Coaching Corner: Talk

I touched on this in Parts of the Body Needed to Play Soccer, but thought it needed its own post.

When you are on the pitch, or on the side, you should always be talking to your teammates in the action.

Some of you have some the wrong deas about talking.

A teammate pays you a compliment and you yell at him that he’s not better than you? You get mad because you call for the pass, but don’t get passed to? You think that captain and coach are the only ones that should be talking?

To play as a team, you all need to learn to talk. That’s a part of becoming a good soccer player and is important.

We talk to convey info to help each other make better decisions while we are dealing with the ball. If we’re all talking, we can increase a teammate’s options from the 2-3 that she sees to 4-6. You might be calling a pass out, letting them know if they have someone on or have space to turn, or should carry the ball to take space.

We talk to set up patterns or organize on defense.

All of this improves our odds of winning.

Timing matters. If you are open a lot, call for it, but don’t get passed, maybe you need to work on this. The decision window is just before they get the ball, not after.

We also talk to let everyone know that we know we made a mistake. Mistakes happen. If you raise your hand and call “my bad,” then there’s no need for anyone else to.

We also talk to encourage each other, and my land, we shouldn’t be offended when a teammate encourages us. Good ball, good pass, nice trap, good idea, nice move, nice dribble and even good talk, are just some examples. Tell your teammates what they do well and you will get more of it.

Learn to talk to correct, constructively. Instead of, “You should have ran on that pass!” Try, “My bad! I thought you were going to make that run.” That lets them know to make the run next time without badgering them and also showing that you realize you misread their intentions.

Strive for efficiency. Fewer syllables makes for faster processing and decisions. I’m trying to break my habit of saying “you got time” for “time.” One syllable is better than 3. And, see, we all always have something to work on.

When you get the chance to watch elite players and sit close enough to hear some of the talk, pay attention to what they say and when. Listen to our opponents. Play pickup with people and you will also pickup their lingo.

Good talk.


Coaching Corner: Attack Space

This past weekend, I watched a close game turn into a not-so-close game because one team forgot to attack space. Here’s what I’d tell them.

The game got away from you not because of the direct mistakes that turned into goals for the other team that you all were yelling at each other about.

Those mistakes are inevitable.

The problem is that ALL of you made the mistake of allowing the other team to shrink your margin of error so that any mistake was more costly.

That mistake was ignoring the open space on the field.

21 of 22 players were in your half and you all kept passing the ball short to feet, ignoring the open space in their half of the field.

Part of being able to play it out of the back is to know how to create the space to do that, increasing your margin of error so that a bad first touch, bad pass or miscommunication isn’t as costly.

To increase that margin of error, you need to attack the space they are giving you to force them to cover it.

In this case, they left their half wide open.

When they do that, clear it long from defense, or look for through balls from midfielders, to get the ball into that space.

On the turf field, with an especially bouncy ball, and the speed mismatches we had on our wings (our wingers were faster than their outside backs), I’d aim those long balls to their corners.

Do this a few times, set up some legit scoring chances, maybe even get a couple of goals, and their back line will drop back to keep that from happening, opening more space on your side of the field to attack, increasing your margin of error and improving your chances with building out of the back.

Sometimes the space will be right in front of you, in that case attack it by carrying into it. This will draw coverage and open space elsewhere.

Sometimes it will be on the other side. In that case, attack it by learning how to switch to that space quickly.

The point is, be aware of where the space is and attacking it will be to your advantage.

Coaching Corner: Find the most open man

This is the second in my series of short discussions I’d like to have with players, based on actual events.

One way to help your team keep the ball and create more attacks is to play a short game after getting the ball and before attacking: find the most open man.

Too often, you get caught in battle for the ball in a crowded melee in a small area of the field where players try dribbling through 2-3 defenders or short passing to the teammates covered by the same defenders. That looks a lot like bull riding, complete with the rodeo clowns chasing the bull.

Here’s a better option. Always be scanning the field to see your open players, even when you don’t have the ball. Work with your teammates to get it there.

This changes your objective for a few brief moments from forcing the ball into scoring range, to finding the most open man.

That means that you dribble away from defenders to find a bit of space to make a longer pass, instead of trying to beat them.

That means you look for the mid to long pass, or series of passes, that can get the ball out of the melee and to a teammate that will have a few more seconds to think.

That might mean that you have a one-touch, quick mid-range pass out of the melee.

You can feel success when it happens. There will be a pause in the action and the momentum shifts from chasing bulls to one team having possession and the other defending.

Coaching Corner: Parts of body needed to play soccer

This is the first of these types of posts. These are short discussions I would like to have with players, inspired by watching them play.

What parts of the body do we use in soccer?

Yes. Feet. What else?

Yep, chest, thighs, head.

What else?

Uh…what else is there, Coach?

There are a few more.

Neck. You have to turn it from side to side. “Head on a swivel” so you know what’s around you.

Eyes. As your neck turns, you need to take in info so that you are always thinking about you or teammate’s next options. You need to scan for defenders, teammates, space and patterns.

Mouths. These are just as critical as your feet. We need to remember “AT”. That stands for Always Talking. If we aren’t talking, we aren’t playing. I know some of you don’t think some teammates aren’t good enough to ‘tell you what to do,’ or you don’t think it’s worth talking because nobody listens.

But, you all need to get over that. Talking is just as important of a skill as dribbling or passing and the only way you get better is by practicing.

We want to use our mouths to communicate options to teammates as the ball is coming to them, so they can be making their decision before they get it. That is what we mean by “play quick”.

So with talking, timing is important. So is, efficiency. Learn to use as few words as possible. So much can be communicated and coordinated with these simple words: Time, on, on hard, turn, drop, square, through, line, switch, left, right, big switch, leave, one more, keeper, shot, tackle, talk.

As you get better with talking, you can also use it to decieve your opponents.

Ears. We must listen to what our teammates. Every time the ball is coming your way, you should hope to hear at least 2-3 options, if not 4-5. If your teammates aren’t talking, then your aren’t playing as a team and let them know. Talk.

Brains. Of course we have to use these. The goal is to start thinking 1, 2 or 3 plays ahead. We can’t do that if our ball technique is so beginner that we can’t think about what’s next as we’re getting the ball under control. We can’t do that if your teammates aren’t saying your options as the ball is coming to you. We can’t do that if you aren’t using your neck and eyes to scan the field. We can’t do that if you wait until you get the ball to start evaluating your options.

Hands & arms. Just because you can’t touch the ball with these, you use these more than you think for balance, to help with your speed, shielding, checking and they can even be used to deceive the opponent. Point your pass, then pass another way.

As you get better at all of these, you will get better at thinking 1-3 steps ahead and thinking about the next things that help us get there: patterns and space.

How to Counteract the Relative Age Effect in sports?

Thanks to Joy of the People, on Twitter, for the link to this article on the Relative Age Effect in Bayern Munich’s teams and the Bundesliga, in general.

The data supports the idea that the players closer to the age cutoff for age groups in sports (i.e. the oldest of the group) have advantages that wind up causing top teams to have a higher composition of these players than players born in the back half of the year.

Even as a coach observing a small sample size of players, I saw the Relative Age Effect with my own eyes. I wrote about it here.

The Bayern article suggests a few counter measures, like waiting longer to make selections for training programs or looking at age so they know who is due for growth spurts.

IMO, those won’t work. The REA creates the bias early on, from the earliest organized teams around age 5 or 6, so that by the time the players are 16 or 17 it’s not just a physical difference that will be closed on the next growth spurt.

It’s that the players who benefited from the REA from the start got 30x more action in games and practice. It’s an experience and repetition deficiency. Probably also some mental deficits, as the the kids on the tail end receive lots of signals that they are no good and leave the sport.

I expect the ones that do make it from the tail end of the age bracket to be especially resilient, hard-workers who especially love the game, which has helped them overcome a higher hurdle and likely had a good dose of all ages pickup play, and/or older siblings and parents that played soccer.

My counterintuitive hunch is that a better countermeasure would be to widen the age groups to 2-3 year age brackets, rather than narrow them.

A few things happen with the wider age brackets. The age differences become more apparent, so both kids, coaches and parents factor that in. Instead of relying on the big kids in the single age bracket to get the win to feed their egos, they can say, my 8 year old held her own against the 9 and 10 year olds and be happy with that.

Something else important happens. The younger kids learn from the older kids that are 1-2 years ahead of them. That’s a piece that goes missing with 1-year or less age brackets. Sure, the games are closer and everybody feels good about that, but they learn nothing and don’t have anything to aspire to!

I believe a reason pickup play works well is that it often mixes ages and skills levels, so those on the bottom can get in and see what they have to learn to match up.

But, also, while lots of folks point to the hard-nosed, competitive nature of pickup, there are also a lot of balancing mechanisms that emerge. One example, when I played pickup against a better team who had been on the field for 4 or 5 turns, they were tired. So, my team of lesser players, with fresher legs, could match up with them better than if they had fresh legs. And, we even beat them a few times.

But, other ways of balancing emerge as well. Just think about any sport where you played pickup and all the little tricks you might have used to make the competition interesting. Maybe you spot the lesser team a few points, or offer some other handicap, like ‘our team can only shoot with our weak foot.’ Maybe you balance out the good players across teams. Or, even within the game, maybe you take the foot off the gas or man up to people of similar ability on the other team.

The point is, pickup play has evolved a lot ways to get people engaged in the sport and keep it interesting and educational.

Organized play sterilizes all the good that comes from that for the belief that “it will be more competitive.” That’s not even true, if compared to the balancing mechanisms in pickup, but it sounds good.

So, I think organized play with narrow age bands leads to less learning, less motivation to become like players 2-3 years advanced, and more Relative Age Effect.

If I were inclined, I think it would be an interesting study to look across countries for a few things, like the prevalence of all ages pickup play and the age groupings in the youth leagues.

If I’m right, I would expect to see less Relative Age Effect in countries that have more all ages pickup and wider age bands in their organized leagues.

Also, I might expect these places to produce better overall talent, relative to places with more isolated age play.

Update: I had a couple more thoughts after posting.

I think sports are better learned in 2-3 year chunks than in isolated age bubbles. Kids need more than the coach telling to put the effort in for the long haul. They also need role models that they know and want to be like.

The role model gives a player a vision of what they should be working toward in 1-3 years and to show them what is possible. Without that vision, kids are somewhat rudderless and just focus on the results of the game against the similarly skilled and aged opponents.

Finally, as kids mature to be the older group in the age bracket, they get to look back on the progress they’ve made and get some experience taking a leadership role with the younger kids, which helps them establish the field presence and confidence before moving to the lowest rung of the next level.

It’s also a little bit like how schools are organized into chunks of grades and you get a little bit of those dynamics there, too.

Why not lower the barrier to entry for pro/rel alternative to MLS?

A lot of folks discount the viability of promotion/relegation in soccer in the U.S. on feeling.

“I just don’t see it working here.” “Americans doesn’t support losing teams.”

Fine. But, what’s wrong with trying it?

Alexi Lalas might say, well there’s nothing stopping a competing league system to the MLS from cropping up, if they think they have a better mousetrap.

Well, nothing except a very high barrier to entry set by US Soccer with its Professional League Standards.

To meet those standards to get sanctioned by US Soccer as a legit league, you need to find some folks willing to bet between $500 million to a billion with something that has so far proven to be a low chance of paying off on that scale. That’s an incredibly high barrier to entry and US Soccer knows and so does Alexi Lalas.

It’s by design, to protect MLS from competition. It’d be similar to McDonald’s dictating that any competitor to enter the market must about as big as McDonald’s is now. That’s dumb. Even McDonald’s started small and only grew after hitting upon a winning formula. The PLS assumes the winning formula for a soccer league is known in advance.

I’m going to try asking this question of folks who hold the view that “nothing is stopping a competitor from trying it”:

Are you for mandating that other soccer leagues meet the PLS in order to be sanctioned by US Soccer? Why or why not?

I’ve heard these responses, so far.

“US Soccer has every right to set those standards as they govern the sport in the U.S.”

True. But, that doesn’t answer the question nor does it make it right. The question is, why do you support the PLS?

“So, just start an unsanctioned league.”

That shows a lack of understanding of what an unsanctioned league means. It means players can not participate in international FIFA competitions, like the World Cup, or their contracts be sold to other clubs that participate in FIFA-sanctioned competitiongs. So, essentially, you are basically creating a separate sport that happens to just look like soccer but cannot receive benefits that lower division soccer teams elsewhere can. Namely, you won’t convince many top players to come to your league if they can’t play in the World Cup for their country or have a chance of moving on to better clubs. Also, selling contracts of up and coming players is a big source of revenue for some of these clubs.

“The PLS makes sense to create a more financially viable and stable situation for players.”

At the cost of a much diminished opportunity for these players. I’d rather have more opportunities for players, even if it might be a bit more financially unstable until the full system emerges, than cut those opportunities off at the knees proclaiming they aren’t good enough.

Assuming that you can skip the unstable stage of small experiments that lead discovering winning formulas that replicate is simply not understanding how things work. To get to the stable stage of lots of opportunities, you need to let the small experiments happen.

For anyone that doesn’t understand that concept, I recommend watching the movie The Founder, about the origin story of McDonald’s with this lens: at no point in the early days of McDonald’s was the winning formula known and at any time, the business could have folded. What would have happened at some point had some governing restaurant body come along and said, we disagree with how you are running this restaurant, so you are not allowed to continue?

In hindsight, the success seems obvious and basic. But, hindsight tricks you into thinking this.

It wasn’t obvious early on how that the McDonald’s brother approach would work. Just the simple bet that people would be willing to get out of their car and walk up to the window for a burger was a risk.

And, while the brothers happened upon a winning formula for a quick service burger restaurant, they were unsuccessful in replicating in multiple locations. So was Ray Kroc, early on. But, then he made his big contribution to the franchise world: owner-operator. He realized people who owned and operated their restaurant, hands-on, would be more motivated to keep the food good, the service speedy and the restaurants clean. He was right.

In hindsight, the owner-operator model seems obvious. But, it wasn’t at the time and may have never been discovered if Kroc wasn’t allowed to experiment.

I would love for that type of experimentation to take place in American soccer. We look at European soccer and can’t imagine how or why their fans support teams at so many levels and, rather than trying to understand it, they write it off: “That won’t work here.”

What they’re missing is the 100+ years for small, club-level experiments that have led to a relatively stable and deep soccer system that is unimaginable to Americans (even though it does indeed exist in multiple places).

Yes, failure does happen, just like it does in the American restaurant business, or the real estate or any business. Failure even happens in the soccer business. Local clubs, MASL teams, leagues, kid soccer clubs and, even MLS teams, fail all the time.

So, I struggle to understand the logic supporting the PLS.