured. Several of my players struggled to finish a 90-minute match under the best circumstances, and I had given the player in question instructions to change his usual style of play and use his speed to help fill in holes we had in our defense.

This player played in conflict. His mind and focus torn between his father's instructions, his coach's instructions, and the teammates who needed him to be there to help boost their spirits and activate the power of The 12th Player.

I had a second dad tell two of my key players why my strategy - a strategy he had no knowledge of - was the wrong strategy. That they needed to use the wind to get the ball over the heads of the opponent's team.

As a nationally credentialled coach with a few years of experience, I understand the importance of the wind on a windy day. Of keeping the ball low into the wind or high with the wind if we want the ball to carry or bend. While this dad, a former player himself, no doubt believed that he was helping by sharing his advice, he didn't consider the 12th player. He didn't consider the effect that setting these two key players off in a direction that was inconsistent with the rest of the team strategy would have on the rest of the team. He didn't consider that these two young and impressionable minds might from that point forward, call into question instructions provided by the coach. Dad said the coach's strategy was wrong. Maybe we should do our own thing. 

Players can send off The 12th Player too. When egos get big and a player starts believing that they are better than the rest of the team or can accomplish goals without the team's help, this can really bring a team down - and in some cases, ruin it altogether. I have a former player who is pretty talented in his own regard. He's not the best I've seen, but he can hold his own. A season ago, he left my team and tried to start his own. The text message he sent me included a few words about how he is better than the other players on my team and included "and you know it." Yesterday, my current team played against a team he joined. We could hear him on the field admonishing his teammates "Why can't you be good at this sport?!" Unfortunately, especially if and when the team he is on wins games, other players will wonder if his example is one they should follow.

These are discussions that make for good living room discussions with parents at home. You can make a big difference in your child's life by pointing out how short term selfish focus like this leads to sub-par performance in life later. Head them off before they walk down that path. The path looks pretty attractive to young teenaged minds if it's not tempered with some reality.

As a coach, I know that any of the above sets the entire team back. Sometimes, it becomes impossible to recover the power of the 12th Player. I know when a soccer team and players are playing next to one another instead of with one another. When we send off The 12th Player, the soccer team and players suffer. 

The 12th Player Beyond the Soccer Team and Players

Youth Sport is about much more than the game or the score of a game. It's about preparing young people for life. It's not an easy thing to explain the complexities of a concept like "The 12th Player" to a group of adolescents or pre-teens. But like everything in youth sport, they can feel it. The soccer team and players on soccer teams are experiencing life on a small scale in a safe environment and in a way that leaves an impression on them for decades. We hope that they are successful in whatever they try to do. As a coach, I hope that they can experience (or evoke) the power of The 12th Player the way that I have in my own life. 

On a grand scale, The 12th Player can show up later in life as team loyalties and support, national loyalty and support, self-sacrifice, volunteerism, empathy, and respect for others. Kids who play in a strong "12th Player" environment know - without the need and sometimes without the ability to describe what it is to others - that we're stronger when we act together.

As a parent, you may be able to best support your soccer team and players by discovering your coach's strategy and supporting it. If your coach doesn't have a specific strategy for The 12th Player, then knowing what you now know about the importance of teamwork, you might be the one voice in your child's ear explaining why criticizing or condemning teammates or acting independently from the team can hurt team outcomes. 

Invite others to Join our Community!

The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.