My wife is a developmental psychologist. For two decades she has been studying children and the factors that impact their development and well-being. It’s a relatively narrow focal point and if she’s not careful it can become repetitious. Whenever she needs to break out of an intellectual rut, she turns to other fields like biology, neurology, physiology and even engineering for ideas that might translate to her own field. She calls it “changing the canvas.” This type of outside your field thinking has proven to be highly effective for her and it can be for soccer coaches too!
There are numerous places soccer coaches can look toward for inspiration including education, business, science and leadership, among others. For this article I want to focus on other sports; what we can learn from them and how they can stir us to continue to grow our profession and our game. Specifically, we can find inspiration from individual sports, American football, baseball and goal sports like ice hockey, field hockey and lacrosse.
Individual Sports ...
Our oldest son used to be a diver. He belonged to a local diving club run by two incredible, what I would call “master” coaches. What set these coaches apart was the extraordinary knack they had to personalize their coaching to the specific diver. I think individual sport coaches probably develop this skill better due to the very nature of their daily environment.
These particular coaches worked with an extremely wide range of ages and ability levels -- from 8-year-old beginners to Division 1 college athletes -- challenging the coaches to significantly adjust their coaching to the individual. And yet, no matter which diver was on the board, the coach was completely dialed in to that athlete’s skills, needs and emotions. The coaches consistently and artfully kept each diver in his or her zone of proximal development with just the right amount of challenge and support.
The post-dive feedback was immediate, personalized and concise and then the diver jumped back on the board to transfer the instruction to the next dive. It was amazing to watch and it got me thinking about how we could translate this style of coaching to a team sport like soccer. And, it inspired me to improve my ability to personalize my coaching.
Most of us plan our training sessions down to the exercise and the coaching points we want to cover within each exercise. How many of us drill down to the strengths and growth opportunities for each player? Why can’t we work toward the session goal, while also working toward player-centric goals for each individual. Susan needs to work on her left foot, Sam needs to get her head up before receiving the ball, Kayla has confidence issues and Andrea’s communication goes negative in certain moments. In addition to our team training plan for the day, can we as coaches keep the individual’s needs on our coaching agenda? I believe the best team sport coaches already do.
If you ever have a chance to watch a football practice, I highly recommend it. The first third of almost every American football practice is dedicated to position-specific work. The quarterbacks throw, the running backs run and cut, the receivers catch, the lineman block and tackle and the kickers, well they kick. Each positional coach designs drills specific to the functions of each position and then instructs the players on their job in detail down to footwork and hand-position. It’s a highly efficient machine with positional stations laid out systematically all over the field. I keep waiting for a progressive MLS coach to hire position coaches, like their NFL counterparts.
I know that sounds far-fetched and I realize our sport is more free-flowing than most. Furthermore, each position in soccer is less specialized than football. And yet, each position in soccer does require functions that if not unique, are at least more prevalent to the position. Wingers cross, forwards shoot, midfielders pass, center backs clear. Like most of you, we have always offered separate goalkeeper training at Rochester.
About 12 years ago during a scoring drought, we started offering weekly training just for our forwards. Of course the midfielders and defenders felt left out and an idea was born. Today we offer separate weekly trainings designed specifically for our back four, our midfielders, our forwards and our flank players (wing backs attend both back four and flank sessions).
The players absolutely love these sessions as they are tailored to their specific functions and they can see the improvements to their game in concrete ways. And the attention they receive from the staff does wonders for their understanding and confidence in their role. If you have the luxury of a few assistant coaches and a full field, you can offer position-specific training for each position at the same time -- the first 30-45 minutes of training has worked well for us. If you are on your own or have one assistant, pull each positional group in separately for their dedicated training. Over time you will find the players will take great ownership of the position-specific training program -- coaching each other and challenging themselves to continually refine the skills required of their position.
Our youngest son’s little league baseball practice is almost always the same. Throw and catch. Ground balls. Pop flies. Batting practice. Run the bases. The fundamentals. The coaches throw in some finer points here and there like hitting the cut-off, run downs, stealing, etc., but the basics are always there. From practice to practice you can see each boy grow in competence relative to the fundamentals. Interestingly, when I watch a college baseball practice, those fundamental skills are still practiced almost every day. They still throw and catch, they still hit BP and they still field grounders and fly balls. I expect big league practices are not much different. It’s about staying sharp and the automation that develops over years of practice.
When I watch soccer practices whether youth, college or pro, they typically have a narrower focus and often neglect one or more fundamentals of the game. Too often the technical warm-up phase focuses solely on passing and receiving at the detriment of dribbling, heading and shooting. Touch restrictions in possession and small-sided games restrict dribbling and full-sized goals are often idle till the final game, thus severely limiting shooting practice (more about that later).
Yet, we wonder why an 18-year-old is deficient in fundamental skills. I want to suggest three potential solutions. For our youngest players (Zone 1), spend time every practice on each fundamental -- passing/receiving, dribbling and shooting (no heading for the little ones as we know). Fifteen minutes or so per skill followed by small-sided games. For players of any age, set up skill stations during the technical phase of training and have the players cycle through each station in small groups.
For players in Zones 2 and 3, design exercises that incorporate several or even all of the fundamentals of our sport within one complex cycle. This makes a lot of sense for more advanced players as rarely is a skill performed in isolation in the match. About a year ago I watched a video of a complex exercise from Pep Guardiola. In the exercise, the Bayern players did an agility drill through a ladder, went up for a header, played a 1-2 with a coach and then slalom dribbled through sticks before finishing on a full-sized goal with goalkeeper -- all at match tempo!
I’ve tried it with college players and U-16 players and both groups loved the challenge and the variety. Our staff has since developed multiple versions of the complex template. For further creative stimulation, look to your own technical exercises -- which ones can you adjust and expand to incorporate more of our game’s fundamental skills?
Goal Sports: Ice Hockey, Lacrosse, Field Hockey ...
Scoring is the most elusive, challenging, at times mind-bogglingly frustrating part of our sport. It’s not surprising that goalscorers command the highest professional salaries. Other sports that include a goal and goalkeeper all have higher goals per match ratios than soccer, despite smaller goals. The smaller ball or puck tends to find the net more easily, that is true. But beyond that, I believe the other goal sports devote significantly more time to shooting.
In fact, I have never been to a hockey, lacrosse or field hockey practice that did not dedicate a segment specifically to shooting and scoring. I asked my colleagues in those sports and they confirmed that it is virtually unheard of to hold a practice without some focus on scoring. Moreover, they looked at me with confusion when I asked the question about shooting/scoring activities at practice, as if to say, “scoring goals is the purpose, isn’t it?”
In contrast, I regularly observe soccer trainings that contain limited or no time allotted to finishing, unless you count the end of practice scrimmage. Think about how few shooting repetitions the players get during that scrimmage. In fact, think about how many goals are scored during an average soccer practice. Go back through your training logs and look at how much time you dedicated to scoring? How many shooting exercises did you run over the course of a month? How many opportunities do you provide your players to finish chances?
Many of us simply do not allocate enough time in our trainings to scoring goals and we wonder why those chances go wanting in the match. It’s an easy fix. Add more finishing exercises during your technical warm-up phase. Play more small-sided games to full-sized goals. End training with a finishing competition. When scrimmaging, divide your group into three teams with two playing and the third performing a shooting exercise in isolation. Be creative and find additional ways to incorporate scoring into your training on a regular basis.
And, the next time you find yourself in a rut, or simply want to continue to learn and grow as a coach, change the canvas and observe a sport other than soccer to find your inspiration! (I highly recommend basketball, but that’s an entire article on it’s own).