Coaching Corner: Good balls

When the ball comes your way, you have two jobs.

Job one is to keep the ball with the team. More on that later.

Job number two is to create a ‘good ball’. A ‘good ball’ is well-played ball that creates an advantage for your team. These are potential game changers.

Examples can range from laying a ball out for a teammate to take a good shot with one touch or as small as popping a loose ball to a nearby open teammate, turning a 50/50 chance of winning the ball into 100% chance.

Get in the habit of recognizing good balls and letting your teammates know by telling them, “Good ball!” The more we reward them, the more we will produce them and the more chances we will create.


Why own a pro sports team?

Many assume people own sports teams as a way to make money. That’s true, but not in the usual way.

Most businesses are valued based on how much cash they pump out. But, not sports teams.

Believe it or not, sports teams don’t pump out a lot of cash. Most of the revenue of the sports team goes to the players.

So, how do sports teams make money for the owners?

For their relatively small financial size, they carry a lot of prestige and name recognition. This is great for business, especially the owners’ other businesses, where they make their real money.

It turns out owning a sports team helps owners make more money for their other businesses, indirectly, through the higher profile, and directly as deals are signed in the warm surroundings of the owners box.

It doesn’t hurt that somewhere down the road, if the owner tires of owning the team, there are plenty of other wealthy folks out there willing to pay top dollar for those benefits.

Just remember, that value has little to do with the relative paltry profits from the team and much more to do with how owning the team can be used to grow their other businesses.

Some wealthy folks own teams as a hobby, too. It’s a fun distraction from their boring business lives. It’s like a vacation home or golf club membership. It has multiple purposes. It can be used for leisure and for business.

It’s good to keep this in mind if you find yourself coming to the defense of wealthy team owners by assuming they wouldn’t invest in a sport team in a pro/rel system that could be relegated if the owner doesn’t invest enough in payroll to keep the team competitive.

Trust me, wealthy business owners do not need you defending their interests. They aren’t strangers to taking risks.

Pro/rel arguments from recent Twitter, what comes first support or pro/rel?

Argument (from Australia): The same people who want pro/rel don’t show up to support the teams we have now. Would they show up to support a team that gets relegated?

My response: It makes sense to me that people who prefer pro/rel don’t support non-pro/rel soccer.

My longer response: I think the person who makes this argument falls into a couple a traps that they don’t realize they’re in.

The first trap is putting the cart before the horse by assuming support for soccer must come before pro/rel. My belief is that pro/rel helps increase support for soccer, so wanting the support to come first only prevents the support from developing by blocking the thing that helps cause more support.

I got into more detail on why I think pro/rel causes support for soccer to grow in this post. Hint: It’s more about what happens at the grassroots than whether the it’s more fun to watch two teams fight to keep from getting relegated.

The second trap is seeing soccer as a commodity. They think that,to a fan, it doesn’t matter whether soccer comes from a pro/rel league or a closed league, soccer is soccer. So, if you don’t support the soccer we have now, why would you support that soccer?

But, to someone who prefers the sporting merit that pro/rel brings, closed league soccer and pro/rel soccer are not the same.

To the person making the argument, the argument sounds like this: the same people who keep saying they want some alcoholic beverages, don’t drink the alcoholic beverages we have now. Why give them another alcoholic beverage if they don’t drink the alcoholic beverages we have now?

To the people who support pro/rel, that argument sounds like this: the same people who keep saying they like bourbon don’t drink the beer we have now. Why give them bourbon if they don’t drink the beer we have now?

Soccer based on sporting merit is different than closed league soccer, just like bourbon is different from beer. Both are soccer, just like bourbon and beer are both alcoholic beverages. While the category of ‘alcoholic beverages’ might be useful for some things, like how to arrange a grocery store, they are less useful for other things, like what individual people prefer.

It makes sense to me that folks who like bourbon, don’t drink beer, even if beer is the only alcoholic beverage the local grocer carries.

Luckily, for bourbon drinkers, there is competition and some stores carry their preferred alcoholic beverage. Similarly, with soccer there is plenty of competition around the world that offers what they want: sporting merit. Don’t be surprised when they choose not to drink the local beer, when they have plenty of imported bourbon to choose from.

Of course, the beer monopolist might hear this line of reasoning and think their path forward is to takeover those foreign bourbon makers and convert them to beer makers, to eliminate the competition, much like how Inbev seemingly took over the world makers of alcoholic beverages. Indeed, some think that the European Super League and the rumored merger of the MLS and Liga MX, are moves on that template.

That’s a shame. Why not simply try making bourbon?

I think I know why. Because the monopolist thinks the players have too much economic power in the sporting merit model and they don’t want the players to hold those cards. They want the owners to have the power. This is what drives most American sports from our top pro leagues to the NCAA, folks want to make money off the athletes while keeping the athletes as powerless as possible.

The next logical question is why do players in closed leagues put up with it? Don’t they see that the owners just want to have the power and not pay them what they are worth?

Well, I’ll give credit to the the players in the MLS. They aren’t dumb. They know that in pro/rel, many of them would not have roster spots in the top division because they aren’t good enough. If they were playing at all, they would be playing further down the pyramid likely making less*, while their division 1 roster spots were filled with higher caliber and higher priced talent.

So, the current players also benefit from from keeping the economic power in the owners’ hands. By limiting what owners can spend on payroll, they keep the payroll in their talent range. Nifty.

*I say likely here, because that is what I believe the the players think. However, I believe that if my trap #1 is correct (pro/rel causes support), then they may not make less by playing further down the pyramid. I think it’s possible that division 2 & 3 teams become as valuable as folks believe MLS teams are today (but aren’t really) and so their payrolls would be on par with current MLS teams, while the Division 1 would elevate.

But, it is tough for folks with zero sum mindsets to imagine how things can be different in positive sum worlds. And, who knows, I could be wrong. I’m just judging from the actual experiences of leagues with pro/rel who are far more successful than the MLS has proven to be.

Pro/rel arguments & my responses from recent Twitter

Argument: We cannot have pro/rel until there’s enough support!

My response: That’s putting the cart before the horse.

Here’s more: That means, I think support results from pro/rel than pro/rel resulting from support. If that’s right, preventing pro/rel, will just hinder the support.

How does support result from pro/rel?

There are the easy-to-see benefits that I see touted often, like pro/rel makes the relegation battle more interesting, as well as the contests to get promoted from the lower leagues.

But, I think most of the benefits comes from the changes that happen that are harder for folks to see. I wrote more in depth about those here, where I write that I believe 90% of the benefit of pro/rel comes from the changes in incentives at the grassroots level.

That explains why I believe pro/rel results in support, rather than having to wait for the support to be there for pro/rel.

To me, that would be like someone saying that we shouldn’t invent the hamburger before we see support for the hamburger. It doesn’t make sense.

Recent from Twitter: Why soccer players in the U.S. don’t have spatial awareness

TOVO Academy Todd Beane asked why soccer youth in the US lack spatial awareness.

My answer: Too much time at training spent making up for basic skill dev not accomplished informally with family and friends.

I believe Beane’s preferred answer is that spatial awareness training isn’t prioritized in American soccer.

Which, I also agree with. But, I think that goes back to my answer.

Spatial awareness training just doesn’t get your team much advantage on the pitch on Saturday in the U.S. if the kids can’t get the ball to that space.

If, as Tom Byers points out, kids came to their first club team as 8 yo’s with the basics, then teams would be working a whole lot less on the basics and more on the spatial awareness, if it were to emerge as a competitive margin.

But, at the present moment, the two primary competitive margins in the U.S. are how many players on the team have the basics and how good the team’s top 1 or 2 players are. So, clubs spend a lot time recruiting those top 1-2 players and try teaching the rest of the kids the basics.

Btw…I’ve seen teams at age 8 or 9 with great spatial awareness. They just happened to be made up of children of recent immigrants from soccer cultures, who play with their family and friends all the time. Some of these teams didn’t even practice as a team. They just signed up to play and could still pound the kids working on basics 10-1.

In the Twitter thread, Beane mentioned that he has seen American teen boys with good skills that also lack awareness. What he hasn’t seen is where those kids came from. How long ago did they cement those skills? Have they still been playing on teams where they are the 1-2 good players, while everyone else lacks the basics?

Here’s another point of comparison. Relatively low level American basketball players have good spatial awareness. I believe they learned most of that in informal play. Organized play may have put some finishing touches on it, but 75% of it was there by the time kids are making the cut to competitive teams by age 11 or 12.

Cross pollinated soccer free play

I see lots of soccer coaches talk about the importance of building free play into practices. The current US Soccer practice framework is called “play-practice-play.”

I, too, was once a believer of this and tried it, but changed my mind when it seemed move the kids backwards on development.

Thinking about how I learned basketball in my childhood, 90% came from what I call cross pollinated free play. That is, I played soccer informally with lots of different groups of folks and from each group, I learned different things and, I think, they learned stuff from my group.

I also played with folks of all different ages, older and younger, and of differing skill levels. The older or more skilled players transferred their knowledge and skill, implicitly and explicitly.

Free play at soccer practice, especially among the same team or group of teams, is a sterile bubble that misses out on this cross pollination. It tends to be a Galapagos Islands of evolution. What evolves from that free play, doesn’t match up well when tested against folks with more cross pollination.

Ideas for soccer camps

Tis’ the season for soccer camps. I’ve seen my share, but admittedly, not all. So, maybe what I’m about to write is already done in some places. If so, would love to hear about it. I just haven’t seen it.

The soccer camps I’ve seen are slightly more relaxed versions of soccer practice, where kids go from station to station and do stuff and get zero to little personal feedback that can help them improve.

Here are things I think would be cool.

Coaches, show us what you got!

It drives me nuts when camp hosts barely touch the ball. The most inspiring moments I’ve had is seeing, up close, someone way better than me do something so I can see how it looks when someone good does it.

I recall taking some kids to a pro indoor soccer match. We sat close. During warmups one of the players juggled. You could tell it was next level with clean touch, perfect height and control. These kids had been bucking learning to juggle. “Too hard! You don’t need it on the field!” But when they saw it up close, their eyes lit up and it got them interested.

So, show how it’s done!

Evaluate individual technique and give pointers on how to improve it

Work 1-on-1 or small groups in evaluating technique on key skills like shooting, receiving, passing and dribbling and give pointers on a 2-3 things each individual can work on to improve technique.

I think a soccer camp is a waste if each player doesn’t walk away with a couple of specific insights on what they can work on to improve their own technique.

Teach one or two really fun things that can also be used in games

Kids should be learning the basics on their own and at regular practice. I think camps should be place to introduce one or two next level skills that can also be useful in a game, like pulling wild balls out of the air, beating someone on first touch and how to flick the ball on. These aren’t things that coaches typically have the luxury to work on at practice, but they can be very useful.

Give an overall honest assessment to parents and players on where they are at and what they can do to improve

I also think it’s a waste if kids walk away from soccer camps without having received some overall feedback on where the coaches on where they are in their development. Players should be benefiting from feedback from a variety of sources, not just their team coach.

This doesn’t have to be all encompassing. “Hey, you’re strong on the ball, but can really work on that first touch and thinking about where you are passing.”

Have some cool contests

One thing I do see at camps are games that are a bit more fun than the typical soccer practice drill. But, why not take it further?

Who can best bend a ball around a dummy? Most accurate 60 yard drive? Who can get 4 corners shots the quickest? Highest (in the air) juggle and still maintain control? Judging on dribbling through a gauntlet of an obstacle course. Judge on things like control, creativity, number of changes of direction and number of surfaces used on the ball. Who can blast a watermelon into bits with their shot?

Maybe have one or two of these types of contest over the camp.

2 Coaches v 7 Campers

I love Youtube videos out of Japan that show 3 pros vs 100 kids and the pros win. This is fun for the kids, plus it makes the kids think and models the skill and tactics they should be moving toward.

Adjust the numbers based on the age and skill level of the campers.

In my younger days, I taught a group of neighborhood kids basketball on my driveway. I’m not that good, but at the time I could beat them 1v5, so they got sick of losing and actually listened to me and soon enough we were playing 2v2 or 3v3 because they got better.

Other random thoughts on goofy contests:

How many defenders can you beat in a row on the dribble? Most creative juggling routine. Most body parts used in a consecutive juggle.

Why winning doesn’t matter in youth soccer…yet

I think participation trophies are bunk. But, so is winning.

When I ask parents about their kids’ soccer game they tell me the score and nearly every kid, it seems, is on a team that wins 5-1.

When we see 8 year-old’s win 5-1 in baseball, we don’t get carried away with thoughts of pro contracts when the winning team dropped 60% of the balls.

When talking about their kid’s baseball game, these parents don’t focus on the score. They say, “got a lot of work to do. Lots of dropped balls.” They know that 10 yo’s who drop 60% of the balls get cut.

They play catch in the yard.

Most parents don’t know enough about soccer. They see the 5-1 soccer win as a sign of stardom, even with the winning team’s 90% turnover ratio.

There are couple of misleading feedback loops in youth soccer that perpetuate this.

One is that 10 yo’s with 90% turnover ratios don’t get cut because of the participation culture in the U.S. Many 10 yo’s with 90% turnover ratios believe they are playing elite level, competitive soccer.

Another problem is few people are aware that competent players have low turnover ratios, which I also trace to the participation culture. When teams play against other teams with high turnover ratios within their skill bracket, to ‘keep them participating,’ high turnover ratios seems normal and people watching those games tend to think hustle and athleticism is what sets players apart. It does when neither team can do much with the ball.

A sign of progress will be when parents stop telling me the scores to their 8 yo’s soccer games, and instead say, “had fun, they won, but a lot of work to do! Way too many turnovers. We’re working on it in the yard, though!”

Coaching Corner: What’s your plus/minus?

It can be tough to separate your performance from your team’s performance. Sometimes your team wins despite you playing lousy. Sometimes they lose despite you playing well.

After every game, win or loss, you should ask yourself what you can do better? A great way to help answer that is with the plus/minus system.

What’s that? It’s a way to estimate your contribution to the team.

Give yourself a plus 1 when you do something good for the team, like scoring a goal, getting an assist, creating a key turnover that leads to a scoring chance or shutting down a key scoring chance of the other team.

Give yourself a minus 1 when you do something that disadvantages your team, liking making a turnover that leads to a goal for them.

Keep track as it happens. Scored a goal! +1. Got an assist! +1 Missed a tackle and got beat setting up shot for other team. -1. You’re at +1 net.

Of course, you’d like to end up in the plus, meaning you contributed positively to your team’s performance.

But, the minuses give you specific things to think about and work on.

The last game I played I had some minuses. One was that I took a first touch directly toward a defender, reducing my options for what came next. I recovered, but what came next wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been had I did what I intended, to cut the ball to the defender’s left, setting me up for diagonal dribble into space and several open passing options.

I will go home and work on that touch.

The plus/minus system isn’t perfect. You won’t remember everything and your assessment may not always agree with others. But, you will get more out of trying to keep track than not.

The added benefit is that it will help you think about the game at a deeper level,which will help you discover more ways to contribute. Do you give yourself a plus for that extra hustle that forced a bad pass allowing a teammate to intercept? Yes.

How about for drawing a defender out, opening space for your teammate to score? Why not?

What about for telling a teammate to turn because they had a wide open field behind them, and they dribble in setting up a shot? Yes.

Pro/rel arguments & my responses culled from recent Twitter

Argument: Owners of American soccer teams will not accept pro/rel.

Response: Has anyone asked the owners? If so, please point me to it. I haven’t seen it.

Actions speak louder than words. Several owners also own teams in pro/rel leagues elsewhere. This tells me that they are not all opposed to the idea. I also know of several owners of American soccer clubs, like Rocco Commisso, who would welcome it.

Let’s stop reading their minds.

Argument: Fans want to watch elite players, pro/rel doesn’t matter so much.

Response: Pro/rel does a better job at filtering up the elite players to watch, since clubs compete with each other to get that talent rather than colluding with other clubs to spread the talent for the sake of parity.

To understand this, it’s good to understand the difference between a league operated on open collusion amongst owners for talent and one with independent clubs competing to attract that talent.

Argument: TV networks wouldn’t want a NYCFC to be replaced by Ithaca United.

Response: First, NYCFC is owned by the Manchester City ownership group, which knows how to stay away from relegation zone.

Second, this perpetuates the myth that the main driver of ratings is the size of a team’s home market. This neglects a basic observation in the world of soccer: why so many people around the world who do not live in Manchester, London, Barcelona or Madrid, love to watch clubs based in those cities.

Ithaca United in its current state may not attract a lot of tv viewers, in our out of its market. Neither does NYCFC. Either team, built around the incentives to put, dollar for dollar, the best team possible on the field will be far more interesting to watch by more folks.

For the mediocre-by-design parity sports model, size of home market is a factor. But, even in soccer hasn’t proven out to be nearly the factor it is for the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL.

For the ‘may the best club win’ sports model, it has been proven around the world that the top level can draw eyeballs from beyond their home territories, while still drawing considerable native support for lower division clubs.