“Coach, you need to get the kids to be more aggressive”

I heard that from a grandparent as I walked away from the 2nd game I ever coached, after getting drubbed 6-2 with my team of 1st graders who started kicking the soccer ball about 3 weeks before.

I agreed. It seemed like the other team was all over the ball while we stood there watching.

I was reminded of this when I saw a soccer coach venting on Twitter about this common complaint from parents. He even asked, ‘what does that even mean?’

As someone who started with an untrained eye for soccer, I think I can speak for all the parents and grandparents that say it. It means that it looks like they are ball watching when the opponent is charging the ball. It means winning more 50/50s, closing down attackers quicker, not getting beat on the dribble, not being afraid of some contact and winning more tackles. It means challenging for and winning more balls in the air.

After a couple of years of witnessing this and learning the game, I changed my mind on what was really happening.

Parents and many coaches think it’s just a matter of telling the players to be more aggressive or “Move to the ball!”

But, as a coach, I found that didn’t work.

I had noticed that there were some “aggressive” kids in practice. But, even those kids often seemed less aggressive in games and I wondered why.

Then one week my team got beat 5-1. Our players looked like the less aggressive side.

The next week, we beat another team 5-2 and we looked like the more aggressive team. The parents congratulated me for turning them around in one week. I hadn’t done anything. I forgot to even mention it.

But, I saw something different. I noticed that the time it took for my players to start moving to the ball was the same in both games.

What was different was how quickly the players on the other team moved to the ball. Players on the team that beat us were moving to it faster. The players on the team we beat were moving to it slower.

I happened to know that the first team’s players had been playing soccer for a year longer on average than our kids and the second team a year less.

The more experienced team moved to it quicker in both games.

That made me think that what we mistake as difference in aggressiveness is often really a difference in how fast players can read and react to the ball and that speed is determined largely by how much experience they’ve had with the ball.

I’ve noticed this myself as I learned soccer in my 40s. As I’ve worked with the ball more, I’ve noticed my ‘aggressiveness’ improved because I was simply able to read, react and be thinking about next steps quicker.

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