Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Difference Between Treating Players Equally and Fairly.

If you know who I should credit for this cartoon, please email me. Thanks.
Do you know the difference between treating players equally and fairly?  There is a huge difference. How we treat different players is influenced by so many things including our perception of what some people refer to as "attitude".

Aren't we supposed to treat everybody 100% equally?  Can we? Should we? Are there standards for everybody to keep?

The first problem is coaches aren't sure what to do and do not have a lot of experience dealing with a variety of personalities looking to them for guidance.  They are usually volunteers in a pay-to-play system. (The pay-to-play model complicates things way more than people appreciate.)

The second problem is parents can't make up their mind on what they want or how teams should be managed.  Many want to win and want the coach to play the best players to win, yet they all paid to play, but they don't want their child to be one of the players that doesn't play in the system where they want the coach to play the best players etc etc etc.  A lot of conflicting feelings swirl in every parents head when it comes to their child.  That's natural.

The third problem is the players.  Unless a coaching staff gets to know each player and discovers what makes them tick, treating players fairly is very difficult. 

I am a faulted, judgmental human like everybody else.  I paid a lot of attention to my favourite mentors and they have helped me shape my own philosophies towards my feelings on how to treat  players.  I still have a long way to go but I am enjoying the journey.  As I get older I find myself less worried about the generally accepted theory of treating everybody 100% equally and more worried about what a person brings to the group and how I can help them bring even more, while being fair to everybody.

Admittedly, my exposure to special education and accommodated students as an educator has profoundly influenced how I manage my players and teams. 

I would like to share some of those philosophies and ideas here. For better or worse, I hope they make you reflect on your own philosophies.  My promise to my players is that I keep an open mind so my philosophies are open to adjustment if new and credible information is presented to me.  If you and I ever had a conversation about "attitude", you shaped this article.  Even if I disagreed with you, you shaped me.

Do you know your players? Really really know them?

  • If you don't know your players, individually, then you may as well treat them equally because you are in no position to treat them fairly.
  • Do you know the names of your players' parents and siblings? Their family situations? 
  • What school do they go to? Do they LIKE school? If not, find out why.  This information will really help you.
  • Are they on an IEP at school that would give you information about how they learn? We've had players with various accommodations at school.  Knowing this information helps you and the player get the most out of your interactions. Trust me on this one.
  • Do they have other interests? Other sports, activities or hobbies?
  • Are they recent immigrants from non-English speaking countries? If so, learn some general phrases in their native tongue.
Cooperating and conforming do not always equal a "good attitude".
  • First of all, what is a good attitude? Can it be measured? The answer is NO and that makes the equation more complicated.
  • As a coach, who said YOU had a good attitude or are in a position to judge attitudes.
  • There are coaches who feel those who do not subscribe to the same opinions as them present a poor attitude. Don't confuse the two.
  • Do you REALLY want a team of players who are all the same and all resemble you? Are you somebody worth resembling? (sorry, I had to ask)
  • Think about people who made an impact in a game or any other pursuit in life.  Was it possible that they were good team players, but not always conforming or 100% cooperative?
  • Do you remember teammates and players who didn't fit the general mold of your teammates?  Did that mean they were bad teammates?
  • Some kids may not be naturally wired to be fully co-operative, but that doesn't mean they aren't learning or playing hard/smart. Go back to "Do you really know your players?"
Think about how to treat people fairly, not equally.
  • I don't treat my three sons equally because they are three completely different men.  They always were. My parents did not treat my brother, sister and me equally, but they were fair.
  • There is a difference between fair and equal. You can only treat people equal if they are 100% the same and in the same situations, which thy aren't.  
  • We need to have expectations from everybody, but they don't need to be the same. I can expect every player to maintain/enhance their speed, but I can't expect them all to be as fast as my fastest player.  Having said that, I do expect my fastest player to always be my fastest player. Is that fair? Yes!
  • My expectations and demands from players depends on the player.  Should I expect the same from my best player compared to my 18th player? For my best player's, 18th player's and team's sake, I hope not. Fair, not equal.
  • Compare the personal and physical traits that make players successful in various positions.  Are your goalkeeper, striker and centre defender the same people or do they have the same jobs? If not, then how can you treat them 100% equally?
  • Before you put on your tough-guy-hat and say "I am gonna straighten that player out", make sure you are not trying to snuff out what makes them the player they are.
  • For me, the most difficult part of doing this is holding my ground when treating players differently (and, hopefully, fairly) , knowing the player who feels shortchanged now will understand what we are doing next week, when they get older or when they coach.
  • Be careful how "black-and-white" you are, how you declare yourself as a "black-and-white" coach or how long your list of "team rules" is.  Rules must be enforced, without exemptions. If you have set rules that are allowed to be broken you will start to lose credibility with your players.
  • Part of treating your players fairly can and should include a component of aspects where they are all treated equally.
  • If a player has outside challenges or issues that make it difficult to satisfy your measurable expectations, work with them to manage themselves so their commitment to their team doesn't suffer.  Do them a favour and teach them a good life-lesson: do not let them use their challenges as an excuse.  This might require you dedicating a little more of your teams's resources to them, but remember; fair, not equal.
What should be equal? Change what you think is attitude to measurable components.
  • List what you deem to be components of what you thought were attitude and you will discover items that you should treat players equally on. Measurable, not subjective.
  • These components may include, but not limited to; punctuality, team duties, treatment of equipment, personal equipment, disclosure, treatment of injuries, institutional standards (OCAA, OUA, NCAA, etc), social media policy, etc.
  • After you make your list, then you are left with the part of the player that makes them an individual.  It's this list of the contrasting traits of our players that makes team sports so enjoyable.    
I guess what this boils down to is that you have a team of distinct individuals and that team needs to be managed.  Some individuals will not fit a coach's mold and that is difficult for some coaches to accept.  I have seen coaches cut or bench players because of what they perceive to be a bad attitude might just be an individual who expresses themselves differently. (in this department, most coaches are always learning and growing)

My experience also tells me an effective tool in dealing with players is an honest assistant coach and a strong team captain with good people skills.  Discuss your players with them and their insight will either reinforce your view or convince you to rethink your position. 

In summary: list the measurable parameters that you can use to treat each player EQUALLY. You will be surprised how long that list can get and that's OK, but be careful.  Items not on that list make up is what makes that player special.  This is where you start to treat players FAIRLY and can personalize your program.  

Challenge: Having a universal set of expectations for everybody, yet setting up an environment that allows each player to be challenged at their level, for the good of the player and the team. 

Challenge: If you coach in a pay-to-play system ensure you know and adhere to your club policies. If you have a plan or philosophy for managing your team, ensure your club supports it and communicate this to parents and players before tryouts.  This goes back to parents who may not truly know what they want and/or you being unsure how you want to handle your group.  You are dealing with their children's self esteem and you want everybody to improve and succeed, so communicate with them. Win-win.

Challenge: Ensure your philosophy is consistent with who you are.  Be confident in what you are doing, and project that confidence.  Your players will notice you handling a player differently.  Not better or worse, just differently. 

Challenge: Don't lose sight of what you're doing and unknowingly offer a player preferential treatment.  This could be dangerous to your team's chemistry.

Challenge: If a player has outside challenges, do not let them use that as an excuse.  Their ability to manage themselves and satisfy their commitments will help them later in life.  If they arrive at a point where they must make a difficult choice, then that's what needs to happen and you need to support them; life-lesson. 

For the record, I have mishandled situations with players in the past, but I like to think I reflect afterwards and keep getting better at it.  My mistake was usually caused by the fact that I didn't know all that I needed to know about that player.  

Managing a group of individuals takes experience and a LOT of mistakes.  If you are a new coach or new to a situation, reflect and give yourself a chance to learn and grow.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Proof: Over-coaching from the bench is illogical.

So you like to control your players from the sideline, eh?

If the theoretical, anecdotal and experience arguments don't sway you away from over-coaching during games, let's look at it from a logical standpoint.  Scaling back your desire or need to over-coach from the touchline is no easy task, but it's something you need to aspire to.

Enough has been written about why you shouldn't over-coach and those articles revolve around a player's freedom of expression, developing decision making, increasing Soccer IQ, joie de vivre, etc.  Those arguments aren't backed up with facts or measurable quantities.  If you aren't buying those arguments, let me attack it from another angle.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

It's time to cut your BEST player

Now that I have your attention 👊

With the recent passing of Dick Bate, I was reminded of something he said to us while he was still in Canada, as the CSA Technical Director:

"The best coaches lose their best players."

In February 2006, we had Coach Bate visit the Welland Soccer Club for an on-field and classroom session.  He opened his talk with that line and the room was overcome with a thundering, earth-shattering silence.

The concept was revolutionary for many, but for a few it's something that has frustrated us for years.  At the time, as the club's technical director, I was in a battle-royale with a club coach over a player.  The player was very good, the current coach was weak and the team played in a lower league.  We had no viable in-club option to serve her.  She was on her way to a better team, in a better league with a better coach and I was being asked by their coach to call her parents to advise them (ie. mislead) that they were making a mistake.  His beef was that it would hurt his team and he would lose more players.  My argument was that it was best for the player and it would give another player on his team a chance to move up and be "the best player".

Why would you ever hold a player back if they have outgrown you or your situation?  Once the thought has entered somebody's mind, it may as well be dealt with because the relationship is about to be tested.

A different situation could be a better/different league or a better coach.  To me, the deal must include moving to a better coach to make it legitimate, but sometimes being in a better league with a competent coach will help the kid.  (nb. a higher league does not always equal better soccer.)

We all need to remember something very important; we do NOT own the player.

In my own experiences I have witnessed:

  • Ontario coaches trying to keep their players away from Toronto FC Academy when it was first organized. (I list this first because it shocked me the most)
  • Up until 2015, U14 coaches who did not qualify for OYSL work to keep their players away from the teams that did qualify and did have a competent coach at the helm.  
  • In Niagara, local coaches working to keep players away from the Regional program that their own presidents voted into existence. In four instances, it was coaches who supported the program until they were not chosen to coach a regional team.
  • As coach of the Niagara U12 District program for 4 years, some coaches told me they did not want their players to come out for fear of them being recruited by other coaches. At the time, the District program was the fist step in the Regional/Provincial program. 
  • Coaches that would not agree to let their players play for the club team above them, as a call up.  Whether it's B team to A team or playing a year up.  We reminded them that they did not have that authority.

The best player on every team has not necessarily outgrown their situation, but there are instances where this is clearly the case.  This is where the Technical Director needs to start the conversation. From a club perspective, an ideal solution has the player play for the same club.

Some possible scenarios for expanding your best player's experiences:

  • Arrange attendance at training sessions with a higher level team/coach.
  • Arrange maximum call-ups to the next highest team at your club.
  • Arrange maximum call-ups to a higher team at another club.
  • Arrange a guest-player scenario for another team at a tournament.
  • If the player agrees and a competent coach is present, move them to the next highest team at your club. If this is not available, then another team at another club.

There are two possible outcomes if you offer to expose your better players to another situation: they will accept or they will decline.  Either way, all of your players will know you have their best interests at heart and that's a big deal.

I have been coaching with the same gentleman since 1988 and we have both always judged ourselves by how well our players do away from our program. Its a nice feeling to see them doing well.

Reaffirming my obsession/frustration with coaches who impede a player's progress was Dick Bate's gift to me and I am forever thankful.

Rest in Peace, Coach.


The young lady at the heart of my battle-royale mentioned earlier recently completed a 4-year degree on a Division 1 NCAA scholarship in Alabama.  The young lady who became the next "best player" after the departure also just completed a 4-year scholarship at a NCAA school.

I have seen players move to teams that were in lower divisions but coached by more qualified and better coaches.  Again, the coach.

Holy moly, I just looked. I haven't posted an article in almost two years.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Are you TRULY in tune with the tryout process?

You were awarded the team and your first advertisement goes out.  "TRYOUTS.  Wednesday, 6:00-8:00pm Blah Blah Blah"

Chances are, if you're reading this, you coach an amateur team that belongs to a club or educational institution.

Nobody has the tryout process mastered and we've all made mistakes that we wish we could take back.  We try to conduct them as professionally as possible, but nobody has it mastered.

What is your job during tryouts? What is appropriate for the age you are coaching? (If you are coaching U12 and below, are tryouts appropriate at all?)

You're thinking this might be a guide on how to select players, but it's just as much about the players you don't select and the environment you've set up at tryouts.

I am fortunate that I have a very enjoyable coaching situation with the Niagara College Men's and Women's Soccer programs.  I am surrounded and supported by good people and I like to think we look at the tryout process in a bigger scope, outside of soccer.

On a quantitative level, our job is to select the 22-24 student-athletes who we feel will achieve the best possible results and challenge for a national championship. There is much more going on.
Nobody has the tryout process mastered and we've all made mistakes that we wish we could take back. 
We are in a different position than basketball and volleyball.  Their student-athletes have a chance to acclimatize to the campus environment and fall into a bit of a routine before their athletic schedules ramp up to their full commitment.  The first-year players who are in our program are figuring out their academic life while the soccer program is in in full motion, with some living away from home at the first time.

What do you need to keep in mind during your tryouts in your particular coaching situation?
This is what we need to consider during tryouts for our college program:
  • Recruiting begins early, many times when the prospective player is in Grade 11.  Are we giving them a positive image of Niagara College, and post secondary education in general?  We have the ability to get them excited about the next phase of their education. (Is your club's travel program making a positive impression that seeps its way down to the younger age groups?)
  • Varsity Soccer tryouts begin August 14, a full 26 days before the fall semester starts.  Do our new students and prospective athletes receive a positive impression of the college they've chosen?  If their parents drop them off, what will be their impression?
  • Is the organization and delivery on Day 1 consistent with the experience that Niagara College wants their new students to encounter?
  • Is the selection process laid out for them?  Is the Day 1 experience at soccer a sneak peak at their first days of class when professors review their Course Outline and Teaching and Learning Plans  for their selected courses in their respective programs?
  • Do they know what's expected of them, physically? Are they aware of the commitment and expectations? 
  • Niagara College is a diverse learning community and our tryouts reflect that in every way.  We welcome the athletes, share our passion for the game and our enjoyment of the situation, but we don't use jargon, clichés or make parochial comments to ensure the environment is inclusive and welcoming.  Not only is it respectful and properly reflects Canada, it also helps more players bring out their best and puts us in a better position to select the strongest team.
  • Can we answer more immediate questions for them about the college and details they need to tend to before classes begin?  During tryouts we receive questions regarding registration, financial aid, bookstore hours, local amenities, etc.  
In case you haven't noticed .. we haven't even touched the ball yet.
  • Is the process fair and does it provide players with a true opportunity to showcase their skills?  Not only does this respect the player, again,  it gives us a better chance of selecting the best players.
  • How do we deal with the players who aren't selected along the way? Some players have moved into their new living arrangements early and may end up being in Welland for a few weeks before classes begin.  Many go home and return for classes, but a few remain in the city.
  • Did we create a positive enough experience that the players who weren't selected still wish to seek out an active lifestyle in their new college environment? Being released from tryouts is a difficult life event, but handled correctly the player will find other avenues to stay active.
  • For the players who are selected, have we provided enough guidance and support that the beginning of the semester is a positive experience, not an avalanche of new commitments.
Niagara College has trusted us to deal with almost one hundred of their students before the semester begins and we know their expectations.  The situation is interesting because this will be the last occasion in most of these players' lives where they will face a tryout process.  For many of the selected players, it will also be the last time where they will compete for playing time.

That is our spectrum of considerations every August.  What does your club expect of you?  Do the players you released continue playing or do they quit after the selection process?  Will they stay at your club and try out again next year?

How you conduct the process and treat the players you release speaks volumes of who you are and
An example of a tryout ad.  I have no idea who this club is.
lays the foundation for a positive team environment.  In my situation, I encounter many of the students we did not select around campus and it's important to me that we continue to have a good rapport throughout the academic year.  It's important for the players we select to know that the players we didn't select were handled fairly.

Some ideas for your tryouts:

  • Do the players understand what you're looking for?  If you can't spell it out and share it, how will you know if you see it.  Sometimes a coach will tell a player "You didn't have what we were looking for."  and the player is wondering "What were you looking for?"
  • Learn their names.  We have a lot of players attending and take everybody's picture with them holding their name on a small whiteboard, resembling a mug shot.  I had a released player tell me once that I didn't know who he was.  When my assistant and I told him what he was wearing the past few days, where he was playing and some of the on-field scenarios we remember, he dropped the accusation.
  • Be ready and organized!  Get the tryout sessions going quickly so the players can show their stuff.  Long speeches at tryouts are just long speeches, nothing else.  They came to impress you, not vice verse.
  • Give players a fair chance to showcase their skills.  Often, if they're realistic, they will know the outcome before you tell them.  In a situation where there are a lot of players, not everybody will have a chance to play in a game, but there are still ways to have a game situation. A good friend is a scout for the Boston Bruins and he said once that players will cut themselves if tryouts give them enough chances to play.  I never forgot that.
  • My pet peeve is signing players along the way until you have two or three players battling for one or two spots - you've pretty much just told those kids they are the weakest on your team and you've set up a pecking order from day one. If you do implement that method, do so at your own risk and don't email me for advice because you will not like my answer.
  • If you are releasing a player, give them some information so they can move forward.  In a youth club environment, a list of contacts for other playing situations would be very helpful to them and their parents.
My final point for you to consider is how quickly news spreads in 2016.  Whether you inform the selected or released players first will not affect how quickly the telephone and social media inferno ignites and players start to figure out the team on their own.  The news should come from you, not from somebody else's Facebook status.

The specific process you implement will depend on numbers, schedule, facility availability etc.

Remember what your tryouts are; a group of ambitious, enthusiastic athletes who want to show you that they have the skills to be selected to the program you are running.  Their willingness to be judged and evaluated obliges you to give them the respect they deserve and nothing less.

Just remember to run a tryout process that you would feel comfortable with if you or your child were trying out for a team.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The importance of being yourself when you coach.

be yourself
In any activity where you are the leader in a situation such as coaching or teaching, a major part of your apprenticeship is being encouraged to "be yourself".

Sounds easy, doesn't it?

BE.  YOURSELF.  Ya, simple.

Since 1988, I have been coaching non-stop and have done a lot of teaching.  I even had a stint in politics.  Even with all that exposure, the "be yourself" thing took a while to happen.

Learning how to be yourself is a major part of your development in any profession or pursuit, including coaching.

Why is it so important to be yourself?  Well, the first reason is that you are beautiful.  You must be