Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Coaching soccer when your team is "weaker"

We live in an environment where the scoreboard can single-handedly ruin or make a season for some people.  Being a coach is easy when your team is winning games.  You go, they win, you go home.  Maybe not, but you know what I mean.

How about the coach who has a team that's not winning games or competing?  Feeling pressure because they think they know how sports are ultimately judged. 

Every league table has somebody at the bottom.  It's the law.  One day, it could/will be you.  If you're coaching house league, your playing a hand that was dealt to you.  If the team is weaker than others, see it as a challenge because every player is looking for a soccer experience.

Before we get started, please understand two facts:

  • A winning season doesn't guarantee that you're a great coach
  • A losing season doesn't mean you're a bad coach
Every league table has somebody at the bottom.  It's the law.  One day, it could/will be you

So what do you do?  You feel pressure of players possibly skipping session, quitting or losing interest.  You think parents are talking.  You feel the pressure because you "think" it's there.  You assume that people will bust down your door at night with torches and pitchforks because your team is losing.  I can tell you that most of that pressure is self-imposed.

Read this three times:  just coach.  Do a good job, smile and all will be good.  I've had teams that finished all over the table and retention has been very good.  It's a lot of work but it's always enjoyable.  From a smaller centre, if I used the scoreboard to measure my success I would have quit a long time ago.

For the most part we're talking about youth soccer here. Ryan Nelson at TFC is in a different situation than Mom the Coach in Welland, ON or Akron, NY.

How do we keep things positive as a coach when our team is always "losing"?
  • Keep training fun and keep the information flowing for the players.
  • Do not focus on your better players at training hoping to get a few of them to score.
  • Do not change your playing time patterns or shorten your bench.
  • Make sure they are always learning something new.  Every player. Every session.
  • Keep pointing out good things that are happening.  As often as you can.
  • BODY LANGUAGE!!!  More important than ever.
  • Do not second guess your selections if you're a travel team.  I learned early on to not second guess myself after tryouts and it's been a good habit.  Second guessing yourself is disrespectful to everybody who came to tryouts.
  • Do not decrease your commitment as the season passes.  Cancelling a training session is a slap in the face to the kids.
  • ICE CREAM! Ice Cream fixes everything.
  • Be professional at all times.  You may hear the occasional negative comment, do not fire back. Ever. 
  • Do not make excuses and defend yourself in front of parents because you think they're upset.  Just coach as best as you can.
  • The more your team struggles, yelling at a referee is an even bigger no-no.  It's a necessary move to not make your kids think you're coming undone. 
  • Talk to your parents about cheering more, applauding things you address at training and cheering for both teams.
  • Do not speech your players about losing at training.  They know they're losing because they were there.
  • Give your players other "developmentally-meaningful" goals to achieve during games (consecutive passes, wall passes, shots on goal, blocked shots, 1v1 battles won, etc).  You would be surprised how breaking the game down into winnable chunks might improve the big picture.
  • Assign players jobs during games, bringing everybody into the action. (restarts, set pieces, etc)
  • Recognize when it's becoming mental and they just assume they are going to lose.  Address this through your activities at training.
  • Ask for help if you need it.
Let's be realistic and look at the bigger picture.  If you coach U12 and below, you may very well be losing games because you don't have that "big kid" who can relieve pressure and change the game in one long pass or run.  At these ages, work with EVERY player.  When everybody catches up to each other at U13/U14 you might be surprised who is considered a good player and who isn't.  (Read about LTPD)

There is one major consistency that I've noticed.  Parents who played sports could see intangibles on teams that were not succeeding.  Technique, ideas, attitude, comfort level, individual improvement, etc.  It was people who knew very little about sports that used the scoreboard as their only indicator for success.  But, in their defense, sports in North America did use the scoreboard as the only barometer for success.

At the end of the day, if your program is enjoyable and the kids are happy and learning, you're doing fine.  The last thing we want is for coaches to quit because they think they aren't good at what they do.  Hopefully with the elimination of scores and standings U12 and below that element of self-imposed pressure is minimized or eliminated. (Read abut LTPD again!)

Some great examples I've learned from in the past.

Years back, my son had a team in his league that finished dead last at U11.  But they were always showing well and did smart things.  LAST.  0 points.  By watching the players and listening to the sideline, you knew they had a good coach.  That fall, every boy went back to tryouts, plus players from other teams, including my son.  Good players from around Niagara went to tryout for a team that was just relegated.

I ran a session the other night for a team that isn't doing well in terms of standings.  I saw 20 minutes of a previous game.  The coaches' body language was positive.  At training, every girl ran from their car to the field, chipper and they all worked hard.  Their attendance was strong.  Somebody is doing something right and the girls respond positively.

A U17 boys team was struggling with attendance during 2012, and as a result losing a lot of games.  Their coach also coached 2 men's teams.  The boys on the team fulfilled that team's commitment to their league but were all given a chance to play at the men's level.  He kept their interest and passion using whatever he could.

Coach and keep your team enjoyable.  Your group may be a challenge, but that makes the job more interesting.

P.S.  I think I just invented a term "developmentally-meaningful".  You can use it if you want with a royalty payment of $0.02/use.  Since there are no pennies left in Canada, please send me $1.00 to cover 50 uses.  :)

P.P.S  If you are coaching against a team that is always losing please don't yell out "this is a great chance to get your first goal Johnny!" or "we'll miss up the positions after we have a good lead".