A must-listen to podcast for soccer parents and players

Gary Kleiben and John Pranjic nail it in their latest 3Four3 soccer podcast on the 5 components of player development.

I wish I would have had this 10 years ago when my child started soccer and I started coaching.

They identify these 5 components:

  1. The household/parent/family influence.
  2. The playing on your own influence.
  3. The pickup game influence.
  4. The structured club training influence.
  5. The personal training influence.

I just wanted to transcribe a few awesome nuggets from this podcast for posterity.

Pranjic says that parents without soccer backgrounds “are easily impressed by coaches with all kinds of cones, flags and sticks for kids to dribble around and jump over — that looks very professional. When you see kids out there all in unison doing all these step overs, dribbling through the cones it looks like there’s work being done. But, as a group of 15 or 20 kids, as a team, that’s not what they should be focusing on for those 1 to 1.5 hour sessions. I don’t know if that’s been talked about enough.”

It’s not talked about enough. I spent years as a coach in this conflict and many coaches know this is a huge selling point for parents.

He continues, “What should a parent be expecting from this structured training environment?”

Kleiban responds, “You can look at it as development curves. Everybody’s going to develop and get better with more and more touches on the ball. That’s obvious.”

I’d say that’s not obvious to many folks with and without soccer backgrounds. That’s why they fall for the trap Pranjic described and think of the club as nearly 100% of a kid’s soccer identity.

“What might not be obvious is an appreciation for who you are up against. If you’re doing all these technical drills in the club environment and not learning the team game, compare that to somebody who is learning the team game almost exclusively within the team environment, and then doing the technical work on their own. You’ve already lost. You’re falling further and further behind the curve.

You want that situation inverted.You want in that team environment having your player learning the team game, with a sprinkle of individual skills, and outside the team environment, learning the individual skills stuff, on your own, with personal training, with your family and friends.

And then you’re set up to properly compete and move up the competitive levels.”

In my experience, most parents and kids without soccer background and about half with soccer backgrounds, expect the club environment to develop all the skills and team aspects.

Kleiban then describes in more detail the aspects of team play: “Tactics are about how are you going to play as a team and an individual player being able to understand how they fit into the team collective and what their decision-making is supposed to be.

When we talk about a style of play, each individual on the team has a specific role and what that means is that there is a set of correct and incorrect decisions for a particular position, and that player via communication with the coach needs to understand what is a correct decision for this style of play for that position and what is an incorrect decision, depending on the context of the situation that the player finds themselves in. So, if you’re right back and we are on the attack with the ball on the left side of the field, what should his or her position be like and why.”

I’ve seen coaches tell players that they need to work on their decision-making, but then do not give them examples of correct and incorrect decisions and why those are correct or incorrect. That, to me, is as useful as a coach yelling, “Play harder!”

Pranjic: “I hope what people take away from this is that soccer is not random. If your team is focusing most of its time on technical aspects, then in the game you’re watching is random soccer.”

Here’s the main reason I stopped coaching — the players would not do the work on their own. We’d train on team play, but they could not execute because their technical skills were so low and they did not care to improve it on their own. Then, we’d train on technical skills, but then they couldn’t consistently make good decisions and they’d play random. And it became apparent to me that if the kids wouldn’t do their part on their own, then the parents were just hiring a babysitter.

Regarding the topic of speed of play. “In the U.S. that phrase is interpreted to how fast the players and ball move, but what it really means is how quickly decisions are being made and how far in advance.”

One example from my coaching days was that kids would receive the pass, get it under control and then look up and start thinking about what’s next and anything and everything was an option. By the time they made a decision, they were losing the ball.

The team framework should move them to the place that they already know their 5-6 correct options before they receive the ball, in context of their position and the situation, and use the time they have to evaluate and execute the best one, while adding some deception to throw the other team off a bit.

Regarding playing on your own vs. “opposed playing”: Kleiben: “Let’s say you’re a 13 year old and going to the wall or the racquetball court and spending time with the ball, it’s almost a meditative practice where it’s you and your own mind. And it’s you developing your own mental fortitude in a different sort of way and saying hey, I’m going to improve X, Y or Z in my game without anybody else around.

If you want to improve your left foot, what better way than to be by yourself and doing a thousand different touches against a wall or more than a thousand and then grinding away and seeing every repetition as a success or failure as to how you wanted to stroke it, I think it’s just crucially important that you can’t get in a pickup, team or personal training environment.”


Bang for your buck: game time vs play time

Continuing with the theme of my previous post, if you see organized game time as the main way for players to improve, you’re making a bad investment.

You are making this investment if you ask your child’s coach, “How is she supposed to improve if she doesn’t get enough play time?”

Is a piano recital the only place a piano student improves?

Is a math student the only place to learn math?

You will get more bang for your buck to see piano recitals and math tests as ‘top of the pyramid’ exercises.

‘Top of the pyramid’ moments are meant to motivate effort in the middle and base layers of the pyramid to foster mastery.

In piano, lessons are the middle layer and self-practice is the base layer. In math, class is the middle layer and self-practice is the base. Without the base, recitals and math tests don’t go so well.

In soccer, games are the top of the pyramid, with practice in the middle and self-practice/play as the base layer.

Most kids who might miss a few minutes of their equal game time, get zero play time at home.

The best way to earn more game is with more play time.

Bang for your improvement buck: soccer and cycling

In my bicycle racing days, we giggled at newbies who showed up to a time trial with their shiny new top-end bikes that cost 5 times our entry level racing bikes.

Why? Because they didn’t yet know that 90% of your performance was determined by your training and 10% by your equipment. The best investment you could make was getting your butt in shape. That was worth minutes in a 10 mile trial, while the best equipment was worth seconds.

I see the same mistake made in youth soccer when parents want their kids in the best clubs but don’t think about the thing that’s about 10x more valuable: developing a love for the ball.

The best team will make a player 10% better. Developing a love for the ball will make them 100% better or more.

Bicycle racers are known snobs, but at least we let the newbies in on the secret after their dismal showing. Many responded by training their tails off and closing the gap.

It might help if more soccer folks were like snobby cyclists. Thinking back, I’m amazed that when I was a newbie soccer player in adult leagues and couldn’t trap, dribble or pass worth a hoot, not one soccer snob suggested that I go spend copious amounts of time with the ball.

Key message: Parents, if your kid doesn’t spend much time outside of team stuff working with the ball, don’t expect much. It’s not the club’s fault when they don’t become rock stars. Help your kids focus on the activity that has 10 times the return than just showing up to practice. Put that first, club second.

The most surprising thing about coaching kids soccer

Many things surprised me. But one really stood out.

Crazy parents? Poor refs? You can win so much by playing so wrong?

Those were surprising, but something even surpassed those.

I think it needs to be fixed to improve the quality of soccer in the U.S. all around and the top.

Okay…maybe I’m laying the BS on a little thick. But, I do think it would help.

I was surprised by how much gets in the way of kids improving.

I was even more surprised by how kids are their own worst enemies. Stupid me, I thought kids would want to get better. Nah.They want to be good already.

Kids avoid direct comparisons and overestimate their ability. “Yeh, Johnny can score goals, but I can take the ball from anyone!” They hear “good pass” as “you’re the best player on the team!” Egos are powerful and misleading.

That’s why crystal clear feedback should be the goal.

Our soccer system mucks up the feedback, too.

In this post I wrote about how pickup culture provides better feedback than organized teams, and strong soccer countries have a tightly interwoven pickup culture.

Here I wrote about how the sports clubs in strong soccer countries provide good feedback to kids in ways that our clubs do not.

Crystal clear feedback doesn’t mean telling kids they are terrible. It means giving kids a glimpse of where they should head, letting them know how far along they are and how they can move further. The posts above describes how pickup and clubs in other countries do just that.

Come to think of it, it bugged me as a coach how uncommon it was for the kids to praise or correct each other. They didn’t learn to do it in pickup and on a team, they figured that was the coach’s job. Yet, another area where they didn’t get the feedback they need.